Non-Profit Boards Have Imperative Need to Change

By Angela E.L. Barnes, Center on Halsted Board Chair

Aly Kassam-Remtulla’s January 29, 2021 Chicago Tribune editorial, “Nonprofits need to catch up on diversifying their boards,” poignantly validated what I’ve personally experienced — the nonprofit world has struggled to change in the past 27 years. In it, Mr. Kassam-Remtulla states: “A 2017 survey of 1,500 U.S.-based nonprofits showed that 84% of board members and 90% of board chairs were white. According to the reports, racial diversity on corporate boards had increased from 12.8% in 2010 to 16.1% in 2018. However, the 2017 figures in the nonprofit sector were nearly identical to 1994 bench marks.” Chicago Tribune

I was asked to serve on charitable boards very early in my professional career. Thus, I have spent the better part of the last 25 years serving on nonprofit boards and advisory committees in the city of Chicago. Invariably, these boards have been comprised of significantly more senior, wealthier and, predominately, white members. As a corporate attorney, I leveraged my professional experience and knowledge to create a comfort level for myself. I understood the legal obligations and governance expectations of board service and with this expertise, I knew that I added value beyond being Black and a woman. Much later in my years of service, I hit the diversity trifecta by also being openly gay.

My brown skin magnetically attracted the approving gaze of other board members who applauded the miniscule movement toward unstated racial, gender, and ethnic goals. The statement of “more” was often used as a barometer of success. As in, we now have more women, more minorities, and therefore, more time to effect change. Unfortunately, “more” often meant two or three Black or Latinx board members out of twenty-five. My mostly silent ruminations focused on the paucity of board members who could genuinely speak to the needs of the communities served. Every boardroom utterance of “they” was triggering and made me long for “they” to be at the table as we discussed policy and strategic direction. After several years of listening and learning, I finally asked the correct question: “Why aren’t “they” here?” Why is it an acceptable paradigm to establish a criterion for board membership that has a clearly disparate impact on the racial diversity of board membership and eliminates any significant income diversity? Who designed this paradigm? “Rather than waiting for external pressure to catalyze change, nonprofit boards can take steps to dismantle institutional racism.” — Kassam-Remtulla

In my experience, razor focus has always been on the individual giving capacity of board members. Read money. Money and the capacity to give is a sensitive topic. Historically, I have encouraged nonprofit boards to reexamine exceedingly high giving requirements. Requiring board members to contribute $10,000 or more for the privilege of sitting on a charitable board is clearly out of reach for most Americans. It is completely out of reach for many residents of the communities these organizations serve. Unsurprisingly, my suggestion was frequently dismissed by white board members; however, it was also met with resistance from minority board consultants who were hired to assist the organization in meeting board diversity goals. For many years I did not understand this reaction. So, what was I missing? It turns out I was missing a nuance that I am now committed to acknowledging.

While there are a handful of black unicorns, the uber wealthy African Americans, who can give significant amounts to various charities and who are, laughably, asked to sit on every charitable board (large or small); other African American (inclusive of the greater Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) community) give in different ways. It is challenging to ask a philanthropic Black person to give $10,000 or more to an organization predominately run by white people and governed by a predominately white board when that individual already contributes a significant amount of money, resources, and time to their church and to the various organizations in their community that may be small but are making significant differences that can be observed daily (e.g., food pantries, women’s shelters, after school programs). Given historic inequities that have critically hampered intergenerational wealth and continuing systemic racism that impacts access to capital for BIPOC communities, many people of color need to factor in financial reserves for family members that may need a little help meeting rent, car payments, or even capital to sustain businesses when lenders are unwilling.

On August 31, 2021, Chicago Foundation for Women hosted “Why People Give: A Focus on Black Philanthropy” (CFW-Panel Discussion). This panel discussion gave eloquent words to what many BIPOC communities already know. Many African Americans have the resources to give; they give generously to support their communities on a regular basis; and any suggestion that they do not is rightfully met with immediate scorn.

This may all sound as if a formidable rain cloud has hovered over the entirety of my charitable board service. To be clear, overwhelmingly, my board appointments have allowed me to serve the most remarkable organizations. I have been honored to help in any way possible to advance the critical missions of these organizations. The executive directors have been tremendous warriors, providing services and hope to many Chicago communities. I have learned life lessons from incredibly committed people, some of whom I am honored to call my friends. That being said, my observations of tokenism and glacial efforts by nonprofit boards to reflect the communities they served have solidified my current opinion on the deliberate steps nonprofit boards must take to advance racial equity and inclusion.

If your nonprofit board is not comprised of a majority of members from the communities it serves, it probably is not serving those communities as effectively as it could. Like it or not, boards heavily influence the strategic direction of an organization. Generally, executive directors strategize and prioritize based on the implicit biases of board members.

How should nonprofits diversify their boards? Just do it! Do it aggressively, authentically, and honestly. Seriously, if there are no current board members that can identify a pipeline of talented, caring, philanthropic, BIPOC individuals willing to give their time and treasure (in various forms) to an organization supporting the needs of underserved communities, then think about immediately reconstituting your board. The composition of those who sit around the table reflects the values of the organization. The criteria established to fill those board seats matter. Organizations should apply their racial equity and inclusion tool to the methods used to fill board seats.

At Center on Halsted, where I am honored to currently serve as Chair of the board of directors, our BIPOC board membership increased by 105% from fiscal year 2019 to current fiscal year 2021. This increase reflects representation from the Black, Latinx, and Asian communities. But we have much more to do. The entire organization has been working to better reflect the geographic, cultural, racial and gender diversity of the LGBTQ community and not only reflect white cisgender gay men. A board cannot genuinely ask its chief executive officer to make racial equity and inclusion a priority if the board itself is not committed to racial equity and inclusion.

Therein lies the rub — nonprofit boards will never be sufficiently diverse and inclusive until they stop their hollow handwringing. Challenge the paradigm of board service that has been accepted. Ask talented and committed members of BIPOC communities to join your boards and be honest about why you are asking. In parallel, make the systemic changes necessary to be authentically diverse and inclusive. “If nonprofits hope to make progress on addressing institutional racism, their boards will have to take a leadership role on diversity. This will require concrete and realistic goals, accountability for progress, and a shift in who sits around the board table. Our democracy will not be able to thrive until its very building blocks — which include nonprofit organizations — are thoroughly transformed”. — Kassam-Remtulla.

Communities that depend on the leadership of nonprofit boards to guide the delivery of goods and services effectively, efficiently, and empathetically into their communities do not have another 27 years to patiently wait for nonprofit boards to change.

About the Author: Angela E.L. Barnes is a corporate lawyer, risk management and compliance professional, and a life-long southside Chicagoan. She is a passionate advocate for providing services and resources to underserved geographic and demographic communities. Angela has proudly served on the board of directors for numerous Chicago area charitable organizations and is a member of the Racial Justice Diversity Committee for the Northern District of Illinois.

Center on Halsted is the Midwest’s largest community center dedicated to advancing the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Movement.