“Time heals all wounds” is one of the most widely known and generally accepted expressions in our popular culture, but I’ve always felt that this statement – although not false – was incomplete, at best. I believe that time is necessary but not sufficient for healing. Time facilitates the healing process, but true healing only happens when we do our part, when we are intentional about tending to the physical or psychological wound over time.
Today (January 18th, 2022) marks the 6th Annual National Day of Racial Healing, an annual observance hosted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. It is a perfect day for us to reflect on the racial healing that our society requires and on the active role that nonprofit boards must play – in the present and future – to help us heal the wounds of racism that have been inflicted on people of color historically, and to enable us to transform the hope of racial justice into reality.
The purpose of this day is “to contemplate our shared values and create the blueprint together for how we heal from the effects of racism” and “to bring ALL people together in their common humanity and inspire collective action to create a more just and equitable world.” In recognition of this day, I urge boards to follow the suggestion that Kellogg makes to all of us: to engage in conversations about the concepts of truth, racial healing, and transformation – three areas that, in my experience as a Black man interacting with predominantly white boards, will require a more significant commitment from boards than boards have demonstrated thus far. Let's take a closer look at each of these three concepts regarding boards.
Nonprofit Boards and Truth
In leading BoardSource’s work with nonprofit boards on racial equity, I’ve noted a significant increase in boards’ interest in discussing and learning about racial equity over the last two years, largely (I believe) due to two “society-altering” events: the onset of the pandemic that has disproportionately impacted communities of color and the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement. But I’ve also found that when conversations about racial equity “get real” and become uncomfortable, too often white nonprofit leaders struggle to acknowledge the truth about our country’s history of racism and the racial inequity that persists today.
I’ve had a few interactions with white nonprofit leaders over the past two years that highlight this discomfort -- including these examples:
- A white board member suggested that the term “white privilege” should not be used in racial equity training because it might be off-putting to white nonprofit leaders. He wasn’t arguing against the concept’s validity, but the term made him uncomfortable. By doing so, he prioritized his comfort (and the comfort of other white people) over having an authentic conversation about concepts that directly relate to racial equity.
- A white CEO said that he “shut down” after the first 30 minutes of a two-day racial equity training session because the first 30 minutes was mainly about our country’s history of racism. He said he was upset because the discussion of our history made him feel as if the trainers were blaming him for things that had happened before he was born. He wasn’t able to move through the discomfort and lean into the opportunity to learn.
- A white board member served on the board of a homeless shelter in which Black individuals and families comprised 75% of the shelter’s clients, yet stated that she “did not see a connection” between racial inequity and homelessness. The reality of systemic inequity was so far outside the range of her curiosity and lived experience that she was unable to see its very clear connection to the work of this organization.
The unfortunate truth is this: to date, the leadership of the nonprofit sector, by its actions (and inactions), has indicated that it is not yet willing to recognize unpleasant truths about the depth and breadth of the racial inequity that people of color have faced historically and continue to face today. Instead of avoiding information that makes us uncomfortable and defaulting to phrases like, “That’s not who we are,” it’s time to face the facts – the truth – that indicates that this is precisely who we are. But we should also remember that it is not who we have to be – if we commit to doing better.
I invite board members to consider the following questions about boards and truth:
- Can your board "handle the truth" and acknowledge our country's history of racial inequity and how it is still impacting us as a society today? Is your board well informed about the systemic issues that disproportionately impact people of color in its community? If not, is your board willing to enhance its knowledge and understanding of racial equity so that it can govern responsibly?
- Has your board committed to adopting racial equity practices (such as discussing the organization’s programmatic results and outcomes in a way that would surface meaningful variances based on demographics; committing to addressing any gaps in organizational outcomes based on demographic categories) so that it can recognize differing outcomes in its community based on race? Does your board embrace its responsibility to address the ways in which racial inequity is harming the community it seeks to serve?
Nonprofit Boards and Racial Healing
As noted earlier in this piece, a central theme of the National Day of Racial Healing is “to bring ALL people together in their common humanity and inspire collective action to create a more just and equitable world.” For this aspiration to become a reality, predominantly white boards will have to be willing to change in several ways, including how they recruit and, hopefully, share power differently by bringing the voices of the community into the boardroom (note that there is a distinction between the “community served” and “people of color;” these are separate but related communities). But we know that this isn't happening yet, at least not frequently enough for the transformational change we seek. Our most recent Leading with Intent study offers some thought-provoking information on this issue.
In our study, we asked respondents (comprised entirely of board chairs and chief executives), “Which of the following methods do you use to identify potential new board members?" We listed 12 options from which the respondents could choose (this was not a “forced ranking;” respondents could choose as many methods as were applicable). The two most frequently selected methods, by far, were: “Board members’ personal or professional networks” (96%) and “CEO’s or Executive Director’s personal and professional networks” (88%).
It is not fundamentally “wrong” to tap into these networks when considering new board candidates, but I would offer this caution. Suppose you are a predominantly white board, and your first action when you recruit for new members is to ask yourselves, “Who do we already know?” You will probably focus on other white individuals who share similar perspectives, socioeconomic backgrounds, and lived experiences – in other words, individuals who will perpetuate the lack of racial diversity and diversity of experiences that have always characterized your board. An overdependence on tapping into your existing networks is unlikely to help your board embrace the racial diversity of the community you serve and share power with people of color in your community who are most impacted by your work. Under these conditions, there can be no racial healing.
