Justice and the Nonprofit Board

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Nonprofits have increasingly come to understand their responsibility to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive (DEI) places to work, serve, enroll, visit, attend, heal, learn, pray or play.
However, nonprofit boards often believe that by simply diversifying they can magically address more deeply rooted inequities within their organizations (or avoid addressing those inequities by pointing to their slightly more diverse boards).

This approach can be misguided and harmful. Recruiting candidates simply because their identities are underrepresented on the board can be a form of tokenism, rather than an honest attempt to change the culture and power dynamics throughout the organization.

Moreover, it places the onus for change on the new trustees, rather than on the legacy members who actually have the power to make lasting change. It is one thing to recruit new trustees; it is another to retain them when the culture of the organization remains static, or possibly hostile.


The word “diversity” often refers to demographic diversity, which is the mix of a specific group of people, taking into account characteristics of human difference including, but not limited to, ability, age, class, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, race and sexual orientation.

When nonprofit boards are critiqued for their lack of demographic diversity, they often seek to recruit “diverse candidates.” But “diverse” is not an adjective that can be applied to an individual; rather, it describes the composition of a collective. When an individual is referred to as “diverse” or a “diversity candidate,” it perpetuates at least three forms of harm:

  1. It relegates their contribution solely to a demographic characteristic without regard for the opinions, expertise, experience, reach and capacities they might uniquely contribute to advance the organization’s mission.
  2. It inappropriately suggests that their role is to represent or speak on behalf of everyone else who shares their identity.
  3. It establishes other board members’ identities as normative and unexamined, relative to the outlying identity of the newcomer.

This is not to say that personal identity isn’t an important asset to a board. The perspective of someone with a physical disability can help a board to consider how the organization’s physical layout can better serve all clients. A Muslim trustee on a Catholic charity board may effectively enable that charity to build interfaith bridges. But a board should never approach a prospective trustee with just one area of contribution in mind; this should be equally true when a recruitment goal is demographic diversification. In concert with demographic diversity, a board can seek diversity of intellect, professional field, geographic reach, and a host of other attributes. By filling gaps in all these areas, a board is better prepared for effective service.

Likewise, board diversity for diversity’s sake can be misguided. The diversity of a board should be calibrated to an organization’s mission and the people, communities, or issues it serves. For example, think about how diversity might be best defined on the boards of various nonprofits: a national environmental advocacy organization; a local mental health services center; a Reform Jewish synagogue; a Planned Parenthood clinic; a regional NAACP chapter. In some cases, a certain demographic uniformity is both more appropriate and ethical.

ACTION STEP: Think about your organization’s strategic vision for the next three years. What demographic, intellectual, professional, and other characteristics are required to achieve that vision? Make a list that catalogs the current strengths of your board relative to these priorities and note where there are gaps. Appropriately diversify your board by recruiting to the gaps, with the understanding that every candidate should embody a range of such strengths so that you don’t tokenize an individual based upon a single characteristic.


Ensuring the strategic diversity of a nonprofit board is an important goal, but it can be a form of “window dressing” outside a broader strategy to ensure equity within the board and the organization. An equitable organization is one in which justice guides the policies, processes, relationships, and distribution of resources within the organization and in furtherance of its mission. However, merely committing to principles of equity is insufficient unless an organization acknowledges the roots of inequity that impact the organization and its mission and commit to dismantling inequity.

A commitment to dismantling inequity requires deep introspection and ongoing assessment. From a macro perspective, there is ample data on the roots of inequity: vast differences in income, educational attainment, health outcomes, and incarceration rates that correlate with race, gender, ability and other factors are the direct result of discriminatory human beliefs, policies and practices.

Although many of the 1.54 million nonprofits registered with the Internal Revenue Service were founded to address these inequities, the same discriminatory human beliefs, policies, and practices that plague our world are replicated within our organizations.

