During the next meeting of your board, take a long look around the table. Who's there? Who isn't? And why?
Conversations about racial and ethnic diversity are fraught with uncertainty, disagreement, and even fear. This is especially true in religious organizations that place a high value on "cultures of niceness." In talking about race and ethnicity, we do not want to offend others, or embarrass ourselves, or risk muddying the organizational waters in any way.
But these are precisely the challenges of diversity. Boards that are predominantly white in membership reproduce themselves by avoiding risky conversations about racial and ethnic diversity. Indeed, these are important and difficult conversations for boards of historically homogeneous institutions along any racial/ethnic lines. But it is particularly important for predominately white organizations to be aware of their racial/ethnic composition and the effects that the lack of diversity has on their community.
BoardSource, the national organization for non-profit boards, recognizes the importance of diverse boards, as well as the potential pitfalls of "diversifying" the board. In a recent piece entitled "Beyond Political Correctness: Building a Diverse Board," they offer a short primer on what to consider and how to go about recruiting board members from backgrounds beyond your institution's historical reach. Their suggestions include:
1. Communicate: Don't assume everyone is on the same page. "Before asking 'How do we become more diverse?' boards must ask 'Why do we need to become diverse?'"
2. Avoid Tokenism: Tokenism is the assumption that a person of a particular demographic can speak for all people that share their background. If a board develops a pipeline for identifying new members, and includes multiple members of the same racial/ethnic background, it can usually avoid this mistake.
3. Involve: It's not enough to elect new members to the board; they must also be involved -- on key committees and in pivotal processes -- so they can affect the direction of the institution.