March 22, 2021

Nonprofit Boards and the Path to Diversity

Nonprofit Boards and the Path to Diversity

DEI is becoming a louder voice. It’s always been there and it’s been there for decades, but now, I think nonprofits are really being forced to look at how they do things and really do things in a different way.

Maureen Cannon, program director, Fox Board Fellows

One of the biggest challenges facing nonprofit organizations is ensuring that their leadership is as diverse as the communities they serve. While some progress has been made, there’s a lot more work to do. 

Many barriers prevent people of color and millennials from identifying and embarking on a clear, dedicated path to board leadership. For nonprofits, there are gaps in how they actively seek out opportunities to engage with people who will someday lead their boards.

In this episode of Catalyst, Shawn Edwards, DBA ’20, shares her research, “Nonprofit Board Governance: Barriers to Millennial and Racial Minority Diversity in Board Service” and explains what these barriers are and how they can come down. Maureen Cannon, program director of Fox Board Fellows, offers a roadmap for how a person can ensure their mission and goals align with a nonprofit organization. 

Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business about the pivotal moments that shape business and the global economy. We interview experts and dig deep into today’s most pressing issues. Season two will answer questions like: How will COVID-19 impact my financial future? Why hasn’t the #MeToo movement reached the professional sports industry? And what makes a leader credible? We explore these questions so you can spark change in your work. Episodes are timely, provocative and designed to help you solve today’s biggest challenges. Subscribe today. 


Full Episode Transcript 

Host: Welcome to Catalyst, the podcast of Temple University’s Fox School of Business. I am your host, Tiffany Sumner. Today we’re speaking with Shawn Edwards, a 2020 Fox DBA alumna. We’re also joined by Maureen Cannon, program director of Fox board Fellows. In this episode, we will talk about the challenges a nonprofit organization faces in ensuring its board of directors is as diverse as the community it serves. We will also discuss what barriers prevent millenials and people of color from becoming active [00:01:00] leaders in the nonprofit space. Shawn and Maureen share their expertise around the importance of including diverse voices, the ways that can be accomplished, and how this allows nonprofits to engage with their populations on a much deeper level. We’re going to start this episode a little differently, in a moment, Shawn will share the catalyst for her research.   

Shawn: Thinking about nonprofit boards and just the populations of the people that they serve and the good that they do in so many of our communities. I’m drawn to the leadership of those boards and I have a proclivity towards [00:02:00] nonprofit board governance, you know Robert’s Rules and bylaws, things like that, things that that most people find to be uninteresting. I’m pretty interested in those things and how organizations operate. And looking at that, I often come across individuals who are wanting to add diversity to their boards and they are not sure how to do it and they’re not sure of the right process in order to do that and for me, I could put my hands on plenty of young people, young professionals and plenty of racial minorities, whether they are African American or Latina / Latino, and for whatever reason, these professionals, majority-white male professionals, were having difficulty doing that. I wanted to understand why that is and what was happening within nonprofit organizations that were creating a barrier or a limit to younger professionals and racial minorities in participating at that leadership level. [00:03:00]

Host: So your research has found that boards lack diversity in terms of age and race. Will you tell us what is going on today? 

Shawn: Now we have — happening right now what many in my profession call the George Floyd effect. Organizations, corporations really began to pay attention and so you may see now that there’s more diversity being added to boards and in corporate boards and nonprofit boards. And so they’re looking at it from a board perspective and from an employee perspective.

Host: How does the lack of diversity impact the organization, as well as the community it serves?