Because a nonprofit’s board is responsible for the mission and policies of the organization, and for supervising the chief executive whose role it is to manage the organization’s day-to-day operations and programs, the board is ultimately responsible for ensuring that justice guides the organization’s policies, processes, relationships, and its distribution of resources. The board should expect the organization to periodically conduct an equity audit to surface areas in which it advances equity, and areas in which inequity remains entrenched. Equity audits can look at human resources, programming, operations, communications, relationships, and a host of other issues through research methods that typically include review of materials and statistical data, confidential interviews, surveys and focus groups.

ACTION STEP: Undertake a board equity audit. Critically examine criteria for board membership; the board’s overall composition and leadership; how prospective trustees are identified, cultivated and solicited; how trustees are tapped for committee chair and officer positions; how issues are debated and decisions made; how individual trustees experience board culture; and how individual trustees are evaluated. Surface lapses in equitable practice so the board can actively address them. By looking first at itself, the board can set an example for the organization it governs.


“Inclusion” in a nonprofit is the degree to which all individuals are able to participate fully in programs, services, work and governance matters, as appropriate to their role vis-a-vis the organization. Inclusion doesn’t just happen; it must be actively facilitated.

Although legally-sanctioned segregation has diminished significantly in recent decades thanks to the hard work of civil rights movements, exclusion is alive and well—even on the boards of nonprofits that actively address human needs or that promote social justice.

Inclusion in nonprofit organizations, and on their boards, may be hampered when boards privilege financial capacity as a criterion for membership, which automatically excludes people who lack access to material resources, or have been denied access to quality education and well-paying professions.

Inclusion is also diminished on boards when a nominating committee asks trustees, “Who do you know?” rather than, “What skills and perspectives do we need to fulfill our mission?” Self-perpetuating boards are rarely inclusive.

Moreover, inclusion is obstructed when people cannot exercise their voice and when their opinions and dignity are not accorded equal respect and protection. Thus, exclusion on nonprofit boards also occurs when some trustees lack agency or control over important decisions or are made to feel alienated and inferior. As such, while a truly inclusive group is often diverse, a diverse group may or may not be inclusive.

ACTION STEP #1: Rather than expecting or specifying a minimum trustee threshold for giving—which often limits board membership to wealthy individuals—expect that each trustee contribute a financial gift that is “personally meaningful” as part of an overall contribution expectation that includes contributed time, expertise and perhaps in-kind services.

ACTION STEP #2: A single newcomer to a board is unlikely to feel comfortable speaking up or expressing a strong opinion. As part of your board diversification efforts, consider electing three-to-four new trustees simultaneously and give the new “class” an important project to tackle together. In this way, new trustees can be collectively empowered to contribute their time and expertise, and to exercise their voices.

ACTION STEP #3: Thinking about people with a range of abilities, perspectives, privileges and resources, consider the degree to which any individual is able to participate, as appropriate, in your organization’s programs and services, in work life as employees or volunteers, or as board members. Identify three impediments to inclusion that exist – overt and covert, physical, procedural, or otherwise — and determine a way to mitigate each barrier.

Why are boards often blind to their discriminatory behavior?

Two fundamental concepts are central to improving board diversity, equity and inclusion: privilege and power.

Privilege is an unearned, and usually unrecognized, set of advantages that someone accrues based on their position in society. The most obvious example: women earn on average just 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. This gender wage gap persists in all but five professions and holds true even though women now earn the majority of college degrees. A man, therefore, will generally earn higher pay and accrue greater wealth relative to a woman in a comparable role, simply for the ‘privilege’ of being born male. In a society that stresses “rugged individualism” and personal achievement, the notion that the game is rigged or that the playing field is uneven runs counter to a long-established American cultural narrative.

In addition to male privilege, there are well-documented forms of privilege associated with racial and religious identity, immigration status, physical and cognitive ability, educational and economic attainment, gender identity, and sexual orientation among other criteria. White people, for example, can expect to leave an encounter with the police unscathed, a privilege that African American and Latinx citizens do not enjoy. White people’s generally positive experiences with the police renders invisible to them the fact that people of color are often harmed by the police; when privilege remains invisible, it is reinforced.

