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7 Ideas for Pushing Your Board Forward in DEI and Belonging

by Allison Howe | 9.19.22 | Blue Avacado


Article In Brief:

  • The Problem: While nonprofits say they support improving diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) actually doing it requires getting the board to buy-in to the need for culture change.
  • Why it Happens: There are many reasons DEIB efforts fail including not being a part of the strategic plan, lack of board champions, and lack of budget.
  • The Solution: It starts with measuring outcomes and holding the executive director and board accountable.

Propelled in large part by Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s murder, the current social justice movement sweeping across the United States is showing up in every industry.

In the nonprofit world, donors, clients, and other partners are pushing organizations to demonstrate how they are honestly assessing and acting to improve diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts.

Undoubtedly, there will be organizations more focused on saying they care about the issue for the sake of appearances (and funding) rather than on doing the work involved in making significant and lasting change. Fortunately though, there are nonprofits working diligently to figure out how best to fully incorporate the values of DEIB into their mission, their culture, and their programming.

Let’s assume that your board has bought into the need for seeking change in DEIB culture. Now what? Here are seven ideas to consider as you continue to push forward this important work:

1. Include DEIB as an integral part of the strategic plan. Hold the board and ED accountable for executing.

It is always best practice to actively use your strategic plan as a guide to monitor that you are meeting your goals. And, of course, this active strategic plan must include DEIB.

Start your strategic plan with smaller, achievable goals so that you can accomplish them and build the foundation for success. Have methods of measurement in place so that you can identify successes. For example, as a training organization, our initial goal was to ensure that at least 25{d5efb31ba2a0192c04238dcf64650ea21d0ec6f459ad324325f3824298717899} of our speakers were BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). You can use similar metrics to analyze your workforce, consultants, and vendors. Review progress at board meetings and adjust as needed with new information.

It is important to note that you will not always see immediate impact. Engaging in DEIB work is a long haul, often taking many years to begin to see results.

2. Identify board champions of DEIB. Give them space and resources to drive change.

Chances are you already know who these people are, but they might include the ED and various board members, especially the board chair. These champions have probably read all the books and attended all the seminars about DEIB.

Seek out their opinions and ask them where they think the organization can make changes. Include their perspectives and ideas in every decision, including incorporating them into the strategic plan. Again, hopefully your board chair would be a champion or, at the very least, be supportive of these efforts.

Sometimes the first impulse of people in power is to delegate DEIB decisions to BIPOC leaders with the thought that these leaders will know what needs to be fixed and how to fix it in the DEIB space. However, it is essential that the people in power — often white, with economic advantages and influence — take on the responsibilities (and the risks) of working against racial bias and blind spots within the organization.

3. Make sure DEIB stays on the agenda and in the budget.

With continuous competing priorities, only so many items can be addressed. Too often a nonprofit’s time and efforts are focused on putting out fires. The board chair, as driver of the board agenda, needs to be sure that DEIB is not left behind and is responsible for making sure that DEIB stays on the agenda.

However, the chair should also be acting in concert with the ED. Together, they should ensure that the nonprofit’s leadership team includes budget lines that reflect DEIB areas, such as money dedicated to DEIB training and/or money that ensures salary equity. Ultimately, it is really up to the board chair and the ED to make sure that DEIB stays on the board’s agenda and is reflected in the budget.

Essentially, if you do not have resources put aside for an initiative along with a clear idea of whose responsibility the initiative is, it will not happen. Again, make sure that there is a line item for DEIB work, whatever that may look like. This line item might manifest in the hire of a DEIB consultant, the gathering of community feedback, the advertising for positions in new areas in an attempt to hire a more diverse workforce, and/or the commission of a compensation assessment.

4. Start small and build on successes.

Change is an iterative process. Start small and take the first step, whatever that is. The next step will build on that.

Maybe your first step as an organization is to diversify your volunteer base so that your volunteers are more representative of your community. To diversify your volunteer base, you might consider actively seeking out BIPOC volunteers at conferences and in networking spaces, talking about the initiatives you are building in order to get them interested in being involved.

As in so many things, the more people feel welcomed, the more likely they are to participate. As such, it is important to create a safe space for people of color where you demonstrate that you value their contributions, input, and opinions. Do not let your white colleagues hog the floor!

This iterative progress and focus will inevitably create new partnerships that will grow your nonprofit’s diversity efforts. As aforementioned, continue to share spaces for power and learning—the opinion of every person seated at the table should have the same weight.

5. Celebrate successes, no matter how small.

This work is hard and exhausting. We are working to overcome racist barriers and systems that were put into place hundreds of years ago. And this work is being done by individuals who often have to do difficult personal assessments. Just building trust with new partners can take a long time. It is easy to see all the areas that we need to improve.

Be sure to demonstrate success and share your successes for your own self-care. Similarly, people want to be a part of successful ventures, so share your successes to draw people in. If you show that you value DEIB and are committed to equity through your actions, others who care about DEIB will join you. Recognize successes at board meetings and — when appropriate — in newsletters and other community communications.

6. Bring in new board members who care about DEIB and some who have related expertise. Allow those who do not buy in to exit gracefully.

Let’s be honest. Not all board members care about DEIB. Some actually disagree that it is even an issue. Instead of investing time and resources into trying to change minds (a Herculean or impossible task), attract people who do care about this issue.

Talk about DEIB constantly at board meetings. This will show board members that DEIB is an important issue to the organization and encourage them to come forward with ideas of their own.

Alternately, you’ll also often find that those members who do not consider DEIB to be a vital issue will eventually leave of their own volition. As of yet, I’ve found continuously talking about DEIB to be one of the best ways to get people to self-select into (or out of) a board.

7. Be open to looking at yourself in the mirror.

As you are making your DEIB journey, you will absolutely see things about yourself and your organization that make you uncomfortable and ashamed. You may hear things that you do not want to hear. The trick is to be brave (not defensive) and to see through the discomfort in order to make your organization more effective and more equitable.

Viewing the World through DEIB Glasses

Ultimately, the way to be successful in making DEIB changes at your nonprofit is to look at every decision and opportunity through a DEIB lens. The organizations that are most successfully creating a DEIB culture are 100{d5efb31ba2a0192c04238dcf64650ea21d0ec6f459ad324325f3824298717899} committed to the work. As a result, we are already starting to see nonprofits building more equitable boards, updating human resources policies for equity, and evolving programs to be more reflective of DEIB, among many other actions. Continuing to focus on listening to the needs of the communities we serve and bringing diverse voices to the table will result in much more effective nonprofits.


About the Author

Photo of Allison HoweAllison Howe has served as Executive Director of NonProfitConnect since January 2019. During her tenure, she has worked closely with the board to significantly expand programs, including those focused on DEIB. She has worked to continue to establish NonProfitConnect as an expert resource in the community, utilizing her more than 20 years of experience in the nonprofit field.

An experienced leader in the nonprofit sector, Allison served on the board and then as Executive Director of the South Jersey chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. As Vice President of Medical Administration for Planned Parenthood of Northern, Central and Southern New Jersey, Allison was responsible for many functions, including initiating research and telehealth services. Allison earned her master’s degrees in Business Administration and Health Services Administration at the University of Michigan and holds a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification.

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