Shawn: When you bring diverse individuals together, we’ve got different backgrounds, we’ve got different experiences, we have different skill sets, and we bring all those things together, you kind of bring a wholeness to the nonprofit board, and that in turn gives the organization a boost in what they’re providing to the community. It also helps them to not be performative in a way that we are this nonprofit organization and we are here to save you. We are here to help you versus we are here to collaborate with you. Having that opportunity to engage those diverse perspectives will often give a nonprofit board the opportunity to kind of expand what they are doing and engage the populations that they serve at a much deeper level so that they can continue to provide service. And then lastly, sustainability. Sustainability is important, right? So while we have these hopes [00:05:00] and dreams that the issues that nonprofits are addressing will just be eradicated. Like poverty would just go away and hunger would end and all the issues that nonprofit organizations address. But there are some things that we can continue to address and we may limit those and one day hopefully we will eradicate them. But thinking in the long term, how are we going to sustain this organization? We’re trending at least 20 years from now, we’re going to be a majority-minority right and so looking at that and thinking about the racial minorities that exist now, they’re going to be more of those individuals than we have of the white population. And so what does that look like for us? From the age aspect, millennials, the oldest of them are turning 40, and so the [00:06:00] youngest of them are right around 25, 26. How are we tapping into the creativity and all that generation brings in order to infuse our nonprofit organizations so that we continue to sustain ourselves? 

Host: What are the barriers preventing more diverse boards?

Shawn: In my research, there are several that I uncovered. The data showed that opportunity and expertise or experience was one, where folks aren’t aware of the opportunity that they have to serve on boards because nonprofit boards oftentimes don’t do a very good job of posting that. Which leads into another barrier which is process. And so for every nonprofit board, the process is they have some similarities but there are lots of differences. But for the most part, [00:07:00] you see this strand of people who know people, who know people. And so, if you’re going to your existing board members who are majority white, majority male, you’re going to continue to breed that. And so, you’re looking for recommendations for those individuals to make recommendations for folks to serve or continue on in board service. There’s a gap there and what I call that gap is the “gap of intentional engagement” where you really pay attention to who you’re engaging with. We have lots of networking opportunities, and what I’ve found, what the data showed was that oftentimes when these opportunities occur, people talk to the people that they know. Or if they’re not speaking or connecting or re-engaging with the people that they know, they’re engaging with other people who look just like them. Or who they can immediately identify with. So this notion [00:08:00]of intentional engagement really focuses on how you network, how you engage, and who you engage with. For me, when I walk into a room I’m going to say hello to the people that I know but I’m going to make an effort to at least connect with at least two other people that I don’t know. Who doesn’t look like me, who I have no idea who they are but I want to know them. And what intentional engagement says is not only do you connect, but you connect for further connection and further engagement. So you’re not just stopping there and shaking hands and passing a business card, but you’re doing that and you’re following up with that individual and you’re learning more about them and you’re learning how you can mutually connect and engage with one another so that further connection can happen and occur. 

Host: I love [00:09:00] intentional engagement and this idea of accountability because it can happen at the board level and it can happen at every level of an organization. That is absolutely brilliant and I really hope that listeners of the podcast think about immediately putting that into action and how they are networking, even if it’s just on Zoom right now. 

Shawn: Sure, it can be uncomfortable at first because it’s outside of your norm, it’s not something that you are used to doing. But as you mentioned, even in a Zoom meeting, I’ve been on plenty of calls where there have been people there that I don’t know or that I haven’t engaged or connected with, and I private chat them and say hey, here’s my email address or can you give me your contact information, I’d like to follow up with you. Particularly if we are in that setting and they are saying something interesting or something that I want to follow up on [00:10:00] but taking that opportunity to connect with someone, you never know it may show up down the line, you may not have something immediate or they may not have something immediately that you can tap into and engage with, but you’ve begun to establish that relationship.

Host: That’s really, really profound, and I think so simple, yet also profound but such a great way to meet unique diverse people from very different backgrounds and also with different skill sets. I know that in nonprofits and I’ll speak with Maureen about this in a little bit but matching skills, as well as backgrounds and interests so I think that could be a great way to do all of those things as you grow your network. What steps do nonprofits take or what steps can nonprofits take to ensure the future looks more diverse?

