Research & Reports

Pathways to Greater Diversity on Nonprofit Boards

Leadership and Teams: Boards and Volunteers
Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, & Access (IDEA): Diversity and Inclusion (IDEA)
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Nonprofit boards that include a higher percentage of women tend to have board members who participate more in fundraising and advocacy. Members of these boards also tend to be more involved in the board’s work, according to a new research study on The Impact of Diversity: Understanding How Nonprofit Board Diversity Affects Philanthropy, Leadership, and Board Engagement.

These findings are just a few of many results from the study, which can help board members and nonprofits strengthen their boards through diversity. The research was conducted by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI in partnership with Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates and BoardSource.

“A diverse board is very important because it’s more than just having token representation, it provides a wide range of perspectives,” said Birgit Smith Burton, executive director of foundation relations at Georgia Institute of Technology, and chair of the AFP IDEA Committee (see Attachments below). “When a board is more diverse then they become greater promoters for diversity because they witness the benefits firsthand.”

The study examines the ways in which diversity is associated with board members’ engagement with the board. It also explores the relationship between a nonprofit’s characteristics—such as the age of the organization, level of revenue, and focus area (nonprofit subsector)—and the diversity of its board members, including their race, ethnicity, age and gender. The report finds that both organizational characteristics and the diversity of the board affect levels of board engagement.

Women on Boards

Nonprofit boards with more women members are more involved, engage more in fundraising, and participate more in public policy advocacy. Their CEOs also rate these boards’ fundraising performance higher.

Nonprofit boards come close to matching the nation’s demographics when it comes to gender – 47 percent of board seats are held by women, and women make up 50.8 percent of the total population. However, the percentage of women on boards drops to 33 percent when considering boards of nonprofits with incomes of $25 million or more.

“Women and minorities make up nearly two-thirds the population of the United States,” said Burton. “If our nonprofit organizations represent the needs of our populations, then it’s easy math – the leadership of these organizations should be representative of the people in our country. The disadvantage of failing to integrate women and others among the leadership positions of these nonprofits – their important voice is not at the table and we lose an important advocate for the others.”

Diversity’s Impact on Board Activity, Impact

“A diverse Board has positive implications in three areas: board member engagement, fundraising engagement, and advocacy,” says Angela E. White, senior consultant and CEO of Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates. “Authentic engagement of women on our boards will help us engage with perspective donors.”

The study also found that:

  • Boards with higher percentages of young members (age 39 or younger) have greater commitment and involvement and engage more in oversight and governance. This is also true of boards with higher percentages of women members. 
  • Nonprofits founded before 1900 have less diverse boards than newer, smaller organizations. Nonprofits with higher revenues also tend to have less diverse boards.
  • Older organizations have significantly higher percentages of board members who meet with potential donors, ask others for money and contribute financial gifts. These boards also are more likely to be rated by their CEOs as being highly involved.
  • There is a relationship between a nonprofit’s subsector and board diversity. For example, nonprofits that focus on education tend to have higher percentages of African-American board members.
  • Boards of nonprofits with revenues of $5 million or greater are more likely to participate in advocacy. Their members are more likely to engage with policy makers, to provide them with information on policy activities and to monitor the impact of government policy.

“Diversity becomes powerful when it helps the organization achieve its mission,” said Una Osili, Ph.D., associate dean for research and international programs at the school. “Diversity drives impact, and the key is for the non-profit sector to make strides and lead the conversation on diversity and inclusion.”

To view more on the impact of diversity on nonprofit boards, and its effects on Philanthropy, Leadership and Board Engagement, click here.  View the Executive Summary here.

9 Expert Tips for Accelerating Diversity on Nonprofit Boards

  • Develop an action plan.
  • Educate people. Education is the window to the world of understanding.
  • Create space for critical conversations at the board level. What are our shared values? What are opportunities to be gained by being more inclusive?
  • Articulate the business case of the organization, and commitment for diversity and inclusion. A homogenous board can have blind-spots.
  • Require continuous learning and feedback at the board, individual and organizational levels.
  • Benchmarking. How can the organization deliver on its mission?
  • Recruit younger members. Millennials bring a different energy and skill set to the boardroom. Build a pipeline of future donors.
  • Create a welcoming culture – assign a mentor and provide Board education on cultural diversity.
  • Diversity Matters! There’s definitely diversity on a board that has people with different careers and skill sets. When noting the diversity on your board don’t just list the various races or ethnic backgrounds, list by skills, talents, careers: our board has a full-time mother, an attorney, a civil rights activist, a corporate VP, a journalist, a fundraiser, a philanthropist, a stay-at-home father, an advocate for the disabled or differently abled, a scientist, a researcher, a doctor, a teacher.
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