Avoid Nonprofit Board Diversity Recruiting Mistakes

Nonprofits may have good intentions about achieving board diversity however that intent may fall short because of recruiting mistakes.

To help find solutions to overcome obstacles related to diversity recruiting, I turned to Jim Taylor, Vice President for Leadership Initiatives at BoardSource.

Jim’s personal and professional background make him an ideal board candidate. His willingness to share his lived experience as a person of color recruited for board service provides valuable insight. His perspective helps create awareness that many organizations may not have. It is this lack of awareness that contributes to missing the mark on diversity recruiting and the critical inclusionary actions that must follow.

I asked him to help nonprofit leaders gain a greater understanding of the underlying issues that affect diversity related recruiting. I also requested that he identify how-to actions that will lead to positive recruiting results. Most importantly I wanted him to share steps organizations should take to create a culture of inclusion which is a critical component to successful recruitment.

Jim’s first advice is to encourage boards to have a purpose statement that guides their diversity and inclusion initiative. He then recommends this BoardSource resource: “Taking Action on Board Diversity—Five Questions to Get You Started.” It is available on the BoardSource website, BoardSource.org.

“Be intentional about recruiting,” Jim advises. “Board and staff retreats should include conversation on why board diversity matters—diversity in terms of cultural and ethnic background, skills, areas of expertise, and lived experiences.”

Jim offers these specific recruiting strategies for nonprofits wanting to develop a more diverse board. These how-tos are excellent for organizations that say their efforts are stalled because “they don’t know anyone.”

  • Change your current approach by recruiting differently. Grow your pool of prospects by going outside of your board members’ everyday circles. Identify board candidates beyond the usual go-to individuals that seem to be most visible and most frequently asked.


  • Reach individuals listed on diverse databases by posting board openings on internet sites such as DiversityJobs.com or Black Career Network. Contact national organizations such as the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the National Black MBA Association, or the Hispanic National Bar Association for local connections in your area that you can network with. The more visible an organization is with efforts like this, the more it demonstrates their willingness to take extra steps. This is a message that will get favorable attention from those you are trying to recruit.


  • Enlist your staff in prospecting efforts. They are out in the field every day and likely know people who would be good fits for your board. They will probably be aware of young emerging leaders who aren’t yet on anyone else’s radar.


  • Identify other stakeholders serving the same mission emphasis and seek out relationships that could lead to new board members. In the business sector discover which corporations have social responsibility priorities that match your service purpose and inquire about a company supported addition to your board.


  • Recruit to your mission. Seek out individuals with a passion for your cause and ask them for referrals.


  • Use your volunteer program to expand diversification. Growing the number of diverse volunteers not only strengthens your community connections, it gives you a source for potential future board members.


  • Conduct a recruiting debrief with each new board member. Ask them to share how the process went for them, what might be improved, and what if anything might have caused them to hesitate on accepting your invitation.


Avoid Mistakes with Prospects

Jim is aware of how recruitment efforts can be mishandled. He feels the following situation he experienced is not an uncommon one. How do you think Jim, as a person of color, responded to an invitation to join a board when it was clear, first, that the invitation was because of race, then, that the organization didn’t consider his qualifications, and finally, that there were no expectations beyond filling a board seat?

He said no thank you. And the organization lost the opportunity to add a terrific new board member.

He says, “Race should not be the only lens that boards apply to their search. Boards that focus on race as the sole qualification for board membership are employing an overly simplistic approach that is disrespectful to the people of color they are recruiting. Boards should be applying multiple lenses as they consider their needs; racial identity should be a part of that consideration—but not all of it.”

Board recruiters should be aware that individuals representing diverse populations are listening carefully to find out if an invitation is being extended because someone has the perfect qualifications or because they’re being used to merely check a box. Recognize this sensitivity and strengthen your invitation by referring to specific contributions that you see the individual being able to make.


Create a Culture of Inclusion

Inclusion is how the concept of diversity is implemented. Inclusion creates a sense of belonging and determines how an individual will feel about their experience.

A board position that doesn’t include inclusive involvement will be a source of frustration—a negative situation that in fact creates exclusion.

Jim was emphatic when he shared, “I especially want to emphasize this point. If I am the only person of color on the board, I get concerned if the board’s first question to me regarding diversifying the board is, ‘Who else do you know?’” I will certainly help but what I really want to see is every board member being involved. I want to know that every board member is asking themselves how they can be a stronger diversity advocate. That’s how you build a culture of inclusion.”

To get a new board member off to a good start, Jim recommends that the organization be quick in providing a detailed orientation and also support them with a mentor or a board buddy. He further urges, “They should be engaged in the work right away such as immediate assignment to committees. That sends the message that they’re not just filling a seat.”

Use diversity and inclusion as a strategy to not only better represent your community but as a way to strengthen your organization and your board.

A board culture that is welcoming and inclusive will help attract and retain individuals representing diverse demographics. It’s important to recognize that opening up consciousness and developing pathways that lead to diversity success takes time and commitment to do the work necessary.

He adds, “In the context of a board setting, what I’m looking for is a culture of candor, trust, and respect. A place where everyone on the board feels heard and valued.”

Jim Taylor’s advice will help remove a source of frustration among diverse board members. This guidance will also help organizations position themselves as much more attractive to individuals representing different races, cultures, genders, and generational groups.

Does your organization have goals for increasing diversity and intentional inclusion? What actions are you taking to achieve your goals?

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