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Fiona: Board Diversity Round Table Recap

Written by Fiona    on April 17, 2019    in
Fiona is a soon-to-be English Teaching Assistant at the University of Nebraska-Omaha who is dependent on art to keep her alive. When she’s not writing creative nonfiction about gender, astrology or how to make the human experience better, she’s trying to find her new favorite horror movie.

Last Wednesday, I had the privilege of attending Young Black & Influential’s roundtable discussion on board diversity. Gathered with coffee and croissants, representatives from SHARE Omaha and Nonprofit Association of the Midlands partners like Heartland Family Service, Boys Town, FITGirl, Inc and more began their day.
Ashlei Spivey, Foundress and Director of the YBI Omaha movement, acted as facilitator and guide in a discussion about what stands in the way of diversity, and why it is important to clear those roadblocks. The attendees had slightly varying concerns in wanting to shake up the perspectives offered on boards of metro nonprofits.
“I want to know better how to step back and make space,” Michelle Zych of Women’s Fund of Omaha admitted. This need to “make space”, as it was called many times, for the marginalized people of Omaha and beyond to represent themselves in community leadership positions was the most common denominator among them all.
Omaha has a history of nonprofits being involved in city life- one that continues to this day- which is great for investment into the lives of constituents but less great at reaching out to groups who aren’t as represented in positions of leadership. Racial diversity is, in particular, where Omaha feels behind the expectation of the times.
In order to take into account all the different identities that should be represented, the discussion began with racial separation in Omaha’s boards. “Leading with race,” as one person put it, helps take into account the common denominator- and make room in the discussion for the other identities: gender, socio-economic status, sexuality, etc.
In the end, the list of tips gathered from the group was long, and I can share them as best I can, summed up into their major themes, here:
Be transparent about expectations to potential board members.
What does the membership demand of them, officially and unofficially? If the expectation is there to provide funding, can a relationship besides board membership be built? In many cases, board members are put on because their associated for-profit work brings in revenue and establishment, but a working relationship with these businesses and professionals provides donations AND leaves room for board members who can be more actively involved in the work you are doing. Even if a candidate can’t give monetarily, their time and talents and drive sum up to be more than worth it.
Look for people with the skills you need.
If the board candidate is being offered a spot simply because they check off an identity box for diversity, the fit won’t be right for the board or the candidate. If we want diversity to be authentically reached, we must look for people based on their skills and what they have to offer, even if that requires looking outside the usual zone of hiring.
Give autonomy.
A board member being granted the authority to make their own decisions rather than being expected to follow the group is what makes a board active and involved rather than stagnant and bureaucratic. Even if a potential candidate is less experienced in administration, their talents got them there for a reason. As one attendee put it, you must “recognize their treasure”, and allow them to learn and grow and change along with the board.
Keep in mind these kinds of changes are for the good of the organization, and for society.
When a board changes and grows, it’s self-feeding, bringing in more and more unvoiced talents and perspectives and continually getting more connected to the people the nonprofit serves. Board and committee memberships at nonprofits are the most accessible way to empower those who are institutionally disempowered.
For those concerned with serving their community in an open-minded manner there are resources available- SHARE Omaha allows for organizations to post for board and committee openings and YBI recognizes Black Professionals in Omaha at their yearly awards, this year hosted in June- but most of all the emphasis is on opening up a dialogue, letting our environment grow and evolve with the people who want to make change in the city.
“I hope you don’t feel you have to walk out of here with all the answers today, I don’t even have all the answers.” Spivey addressed, highlighting how progress is made slowly and through collaboration. “We don’t have the muscles to talk about race, and this is really what that’s about, building those muscles to have the important discussions.”