Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

In Search of Board Diversity

When I was interviewed to become the Executive Director of United Way of Anchorage, many of the board members and agency executives said they wanted to help nonprofit boards become more diverse. After I was hired I reviewed every recommendation made by United Way volunteers to the member agencies during the fund distribution process. I found that almost every organization was encouraged to recruit a more diverse board. Looking at my own board back then, I realized that it also lacked diversity. It especially lacked involvement of Alaska Natives. In other words, board diversity has been a big issue in this state for a while, and unfortunately almost 20 years later, we seem to have made little progress.

We live in one of the most diverse states in the nation. Alaskans embrace diversity better than many states where I’ve lived. Yet when it comes to our nonprofit boards, I sometimes think I’m in the movie “Groundhog Day” because this issue continues to re-emerge year after year after year. It seems that whatever strategy we have used to address board diversity – and we have tried a few – the problem persists.

Some of the most significant Alaska boards lack diversity. Every community has a few over-used, often burned-out folks from different races and cultures that serve on way too many boards. Surely others must be willing to serve their community. We must address this issue now because many Alaska communities are already predominantly non-Caucasian, non-English speaking, and within the next decade our state’s largest community of Anchorage will join their ranks. The time is now to solve this problem!

Back in 1993, the United Way board identified lack of board diversity as one of its top five priorities in its strategic plan. As the board and staff developed tactics to remedy this, we fell into what I call the “let’s do diversity” trap. We brought all the diversity experts we could find into a room and encouraged them to help us develop a plan. Within a few months it was painfully obvious that while everyone in those discussions was eager to share their thoughts, they were pro-diversity zealots and were only reinforcing their own beliefs. We had to try something new.

It was shortly after our first diversity tactic failed that the serendipity of planning emerged. (Many planners experience occasions when organizations write down their dreams, even if they don’t know how they will happen, then an opportunity will emerge to make that dream a reality — or serendipity). The dilemma then is — will they recognize the opportunity when they see it?

In 1995, community based organizations in Anchorage received an invitation from the Pew Charitable Trust to apply for funding to create a program for “Civic Entrepreneurs.” Civic Entrepreneurs were further described as emerging leaders from diverse communities. Eligible communities had populations from 200,000 to 350,000. The invitation was sent to over 140 cities but Pew determined it would only award ten grants. When we heard about this opportunity to identify and equip civic entrepreneurs from diverse communities, we saw the potential to increase diversity on nonprofit boards.

United Way, the Alaska Humanities Forum, Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), and Alaska Pacific University hosted the first meeting and invited others to help develop a proposal for Pew. Within a few weeks the vision that emerged was what we now know as Leadership Anchorage. We determined that placing such a program at the Humanities Forum could be a distinction that would help the proposal become more competitive. In addition, CITC’s involvement addressed one of the most pervasive diversity issues in Anchorage at the time — almost no nonprofit boards except Native nonprofits had Alaska Native board members. So from the beginning, while Leadership Anchorage embraced all cultures, it had an added expectation to address the inclusion of emerging leaders from the Native community. This turned out to be another competitive advantage for our application.

Anchorage was one of the ten selected to receive this grant! Since 1997, the Alaska Humanities Forum has maintained the program. Over 220 civic entrepreneurs have emerged from the program including Gloria O’Neill, President and CEO of CITC; Jason Metrokin, CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corporation; Janie Leask, President of First Alaskans Institute; Eric Cordero, member of the Mat Su School Board; Macon Roberts, past Anchorage School Board member; Arthur Yang, Hmong leader and manager at Nine Star, and many other current community leaders.

Even with the success of Leadership Anchorage, significant boards still exist in Anchorage that should better reflect the diversity of the community they serve. And this isn’t a problem just in Anchorage. Even with leadership development programs, other Alaska communities face the challenge of boards that lack diversity. So what is going on? Why do we not have diverse boards? I have never heard an organization say they didn’t want a diverse board. What I do hear is: “We can’t find anyone that’s willing;” or “we had this guy once but he never came to meetings;” or “she comes, but she never says anything.” We have heard other excuses, but these are the top three.