Shawn: The way I would answer that question Tiffany is, first of all, the future is diverse. There will be diverse individuals and a larger [00:11:00] opportunity to engage with these individuals, so let’s start now. The next thing I would say and you sort of mentioned this a little when you were talking about processes and skill sets, so you know, thinking about the board matrix and lots of boards use that to capture skills and demographics and industry and things of that nature of their board members so they can kind of pay attention to where those gaps are. Using that is definitely a tool that I think is really important to bring all of these things together. [00:04:00] So we’re not just saying as a nonprofit organization oh well we need to diversify our board and then you go and you grab the closest black person that you know or the smartest [00:12:00] young person that you know and loop them in without really you know understanding their skills or understanding what the needs are of the board, because if you go snatch that the closest young person whose a professional and they have a marketing background and you’ve already got like eight people on the board who already have a marketing background, then that person is not going to have an opportunity—or they will, they’ll have an opportunity to shine in some ways—but making sure that they are really filling a gap that the board has is going to be just as important as their age or their race. And so, thinking about processes, thinking about how we add to our board, and doing that in a very strategic way and not haphazardly is going to be, is something that nonprofit organizations should really think about and consider for their long-term sustainability and their short term and long term impact.

Host: Right, because I would assume that the relationship between the board leaders and board members it’s mutually beneficial if a person feels they are also getting something from the board. Whether that be experience, whether that be deepening their contacts, being a voice to shape a movement, or some kind of mission. So it should be mutually beneficial as well. 

Shawn: Absolutely, so you want to also connect with someone outside [00:13:00] of your skills and experience. You want to connect with someone who has a passion about your mission and has a drive and a desire to see the organization succeed. Because you know we have a duty of care, duty of loyalty, duty of obedience that are the responsibilities of board members, nonprofit or otherwise and so you want them to fall in line with that from an organizational perspective.

Host:  And in following all the steps and processes that we’ve talked about, what do organizations have to gain?

Shawn: One of the things that they gain is exposure. And so, in my data collection and research, I heard specifically from millennials distaste of nonprofit boards, a strong distaste for nonprofits therefore I don’t know that I would be beneficial in nonprofit board service, and part of that is because they don’t even have the knowledge or experience to even understand how a nonprofit runs. [00:14:00] But the other part of that is the perception of nonprofit boards, there was a term that came up in my data collection – the nonprofit industrial complex –  and I’ve heard that industrial complex term be attached to other types of entities but not to the nonprofit and there’s a perception among millennials and younger professionals who perceive nonprofit organizations as money-making machines. As organizations, where the top executives are getting lots of money and all of the donations and the work that’s being put in, all of that goes to pay employees rather than address the cause or the mission. And so, their perception of that is that very little of what is raised or donated goes toward [00:15:00] helping the individuals that these organizations say they are going to help and a lot of it ends up in the pockets of the nonprofit executive. And so, that’s where we get this, you know, crowdfunding idea. And so they see these issues first hand and they look at the nonprofit organizations and in a lot of ways, they don’t understand the process. Why is it taking so long for this organization that says it’s focused on homelessness to help this person that I’m passing every day in the street? Not really understanding that the nonprofit organization is beyond a onesie, twosies, we’re not just picking up these people along the way. We are looking at this from a much broader issue, from a policy standpoint, from an opportunity standpoint, from a skillset and job training standpoint versus a let’s set this one guy [00:16:00] up for success. We’re doing this so that we can help many individuals. And so there is a lack of understanding from one side to the next, of how we do these things. 

Host: What do you think the case is for millennials to get involved in nonprofit boards? 

Shawn: I think there’s a lot that they don’t know. And so providing some education around that. I know that I’ve noticed that organizations popping up around the country, very similar to what’s happening at the Fox School that’s helping young people, students, people of color understand what it takes to operate and function as a nonprofit organization and then what does board service mean. And so helping millennials understand what is board service? What is governance, because that was another thing so like Robert’s Rules is like those are rules  [00:17:00] why do we have rules, and why are those rules in place and why can’t we just make a decision and move on? But there are rules to order and so helping them understand that and the why, why these things exist and why the processes are the way they are, not that they are beyond tweaking because they could use some tweaking but to understand that the structure is important and it’s necessary because we can’t just do what we want because we’re not that type of society and there are negative implications for that. And so helping millennials understand what nonprofits do, how they operate, what that can mean for them, and how their experience and expertise is necessary, is wanted, and how they can then use that to provide impact, I think would go a long way in getting them more engaged in the nonprofit board governance and serving at the leadership level


Host: At the Fox School of Business, we help students become more involved in nonprofit board service. Maureen Cannon is the connection between them and our nonprofit partners. Maureen, let’s talk about the Fox Board Fellows program. What is it and how does it work?

