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Chamber of Commerce

Board Diversity: What It Is and Why It Matters for Associations and Chambers

MemberClicks Avatar MemberClicks June 7, 2022
Table of Contents
9 min read

Having a diverse board can have a huge positive impact on your association, chamber or organization. Not only are diverse and inclusive boards 35% more likely to earn revenue compared to those that are not diverse, but diverse boards better represent communities, provide valuable perspectives when planning and organizing events and help make sure that your organization’s messages and culture is as inclusive as possible.  

Unfortunately, chamber, association and nonprofit boards are largely far from diverse or inclusive. Even in 2021, the large majority of nonprofit board members (78%) were white. 83% of board chairs were also white. Another recent survey shows that only 8% of board members identified as LGBTQ2+ individuals and 6% had a disability.

These numbers can be shocking, but there is something you can do about it. It falls to associations and nonprofits alike to ensure their boards are diverse and reflect the community they represent. Association board diversity matters and you definitely should care about it. 

In this guide, we’ll cover:

  • The basic questions about board diversity
  • Why board diversity matters for associations and nonprofits
  • 8 steps to audit and improve your board’s diversity

What is board diversity?

A diverse board means that your board members aren’t homogenous when it comes to their race, ethnicity, gender, background, abilities, sexual identity, sexual orientations or even their ideals. Having a diversity of people on your board means that you have different perspectives collaborating on programs and initiatives. The greater the diversity, the better your ideas can be.  

Because associations tend to serve communities made up of a variety of groups with different skills and backgrounds, it only makes sense for your board to reflect the makeup of those populations. After all, having a board that reflects the people they serve means they can better understand the needs of that community.

What are diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)?

When assessing your board, aim to follow diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) best practices.

According to Tuskegee University’s eXtension Organizing Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, DEI is explained as follows:

“Diversity is the presence of differences that may include race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, language, (dis)ability, age, religious commitment, or political perspective. 

Equity is promoting justice, impartiality and fairness within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources by institutions or systems.

Inclusion is an outcome to ensure those that are diverse actually feel and/or are welcomed.  Inclusion outcomes are met when you, your institution, and your program are truly inviting to all.”

Aiming for all three of these concepts in your organization is a way to help people thrive personally and professionally.

What are some misconceptions about board diversity?

Sometimes there’s a lack of understanding around the goals and implementation of DEI initiatives. This uncertainty can lead to myths around promoting more diversity, some of which Legal and General Investment Management summarized:

  • Diversity isn’t a financial issue
  • Diversity mandates can lead to unqualified candidates
  • Having one minority on the board is enough
  • It’s fine to wait for diversity to happen organically
  • Women don’t want top jobs

Why do board diversity initiatives sometimes fail?

DEI initiatives can be unsuccessful for a variety of reasons, but some of the most common causes are:

Lack of buy-in

If your organization isn’t on board with pursuing DEI, from your frontline workers all the way up to your leadership, the initiative will likely fall flat. Ensure you get broad buy-in and make it clear that everyone in the organization can help create diversity, equity, and inclusion (not just your HR or talent acquisition teams).

Pushing back against differences

DEI isn’t just about promoting visible differences — it also means supporting a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. But some boards prefer to “go along to get along,” which keeps a homogenous status quo in place. 

Just “checking the box”

Launching DEI initiatives to tick off that box misses the entire point. DEI is about more than just changing the makeup of your board — it also facilitates better decisions, better alignment with the communities you serve, and brings a variety of perspectives to the table. Everyone ultimately benefits.

Why board diversity matters for associations, chambers and nonprofits

A diverse association and nonprofit board makes a positive difference in a wealth of ways. We’ve already alluded to a couple of these advantages, including facilitating better decision-making via a variety of ideas and fresh perspectives.

Many nonprofits and associations are mission-driven organizations — which means they serve a specific community, marginalized group, or specific constituents. A connection to that community or service group is crucial for organizations to understand how to best meet their needs. That means your board should reflect those communities with representational voices amongst its members.

The benefits of board diversity

Fostering a diverse, engaged board reinforces your connection to your community, but also brings some significant benefits.

Improved responsiveness

Diversity can help boards and organizations be more agile. And when external forces affect your constituents, that adaptability and lived experiences in the community served can help you respond more effectively and efficiently.

General organizational dynamism and growth

Homogenous boards may stagnate. Leaning on the same voices will often lead to the same results, but diverse leadership can produce fresh ideas and uncover new opportunities. 

Strengthened community connections

Diverse board members not only bring with them fresh, new ideas, but also new community connections, relationships with new donors, and access to new resources. 

Public expression of commitment to the community and your values

A diverse board and commitment to DEI is a visible way to demonstrate that your organization embraces differences. And a board that reflects your community shows a deep connection to those you serve.

8 steps to audit and improve your board diversity

If your nonprofit or association’s board isn’t as diverse as you might want, you can make positive changes to get there. Before you take steps to meet your DEI milestones, you’ll need to do some homework and conduct an audit to identify all the opportunities you can tackle.