One of the four factors of the Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model© is having the right board and staff working as partners. While staff diversity can be an issue for many organizations, board diversity is by far the larger issue. All research says that the best indicator of nonprofit resilience is the board. Most people understand that having people who are rooted in mission AND who bring diverse viewpoints on a board adds to the competence of the group. Diversity usually leads to better decisions. I believe what we need now is to stop making excuses and begin developing best practices from organizations that have good diverse boards.

To begin here are a few issues to ponder when building a diverse board:

1. Use the tools we advocate in training for good board recruitment and retention:

a. Have a committee focused on strategic board recruitment and management,
b. Develop and promote a clear job description for board members,
c. Create a list of characteristics such as diversity, interests and professional expertise that are needed for the best possible board to help you fulfill your mission today and into the future,
d. Use a matrix of those characteristics to review the current board’s fit into the categories and identify the characteristics needing representation,
e. Create a list of potential members that can be cultivated and placed in the queue for nominations to the board.

2. Recruit true believers. Understand that the first and most important characteristic for any board is not race, gender, culture, skill or talent — it is passion for the mission. While some boards think they must find potential members who love their organization, it is far m ore important to identify candidates with a history of passion and commitment to your mission. They may have never heard of your organization. While it is good to find people who know your organization, when looking for diversity you need to find people who have a record of involvement with other activities related to your mission – not just knowledge of your organization. It is also good to understand that a board is not the place to convert someone to love your mission just to fill some diversity gap or because they have one or more of the other characteristics identified as important. I worked once with an organization in another state whose mission was developing philanthropy. They struggled with board recruitment, especially finding diverse members for their board. Of course no person who was not a philanthropist should have been considered for such a board. But maybe the organization’s definition of philanthropist was too limiting because it was based on their own cultural bias. In other words, when looking for the right diverse board members, those with passion for your mission, it may be useful to have conversations with cultural experts to better understand how your mission translates to other cultures. People from every culture are alike when it comes to loving the arts, helping their neighbor, supporting their children, and loving their home and wanting to protect it. What we must do to recruit more diverse boards is become more culturally competent.

3.Tokenism is not a strategy. When developing a diverse board, do not resort to tokenism. Potential candidates understand when they are being used. Diverse boards thoughtfully include new people and work to make the environment as comfortable as possible for that valuable resource. They typically bring in a number of new people especially from diverse cultures at one time so the new members do not feel alone in the crowd.

4. Don’t rush to recruit. An open seat on your board is far better for most organizations than finding the first breathing body and signing up that person. In our trainings we define a nominations committee as one whose job is to meet at the last possible second, check for pulses and recruit whomever we find with a heartbeat. When boards have a board development process instead, they begin to think strategically about who they need by first focusing on the characteristics that would be best for a balanced board, and then developing a long-range strategy to identify, cultivate, engage, and then eventually recruit the right members. If some funder (like the United Way did 20 years ago) were to suggest to your board that it become more diverse, my experience is they are willing to give you time to achieve that goal. Even if no external force is encouraging board diversity and you strive to achieve it, having a plan to make it happen will help. Most of us have board term limits as well as maximum board membership. So if you have a lack of diversity and you want to address it, develop a plan that shows you are heading in the right direction. Then make sure you implement the strategy. Volunteer recruitment is much like fund development (fundraising). In fundraising you can often ask someone for spare change and get it. People are willing to give-up what they perceive as a token gift without much asking. But if you want to raise gifts that donors perceive as significant and that will become sustainable, the best way is to first develop a relationship, then ask for the gift. When someone volunteers to serve on a board, they are making a significant contribution of time. Many boards also require their members make a personally significant financial gift. Take your time and recruit the right board with the right commitment. Encourage potential board members to get to know the organization first. Ask them to serve on a committee, visit the programs, and meet other board members. Good board development takes time.

Now that we have shared our best practices for board recruitment and for diversifying boards, we will ask that you email us at and share your experiences. We will use our blog and create a conversation with interested Partners on this issue, too. Be sure to bookmark our homepage to stay connected to that conversation With all your suggestions added to ours, maybe our collective effort will finally help address this issue.