Racial Equity – A Challenge for Nonprofit Boards

By Renee Rubin Ross, Ph.D.

Linda, a nonprofit Executive Director, reached out to me to talk about deepening the board’s ownership of racial equity work. The organization had a clear strategic plan and some important priorities for the year ahead. What was missing was a partnership from the board that would create the community leadership and support to move those priorities forward.

As we learned more about the board, one of the issues that emerged was racial diversity. Although 80% of the organization’s clients identified as People of Color, almost all the board members were white.

Linda’s organization is hardly unique: Research indicates that nonprofit boards have significant challenges around board diversity. The Boardsource 2017 Leading with Intent study found that 90% of board chairs and 84% of board members identify as Caucasian. The study found that 65% of Executive Directors are dissatisfied with the racial diversity of their boards and 36% of Executive Directors are dissatisfied with board diversity in terms of socioeconomic status.

Linda understood these challenges first-hand. Yet she expressed frustration: She could understand the challenge and see it in her own organization. She did not know the path to a better way.

We worked with Linda and the board to deepen awareness of issues of diversity and racial equity. The process included exploring individual anti-racism and unconscious bias, and moved outward to assessing different parts of the organization, including the board, using a racial equity framework.

The end result was that board members better understood racial equity, which encompasses the unequal opportunity and outcomes that currently exist depending on one’s race. It also includes the idea that those most impacted by structural racial inequity are meaningfully involved in the creation and implementation of the institutional policies. Board members had engaged in challenging, uncomfortable conversations to hone in on their own blind spots. They reflected on how board practices, policies and processes could embrace racial equity. And they had an action plan to continue this work.

Given the hunger to embrace equity and diversity with the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd and other incidents of police brutality, the Ross Collective has created the Equitable Board Lab course as a way to work with a small cohort of nonprofit leaders from different organizations to learn about and practice tools to deepen racial equity. The course, which starts on October 21, will bring together nonprofit staff and board members committed to racial justice, learning, and social change to engage in uncomfortable and challenging conversations, experiment with dynamic new approaches, work towards anti-racism and explore the steps to a racial equity culture. We look forward to helping nonprofits like Linda’s build equitable nonprofit boards and organizations, ultimately deepening community strength and creating a more just society.

If you’d like to learn more about the course, please visit the course page. We hope to see you there.

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