Why and how to achieve diversity on your board

If your community group board consists mainly of middle-aged, middle-class men from a business or legal background, it is probably time that you thought about putting in place a diversity strategy – particularly if the work you do has little or nothing to do with middle-aged, middle-class lawyers and businessmen.

Of course, that is not to say that such people cannot make an enormous contribution to your board and the community group it serves, nor that all of those fitting this profile should be kicked immediately and unceremoniously from their seats.

Rather, you should start thinking about how your board might evolve into a more inclusive, responsive and representative body, and about steps your organisation could take to reach that goal.

What is meant by the term "diversity"?

In simple terms, "diversity" refers to the degree to which a board comprises a broad range of backgrounds and interests, taking into account issues of language, ethnicity and culture, gender, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status and disability.

In a near-perfect world, every board would have a seat reserved for all of the different groups and sub-groups of society. In a perfect world, the seats would not need to be reserved, but would be filled naturally by a diverse range of people.

In reality, of course, this is unlikely to happen. Many groups have traditionally operated at the margins of or outside power structures and it is only in recent times that real attempts have been made to make sure their voices are heard. Furthermore, to have all the different groups and individuals that make up society adequately represented on every board would make for governance structures too enormous to be of any use at all to the organisations they serve.

The key, then, is to think about the particular make-up of your particular board, taking into account:

  • What your organisation has been set up to do;
  • The area and sector that your organisation operates within; and,
  • The individuals and groups it serves.

You should ensure at the very least that your board includes the voices of the organisation's users. It is hard to see how a governing body can properly carry out its role without the views of its stakeholders being represented at the decision-making level. If your group primarily serves young people, for example, make sure there are young people on the board. If the group provides services to people with disabilities then people with disabilities need to be on the board.

Why should our board become more diverse?

Increasing the variety of people who serve on your board can offer the opportunity to tap into a rich pool of talented candidates, bring new voices, experiences and approaches to the decision-making process, add depth to existing skills and ideas and, perhaps most importantly, bring the board closer to properly representing its stakeholders.

Greater diversity will also expand the networks available to your group, help you to reach your "audience," increase the profile of your group and build support for what you are doing in key constituencies.

A number of studies have found that having a diverse board can also make good business sense, bringing about better organisational performance – both financial and non-financial. Diversity makes for better governance – and better governance inevitably means better results.

How can our board become more diverse?

Step One - Build commitment

Make sure your entire board and the organisation it governs are supportive of the process of creating greater inclusiveness and diversity. You don't want people to white-ant the process.

Prepare for a difficult conversation. Not everyone will be supportive of a plan to change the status quo. By preparing for a degree of resistance you can help to prevent damage to the plan and to the board. The best way to do this is to work out why your board and the community group it serves will benefit from greater diversity. Present the arguments to board members, staff and other stakeholders, pointing out that a more diverse board will:

  • Demonstrate the group's commitment to equality.
  • Make for a more dynamic decision-making process that will create benefits for the community group.
  • Bring to the table different skills, experiences and perspectives, and new solutions.
  • Increase the board's access to new knowledge, networks and connections, helping to open doors and increase the community group's public profile.
  • Bring unique characteristics to the boardroom – for example, young people often help to inject enthusiasm into a board and can also bring with them a better knowledge of new technology.
  • Help to ensure that the true needs and views of the people the group serves are taken into account in the decision-making process.
  • Increase accountability and improve communication channels.
  • Lay the groundwork for achieving better organisational performance.
  • Help to keep the board responsive and fresh.

Step Two - Make sure you're doing it for the right reason

Tokenism is one of the greatest threats to the success and legitimacy of efforts to ensure greater board diversity. No one wants to be invited to sit on a board just to fill a quota and those who are perceived to be doing so will find it very hard to earn the respect of their colleagues and other board stakeholders. The legitimacy of the board itself may also be undermined.

A person who feels they are acting in a tokenistic capacity may also be faced with the prospect of having to work twice as hard and be twice as successful to achieve the same respect and recognition other board members might.

A related problem will occur if a person recruited as part of a diversity strategy is perceived as representing all women/all young people/all people with disabilities, etc. Even within societal sub-groups, attitudes, experiences and outlooks will differ significantly.

The best method of avoiding tokenism is to ensure that the people chosen for board service are not picked simply because they fit the right "profile". All candidates must have appropriate skills and experience for the role and they must be subject to the same expectations to contribute fully to the role. (At the same time, it is important to remember that members of marginal groups have been shut out of the halls of power for a long time and therefore may need some initial help and guidance, as discussed in step six below.)

Step Three - Articulate your commitment

Set your commitment to diversity in stone by articulating your pledge. Write it down and include it where relevant – in annual reports, for example.

Putting the commitment in black and white and making sure everyone knows about it will help build support for the strategy and ensure that your board is held to its promise.

Step Four - Examine your processes

Changing the culture of a board through greater diversity will often require a change in the way things are done. There are all kinds of ways you can help to make your board a more comfortable place for new members. Consider:

  • Does your current meeting structure offer an equal opportunity for all members to contribute? For example, does it take into account people who may have a disability that prevents them from jumping up and speaking quickly?
  • Are people from non-English-speaking backgrounds catered for? Are papers translated and interpreters used? Is time allotted to allow people to catch up?
  • Does your head office and meeting space have disability access?
  • Does your board meet at times convenient to young people, taking into account other responsibilities they may have such as work and school?
  • Are meetings held at a place close to public transport to take into account non-drivers?
  • Does your board take into account the needs of members who are parents of young children? For example, they may not be able to attend meetings at short notice, or stay on when a meeting needs to be extended.

You should also think about the option of setting aside a place or places on the board for representatives of key stakeholder groups. Be aware, however, that this can lead to accusations of tokenism, particularly if stringent guidelines for other qualifications are not put in place at the same time.

Step Five - Conduct a search

There are many ways you can go about finding the members your board needs – and it is not difficult to work a diversity strategy into an existing recruitment strategy. When you make a list of the "desirable" and "essential" traits you want for your board, simply add the diversity traits you require. More information about putting in place an effective recruitment strategy is contained in the Finding new members and Recruiting new board members help sheets.

Step Six - Ease new members into the role

As mentioned earlier, because marginal groups have traditionally been shut out of decision-making processes, there are generally limited numbers of experienced board members that can be found within those groups.

You can help address such "capacity" issues by ensuring that you have in place a good induction process and a mentoring program that will ensure the new member will have access to ongoing advice, encouragement and support. Indeed, you should have such processes in place for all new members. More information on these topics is available in the Developing an effective induction process and Networking and mentoring help sheets.

Another strategy for helping people in marginal groups develop the skills necessary for board service is to ease them into the role by inviting them to serve on committees or help out with specific projects. This can allow your board to see the person "in action" and help them learn more about your group and develop the skills and knowledge required to be an effective board member in the future.