This blog post is the fourth in a series written by foundation leaders in response to a research report published by BoardSource titled Foundation Board Leadership: A Closer Look at Foundation Board Responses to Leading with Intent 2017. This report is an effort to better understand the particular dynamics of foundation boards and involved taking a close look at the subset of responses from the 141 foundation leaders who completed the Leading with Intent 2017 survey. While the sample of foundation responses is relatively small and a convenience versus representative or randomized sample, we believe the report nonetheless provides important insights into the dynamics at play within some foundation boards.
Committing to board diversity has been at the center of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo’s ability to contribute to a vibrant and inclusive Greater Buffalo region with opportunity for all. By fielding a team of leaders who reflect a broad cross-section of diverse perspectives and lived experiences, we benefit from robust and generative discussions, which lead to more innovative solutions to address the complex problems facing our community.
We learn from each other and with each other on a regular basis. By doing this work internally, we are also better positioned to work through cross-sector partnerships and help our community find common ground for moving forward together. In fact, we felt it was important to co-author this blog post so you could hear from both the president and CEO of our organization and a key leader on our board about the importance of board diversity in advancing our organization’s mission.
Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, president and CEO:
As the president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, a nearly 100-year-old nonprofit organization, I have seen how committing to board diversity has expanded our organization’s capacity to spur positive and transformative change in our region.
BoardSource’s report, Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, highlights how, when it comes to the issue of board diversity, nonprofit chief executives and board chairs possess moderate levels of dissatisfaction across all areas of demographic diversity, but they “are most dissatisfied with their racial and ethnic diversity.”
This is a starting point for action.
At the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo, we commit to board diversity with intentionality, meaning we purposefully and strategically recruit board members who represent different lived experiences, skills, and networks with a specific focus on racial/ethnic diversity — as Alice explains here.
Alice Jacobs, 2017 governance committee chair:
As a board member, understanding why we need diversity is a crucial part of the equation to committing to diversity with intentionality. In today’s world, it is likely that many board governance committees profess a commitment to a diversified candidate pool. But, as evidenced by the BoardSource report, scant progress has been made by the majority of boards despite this commitment.
Our experience suggests that the typical governance committee looks at its board composition and determines to address the need for diversity by inviting a minority or female representative. This strategy may result in a few minority candidates being added to a board periodically, which is not without merit. However, a more holistic approach is needed to not only meaningfully diversify the board, but also to reap the true benefits of a diverse board for the organization.
What approach would be more effective?
A governance committee should see its main task as building the board into a high-performing team. We all need to ask ourselves: What does our board look like in terms of diverse thought, experience, skills, expertise, and background? Where are the gaps in relation to the skills and perspectives needed to achieve the goals of our strategic plan? Creating such a framework provides a tool to identify where boards are weak or lacking in capacities and perspectives. Using this broader diversity lens, recruitment focuses on identifying and cultivating strong candidates who will lead and contribute based on diverse sets of experiences. Ultimately, recruiting candidates this way means greater success for organizations, as candidates feel empowered to play a more significant role with the knowledge that they were invited to serve because of all that they bring to the table, not just because of their ethnicity, race, or gender.
Widening our networks
However, governance processes are only part of the equation in diversifying boards. Often we hear, “We are willing, but we can’t find the right candidates.” Bringing diversity to boards requires intentionally looking beyond our usual networks. To achieve this, all board members must commit to developing and maintaining new networks as part of their organizational service. The willingness to engage with a diverse network not only creates more connections for potential board candidates; it opens the minds of board members and their access to the communities they often are aspiring to reach.
We have found that board members who engage this way are the type of innovative, inquisitive board members we want — because they demonstrate the courage to take the inherent risks needed to tackle new approaches to social challenges and issues. When speaking with prospective board candidates, perhaps what we all need to ask is: “Describe your network and the ways you have been able to build it.”
Once an organization has assembled a diverse board, the question then becomes, how do you reap the benefits of the tapestry of perspectives to further the mission?
Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker:
For us, a more diverse board has led to courageous decisions to address some of the most complex challenges in our community with innovative, groundbreaking paradigms, as well as redefined our role in meeting these challenges through partnerships and collaboration.
In taking stock of the present state of our region, it was clear that the results of historical and structural forces, which have shaped current challenges, needed to be addressed with focus in order to shape the future our community deserves. Once a bustling manufacturing hub along the shores of Lake Erie, Western New York endured economic decline after industry left. Alongside this fiscal decline, our gaps in racial equity widened. The causes are numerous and complex, but policies such as redlining, housing discrimination, loss of jobs, and a lack of candid dialogue around race blocked our collective progress.
Today, our region is experiencing an economic resurgence, and we believe that all of our residents should have fair and equitable opportunity to take part in this resurgence. Understanding that Buffalo is the third poorest large city in America, with people of color making up approximately 50 percent of the population, our board made a decision — to prioritize advancing racial/ethnic equity because it is the right thing to do and so that our region could realize the full potential of our human capital and further accelerate our growth, better positioning us to compete in the national and global economy.
To set the conditions for this shift in culture, our board members dove head first into this effort, rolling up their sleeves to analyze data, understand institutional policies and practices that present barriers, and broker unprecedented partnerships across the region to address these barriers, and in so doing, benefit our entire community for years to come.
Diversity and inclusion are guiding principles that call us to engage actively in personal and collective learning to nurture and support our continued development as civic leaders.
In the boardroom, we dedicate time and resources to educate ourselves about the historical forces that have shaped our communities and the systems that perpetuate inequities. Our board participates in regular trainings on the various strategies for achieving racial equity, we read and discuss books that pertain to the issues we are addressing, and participate in shared-learning sessions with issue experts. Members also share “board stories” or oral histories about their individual backgrounds and life trajectories, and how these experiences intersect with our work. Given our diversity, these rich testimonies build deep connections among our members, bridge understanding, and solidify awareness of the benefits that diverse perspectives bring to our work.
Beyond our work together, we also encourage each other to pursue our individual journeys and take advantage of the myriad of opportunities to expand our leadership capacity, while promoting the idea that inclusive diversity drives change.
Our work in action
This approach is having an intrinsic and positive impact on our community. We have expanded our role from thoughtful grantmaker to “broker” of robust cross-sector partnerships that are embracing a systems change approach to unlocking the full potential of our region. The Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable (www.racialequitybuffalo.org) and Say Yes Buffalo (www.sayyesbuffalo.org) are but two examples of how our region is accelerating progress.
For our organization, intentional efforts to embrace diversity and inclusion to achieve equity have uncovered an entirely new level of performance in service of our mission and continue to provide a deeply rewarding experience for our board members.
We invite you to join us in this pursuit and watch your mission take flight!