Effective Board Service Requires DEI Work


Originally published April 19, 2023, in Twin Cities Business magazine.

If you are not deeply engaging in ongoing and effective DEI work, you are probably not making the difference that you think you are in your board service.

“Without service, we would not have a strong quality of life. It’s important to the person who serves as well as the recipient. It’s the way in which we ourselves grow and develop.” – Dorothy Height

Historically, one of the hallmarks of leadership is service on nonprofit boards or other community affiliations. These opportunities often align with societal issues or areas of interest that are important to us. Board service and volunteerism are marks of how you “give back” or “pay it forward” so to speak. Many times our inclination is to believe that the volume of board service one engages in is directly correlated to their overall capacity to lead and get things done. And to top it off, we are usually a big deal when we receive awards or other accolades for our efforts.

In my work as a diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) and antiracism consultant, I have the wonderful opportunity to work with boards of directors. I also serve on the board of a large cultural institution and participate in other organizations and community-led initiatives.

Through my experiences I’ve noticed something: If you are not deeply engaging in ongoing and effective DEI work at your own company or place of business, you are probably not making the difference that you think you are in your board service. In fact, you might be causing harm. And because of hierarchy and your positional power, you may be stilting progress or enacting egregious policies and procedures that prevent true inclusion.

Nonprofits exist in order to right societal injustices and inequity. And let’s name it, nonprofit culture can be steeped in and closely aligned with white supremacy culture. As leaders, we participate in board service to make things better. Therefore, board members need to possess an analysis to know when white supremacy culture is at play AND how to solve for it. If not, you are taking your toxic behavior into those organizations.

Toxicity is rooted in being unaware, uninformed, and unfamiliar with the basic tenets and best practices of DEI. You might be perpetuating toxic behaviors if you:

–Lack an analysis around race and racial inequity.
–Don’t understand the basic tenets of how to create an inclusive environment.
–Refrain from using equity frameworks to make decisions in your day-to-day work.
–Are not participating in ongoing DEI learning and development or coaching.
–Think you have DEI figured out or that your journey is complete.
–Center yourself in any conversation or interaction related to DEI.
–Are unaware of the historical and ongoing inequities that exist within your industry and the area of your board service. (I promise you, they exist.)

The kicker is that we often serve on more than one board. That means that we are likely spreading the toxicity and perhaps even doubling or tripling the harm. Yikes!

If you’re reading this and thinking, “This is not happening in my board service,” I’d strongly encourage you to think again. Leading With Intent, BoardSource’s Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, reports that almost half of nonprofit executives report that they do not have the right board members to “establish trust with the communities they serve.” Only a third of boards (32%) place a high priority on “knowledge of the community served,” and even fewer (28%) place a high priority on “membership within the community served.” We know that these attributes can help ensure that we have a better understanding of constituent need and our place in solving for it.

According toBoardSource, the best boards are: diverse, inclusive, and equity-focused. And to have boards that understand and implement these concepts, the members have to engage in the practice of inclusion for themselves.

Want to serve with greater purpose and understanding? Here’s how:

  1. Commit to engaging in ongoing DEI work at your company. While people are divesting for a myriad of reasons, your continued engagement is the only way to ensure an equitable and inclusive environment; that your company remains a choice employer for years to come; and you are fully prepared to serve.
  2. Learn more about the inequity issues or challenges that exist within the organizations that you seek to serve. What does the data say? What are the historic issues that are at play?
  3. Make space for conversations with other leaders who are on their journey. Compare notes. Learn from each other. Support each other in the work.
  4. Remember that your lived experience is not the quintessential lived experience. Employ solutions to challenges that are directly from the people that you seek to serve.

At the end of the day, this work is not about us, despite the social expectations of service. It is for creating better outcomes for those we seek to serve. You might be there for all of the right reasons, but be wholly unprepared to do the work. Honest question: If you are not engaging in effective DEI work at your company, how can you possibly serve in the critical position of helping any organization update, inform, or flat-out change antiquated systems that it’s working against?

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