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Nonprofit Board Diversity

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I was recently on the sidelines of a debate over whether or not a nonprofit should require a monetary commitment from its board members as a baseline requirement for inclusion. In the nonprofit world this conversation is the equivalent of the bottle vs. breastfeeding battle in the mommy wars and I wasn’t up for a fight so I kept quiet.

This is what I should’ve said.

No one on PlateShare’s board of directors was asked to make a monetary contribution to the organization nor will this ever be a requirement, and my reason for choosing this stance was simple: There are critically valuable and worthy voices to be heard at the board level who cannot afford to buy their way in. The adoption of a required monetary contribution from board members inherently limits and homogenizes the applicant pool and, in my opinion, severely limits the organization.

Vernetta Walker, vice president of consulting and training at Boardsource summed it up beautifully in this article:

“If you’re not ensuring that your leadership is as diverse and inclusive as those that you’re serving, then you have to ask, ‘Are you missing an opportunity? Are you truly representing those who you say you are?”

According to BoardSource, 68% of nonprofits require board member giving. It is my opinion that these policies contribute to the recruitment of a disproportionate number of wealthy white male board members.

A 2007 review by the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy found that 86 percent of nonprofit board members are white. (This is even more dismal than minority representation on for-profit boards where 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies’ board members are white.) In fact, a slight majority (51%) of nonprofit boards are made up solely of white members.

Gender representation on nonprofit boards is significantly less homogenized with 94% of boards including women. However, as a nonprofit’s budget increases, the number of women on the board decreases. Of nonprofits with operating expenses above $40 million, only 29% have women on their board (versus 50% of nonprofits with expenses under $100,000).

Age is another limiting factor in regards to nonprofit board composition with 78% of members between the ages of 36 and 65. Only 7% of nonprofit board members are under the age of 36.

While this study did not examine socioeconomic standing of board members, it did confirm that “boards of larger, wealthier non-profits tend to draw more heavily from members of elite groups.” This conclusion was based on the fact that 80% of board members at the largest nonprofits also serve on corporate for-profit boards.

If we continue to recruit “elite” board members, we are missing opportunities to leverage the power of more diverse input to better connect with the populations we serve. In short, “there is a clear inequity between the demographics of nonprofit boards and the populations they serve.”

An interesting study published in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly compared and contrasted community needs as described by nonprofit leaders versus the low-income residents in the population they served. Nonprofit leaders and low-income residents had different opinions not only on what the communities’ problems were but also on which solutions should be set in place to address those problems. The findings concluded that “overall, nonprofit directors across neighborhoods held more similar views with each other than they did with residents within their own communities.” This is a crippling problem.

There are great benefits to requiring that nonprofit board members make a monetary contribution to the organization. A monetary donation shows personal commitment to the organization and, of course, provides the organization with necessary operating funds. Those able to make a monetary donation may also be more likely to have a network of friends, colleagues and acquaintances also willing and able to give.

[Nonprofits love and need money, don’t get me wrong.]

As a young woman who is not wealthy but is launching a nonprofit, I cannot help but feel alienated in this world. I have been told countless times that I need “more rich white guys” on my side to make things happen. But based on the research quoted here, I’d say that the nonprofit world is not at a lack for rich white guys. What we need is more diversity, and continuing to recruit board members based on their ability to give limits that. With that in mind, I choose not to set a monetary requirement for my board. I think they are just as valuable in giving of their time, skills, opinions, and network connections. I cannot deny the importance of fundraising to a nonprofit, but I think access to funding should not be the deciding (and limiting) factor in assembling a board.

An alternative to direct board member giving is to ask each member to fundraise a certain amount for the organization. This way personal income is not a factor, but it is important to note that an individual’s larger network of friends and colleagues likely falls into their same socioeconomic tier. My fundraising, for example, would involve asking lots and lots of people to donate a little money whereas someone wealthier might ask just a handful of people to make larger contributions. Either way though, I think this is a less limiting option than asking the board member for a direct personal donation.

With all of this said, I do not think that nonprofits who have a giving requirement for board members are doing anything wrong. Admittedly, I have a lot of work to do on my own board diversity. Right now we are decidedly young and white, and one of my goals for 2014 is to change that. In my perfect world I’d have some unemployed single moms living on food stamps among my ranks because those are the voices I need to hear to ensure my organization is doing what it needs to do to help solve their problems. How about the minimum wage employee at the food bank who sees and hears the stories of hunger firsthand? I need her voice. The homeless guys whose need for food has been dismissed because they are homeless and guys? I need their voices. The recent college grads with a fresh perspective on new technology we can utilize to solve hunger relief problems? Need ’em. Maybe I’m young and naive, but I see value in that kind of board composition.

At the end of the day I think that we all need to pay more attention to how we assemble our boards to ensure the needs of the populations we serve are being heard and ultimately addressed.


[Research & Reading: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]


  1. Haley Haley

    Thank you for this…just thank you. You eloquently summed up many of my thoughts regarding this topic and I’m just not sure what the right answer or best way to do this is….

  2. You consider reading “Making the Impossible Possible” by William Strickland and learning more about him, and Manchester Bidwell. He is black, was poor, and has built not only one of the leading alternative high school and tech prep programs in the US, but has many others following his lead and business model.

    My sister is one of those, who is just a hop from you in Greensboro, founding a not-for-profit high school for pregnant and mothering teens, as a single mother of 3 with out extraneous funds for a start up.

  3. Love this article! I work in nonprofit and have also been wanting to join a board, but I’ve been reluctant because hello I work in np so I don’t have that kind of money to give and I already solicit from my small network for my own org, and I’m also not a super socially connected person so I can’t for example be counted on to bring lots of people to fundraisers. I want to help and problem solve and brain storm for an org that’s very different from my own but I haven’t because of the financial commitment- whether it’s through fundraising or personal donations, I haven’t found one that doesn’t require this. You’re headed in the right direction in my opinion- I think one of the best solutions is to have your board made up of thinkers, do-ers, innovators, constituents, and problem solvers AND a separate fundraising auxiliary to get the dough!

  4. Karen Karen

    A little tardy to the party, but very much appreciate your post! I work for 2 not for profits and volunteer with a few more. Like everyone we want to put our time and/or money (depending on your organization) where it has the most effect and a well informed, diverse and creative board of directors has become my litmus test as to the health of an organization. One volunteer group I volunteer with goes to different countries and provides eye care to those in need….great mission but the organization is slowly losing members and direction as the BOD isn’t keeping up with the changing times or demographics of their members; several don’t show up to meestings. And two of the officers use typewriters….typewriters.:/
    I think your plan of maintaining a diverse board of directors is on point and wish you nothing but the best as you move forward!!

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