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Five steps for improving racial diversity, equity and inclusion on nonprofit boards

Five steps for improving racial diversity, equity and inclusion on nonprofit boards

October 18, 2021
Jennifer Gamble

The Black Lives Matter movement may have raised awareness of racial injustice in America and inspired an increase in charitable gifts to communities of color, but it doesn’t seem to have had a significant effect on increasing racial diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) on governing boards, particularly for nonprofits. According to a 2021 BoardSource report, nonprofit boards may be slightly more diverse, with a 6% increase of people of color from 2017 (16%) to 2019 (22%), but they are far from representative of the communities they serve. 

A high percentage of executives and board chairs report that their boards have, to some extent, engaged in the process of diversity, equity and inclusion by committing to understanding the diversity of their communities and discussing community needs in a way that acknowledges disparities between different demographic groups. However, they haven’t significantly engaged in areas that apply more directly to the organization’s leadership and governing. Only 38% of executives felt that their boards represented the communities they serve, while 66% of executives expressed dissatisfaction with their boards’ racial and ethnic diversity.

Research suggests there may be a relationship between organizational effectiveness and boards that are investing in DEI practices. Boards that include people of color are more likely to benefit from the diversity of life experiences and professional contacts, and they’re in a better position to take full advantage of opportunities and manage risks. 

Here are five steps for improving racial diversity, equity and inclusion on nonprofit boards.

  1. Be intentional with board member recruitment by establishing racial and ethnic diversity goals. The makeup of your nonprofit board should mirror the demographics of the population it serves. For example, if the target population that the organization serves is 40% Black or Hispanic, the board should reach for the same percentage of board members. When a nonprofit’s board reflects the diversity of the community served, the organization will be better able to access resources in the community through connections with potential donors and/or collaborative partners and policy makers. 
  2. Engage executive and mid-level staff in discussions about DEI and board development. BoardSource reports that the top two methods for identifying potential new board members are “board members’ personal or professional networks” (96%) and “CEO/ED’s personal or professional networks” (88%). By relying heavily on these methods, boards that are predominantly white are more likely to identify board candidates that are very much like themselves — white individuals who are typically from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Engaging executive and mid-level staff in discussions about DEI broadens the range of shared lived experiences and perspectives, and it opens the door to help identify a more diverse group of candidates for volunteer and board positions. 
  3. Include racial-equity training in board development. The board’s commitment to equity requires board members to operate in a mode of continuous learning. Facilitate a meeting for board members to discuss how systemic racism is present in society, and encourage them to explore other opportunities to read, learn and share DEI information. When board members are aware of racial disparities within the community, the organization can make more prudent program decisions, seize new opportunities and better manage risks. 
  4. Invite diverse groups to share in your mission. We know that there is no shortage of qualified, diverse candidates — but boards often are unaware of where to find them or how to recruit them successfully. Challenge every board member to commit to expanding their personal outreach and ambassadorship to diverse groups. Encourage board members to reach out to local chapters of national BIPOC professional and civic associations such as Black and Hispanic chambers, and to establish relationships with local community groups, churches, HBCU alumni associations and historically Black fraternities and sororities. 
  5. Celebrate cultural differences. Demonstrate a commitment to being inclusive in board leadership by creating a culture that supports open, robust discussions and ensures all voices are heard. A diverse board that is also sensitive to cultural differences is usually one that has a stronger capacity to attract and retain talented board members and is in touch with community needs.

Improving racial diversity, equity and inclusion on your nonprofit board will not only increase awareness and support for the organization’s mission, it will improve the nonprofit’s ability to respond and adapt to changes in the community it serves. 


Jennifer Gamble

Jennifer is the founder and CEO of Nelson PR & Communications, a public relations consulting and services agency. Her career in public relations and communications spans more than 25 years. Previously, she was president and CEO of Prevent Blindness Tennessee and led public relations efforts for the Tennessee Bankers Association and Tennessee Higher Education Commission. In 2019, Jennifer was elected to the Metro Council of Nashville and Davidson County, representing District 3. Currently, she chairs the Metro Council’s Public Safety committee and holds seats on the Metro Planning and Public Works committees. She also was a member of Nashville’s COVID-19 Financial Oversight Committee and Mayor John Cooper’s Policing Policy Commission. Jennifer is a member of the Rotary Club of Nashville and Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Fisk University and a master’s degree in mass communication from Middle Tennessee State University.