"And the beat goes on.................."
Two weeks ago, I posted a blog suggesting that when we consider diversity on our Boards, we ought to include both age and socioeconomic status as considerations. Specifically, we need more young people and people who are less economically, educationally and otherwise privileged.
Calling out the glaring omission of most of our Boards to have that kind of representation is, of course, the easy part. Deconstructing the obstacles and barriers to achieving that goal and coming up with concrete ways to go about addressing the challenges is the hard part. Action is always the hard part - knowing where to start, what to try, and, as often as not, just getting a handle on ideas is not always easy.
I got an email in response to the blog post from Sherry Wagner-Henry, Director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration in Wisconsin, informing me of a program to put students on Boards:
"We launched a nonprofit board leadership program through our home school--the Wisconsin School of Business--to provide opportunities for graduate students in business, nonprofit studies, environmental studies, education, law school, social work, and of course the arts, to both share the content we've developed around good practices for serving on a nonprofit board, and simultaneously, place them on a nonprofit board (in teams of two students per org) around Dane County.Our motivation for launching this program was two-fold: I was most interested at first to make sure the the MBA arts administration students of the Bolz Center were getting board service and leadership opportunities before they started leading organizations. But the second motivator was more complex. My partner and I had read a report from BoardSource "Leading with Intent" where we noticed that all forms of diversity on nonprofit boards was not moving much--with the exception of gender diversity. While it is still not the case in For Profit boards, nonprofit boards have become much more gender balanced. But when it comes to ethnicity, age, socio-economic status and sexual identity/orientation, we are still leagues away from where we should be. This got us to thinking--the university is a microcosm of all these sorts of diversity--particularly age--so why not use this opportunity to direct a demographic that is much needed toward board service BEFORE they graduate and start becoming the leaders of industry, education, the environment and the social sector at large?"
Good idea this. The University program is a natural pool of younger people; future leaders who will be, and are now, excellent candidates for Boards. Both the students and the organizations benefit from the experience and opportunity.
"The results have been phenomenal! We fill the class every year (looking to expand number of sections offered); we have partnerships with more than 40 organizations in Dane County, with a waiting list for others that want to participate. For profit and nonprofit companies are calling us, asking us to develop training programs for their organizations. The course runs for an entire academic year, with the first semester being about the matching/recruitment process, orientation, and on-boarding for the student teams into the culture and process of these boards. They get to know their organizations while they take coursework that help them understand how to best contribute to the work of their nonprofits. By the end of the fall term, they have developed a governance-based project with and for their board. Spring becomes case study work and implementation of said project.
By placing students in teams of two, they don't feel so isolated or alone, while they get to know their mentors and their executive directors. And the EDs have told us they are thrilled with this opportunity. Not only does it open up and help them consider recruitment and board development strategies for diversification and inclusion, but the unexpected result is that their boards have become MORE engaged than they ever have been--because they are modeling good behavior and practice for the students in the room!"
I wondered if her success included a representative sample of our field. So I asked her:
Did her organizational partners run the gamut of arts organizations in terms of budget size, Eurocentric v. multicultural, older more established organizations v. newer and smaller?
"I think they are as broad as the spectrum actually is at the moment in Madison, Wisconsin--and for those who are willing to open up their boards to our program. We've had very small organizations (under $150K) tell us they don't think they have the time to give the students the experience they feel they need. Of course, many of those types of organizations are lucky to have one paid staff member, so we certainly understand their assumptions.We have both small and large budget arts organizations--from that $150K level to our downtown PAC at $13M. We've had an interesting development just today--a donor to a dance company in town wants to pay to give all the staff and board access to the course. We actually make the class available to the EDs and any board members who wish to attend, but we rarely get any takers after the first night of pitching/matching happens.As for ethnic diversity, what is interesting is that we are finding (like in many places) that some of our social services partners, who do bring more diversity in their staff and boards, are also most interested in leveraging the arts and arts programming as part of their programs, particularly for youth. Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers, Big Sisters Goodman Community Center and the YWCA have all exhibited commitment to arts programming, and therefore, are interested in Bolz Center students being on their teams.MMoCA (Madison Museum of Contemporary Art) is our oldest organization at around 130 years old, while Forward Theater Company at 9 years old, is our newest."