1. Discuss and research diversity with your board

The first step can be the most challenging: sparking a discussion about diversity with your board. While starting this conversation might feel awkward at first, BoardSource has compiled five questions to get you started.

Present some research on diversity during your conversation. The numbers don’t lie — as we pointed out above, boards and board leaders are overwhelmingly white. And that makeup ultimately affects decisions and the community you serve.

How to move forward:

Broach the topic of diversity as part of your next board meeting’s agenda in a non-confrontational way. Hit on important data points about how most boards have remained largely homogenous for decades and underscore the benefits of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive board as outlined above. 

2. Define what diversity means for your organization and for your community

Define diversity in terms of your current and future board composition. What does your board look like now and what is your ideal future state? What does diversity look like for your organization and for the community/groups you serve? And what do you want your board to look like even beyond race and ethnicity? Don’t box yourself in — think about board composition in terms of background, subject matter expertise, networks, and experience. 

How to move forward:

It can be challenging to nail down the characteristics you want in your board. To help you document your needs, you can lean on a board matrix. Just be sure not to simply use a matrix as a checklist. A tailored board matrix should still ladder up to a broader DEI strategy.

3. Conduct a diversity audit, or identify the gaps between your definitions and current state

Because board diversity for nonprofits and associations doesn’t just organically happen, you’ll need to assess where you are and where you want to be. 

No board or organization is perfect — there’s always room to improve. So, it’s important to honestly assess any gaps in diversity, whether visible or otherwise, and actively address them. Take a look at the demographics of both and assess any trends. Are there gaps or underrepresented groups? And how does your board and your organization stack up against the community you serve?

How to move forward:

 Conduct a thorough diversity audit of both your board and your organization as a whole. That can include focus groups, a diversity survey, a SWOT analysis, and more. Analyze the data to assess gaps and trends. Also consider a unconscious bias inventory to discover gaps in your board’s and organization’s assumptions. Once you’ve discovered these biases, you can take steps to address them.

4. Seek member and/or constituent input

While it’s crucial to get buy-in for your board diversity initiative throughout your association or nonprofit, don’t forget to get feedback from the group or community you cater to. After all, they know intimately what challenges they face and will likely have thoughts on changes you can make to better address their needs.

What does diversity, equity, and inclusion look like in their minds? And what characteristics do they want to see in passionate new board members?

How to move forward: 

Send your members and/or constituents a survey (via email and/or direct mail) asking them their thoughts on your board diversity. Ask them how they feel about representation on the current board, and what your goals for board diversity should be.

5. Build accountability into your mission, bylaws, policies, and more

As we mentioned earlier, don’t launch your board diversity initiative just to check a box. To avoid that, you can incorporate DEI into your organization as a whole. Commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion not just on your board, but throughout your organization. 

How to move forward: 

Weave DEI into your mission, policies, and bylaws. Set specific goals around diversity within your board and organization and make them public to help with accountability. Consider drafting a public-facing DEI statement to declare your organization’s commitment. 

6. Diversify your connections and recruitment channels

Relying on the same networks and connections could mean your board and organization stay homogenous. For recruitment especially, you’ll need to go outside your typical connections to find passionate candidates with diverse backgrounds and experience. 

How to move forward: 

Move outside your comfort zone and lean on other community organizations, connections through your volunteer network, and other leaders in your space. Post your job description on boards online you haven’t explored. Partner with a search firm to find the right candidates and partner with organizations that promote diversity on boards to spread the word (like Women Get on Board).

7. Reinforce your progress by taking steps towards equity and inclusion

Putting a more diverse board in place is just one piece of the puzzle here. While working toward a diverse board is crucial, you’ll also want to consider equity and inclusion when setting goals for the future of your organization. 

That means examining your processes, procedures, and resource distribution to make sure they’re fair, as well as working to ensure those diverse members of your organization actually feel welcome. 

How to move forward: 

Help counter biases with a coaching culture. Follow the steps that the Center for Creative Leadership outlines to analyze your talent acquisition processes and bolster mentoring and sponsoring to help all employees have the chance to grow within your organization.

8. Make diversity and your organization’s progress a regular point of discussion 

Incorporating DEI practices and recruiting methods for your board and association takes more than a single conversation. You’ll need to have regular discussions to unpack your progress toward your goals and to set new ones. 

How to move forward: 

Host regular check-ins to discuss your progress. Make it a quarterly line-item on your board agenda. These meetings could include regular self-assessments to understand where you’re at, including your board’s strengths and what could still be improved.

Improving your own association board diversity

Now that you have the information to move forward with boosting your board diversity, you can take the steps to launch this and other DEI initiatives. Get a deeper understanding of DEI best practices (like addressing unconscious bias) and plan programs within your organization to embrace and celebrate diversity as well as increase it.

Creating a more diverse organization helps you better represent the community you serve. And it’s easier to understand the needs of your valued members by staying in touch with an AMS tool like MemberClicks.

Free Member Retention Guide

Ready to retain members and keep them coming back forever and ever? This guide will teach you everything you need to know about member retention. We cover all the basics, like the first steps to member retention and how to map out your member journey. From there, we dive a bit deeper into retention tips.