with board recruitment is a big part of our work. And at every board
recruitment planning session we have done over the past 5 years, without
exception, someone has mentioned the issue of Board Diversity.
The issue may be raised
by a concerned board member, or by the Executive Director. The ED may mention
that funders want to see diversity in a board as part of their funding
decisions, often using words such as, representative of the diverse
make-up of our community.
typically moves quickly to the airing of frustrations the group has faced in
trying to add diversity to their board. The group may then list the 5 or 6
names every other board in town has on its own recruitment wish-list. Everyone
nods, because these are the faces everyone knows from Rotary or other
professional networking settings. And invariably, when asked, these 5 or 6
folks respond that they are already over-committed.
Fast forward a few
months, to another recruitment meeting or simply around the board table. The
issue of Board Diversity comes up again, and board members provide
the following report: Well, I spoke with Joan and with Becca and with
Joshua, as we had discussed. And they all like our organization, but they are
all over-committed. I just have no idea where else to look.
If this sounds like your
board, here is our advice when it comes to the sensitive issue of board
Stop trying to add diversity to your board.
Yes, you read that
correctly. Stop trying to add diversity to your board, and start re-looking at
where that lack of diversity at the top really comes from. You may be surprised
at what you find.
Diversity as a Symptom
While the issue of Board
Diversity is serious, it is merely a symptom of a larger and far more serious
issue. When you begin to address the larger issue, you will find that those
Board Diversity symptoms will begin to take care of themselves. (As
an aside, while youre looking at the symptom of board
diversity, you might also consider issues such as staff
diversity and volunteer diversity - they often go hand in
The serious issue that
is likely at the heart of your organizations Board Diversity
problem is a lack of meaningful community engagement at the very core of your
What is Community
One of our favorite
definitions for Community Engagement comes from the Tamarack Institute. Their
People working collaboratively, through inspired action
and learning, to create and realize bold visions for their common
While the inspirational
portions of Tamaracks statement answer the question, Why should we
do this? - to create that visionary common future - when it comes to the
symptom of Board Diversity, the key component to their definition is in the
first 3 words: People working
Through our own work to
more deeply engage organizations with the communities they serve, we have found
that there are two approaches organizations can take to creating and
maintaining their programs. The first is absolutely the most common: doing the
work for the various
communities you serve. The second approach is the one that will, in the long
run, create far more effective programs - an approach that better reflects the
collaborative nature of Tamaracks definition: doing your work with those communities you
Here is the
Working FOR the Community:
An organization that is working FOR the community does
its program planning in-house, with staff, perhaps the board, perhaps some
community professionals, perhaps some volunteers, and perhaps - if the
organization is forward-thinking - some recipients of the service. This
primarily internal group determines what service is needed, and determines what
that program should look like, perhaps including in their work a survey of
participants and/or community members. This internal group then executes the
plans for making that service happen. As the program is up and running, the
organization may survey existing users of the service, perhaps also surveying
those not using the service, to see why they are not using it. Those survey
participants, the few community members who were included in that initial
planning process, and the respondents to the initial planning survey, comprise
the full extent of the involvement of the community in creating its own
Working WITH the Community:
An organization that is working WITH the community acts
as the facilitator of community members, pulling the program out of THEIR
individual and collective knowledge and THEIR individual and collective wisdom.
The program may be implemented by the organization, but it is created through
the participation of the community that will use the program, all aimed at
making that program as effective as possible for their
Doing your work
for the community is more common for a number of reasons. It
requires no new skills. It allows staff and board to stay inside their comfort
zone, whether that is the comfort zone of doing work the way theyve
learned to do it, or the more disquieting comfort zone issue of engaging with
folks who we perceive to be different from us. And working for
others in that fashion also allows the organizations staff and board to
guard themselves against any perceived loss of control.
But regardless of why we choose not to engage the
community directly in our work, it is that failure to do so that creates many
symptoms, only one of which is a lack of diversity on the board.
If the diverse communities our organizations target
with their services were deeply involved in making our programs the most
effective they could be, it would be unlikely there would be as much of an
issue regarding diversity on boards. It would be far more likely
those individuals would already be there - not because they are Hispanic or gay
or Muslim or elderly, but because they care and are already involved.
You can start to see
that diversity is more than race - it is whatever it means to fully
represent the community you serve. It may have to do with ethnic background or
religion. It may have to do with age. Or sexual preference. Or income level. Or
gender. It may have to do with a particular disability. If instead of the word
diversity, we talked about Community Engagement in creating
the most effective programs possible, we would know instinctively the
best way to accomplish that - simply ask for participation from the very
populations who will use our programs, whoever they may be.
The most critical issue,
therefore, isnt that symptom - lack of board diversity. The most critical
issue is that your programs cannot provide the maximum benefit to your
community without your communitys direct involvement in those
We said earlier that
when we address the bigger issue, that the symptom - lack of diversity - will
take care of itself. The following are therefore some steps your organization
can take, to begin addressing the bigger issue.
You will see a number of
things from these approaches to Community Engagement.
First, you will see that
engaging the community in the mission work of your organization is the only way
to ensure your organization is creating the most effective programs possible.
