Board leadership for colleges and universities is strengthened when a broad range of perspectives and expertise are represented. Still, many higher ed boards of trustees lack meaningful diversity.
What is holding your institution back? And what can be done to overcome the structural and cultural barriers to building diverse and inclusive boards?
When considering strategies to diversify a board, we encourage our higher ed clients to think expansively in defining diversity. Some of the traits that typically come to mind are age, race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. But we shouldn’t stop there. Also consider diversity through experiences such as physical ability, marital/parental status, military service, and dissimilar points of view or approaches to problem-solving. Research confirms that combining varied personal characteristics at the board level helps organizations and their leadership become more effective in realizing their goals by:
- Improving performance. Studies by McKinsey & Company show that companies in the top quartile of gender and ethnic/cultural diversity on their executive teams outperform companies in the bottom quartile by 25 percent and 36 percent, respectively.
- Enhancing sustainability. Homogenous leadership risks “group think” and may fail to develop a strategy that can meet the demands of the future.
- Addressing funder requirements. Nonprofit funders are starting to reconsider their support for organizations that are slow to diversify their leadership—and creating thoughtful plans in response to any lack of diversity on their own boards.
- Amplifying the mission. Boards that include voices from the communities they serve better understand, identify, and deliver services that exceed needs and expectations.
Many board governance committees have struggled to diversify their boards notwithstanding sincere and focused efforts. In our experience, governance committees need to address a number of common structural issues and cultural barriers to reap the benefits of diversity and inclusion:
- Structural: The dynamics of any board begin with how it is structured—which includes informal as well as formal systems related to recruiting, onboarding, and engaging board members to advance your institution’s mission. Some of the key structural barriers are the ability to find candidates, accessibility, board terms, fundraising requirements, and clarity about the expectations of the role.
- Cultural: A board’s culture is made up of often unwritten rules and shared values that shape how members communicate with each other, work as a team, and make decisions. The most important cultural barriers can include managing change, fostering belonging, avoiding unconscious bias, and appropriately expressing gratitude.
In a recently released digital article and a virtual event, Bank of America explores all of these obstacles to board diversity and, even more importantly, offers actionable solutions your institution can implement today to create a diverse and truly inclusive board of trustees.
If you have questions or want to learn more about effective strategies for diversifying your board, please don’t hesitate to contact Dianne Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dianne Bailey is managing director, national philanthropic strategy executive, Bank of America.
Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.