I remember sitting around a table with four or five nonprofit leaders just like me. The event was an invitation-only fundraising gala to support inner-city youth programs here in Knoxville, TN. We were there to celebrate the work we do as burned out, purpose-driven do-gooders.
The fact that these other upstanding men and women wanted to do good in the world wasn’t the only thing we had in common. As we prided ourselves on a commitment to reducing inequality in our community, every single person in attendance, including myself, was white.
Unless, of course, you count the servers. Was this our idea of representation?
This experience isn’t atypical. BoardSource reported in 2017 that 90% of nonprofit chief executives were white, as were 84% of all nonprofit board members. More than 1 out of every 4 nonprofit boards were entirely white.
Those numbers were nearly identical to similar findings in 1994, more than two decades earlier.
More recently, Koya Leadership Partners conducted a survey in which 61% of nonprofit professionals said that their board didn’t adequately reflect the communities that they served, with many citing geography, lack of access to qualified candidates, and lack of resources as obstacles to diverse recruiting.
The lack of diversity in nonprofits is especially striking to me in my work as a CPA. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that, in this industry, we’re almost all white, and we all have the same patterns of thinking. Yet how many of us have been asked to be a board treasurer?
Applying our skills pro bono to a nonprofit board, as the data above suggests, doesn’t mean that we’re any closer to bringing about the change we seek. Rather than using our roles to make room for historically marginalized and underrepresented voices, we become event organizers and party planners for our wealthy colleagues. It’s a joke.
Throughout the years, many other writers have challenged the lack of board diversity in nonprofits and offered us suggestions for moving forward. These include building diversity and inclusion into strategic plans and following through on implementation with actionable metrics, among other things. Given the state of our country and our communities, diversity in all its forms is truly as urgent a need as any other.
What I encourage us to do here is to rethink exactly what inclusion means to us and how we might be able to translate it into action. It doesn’t simply mean finding a non-white CPA to be your board treasurer, although that would be a welcomed first step.
Inclusion means respecting and making space for a diversity of thought, income levels, educational background, and life experiences. It means reaching out to people we wouldn’t normally think about reaching out to. And sometimes it even means giving up our own positions of power so that others can have the opportunity to take our place.
I am truly thankful for the work we do, and I do think that it’s worth celebrating. However, we should remember exactly who and what it is we are taking pride in. As I sat around that dinner table, I couldn’t help but think that we had chosen the wrong target — and it showed.
Calling for more inclusive boards isn’t just a move toward diversity in numbers. It’s a commitment to justice in representation and meaningfully listening to the voices of those we claim to serve.
My hope is that, for all of those fundraising dinners we’ll host and attend in the future, we’ll learn to take a stand and honor our commitment to diversity in the makeup of our leadership. My hope is that we will find ways to listen and amplify the voices that are heard less often.