Gosh, I hope I didn’t give it away in the title… Lets take a little walk in the NPO board world. Do you know anyone who sits in one of the soft seats at the conference table? What does HE look like? What does HE do for a living? Is HE educated? Is HE well connected? Does HE speak English as a second language? Is HE over 50? Mercy, methinks there is a pattern..
It is no secret that board diversity (read-lack thereof) is a problem. The purpose of this blog is to take a realistic look at potential reasons for why we are in the shape we are in with regard to rich white (and frankly, old) guys dominating the NPO board market. The roots of the problem date back to the origins of governing boards in the United States in the 1600’s. I’ll not get into the details of the arrangement, but you can be damn sure that there were no women, minorities, or poor folk making the decisions. In fact, your resume had better have included a fair stint as an elder in the church to have a remote shot at a leadership position. I imagine that the whiteness and espoused purity of it all was blinding. God bless the few radicals who somehow weaseled in and provided a springboard for all that we enjoy today. Fast-forward through the formative years of university building, civil war, title 9 and civil rights and finally, the table is set and the pump is primed… Well now dear reader, lets extend our walk over into the shadows of the forest planted by John Adams, Susan Anthony and Martin Luther King. What do we see? (at this juncture, please now reread the opening paragraph so I don’t have to type it again). Yup. Still a bunch of old, rich white guys. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a white guy and make no apologies for it. I’d like to be rich and hope to grow old. In fact, a few smart A’s I know would vehemently and incorrectly infer that I’ve richly succeeded in the former already. In addition, I hope to someday sit on several NPO boards and make a real difference. Should I reach this goal, will I be looking around the table at a dozen other guys of generally the same societal DNA? According to the extant (there it is again) data on the subject, probably. According to a 2007 study by Boardsource, numbers are holding steady. White? 86% Male? 57% Over 50? 62%. In inserted a graph below for impact. J
NPO Board Makeup
So again, why are we in the shape we are in? It’s been proven over and over that diversity is healthy in NPOs. Unique perspectives breed unique solutions. Groupthink can be averted. (To the uninitiated, this term was coined as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis – long story. In short, I compare it to a party of lemmings knocking back a few beers on a Thursday night and gradually and collectively coming to the rowdy conclusion that the best idea ever is to make a run for the cliff, picking up lots of buddies on the way).
At this point, I’ll disengage from the research and let my opinion fly. The old, rich white guys have the cash. They have the connections. They may have the background in running for-profit business. They have the time. They may have technical skills and abilities. They may even have some guilt for their lot in life, whether they admit it or not. In contrast, women and minorities may feel intimidated by the good-ol’ boys and not even make an attempt to make their unique viewpoints available via board service. Thus, tradition is likely to perpetuate.
Should NPO board bylaws mandate diversity? Maybe.. Probably. Who knows? I’d opine that this decision is discrete and depends heavily on the mission of the board and on the values of those making the decisions. Oh yeah.. That’s the rich old white guys.. Back to square one. Hopefully, one of them has a little radical blood.