A Conversation Examining Diversity and Equity on Nonprofit Boards

On Wednesday, July 10, 2019 Koya Leadership Partners welcomed over 70 people to a panel discussion in New York City for a conversation examining diversity and equity on nonprofit boards.

Our panel of social justice leaders included:



Chitra Aiyar
Executive Director
Sadie Nash Leadership Project


Angela Dorn

Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel
Youth Inc



Richard Burns

Interim CEO
Lambda Legal



Raël Nelson James

Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
The Bridgespan Group



Molly Brennan

Founding Partner
Koya Leadership Partners




Melissa Madzel 
Managing Director
Koya Leadership Partners



Melissa Madzel asked our panelists to discuss the value that boards bring to nonprofit organizations, the pathways to effective board leadership, and concrete actions and practical solutions to increasing board diversity.

What follows are some highlights from the evening’s discussion.

Q: What change would be necessary to reimagine the definition of value that boards of directors play in nonprofit organizations. And if we reimagine that, how could that reframe diversity on a nonprofit board?

Raël Nelson James: Too often, because of the fundraising realities in the sector, we rely on people writing checks as a way to assess their value. No one on your board should be just writing checks. Everyone should be doing at least two things.

For everybody who sits around that board table, we should be thinking about not just what can we extract from them but, also, what are they contributing? And also, what is the board doing for each other in terms of maintaining the health of the organization and the standing that the organization has in the community and the effect it has on that community?

We underestimate how important it is that our board really sets the standard for how we stick to our values and how we continue to be focused on our mission.

Richard Burns: We need to have boards of directors that have a fiduciary responsibility, that are responsible for governance. Each board member is holding a sacred public trust for all of the communities that we serve and that we live in. And while we definitely want to build fundraising boards, we want to have paramount that vision that each one of us is holding that trust. What is in that trust? It’s establishing, confirming, and involving the vision of that organization, which leads to the codification of the mission of that organization, which leads to the development of the strategic plan, and the direction we give staff.

Molly Brennan: When you talk about reimagining value, one thing that I find boards often forget is there’s a governing responsibility as a group. And we are now decades into unquestionable research that shows that diverse groups of people have better solutions, better ideas, more creativity, more impact, more power, and more influence. And thus, do better by their organizations. I think that’s a really important mental starting point around what value does a board bring and how do you imagine help even more?

Chitra Aiyar: I’ve personally started to question some of that research, since I think it underestimates the volume of work that’s needed to make a diverse team work effectively. For my board members who represent diverse backgrounds, especially backgrounds where they haven’t had executive experience, I’m often investing a lot of extra time to make sure that they feel prepared for meetings and that they have any additional support they might want. Sometimes that means going through budgets or something with them separately, in advance of the meeting, and making sure they are prepared to walk in with their own analysis to share. That takes a lot of work on their part and on my part.

Q: How have you seen the definition of what board members can bring as variable? And how can they be changed to create more pathways for diversity?

Angela Dorn: We’ve got to change our values in terms of what’s authentic, for one thing. A board that serves people of color, but only has white people on it, to me, is not authentic.


Q: What’s the strategy that you applied to building and designing your board at the Sadie Nash Leadership Project?

Chitra: Part of what we realized, is having a person or two [who represent a particular constituency] is not sufficient, because they need to feel that there are enough people for them to express diverse opinions. If you’re the only person, you have to take the opinion of what you think the majority of people think. So, having multiple people representing constituencies, is super important so that they can disagree and represent themselves.

We also dedicated a percentage of Board seats to what we call the constituent members: one is a current participant in our program, and two are alumni – this ensures we have voices around the table of those who understand what it’s like to be part of our work.


Q: What are the barriers that you are seeing in organizations that are making it harder to identify diverse board members, diverse candidates for boards, and people who can really bring their skill?

Angela: I think that barrier is financial. A lot of people get intimidated by board [giving requirements/expectations]. People need to reimagine the “give/get” to include “in-kind” [giving] in this equation.