Maureen: Thanks again for having me here again today, it’s a pleasure to be with you and Shawn. So for more than 10 years now, Fox Board Fellows has been preparing graduate, business-minded students for nonprofit board leadership for those gaps in board leadership I think that Shawn eluded to in her conversation. So it was started actually by a small group of MBA students from the Fox School and those students came to my predecessor and TL Hill, our managing director, and said, ‘Hey other schools have this training program, we’d like to have that too.’ So my predecessor and TL kind of embarked [00:19:00] on a mission with those students to create a program that has kind of that unique signature of the Fox School on it. The model of the program is two-pronged, it’s an experiential training program that has a field placement as well as an academic component that parallels that field placement. The field placement is where fellows are matched with a local nonprofit organization doing work that interests the student. The students serve as a non-voting, working board member for eight months, they attend board meetings, committee meetings and, very critical, they leave the nonprofit hopefully in a better place than where they left it through a strategic project that they do with and for that nonprofit while they are with them for the eight months. The academic side, [00:20:00] the students receive support from the college in terms through the use of workshops, through attending workshops, and doing various assignments that facilitate the learning as the students are on a board serving, in the nonprofit. And again as a non-voting but working board member. 

Host: So, you have a lot of experience matching students with nonprofit boards. What skills are boards looking for in new members and how does DEI fit into the equation?

Maureen: DEI is becoming a louder voice. It’s always been there and it’s been there for decades, but now it’s I think nonprofits are really being forced to look at how they do things and really do things in a different way because more eyes are watching and more people are wanting to see that change happen. So the needs of the organization really depends on the organization, their in-house resources, their board resources, but three [00:21:00] things that I hear a lot when I’m talking with our, the Fox Board Fellows nonprofit partners, are diversity. And they’ll kind of use that kind of general term of diversity, and in that they talk a lot about fresh eyes. Nonprofits are saying that they want fresh eyes; whether or not they’re prepared for that, that is what they want. They also want fellows who are going to be ambassadors for the organization, right? People who are willing to connect the organization with those needed resources outside, even if the fellow doesn’t bring them themselves. So nonprofits really are recognizing what diversity can bring and the third thing is entrepreneurial ideas for financial sustainability. Every nonprofit is looking for financial sustainability and they’re really in some cases, looking to the younger generations. A lot of people talk about millennials because millennials are at that age now [00:22:00] where they’re thinking about contributing in new ways. Maybe they’ve been volunteering their whole lives some of them and now they’re ready to take that next step and inform strategy and be a part of guiding the organization. So those are really the three skills that I’m hearing from our nonprofit partners at the moment. 

Host: This is building off of the conversation Shawn and I had a few minutes ago, but on the other side, what are student expectations for participating in a board?

Maureen: That’s a great question. Students are really, there are two themes that emerge in talking with the students. Students are really looking for relationships on the board. They want relationships and they want those relationships to show me the ropes. They realize where their gaps are, they realize that they are not educated on how to be a board member, how do they even introduce [00:23:00] themselves to an organization and show their interest in being involved at that level. So they are really looking for board members to really show them the ropes and to develop long-term relationships. The other thing is that they are looking for the board and the organization to have an interest in them and what they bring to the table. They really want to have an impact. The impact is the biggest thing and I have to say that’s not just millennials. Everyone who’s volunteering their time and energy and resources, wants to have an impact and millennials are very vocal about that. And I think that’s the biggest difference in their generation is that they’re a bit more upfront about that.