And because your boards primary accountability is to ensure the community
you serve is receiving the most benefit and impact possible, making your
programs more effective isnt really a choice. Providing the best possible
results to the community is your boards prime imperative!
|For more information about what your board is accountable
Second, you will see
that engaging the community in the nitty-gritty of your programs isnt
hard. It requires a different approach, a different way of seeing things, but
there is no magic involved, and no intricate tools or skills. The steps are all
steps any staff OR board member could do.
Third, though, you will
see that engaging the community in your organizations work is fun. It is
exciting. It is energizing. It is - - engaging!
Approach: Board Discussion
To begin the process of
engaging your community, your board can start by setting aside time at your
next board meeting to discuss ideas that answer this question:
How can we better involve the various communities
we serve? How can we engage them to work more closely with us, to ensure our
programs are the most effective they can be in addressing the needs in those
This is one of the most
Community-Driven discussions your board can have. It has 100% to do with the
impact your organization is aiming to have in the community - not just
doing our work, but working to ensure that work has a real impact.
From that board
discussion, create a committee of board members, staff and volunteers, to turn
that discussion into an implementable plan.
Approach: Create a Community Engagement
Your staff and board
already spend time creating your organizations various plans to ensure
the organization is moving forward on critical goals.
It is equally important
to spend time annually on a community engagement plan, to ensure the
organization is aimed at creating the highest level of community engagement
possible, for the effectiveness of all your programs. While the board
discussion mentioned above is a start, for maximum effectiveness, you will want
to create a plan whose progress can be monitored, to ensure that plan is being
The planning can be as
simple as asking, How can we ensure our programs are the most effective
they can be in addressing the needs in the various segments of our
community?, and then creating strategies for addressing whatever comes up
in answer to that question. The important thing is that you make a plan, and
that the board monitor to ensure progress is being made on implementing that
Approach: Include Community Engagement in All Your
Organizations Planning Efforts
As you create all those
other plans your organization relies on, build Community Engagement right into
those planning processes. For each of the goals, ask the following
Are there ways we can more
effectively accomplish this goal by engaging the community to work with
us, side by side?
From there, it is easy
to build Community Engagement right into the implementation of all your other
Approach: Community Sleuthing
Attendees of our
workshops, and readers of our articles and books, are becoming more familiar
with a simple process of engagement we call Community Sleuthing. Community
Sleuthing is a tool that can be easily adopted by staff members, board members,
and volunteer sleuths, turning them all into participants in your
Community Engagement work.
The process of Community
Sleuthing is a simple process of asking questions and
listening to the answers. For example, if your organization provides assistance
to the elderly, your questions might include:
How can we make our Elderly Assistance program
more effective for elderly Hispanic women?
Are there special issues we should be aware of
when addressing the need for services among elderly gay men in our
Are there ways we can bring more young people to
participate in providing services for the elderly? What would young people want
from such participation?
Are you familiar with our current program? What
parts of the program do you think might have to be adjusted to better meet the
needs of elderly Native Americans in our community?
And etc. By making
appointments and sitting down one-on-one with individuals who intimately
understand how different groups might respond to different approaches, you will
be honestly engaging those individuals in helping make your programs more
Finding access to such
people is usually no farther than the groups your organization is already
working with - other agencies, referral systems such as the courts, places of
worship - the list is long, and you already know many of the individuals you
will want to speak with!
The last question you
will ask before you leave is the easiest of all:
Are there 2 other people you could suggest I talk
with about these issues? And could you possibly call ahead to introduce
Remember to follow up
with the folks you talk with. Im not just talking about a thank you note
(although at minimum, yes, I am talking about a thank you note!). When you have
a meeting, or you are gathering to discuss next steps, invite the people you
have spoken with to participate in that meeting. We want to further
develop some of the thoughts you suggested - could you help
And make those next 2
visits to those 2 referrals, and the next 2 visits after that. Soon you will
have a whole army of individuals who are eager to see your program succeed, and
eager to help you make that happen.
Being a sleuth means
asking questions because you really want the answers. In this particular case,
you can see how receiving the answers to these questions will not only guide
your work, but will more deeply engage the people you are asking. They are
becoming part of your team. The more involved and engaged you keep them in
helping you develop your programs, the stronger allies they will
Approach: Involve the Board
Lastly, keep your board
actively involved in this process. In part, thats because the board is
the link between the community and the organization - one look at the
organizational chart will tell you that.
But the real reason is
better than the org chart equivalent of Because I said so. And that
is because board members frequently feel inadequate when it comes to deeply
understanding the organizations work. Were just volunteers -
the staff knows the stuff that really matters.
As a result, board after
board seeks mission-related training, only to quickly forget what they learned
in the training session.
However, when a board
member has sat with the representative of a partner agency, or a church leader,
or any other community member, and has participated with a staff member or
another board member in getting to know about how your mission relates to gay
men vs. Hispanic women vs. young kids vs. anyone and everyone - well they will
have a far more intimate sense of what the organization is about than they will
ever get from that training session.
And they wont
forget what theyve learned.
Community Engagement is
one of those rare efforts where a single discussion, a single contact, a single
meeting can create a ripple that causes thousands of effects, throughout the
organization and throughout the community.
Fundraising is easier
when you engage the community and build an army of support.
Support of legislative
agendas is far easier when the community is engaged with your work.
Board recruitment is
easier overall when there is an army of supporters for the work your
Diversity? The more all aspects of the community you serve become an
integral part of the work your organization does, dont be surprised if
those 2 words are never heard again.