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Reflections on Trust and Its Relationship to Racial Inequity on Nonprofit Boards

Posted by Jim Taylor on May 21, 2020 2:16:23 PM

diversity blogOne of Stephen M.R. Covey’s fundamental beliefs about leadership is that progress happens “at the speed of trust” —  that organizational work gets done with and through people, and that trust is the basis for every transaction and relationship. 

I recently found myself reflecting on the speed of trust as I read "Overcoming the Racial Bias in Philanthropic Funding", an illuminating new article based on a recent study by Echoing Green and The Bridgespan Group that shines a light on how racial inequities in philanthropic funding have placed organizations led by people of color at a major disadvantage. The study explores four key barriers that impede diverse leaders from gaining access to philanthropic capital — getting connected, building rapport, securing support, and sustaining relationships — and makes a compelling case that one of the reasons funders have built these barriers is their lack of trust in organizations led by people of color.

These findings prompted me to consider how the concepts of trust and the “four barriers” may manifest themselves in a different but related context: the lack of diversity on nonprofit boards.  Specifically, is it possible that nonprofit boards have similar “trust issues” as it relates to adding people of color as board members? And do nonprofit boards allow the same four barriers to prevent them from making the fundamental changes necessary to become more diverse, inclusive, and equity-focused? Let’s take a closer look.

The First Barrier: Getting Connected

The Echoing Green/Bridgespan study establishes that leaders of color have less access to social networks that enable connections to the philanthropic community. The attitude of funders on this issue seems to be rather passive, as summarized by this quote in the article: “Leaders of color aren’t coming to us for funding, so it feels like there’s a pipeline problem. But maybe we just aren’t connecting with the right people.”

At BoardSource, we see a very similar dynamic regarding the lack of diversity in nonprofit leadership. Our Leading with Intent 2017 data indicated that 90 percent of nonprofit chief executives are white, as are 84 percent of nonprofit board members, and more than one quarter of all nonprofit boards are entirely white. It is just as troubling that the Leading with Intent data highlighted widespread dissatisfaction among nonprofit board chairs and chief executives with their current levels of board diversity, but low prioritization of taking action to increase demographic diversity in board recruitment. Given these findings, I ask nonprofit board members to reflect on the following questions with regard to getting connected:

  • Do we truly believe in board diversity, inclusion, and equity as board values, and do we trust that adding more diverse perspectives to our board will enhance the board and lead to more effective decision-making processes and outcomes? Are we willing to undertake the necessary actions (i.e., reaching outside of current social networks; posting board roles on job boards; committing to adding persons of color when the next board recruitment opportunities emerge) to make change happen?
  • What am I willing to do to increase our board diversity and create a more inclusive and equity-focused board culture? Will I reach out beyond my immediate network to engage potential board candidates of color? Will I identify and capitalize on opportunities to be an ambassador for the organization and generate more awareness and interest in our organization among people of color?

The Second Barrier: Building Rapport

Echoing Green and Bridgespan found that interpersonal bias can manifest as mistrust and microaggressions, which inhibit relationship-building and emotionally burden leaders of color. The following quote from the article captures the disconnect: “I’m pretty conscious about trying to treat everyone the same. But I’m having trouble connecting more personally with leaders of color.”

Nonprofit boards are susceptible to a similar line of thinking as it relates to board building and composition. As board members, it is tempting to grow our boards by simply reaching out to people who are already in our networks — an indication of bias (conscious or unconscious, depending on the individual) in favor of “the known” vs. “the unknown.” However, boards need to realize that relying on this approach is inherently inequitable and extremely costly to the mission of the organization. Boards that — through action or inaction — maintain their homogeneous compositions are missing the opportunity to have more robust conversations about optimal strategies and action plans, and they run the risk of having blind spots that result in developing plans that ineffectively address the challenges their audience faces.     

On the issue of building rapport with people of color, I ask nonprofit board members to reflect on the following questions:

  • When we identify a qualified candidate of color for board consideration, do we demonstrate bias by over-emphasizing “personal connection” as a factor in our decision-making process?
  • Are we intentionally or unintentionally requiring that candidates of color have perspectives and experiences that align with our own so that we might avoid our own discomfort or self-consciousness?
  • If we have people of color currently serving on our board, have we checked in with them to find out how they feel about our current board cultural norms? And are they participating in our evaluation of diverse board candidates?
  • What am I willing to do differently in service to the goal of building greater rapport with current and future board members of color?