Host: That’s a really, really good point and I’m sort of curious, in terms of skills and what they are willing to offer, it probably actually may take some time to find the right fit, just like in a job interview. I know from experience from being on a board, I sat on a board, and I sort of realized what they wanted from me was more tactical [00:24:00] than I hoped, and I ultimately ended up rolling off after a period of time because it just didn’t quite work with what the strategy I had hoped to put forward. Do you experience that when placing students on a board, is it like a job interview on both sides?

Maureen: Yeah, I think you’ve described it, it kind of is and over the years I’ve gotten a little bit more savvy to that conversation and really looking for nonprofits that are open to co-creating that experience with the fellow, and in terms of the fellow does a project right? The fellow does a project that’s a big part of I think the nonprofits’ interest in the nonprofits and hosting the fellows. They are certainly interested in educating the next generation of nonprofit leaders but I think that project really is so appealing. If the fellow has an interest in the organization, the organization is going to have [00:25:00] something that that fellow can do for them. There’s often, the organizations that partner with Fox Board Fellows tend to be the small to medium-sized organizations and they have a laundry list of items that, things that they need to do, would like to do, are important to do but they just don’t have the capacity for. And so, those fellows can come in and have that conversation and we set that up in the beginning so that the nonprofit understands that the fellow may not bring a specific skill set, but they understand what they are bringing ahead of time. 

Host: So in your experience, what makes an effective board?

Maureen: An effective board is one that is engaged. I can say that broadly, I think Shawn can speak and probably did speak more directly to this but an engaged board, a board that is engaged where the talents [00:26:00] and skills where every board member understands why they are there and what their impact is and that really comes down to the organization’s leader, the executive director, the CEO and the board really communicating well with each other. It really selects board members what each organization needs, there are some staples, you want to have marketing represented, things like HR, all the business disciplines but there’s a lot more that organizations need that’s very specific to those organizations. 

Host: I’m sure it also is influenced by who’s at the table and how well they are able to communicate and work together. 

Maureen: Absolutely, very critical. It has to come down to why were they asked to be there, is it clear, do they understand their purpose for being involved with this organization? 

Host: So in closing, I’m curious. What’s the best way for listeners who would like to sit on a nonprofit board? How will they find one that aligns with their skills and interests? 

Maureen: I think the initial [00:27:00] response lies in your question and that is really what is their motivation? What is their interest? What do they care about that’s happening in the world today? So really starting there and then making sure that the organization that they get involved with has a mission that they are really behind and care about deeply because again, you’re volunteering your time, your energy, and your resources and you want to make sure there is return on investment for that, which looks a little different than the for-profit return on investment but nonetheless there’s a return on investment for effort and resources. So really looking at organizations, what type of mission could that person be really kind of dive into and really support wholeheartedly. There are tools out there. Guidestar has a great database for searching nonprofit organizations, you can learn a lot about [00:28:00] them and you can search by location, mission, and other categories as well. So I say start with a cause, donate, volunteer, get to know them, meet with the executive director, meet with the board chair, have that conversation, help that organization get to know you, and educate yourself as to the expectations as well. I think a lot of people join boards because they’re asked and then they get on board and then they learn the expectations. Be an educated consumer, understand how that board functions, what’s going to be expected of you in terms of donating time, money, other resources. What really are they going to be asking for you so that you’re not caught off guard, and so that you’re coming in as a willing, knowledgeable participant.

Host: I want to thank Shawn and Maureen for joining [00:29:00] me to share their insights on the path forward for adding diversity to nonprofit boards. We now know a lot about the benefits of having a diverse board and the steps millennials can take toward leadership roles in organizations that align with their goals. We can all use this discussion to recognize the gap of intentional engagement in life as we move forward in our personal and professional journeys. Expectations play a significant role in both adding members to a board or reaching out to become a member. It’s important to be purposeful with engagement efforts, that way everyone benefits from the partnership. 

Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Visit us on the web at We are produced by MilkStreet Marketing, Megan Alt, Anna Batt, and Stephen Orbanek, and Karen Naylor. I hope you’ll join us next time. Until then, I’m Tiffany Sumner and this is Catalyst.