Privilege is a self-perpetuating set of advantages precisely because of its relationship to power, here defined as access to resources and decision-making authority. Men continue to earn more than women because men continue to be over-represented in positions of power in companies, organizations and government. White people have advanced faster and more successfully in education, employment and government because of discriminatory policies that enabled their ascent and solidified their authority to continually reinforce existing—and enact new—racist policies. Racist beliefs about the inherent superiority of white people are then used to justify this disparity in achievement and advancement.

Also important to note is that privileges often intersect to provide variable advantages. While women, in general, earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by a man, African American women working full time and year-round earn just 62 cents for every dollar earned by white men; Latina women earn 54 cents. Moreover, The Nonprofit Times reports that “women of color account for 14 percent of [nonprofit] board members.” In the Jewish nonprofit sector, 70 percent of employees are women, but only 30 percent of CEOs.

In these examples, gender and racial privilege intersect to confer unearned advantages on white men. Although there has been a conservative backlash of late against the concept of intersectionality and intersectional identity, in practical terms, the implications of both have real consequences on many people’s lives.

If organizations and their boards want to truly commit to promoting the practice of diversity, equity and inclusion, uncovering the ways in which power and privilege function within an organization, and in particular on the board, is of paramount importance. While the adoption of equal opportunity and non-harassment statements is vital, such statements often function as “window dressing” toward upholding organizational reputations and avoiding lawsuits, rather than as tools to ensure a culture of true diversity, equity and inclusion.

ACTION STEP: Although an equity audit is an important tool for uncovering inequities in an organization, the roots of such inequities are often innocuously explained away by management and board as lamentable realities. Many of us have heard a CEO explain that women have advanced more slowly due to maternity leaves (even when the organization does not offer and encourage new fathers to take parental leave as well) or lament a lack of qualified candidates of color in a management search (without examining where and how the organization advertised the position). Pair your equity audit with in-depth training on how power and privilege function so that board members and management can recognize their privilege and begin to see around their own blind spots.

There is no neutral position when it comes to justice

There can be no neutral position when it comes to justice. This should be particularly true in a country where injustice is embedded in our history: our wealth was built, in large part, on the enslavement of Africans over 246 years while women were politically disenfranchised for 144 years.

Nonprofit organizations, their employees and boards are not immune to this history, and often replicate discriminatory ideas and practices that are deeply embedded in our political, economic and cultural systems. It is difficult to escape and, some think, impossible to be neutral: a nonprofit either embraces and exhibits diversity in its board and staff, commits to equity in its culture and its work, and enables inclusion in its business and programs…or it does the opposite. It might be said that neutrality reinforces oppression.

In his 2019 book entitled “How to be an Antiracist,” historian Ibram X. Kendi explains,

What’s the problem with being ‘not racist’? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’”

Kendi then outlines a pair of definitions that challenge our ability to remain neutral when engaging with our past and present:

  • Racist: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.
  • Anti-racist: One who is supporting an anti-racist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”

This same structure of antitheses can be applied to any number of oppressive ideologies, policies or practices including ableism, antisemitism, classism, heterosexism, ethnocentrism, nativism, sexism, etc.

When we choose the path of neutrality, our inaction enables oppression to remain unchallenged. It can be discomforting to confront our inaction. We may feel guilty about the privileges—the unearned advantages—that we accrue and that empower us relative to colleagues and peers. When confronted by a colleague about a privilege we have unknowingly exercised, or about a discriminatory policy we have unwittingly enacted, we may respond to their challenge with defensiveness, which can cover for our own feelings of guilt.

In a keynote address to the National Women’s Studies Association some years ago, poet and activist Audre Lorde challenged white women to recognize and address any misplaced reaction to the anger of women of color who had too long been marginalized within feminist academia:

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.”

In the nonprofit sector, we must take Lorde’s admonition seriously. Committing our time and treasure as professionals and volunteers to advancing the values of our nonprofit organizations, including those organizations that advance justice, does not absolve us from reflecting on our own oppressive behaviors. We must actively take anti-oppressive stances, and adopt anti-oppressive policies and practices, in order to ethically fulfill our missions.