I’ve had a few interactions over the last couple of years that underscore how difficult it is for some boards to move away from their traditional habits of recruiting individuals that they already know, individuals who make the board comfortable. These two interactions are especially memorable:
- A white CEO shared that she was extremely proud of her organization's work in serving its racially diverse community. When our discussion turned to the topic of her board composition (which is 100% white despite the organization’s location just outside of a city that is quite racially diverse), she said, “We are open to everyone. But they have to come to us.” She did not seem to recognize that a “they have to come to us” mentality will fail to attract board candidates of color because they will not feel welcomed, valued, heard, or included.
- A white board member shared that his board’s efforts to become more racially diverse had been unsuccessful thus far due to his board’s concern that the candidates they had identified for recruitment would enhance the board’s racial diversity but might “struggle with the technical aspects of being a board member.” I heard his comment as a thinly veiled way of saying that his board does not think that people of color in their community are qualified to be on their board.
I invite board members to consider the following questions regarding boards and racial healing:
- Is your board genuinely inclusive in its mindset and approach to identifying and recruiting new board candidates of color, or does your board have a “they have to come to us” mindset in its recruitment process? Does your board recognize how a “they have to come to us” approach would be ineffective – and harmful – to the goal of racial healing?
- Does your board, consciously or unconsciously, believe that individuals from the community that would enhance the board’s racial diversity would struggle to meet the board’s standards for board membership? Does your board genuinely have an open mindset to the wide range of skills, assets, backgrounds, and lived experiences that potential board candidates of color may bring?
- Does your board understand how its current policies and practices may reinforce inequities that have prompted the need for racial healing, and how the board’s culture may conflict with our aspirations of “bringing all people together in their common humanity” and “creating a just and equitable world?”
Nonprofit Boards and Transformation
The concept of transformation with regard to racial equity requires boards to focus on the larger ecosystem in which organizations and their boards operate. Boards must look beyond narrow definitions of organizational mission and explore how inequitable systems in housing, education, employment, health, criminal justice, wealth, and the environment, among other areas, impact the communities they are serving and – as a result – have huge relevance to the work of their organizations. Boards must focus on the transformation of systems to reach the goal of racial equity, a point at which a racial hierarchy no longer shapes an individual’s experiences or outcomes.
Transformation of this size and scope requires the nonprofit sector’s leadership to be methodical in its approach while still recognizing the urgency of the work, but the sector's leadership too often fails to realize it, as our Leading with Intent study illuminates. Our study indicates that the sector’s leadership has not yet made significant progress in its efforts to become more racially diverse. 87% of chief executives are white, 78% of board members are white, and 19% of boards do not include a single person of color. We also found in our study that boards that are not racially diverse are also less likely to engage in racial equity practices such as:
- Committing to understanding the diversity of the community the organization serves
- Discussing community needs in a way that acknowledges any disparities between different demographic groups among the people it serves
- Committing to raising the board’s awareness and understanding of the relevance of racial inequity to the organization’s mission
- Discussing the organization’s programmatic results and outcomes in a way that would surface meaningful variances based on demographics
- Committing to addressing any gaps in organizational outcomes based on demographic categories
The sector’s leadership seems to have a disconnect between its attitudes and its actions on racial equity. In our study, 82% of chief executives stated that racial diversity is important to external leadership, and 70% of that group expressed dissatisfaction with their board’s racial composition. But only 50% of chief executives stated that they had aligned their board recruitment practices with their board diversity goals. If the sector does not feel urgency on the issue of its boards’ racial composition, it cannot effectively begin to address the more complex, systemic issues that we must transform.
This lack of urgency and preparedness to address transformation has also emerged in my interactions with white leaders. I would especially highlight these two examples:
- Last year, a white leader told me that his board would “get around to working on racial equity” – as soon as the pandemic is over. His board does not realize that this is the moment when racial equity needs to be prioritized, that racial equity work should not be viewed as a project that can be compartmentalized and put off until it is convenient for the board.
- A white leader claimed that his board would be willing to focus on racial equity work – but the board would need him to present a “persuasive business case" before agreeing to do this work.
I invite board members to consider the following questions on boards and transformation:
- Does your board see the “mission case” for racial equity as an extension of the issues and communities on which you are already focused? Or does it see it as something distinct and separate that can be deprioritized or that it needs a “business case” to support?
- Is your board inspired to prioritize racial equity in its work, or does it view racial equity as something it will eventually "get around to" addressing?
- Is your board willing to center racial equity in all that it is and all that it does in service to transformational change that would improve outcomes for the community it serves?
The National Day of Racial Healing is a day that all of us should honor, but I especially call on nonprofit boards to “contemplate our shared values” and “create the blueprint together for how we deal with the effects of racism.” Boards can only accomplish these goals if they acknowledge historical inequities, hold themselves accountable for present and future outcomes in the communities they serve, and take steps necessary to support transformational societal change. I hope that boards will commit to these objectives today – and every day. Because racial healing requires sustained focus and intention. And the truth is: there is no time to waste.