Molly: As executive recruiters, the mandate we often get from boards looking to hire a new CEO, who are almost always majority cisgender male, white, or cisgender female, white is, “We have to hire a person of color.” But when we talk to candidates, one of the first things they say is, “I don’t see anybody who looks like me on the board. What does that tell me about the organization’s values, and what it means in the world? I’m not interested in being the first.”

To work on the nonprofit racial leadership gap at the C-suite, we also have to work on boards. Candidates of color are not often interested in being the first or the only. But organizations that are already diverse, including at the very top, will be in a better position to attract and retain diverse leaders.

Richard: I think what’s been wonderful to hear are the thoughts on what kind of diversity should be [represented on] a board. We want there to be gender, racial, in some cases geographic diversity, or diversity of age. Right now, we [at Lambda Legal] are very focused on the dramatic underrepresentation of transgender people on boards of directors, even within the queer liberation movement.

Chitra: Something that we need to think about the benefits of board service to the people of color or other underrepresented communities who are on those boards. This is time and energy that’s unpaid and spent away from other priorities. For instance, when we think about trans folks, particularly black trans women who statistically have lower income potential and life span, does sitting on a board serve their needs or is it really about the optics for the organization?

Angela: I think one of the places where boards get it wrong around inclusion is assuming that everyone comes to the table with the same norms around how discussion should be conducted, how conflict is managed, and what the board tolerance is for conflict. And so, if you bring someone who feels at odds with that kind of culture, they’re not going bring their opinions, and you’re not going be able to harness any of the diversity of viewpoint that might be catalyzed by having a racially diverse, gender diverse, demographically diverse board, if you don’t think about actual practices.

Q: What are some of the tactics you have used for recruiting board members?

Raël: I focus on what’s going to be exciting to work on and then try to figure out what the match is for that specific potential board member. And so, candidates for boards are excited to use their specific skill set for something that also feels meaningful. As a recruiter one needs to be really thoughtful about how the puzzle pieces fit together, not just view each individual in a silo.

Chitra: We have Board members host dinners, a beautiful warm meal, and the Board members share why they joined. There’s no ask, but people get to know our organization through meaningful experiences. We will use those dinners to host Jeffersonian conversations and try to bring something special to the attendees. That’s the starter point and then we engage people more over time.

Richard: When I chair a board nominating committee, I ask the board to create a spreadsheet that’s a snapshot of our current board; listing the skills, networks that we bring, and demographics represented. Then we determine what we need by asking “what are the voids, where do we want to grow?” This enables the board to collectively establish the priorities, characteristics, networks, and demographics for the next cohort that we are bringing on.

Next, we ask current Board members to send us names of three “dream” board members—prospects that would fill these voids. And then they go out and find them. If you start with that board matrix, and you are rigorous in saying “here’s what we have been. Here’s what we need,” then you evaluate candidates against the need. It makes it much easier to say “no” to somebody if they don’t match up with what you need. To add four to five new board members, it takes a year to go through that process in a healthy way.

Raël: I will plug Equity in the Center’s publication, “Awake to Woke to Work.” I think too often we just see board diversity in a silo, when really it should be part of an overall equity journey that your organization is on. And that’s a great resource to read to get started.

Angela: Remind your board that more and more foundations are requiring that boards be diverse, or they’re not going to fund those organizations that don’t have diversity at a level which they think is appropriate.

Q: How can power be leveraged for a collective good?

Richard: Finding a way to talk about power and privilege that is not shaming, but is also honest, has been really powerful. Finding safe ways to have that conversation that are not pandering to people, but encouraging them to feel excited about the opportunity that their wealth brings, in terms of what they can do to leverage it for community good, is a really great space for people to sit in.


We would like to sincerely thank our panelists and guests for the insightful comments and ideas on how we, as a community, can further diversity and equity on nonprofit boards. We welcome the opportunity to continue this conversation in other communities.


Learn more about diversity and equity on nonprofit boards through our research report, “The Governance Gap: Examining Diversity and Equity in Nonprofit Boards of Directors.”