Entrepreneurs

Council Post: Achieving Next-Level Performance Through Board Diversity

By Ashley Sharp, Executive Director at Dwell with Dignity.

Three years ago, I was chosen to lead a growing nonprofit working at the intersection of poverty, homelessness, abuse, trauma, workforce development and design. Our board of directors and the organization’s founder tasked me with taking the organization to its next level of performance. They believed in me, a veteran nonprofit executive handpicked by the organization’s founder to build on her legacy, and they empowered me to make the changes in the organization’s structure and staffing to meet tomorrow’s needs.

A Board To Meet Tomorrow’s Challenges And Opportunities

Perhaps the boldest move I’ve made, in light of all of this support, was in turning my executive director’s lens on the board itself. Did we have a board that could relate to the predominantly Black and Brown women and children who benefit from our services? Could our board completely understand the hardscrabble dynamic of the area nonprofits who partnered with us to achieve our mission? Was our board ready to relate to a generational shift toward more family beneficiaries, partners, volunteers and donors from Millennials and Generation Z than from the Baby Boomers and Generation X?

These are hard questions, especially when you’re taking over a successful organization, a nonprofit with diverse, stable revenue streams and the ability to execute on the mission with clockwork precision. As a new executive director, I admired this board more than any I had ever worked with before — they were diligent, dedicated and passionate about this work. The harsh truth, though, is that even high-performing teams suffer from the bias of our network limitations. We hire our friends, and we hire our friends’ friends, too. But is that right for the long-term viability of an organization, especially when you’re looking to fuel growth?

There have been a host of studies that show that the more diverse your leadership team is, whether that’s a group of executives, your board or your management, the more likely they are to succeed than a more homogenous leadership group. I knew that if I wanted my organization to transcend its already high level of success, we needed something different. That something different was board diversity.

Committing To Diversity, Equity And Inclusion In Governance

Any leader of a lean nonprofit will tell you how critical their board’s advice and counsel are to the organization’s sustained success. One of the best built-in features of this form of corporate governance, whether you’re a nonprofit or for-profit enterprise, is the concept of rotation. While also optimal from a risk management perspective to prevent entrenched interests and self-dealing, rotation also primes an organization and its leadership with periodic rejuvenation that comes from fresh thinking from new directors. 

At this nonprofit, we’ve seized these rotation opportunities to bring in independent voices from marginalized groups, who also bring elite business skills from varying disciplines. This formula of independence, diversity and skill is now making our board stronger with each year that brings fresh opportunities and challenges.

As an executive director with an entrepreneurial mindset, I’m looking for prudent governance and big ideas. Our model centers on serving families, forming partnerships in the community and creating new vehicles to fulfill our mission. Having multiple people of color on our board helps us better understand the needs of our almost-all Black and Latinx beneficiaries and feeds our thinking for expanding our bold diversity in design programs. Having LGBTQ+ representation helps us communicate with many of our partners in the nonprofit sector and the design community, a vertical where our LGBTQ+ friends have thrived ahead of the curve of much of the business world. And having people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and acquired experiential diversity is helping us soar in our efforts to create community-driven social impact marketplaces. 

Hard Work With Incredible Return On Investment

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) don’t fall into your lap. This takes work. Sometimes that work is in expanding your networks with the intention of meeting people representing a greater array of groups, while at other times, it means seeing the potential to lead in someone who’s been working alongside you at every step of your journey.

Smartly, our board, which is led by our founder, the most committed and passionate DEI advocate I have ever met, is doubling down on the concept of diversity in our governing ranks. We aren’t just thinking about this year’s diverse entrants but the next generations of directors who will take this organization to even greater heights. I’m learning that for all of my own hard work, ideas and willingness to drive our team in executing our mission, my greatest legacy will not be tied to any personal achievement but to my willingness to get uncomfortable at times and collaborate with our board as we affect change with regard to DEI. 

It’s what all of the people tied to an organization — its employees, leaders, directors, partners, families, volunteers and donors — deserve.

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