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This study explores the views of nonprofit agency board members about current status and issues related to board diversity. Trends in agency growth and complexity and turbulence in agency environments are described. Board members view their responsibilities, especially fund raising, as associated with board diversity. Diversity issues focus on the involvement of groups that have not traditionally been involved, including low-income persons, clients, ethnic minorities, and inexperienced board members. Diversity is valued by some respondents, tolerated by others, and its value is questioned by some. Extensive use of quotations provides insights into the manner in which board members frame their views of diversity. The relationships between board diversity and agency culture are explored.
This study builds on the explorations of the dynamics of diversity and the use of language in nonprofit boards by Daley and Angulo (1994) and Daley, Netting, and Angulo (1996). The use of a random sample of nonprofit agency boards provides a more rigorous test of earlier explorations. As we immersed ourselves in the board member interview data, we encountered a number of potentially important themes that relate to the manner in which boards operate and experience diversity. These themes and their implications will constitute the major portion of the present article. (1)
Nonprofit organization boards of directors represent an important opportunity for community participation. Within the diverse universe of nonprofit boards, community members may develop civic careers ranging from involvement with small, local nonprofit boards that provide entry level experiences for emerging leaders, to experiences with larger, more complex, and relatively more demanding situations for experienced community leaders (Daley & Angulo, 1994). As communities become more socially diverse, nonprofit boards can be promising opportunities to integrate new leaders, groups, perspectives, and interests into our civic conversations (Daley & Wong, 1994).
Much of the literature on nonprofit boards of directors touches lightly on diversity or is silent on social diversity within boards. At present, other than isolated case studies, empirical research has neglected the key tie between board diversity and board effectiveness. Literature that does address diversity tends to assume that diversity is desirable, usually without examining why diversity is deemed desirable (Carver, 1997; Conrad & Glen, 1983; Hodgkin, 1993). Literature from the community field identifies a number of potential benefits of diversity. A modest but growing body of literature explores ways to make social diversity a reality in nonprofit boards (Daley, Wong, & Applewhite, 1992; Duca, 1996; Rutledge, 1994; Tropman, 1992; Widmer, 1987).
Social diversity as used here means the human richness based on individuals' culture or ethnicity, gender, religion, language, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, community of residence, ability level, client status, length of board service, and so on. We use the term social diversity in recognition that the relevant dimensions/characteristics that define diversity are defined or constructed socially within each board. Each board defines the combination of factors that will constitute diversity within that board. We recognize the distinction between demographic diversity and function diversity (Daley & Angulo, 1994, p. 74). Demographic diversity (having a diverse board composition) is distinguished from functional diversity (incorporating diverse voices, interests and perspectives in the policy process). Therefore, a board of directors might have achieved a high degree of demographic diversity in its composition related to specific dimensions/elements of diversity, but reflect a significantly lower level of functional diversity related to these dimensions as it conducts its affairs. For example, women may constitute a significant component on a nonprofit board, but the same board's action agenda, discussions, and decisions might not reflect the perspectives, interests, or concerns of women.
Clearly all members of a given population (for example, women, the elderly, ethnics, clients, low income) do not and should not be expected to have the exact same experiences, perspectives, interests or even group identity. Nevertheless, group membership is generally accepted in most board literature as a useful starting point in considering diversity. In our society an individual's perspectives and interests usually are shaped or influenced by a combination of attributes or group memberships, such as social class, race or ethnicity and membership in specific geographically and temporally defined cohorts.
Widmer summarizes early research on nonprofit board composition: "Board members of human service agencies are primarily white, middle class or upper middle class, well educated professionals" (1987, p. 34). Duca observes that over time the composition of nonprofit boards has become "... more inclusive of politically organized constituencies such as women and people of color" (1996, p. 39). National surveys of nonprofit organizations as reported in Duca (1996) and Rutledge (1994) found board composition to be heavily White/Caucasian (80-86%) and moderately male (54-60%). Apart from isolated case studies of specific boards and a few small sample studies (see, for example, Widmer, 1987) the literature on nonprofit boards does not explore functional diversity--the influences of diverse perspectives and interests in board deliberations.
The community organization literature on citizen participation parallels our focus on board participation. Abatena (1997), Burke (1983), and Arnstein (1969) suggest potentially fruitful common points. Abatena (1997, pp. 15-26) suggests that broadcasted grassroots participation can contribute to effective community problem solving and can improve board functioning in several ways: enrich problem and needs assessment, enhance decisions about goals and action strategies, and contribute to effective program/intervention design and implementation (including initial implementation, program maintenance, refinement and expansion).
Burke notes the significance of who is involved and the roles of participants in exploring the history of citizen participation in public planning. Further, Burke identifies three functions (or potential benefits) of broad-based participation that apply to board effectiveness: support for the planning effort; wisdom and knowledge contributions to the planning process; and serving as watchdogs for the rights of specific constituents during the development and implementation of policies derived from planning (1983, pp. 105-111). Finally, Burke observes that citizen participation can be used to achieve specific ends (enrich the planning process, help the poor and powerless to gain influence and access to mainstream institutions, achieve specific outcomes in a community--for example, reduce juvenile substance abuse, create jobs, and so forth). While some of the specific strategies described by Burke might not apply to board membership (for example, therapy, staff supplement, formal cooptation), others (civic education, some forms of behavioral change and informal cooptation) seem potentially useful within the context of nonprofit boards (1983, pp. 116-123).
Arnstein (1969), discussing citizen involvement in community affairs, bluntly asserts that to be authentic, especially when the disenfranchised and powerless are involved, participation must involve changes in the power relationships among groups. Other strategies or purposes may be associated with these changes in power relationships, but the sine qua non must relate to empowerment.
Discussions of board diversity often refer to the representativeness of a board. Alexander (1976) notes that the term representative has a variety of meanings. Daley and Angulo (1994, p. 182) build on Alexander's work in developing a more precise typology of representatives, including statistical (shares a defining demographic characteristic, but may not be typical in other respects), modal (group members who are typical of group), sociopolitical (authorized by group to act on its behalf), and technical experts or advocates (may have/assert knowledge about a group, but are not statistical, modal, or sociopolitical representatives). Clearly, when any person represents a group on a board it is extremely important to understand which meaning applies to this person's involvement. In an increasingly diverse community, representational patterns on boards are crucial. In what sense does an individual represent a group? The answer to this question directly affects the manner and degree to which the represented group can …