Are We Prepared to Diversify Our Boards?

US Gymnasts

In many areas of arts and culture, it is an article of faith that cultural groups, and the boards that oversee them, must better diversify. Recently, The New York Times reported on a 2015 meeting between the commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the leadership of various NYC cultural institutions. The heart of the discussion, the Times reported, was that boards and institutions need to more accurately reflect the demographics of the city in which they live. Unfortunately, because the article focused on the progress being made, it neither addressed the complex, deep-seated issues that are involved in diversification nor did it define success — what it would mean to more closely and better reflect the city. Greater similarities between boards and organizations and their communities is a laudable goal and makes complete sense; parsing what this really means and how to achieve it, however, is much more complex and difficult. What we know is this: to be successful, we must embrace the complexity of the topic and confront some uncomfortable issues.

Dr. Francie Ostrower, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and director of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas at Austin, authored a study called “The Diversity of Cultural Participation” back in 2005. Funded by the Wallace Foundation, she noted, inter alia, how various groups participate in culture. Her conclusion was that each organization must approach how it engages wider audiences in a unique way, that a “one-size fits all approach” does not work. Underlying her conclusion was her finding (recently confirmed in a National Endowment for the Arts Research Brief) that each cultural and ethnic group participates in cultural activities differently and is motivated differently, so connecting to them requires a tailoring to their interests and behavior patterns:

The most fundamental implication of these findings is that arts research, policy, and management need to be reoriented to pay greater attention to the diversity of cultural participation — that is, the differences in what people attend and the differing motivations, expectations, and experiences that accompany particular types of arts participation.

Following some additional and more current research related to the diversification of nonprofit boards of trustees, Dr. Ostrower reiterated her general findings. She emphasizes that nonprofits, if they are truly interested in diversifying their boards, must think differently. When identifying the characteristics sought in a board candidate, for example, they need to consider the candidate’s interests, capabilities and behavior.

What underlies much, if not all, of the diversification argument is the philosophical imperative that a nonprofit is obligated to serve its entire community, not just its closest constituency. As a corollary to this idea, we typically assume that if organizations more closely reflect their communities, they will be more responsive and accessible to those communities, and thus more completely fulfill their obligations. This implies, however, a gap in the social equity that an organization has within its community, so perhaps the first step should be a discussion of the organization’s value and relevance. It is tricky, though, because there is often very little agreement about what “community” specifically means.

Organizations must consider the interests, capabilities and behavior of board candidates.

How are we to evaluate, for example, an organization serving 300,000 people annually, that balances its books, provides employment to hundreds of people, creates more new art than any other company of its kind, and yet has an audience and board that do not reflect the diversity of those living within its “geographic community”? Can we really say that this organization does not fulfill its obligation to its community? To truly argue that there is some gap that needs filling, one must believe that there is some behavior or policy of the group that excludes, actively or unintentionally, members of its community. But what if, given Dr. Ostrower’s findings, non-participating community members are not interested in what the organization does, thus being uninterested in taking part in a way that would better “reflect” the community’s diversity? Some would argue that the organization still has a responsibility to work toward that diversity, despite the change in the organization it might produce.

In alignment with some of Dr. Ostrower’s findings, other studies show that different ethnic and demographic cohorts support and participate with different types of nonprofits. In general, for example, African Americans tend to donate more frequently and participate more actively within organizations designed

…to ameliorate individual and community hardship; [promoting] institutional development or self-help…for black communities; and movements for social change…

Again, these are broad generalities, but they support Dr. Ostrower’s observation that efforts to engage community members with an eye toward diversity must follow the interests of the prospective participants. So there is a natural tension: How can an organization encourage and succeed at better reflecting its communities when the organization’s activities may not align with the interests of target individuals?

The July-August issue of the Harvard Business Review focused on diversity in the corporate arena. Not surprisingly for anyone who has struggled with introducing more diversity into an institution, the article concluded that diversity-forward intentions and actions are very often ineffective even if a commitment is strong. Organizational culture and dynamics, it was found, are consistently too tough to overcome. What has proved effective, however, are mandatory, enforceable requirements that address the root of the problem at a critical choke-point: the review of potential community participants.

There is precedent for this, and it is older than you think. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, American orchestras recognized that they were not hiring women, despite a great number of talented female musicians in the applicant pool. To address this, many orchestras required that auditions take place behind a screen so that hiring committees could not know a candidate’s gender, race or age. The result? A large increase in women players winning permanent seats in orchestras.

More recently, the National Football League recognized, after its last two successful minority head coaches were fired, that it, too, needed to change. So the NFL instituted the “Rooney Rule,” which requires minority candidates to be included when any coaching or senior administrative position in the league needs to be filled. As with orchestras, this mandatory policy brought about a marked increase in leaders of color in the league. During my time as an academic dean, I witnessed similar results in faculty searches when there were processes to ensure a more diverse candidate pool.

A mandatory requirement gets at the root of the problem.

Yet if mandatory processes clearly deliver progress, they are not sufficient in and of themselves in addressing the full complexity of the diversity issue. Circling back to my earlier point, for organizations to succeed they must also address cultural differences. In the case of the orchestras, blind screen auditions may open the door, but they do not confront the issues that make it difficult for players of color to train as professional musicians. At the Rio Olympic games, we saw the first black swimmer ever to win an individual medal for the US team. While one applauds this and agrees that it is about time, unless we address the lack of opportunity caused by the disparity of cultural groups that learn to swim (70% of blacks in America can’t swim, versus 60% of Latinos and 40% of whites), we may wait a long time for Simone Manuel’s remarkable achievement to be repeated.

Story continues below.

As I have written before, identifying a problem is never enough; advocates must propose concrete solutions to forge the progress they seek. Wanting to diversify cultural organizations argues for a more detailed discussion of what “diversification” actually means. We have to define what success looks like, and we have to dig into issues around funding, equity, class, historical impediments and access — all of which are equally important. Given how challenging it is for large organizations to do all this, how can we expect smaller organizations, those just struggling to keep their doors open, to do the same?

People will argue that by diversifying our cultural institutions, these issues, challenges and questions will naturally be addressed. If this is true, then the best path is to follow the example of the orchestras and the NFL and impose mandatory rules and structures. But doing so without a real conversation to understand how an institution brings value and relevance to its community may prove counterproductive — especially if those things alter that organization beyond recognition.