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Take a minute and picture your dream team – both board and staff. Got it? Okay. Why? Why are they your dream team? Is it because of their skills or their approach? Or their experience or their understanding of the world? Or their connection to mission? Or their ability to ask hard questions? Or their ability to get along? Or something else? Jot down a few thoughts. Now ask yourself: Does your dream team reflect your mission, the issues, the community, and the context in which mission and your larger cause operates in the world? The challenge for most nonprofits – maybe including yours – is that the answer currently is no.
Addressing the challenge of creating a diverse team is an important part of our decision making tool, the Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model, and specifically the Right People lens. This lens is complex but in its most simple terms it is about the necessary balance in the relationship between the board and CEO and the essential step of creating a purposeful constellation of board and staff that align to your mission. There are always different ways of seeing through this lens. The beauty is that it is all good—the point is to look, truly question, and then find clarity – something we’ll explore in depth at our upcoming Leadership Summit.
The challenge of creating a constellation within your team takes extra attention. It simply will not happen by accident. Unfortunately, time and again the reality of what I see in nonprofit life and the research – like the Daring to Lead study and the Leading with Intent report – is that the metrics don’t shift all that much. While there may be many ways to define a dream team, if the end result is a team with less diverse experiences, backgrounds, styles, and cultures that reflect and advance the decisions within mission, then the greater the loss to all of us.
Of course, knowing we have a problem and solving it are different steps. The solution is both in undoing the things we can see and addressing the unconscious bias that is woven into the systems where we operate. We all can dive in more deeply and do it better. I know this can all feel too big and overwhelming to start. But we must.
Perhaps these few helpful reminders will keep us all on the path forward:
Given these common realities, where do we start to purposefully recruit and engage the right people at the right time on the board and staff? First, get clear on why it matters. In other words, how will you make better decisions for mission and community if the composition of your team shifts? For example, once I was in the room with 80 people who comprise the board and staff of an organization. Collectively and with clear conviction they declared diversity as a core value. I was perplexed since by appearance alone they did not seem to be living this value. Their job, of course, was not to convince me or anyone but it was their job to ensure they were living it. So we explored their definition and as we did it became more evident that diversity was about the spectrum of cognitive and physical ability. They were, in fact, reflecting their mission inside and out. Of course, this is not a “check it off the list and be good” moment because this is a continuous journey with many layers to explore, and, of course, diversity shows up in so many ways. The key was the essential first step—to know, truly know, what your team means by diversity in light of mission, goals, and the community your mission serves.
As a second step, I offer a gem from Angela Park, a noted national expert on board diversity. When visiting a group in Alaska she asked us all to know our “why.” I have cherished this advice because now when groups say they want to diversify instead of just keeping it on the to do list, I ask why. Sometimes having someone ask this question encourages a more honest conversation and can mean the difference between a meaningful and difficult conversation and a check list. The best of those conversations in my experience pour from the heart with candor and synergy in the room around mission.
The two steps of knowing “what” and knowing “why” are not the solution to diversifying the board, but it at least gets the ball rolling forward.
So here is another catch to this work: if we don’t do it in our board rooms, we likely won’t see a shift in the diversity of our staff leadership either. Boards hire the staff leader so leaning into this conversation is essential in the board and staff space. Last year we brought Sean Thomas Breitfeld with the Building Movements Project to Alaska. If you haven’t taken the time to read this study, then hold 15 minutes in your calendar this week and take a look. Trust me, you will want to hold a lot of 15-minute sessions after that to absorb all that the Building Movement Project has to offer. But for now, just take in the initial findings on their groundbreaking study on diversity in race, gender, age, and sexual orientation in the work place. Sean and his team do a remarkable job at helping us understand both the conscious and unconscious ways that bias prevents a truly diverse workforce. This work comes in layers. So taking the time to read and absorb is a key step. I know it isn’t as exciting as a great new tool, and honestly, if one great new tool was out there, I promise I would share it with you.
The closest thing I can offer you in tools right now is from a national group called Equity in the Center. Their Awake Woke Work study is a must read for each of us who wants to take more steps toward creating a race equity culture in our board, staff, and sector. While they are also quick to note that “there is no singular or ‘right’ way to engage in race equity work,” they do offer actionable steps to get started:
These are just some steps. The most important ones are those that your team is willing to take today.
At Foraker, too, this has been our work. It has grounded us in our core values and that’s a solid beginning. Still, there is more to do for us and to help the sector. We are going slow to go fast in these efforts with a plan, a theory of change, and a lot of research to understand the pitfalls and the opportunities. What I know is that shifting board and staff composition in nonprofits is not just one tool or one of anything. We have created a visual of a flower with equity in the center flower picture to reflect all the ways we are approaching this work externally while working on ourselves internally. While the journey is complex, some of the metrics of success are clear. We will know we are successful when our boards and staff reflect in age, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, and sexual orientation the missions and communities they serve throughout Alaska. And success will be clear when people who come into these spaces stay beyond the typical length of time. Together these metrics keep our focus not just on recruitment but on the necessary welcoming culture to fully engage people. I look forward to much more conversation and exploration together in this work.
Maybe you have read this and thought “no problem,” or maybe you have more questions now than before. Either way, I hope you are planning to join us at this year’s Summit. Very intentionally, we have designed the two days to be one of exploration on how we see ourselves in these conversations and how it shows up in our organization and community. Join us and together we can explore both what it might mean for us to ask harder questions about the diversity of our board and staff. Along the way we can also find our grace in this challenging work and laugh with each other as we celebrate the joy of it all. The quest to engage the right people is full of joy and wonder in the human spirt. It is full of grief and sadness in the human condition. And it is about exploring all of it together as we find our way forward through mistakes, information, and new horizons.
Join us as we fully energize and engage.