The Third Barrier: Securing Support

The Echoing Green/Bridespan study highlights the fact that funders often lack understanding of culturally relevant approaches, leading them to over-rely on specific forms of evaluation and strategies that are familiar to them. The following quote in the article captures the essence of this challenge from a funder perspective: “I’d like to find solutions generated by communities of color, but they don’t have sufficient evidence of effectiveness or capacity to execute.”

In a nonprofit board context, the challenge that people of color face in “securing support” (in being invited to join boards as well as in being included and valued after joining) can be just as daunting because boards may have a bias toward specific board-building evaluation criteria and strategies that are inequitable to diverse board candidates and members. Boards may have specific “give or get” policies that may be prohibitive to people of color that otherwise meet or exceed the expectations of all board members, but do not have the level of personal assets or social connections to fulfill the fundraising requirements. Boards may have meeting schedule and attendance policies that are not feasible for people of color who may have shift-work schedules that conflict with meeting times, or who may not be able to attend all meetings in person. There may also be a general board philosophy of “maintaining the status quo” that conflicts with the experiences and approaches that people of color have applied to their lives and careers. These culturally relevant experiences and creative approaches may not lend themselves to the “evidence” of effectiveness that white board members may favor, but they have been required to mitigate the impact of the societal inequities that people of color face on a daily basis.  White board members may not relate to or understand these perspectives — which can lead to a lack of trust.

On the issue of securing support, I ask board members to reflect on the following questions:

  • Are we overly wedded to what is familiar and “what we have always done”? Are we closing ourselves off from considering innovative approaches that board members of color may be best-positioned to introduce, based on their lived experiences that are different from our own?  Are we including them in the process of exploring and establishing new norms that are mutually beneficial?
  • When was the last time that we evaluated our measures of effectiveness? Are those measures still the most appropriate? Would the community we serve agree?
  • Have we examined whether our board policies are creating inequitable conditions for current and/or future board members of color? Are we missing opportunities to add people of color to our board because of our policies?
  • What am I willing to do to help current and future board members of color feel supported?


The Fourth Barrier: Sustaining Relationships

The fourth and final barrier highlighted in the Echoing Green/Bridgespan study refers to the difficulty that leaders of color encounter when they try to sustain philanthropic relationships over time. The renewal process can be particularly difficult for leaders of color, especially if they are not aligned with the funder on how to measure progress or on what constitutes a strategic priority. This creates a strain on the relationship and could be a sign of lingering mistrust. As one leader of color put it: “If they trusted me they would treat me like a partner.”

Nonprofit boards should follow a very different path that creates an environment of sustainable partnership with people of color on their boards. It is essential that nonprofit boards, after adding more diverse board members, do not relax and assume a “mission accomplished” mentality; in some ways, the work to establish a long-term relationship is only just beginning. Boards should commit to actions such as welcoming new board members of color, assigning mentors/buddies, providing necessary training, and engaging them in meaningful ways on committees and/or with other responsibilities. I would note that boards should take these steps for all new board members, but with people of color, there should be an added emphasis on inviting them to share feedback in a way that creates space to address anything that is feeling uncomfortable or unwelcoming.    

I ask board members to reflect on the following questions regarding sustaining relationships:

  • Are we willing to sustain our work in diversity, inclusion, and equity, or do we think that this is a temporary phase and that we will eventually return to our former norms?
  • How will we show board candidates and members of color that we are committed to their success on our board over time?
  • Are we losing existing board members of color who choose to opt out before the end of their terms? If so, have we asked them why?
  • In the spirit of partnership, are we willing to share our power and influence with board members of color whose perspectives and experiences may not align with ours?
  • What I am willing to do to ensure that our board will commit to sustaining its focus on adding more board members of color and optimizing the value they bring to the board?

The sad truth is that despite lots of talk about boards’ desire to change, we’ve seen very little progress as boards seek to become more diverse. The barriers identified in this study may help us better understand why that is the case, as well as point out how we can transform ourselves if we remember that progress happens at the speed of trust.


Topics: Board Diversity & Inclusivity

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