One of the challenges to recruiting younger people to our boards is identifying the pool of individuals who might potentially be a good fit, and from which to draw. University programs, particularly those in arts administration, are a natural fit, and, best of all, they already exist and are easy to identify. I think the Bolz program Sherry has instituted might be something that can be replicated elsewhere. It can be both a source of immediate board member candidates, and a longer term build up of a pool of experienced board members as the student cohort enters the field and moves into the tenures of their service.
There are likely other extant pools of potential younger cohort candidates for our boards, in those arts organizations that specifically serve younger people as their target. A program like the Bolz program that provided some training, mentorship and ongoing support could benefit the younger cohort and the organizations they might serve. More difficult than the University setting where the whole experiment can be organized as part of the curriculum, but still potentially win win.
This kind of approach might be one way to address the absence of younger people on our Boards, but it doesn't solve, or even really address, the issue of the absence of representative socio-economic and class status on our Boards. Certainly most younger people recruited to our Boards will not yet have had time to accumulate wealth, status and position, and so they might theoretically qualify as yet privileged. But it also likely many of them, in University programs, and even as beneficiaries of our programs targeting youth, are from the privileged class and / or on track to be such. Those that might be accepted by our least socioeconomic diversified Boards are very well likely to mirror the socioeconomic composition of those Boards, if not now, then in time. So while there is promise for the Bolz approach to address the age challenge, in all probability, it doesn't address the socioeconomic challenge.
The one element of the Bolz experiment that might be tried is in our growing relationship with other nonprofit organizations within our communities; organizations with which we may already be seeking to collaborate and partner on projects; organizations that more completely include lower socioeconomic classes and less privileged people. Our outreach to those organizations to help us to diversify our boards, our outlooks and perspectives might be fertile ground for addressing the lack of any obvious pool of candidates into which we can tap. As we increase our community involvement on other levels and for other purposes, it may become easier for us to identify ways to recruit more diversified people to out Boards. And if we were to take that approach, we might be able to identify organizations and groups within our communities that could provide us with a pool of Board candidates even if there were not other mutual projects or programs for us to pursue.
People tend to cling to their own. Familiarity breeds not contempt, but comfort. Nonprofit Boards in general have been the province of people who have the luxury of time to devote to the enterprise. And on high profile cultural organizations and foundations, the categorical composition of those Boards hasn't changed much in decades. Even the recruitment of people of color, of women, and in some cases "out" gays - have tended to be limited to those who share socioeconomic status, educational level, working relationships and other vestiges of what we call privilege. it's a good thing, but its not the solution of representative socio economic status.
I haven't come across a great program or strategy to increase the socioeconomic profile of our Boards, one that includes those who do not share the same trappings of privilege we can ascribe to those now in the positions. If anybody has one, please let me know. This is not an easy challenge to address.
Of course, the biggest challenge has to do with our 'will' to make inclusion of differing socio economic classes on our Boards. Without wanting to make that inclusion, no available pool of potential candidates will matter much at all. And it seems likely that while we may make attempts to increase diversity of age on our Boards, if only in token numbers, we are less likely to see socioeconomic status diversity hold the same priority. Boards have their own legacies and cultures, and change is often difficult - particularly as the organization grows older. That's just a given organizational dynamic. I doubt attitudinal changes can be legislated or mandated. Perhaps as the movement for organizations to be more involved in their local communities grows, change will come. Time will tell. In the meantime, organizations that seek to add the diversity of age and socioeconomic status to the perspectives of their Boards need to first identify potential pools of candidates.
Many thanks to Sherry at Bolz for sharing with me a great program. Hopefully it can be launched by others.
Have a great week.