“If You Like It Then You Shoulda Put a RE-ng On It!” Moving Nonprofit Boards Towards Real Racial Equity (RE) Commitments

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

Acronyms used: RE – Racial Equity; BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color; HWL – Historically White Led organization; ED – Executive Director; NPO – Nonprofit; DEI – Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

Author’s note: I wrote this blog 3 weeks ago, but I couldn’t post it and pretend as if the past 7 days haven’t happened. In the nonprofit sector, we MUST ground all of our work in the context of the greater context of legalized racism, and that starts with identifying and uprooting racist structures in our own organizations. Vu Le wrote an excellent blog on this recently, and my blog below focuses on one of the many pieces he calls out: the nonprofit board. The smaller organizational systems we engage with daily reinforce and are reinforced by the greater systems, and in nonprofits, the board systems are often the least examined even though these structures can make or break the racial equity work of the organization. So, board members, this one’s for you.

I work with a lot of nonprofit Executive Directors who ask me, “how do I bring my board along on our organization’s racial equity journey???” I get it. I am a former ED myself, and I’ve worked with and served on boards of all kinds. Often, these boards and their members are well-intended but rarely expected, encouraged, resourced, and/or held accountable to do their own work beyond “embracing diversity and inclusion” in the organization. And that lack of commitment and subsequent lack of action is a serious problem because of the leadership role boards play in npos*. But there are ways to address these challenges and make real change on your boards! And, there is a LOT of desire by board members themselves to do so! So, as part of my effort to post more practical equity tools, I’m sharing some of my favorite board resources, a sample RE document you can use, and some hard-learned advice to help shift nonprofit boards towards real RE commitments. 

Let’s start by painting a picture of what a board commitment to equity could look like…

Imagine this scene: The Board and Racial Equity (RE) are strolling through a park, enjoying the fine weather. Action!

Board: Did you know that today is our anniversary? Two whole years together.

RE: Really? That long, huh?

Board: Yup. Two years ago today we crafted that equity statement and posted it on our website.

RE: Wow. Time really flies.

Board: Since then, we’ve been spending time together learning about justice, taking implicit bias tests. We even brought in that trainer to talk about white supremacy culture, remember that?

RE: I remember. Good times.

Board: Well, I’ve been thinking lately, I want more than just casually learning about you, RE. I’m ready for a real commitment. I want to move beyond just having good intentions. I want to make this real, RE!

RE: Are you sure? We’ve been here before, Board, and we always dance right up to the line of action and then stop. What makes this time different?

Board: I know, RE, I know. I’ve said it so many times before, and each time I always backed down. Like that time that large donor met you and got really uncomfortable, and I caved. Or that time our Executive Director retired, and I said I didn’t have time to do a full hiring process and make a real commitment to you.

But you always held me accountable to a bar that I have never been held to before, RE, and to be honest, that scared me. I’ve never been pushed as much as I have been with you. You have shown me how much more I can be, how much more I need to be if I really want to lead. And, I took your advice! I talked with the community members most impacted by the injustices we are trying to address…they want us to be together, too! They said that if I really want to serve them, I need to make a real commitment to you. 


And that made me see that I am ready to take real action with you, RE. I will stop saying that my role is to just “support the staff” as they work towards you. I will stop hiding behind the excuse of only having 6 meetings per year. I want to examine my recruitment matrix and bring on new members from the communities most impacted by injustice. I want to overtly talk about overrepresentation, not just underrepresentation. I want to retool Robert’s Rules of Order to amplify nondominant voices, and I want to dig out my dusty bylaws and examine them for the racism deeply embedded there. I want you, RE, to be my lens. Heck, I want to get Lasik so you’re not even a lens that needs to be put on! I want to be the Board you believe I can be!

RE: Wow, Board! This is a lot to take in. If we do this, it’s going to be hard, you know that, right?

Board: I know.

RE: You have members who don’t acknowledge our commitment, some of whom are incredibly uncomfortable when I’m even brought up in conversation.

Board: I know. I will change that. I will hold all my members to the same standards and actions and no longer expect just our new BIPOC members to tow this line. RE, I’m ready. Let’s do this. Let’s make this real.

RE: Oh, Board! Since the first 501c3 was established in 1954, I’ve been waiting to hear those words! Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

Cut, print, that’s a wrap! 

Don’t you just love a happy ending? Well, it’s actually a beginning because if you dig into that story, you can see all the work that board is now committed to taking on, the real actions that will make their commitment to RE stronger. So, how can you move your board to “put a ring” on Racial Equity? Here are a few resources:

  1. If you’re interested in better understanding why board action towards RE is important, here are a couple resources I love: Activating Race Equity Problem Solving on NPO Boards; and Diversifying Boards Means Ceding Control: Are White NPO Leaders Ready? These are only a couple of the MANY out there**, but they’ll get you started and they have lots of good embedded references to follow, as well. 
  2. If you’re interested in a step-by-step process, this is a resource I’ve mentioned on my blog before, but it is so good it deserves another shout out: ProInspire’s Equity in the Center Awake to Woke to Work. It offers clear and tangible ways (with rubrics!) to help you “pull the board lever” in your organization. 
  3. If you’re interested in board info in general, I always find BoardSource.org really helpful. Not everything they offer is RE focused, but they do have helpful resources on DEI and great templates, such as matrices and bylaws. 
  4. Lastly, for a template to challenge the conundrum of changing board demographics, check out the my Board Recruitment Commitment to RE. This commitment is bold and open and doesn’t hide behind pretty or coded words. It can be an internal document (not everything needs to be published externally), acting as a guide for the board to change membership changes over time. If this commitment were adopted, you can see how many other board policies would be examined as a result of this one: the recruitment matrix, onboarding documents, bylaws, member assessments, etc. A commitment of this level would be the result of a LOT of hard work, but it is not an end-product; instead, it is a beginning that ripples out, providing members more and more opportunities to actively demonstrate their commitment to RE. A board that makes this commitment would really put a REng on it!  
Sample Board Recruitment Commitment

 Finally, here is some hard-learned advice that will hopefully help you on this journey:

  1. Being the leader on this does not mean you have to have all the answers, but it does mean you need to be in it for the long haul. Making a real RE commitment is not something the board can dabble in, picking up RE and putting it down as stress enters and exits the system. That’s the touch-and-go mentality you’re trying to get away from. If you’re serious, and if you’ve gotten this far in this blog you must be, just know this will be hard and the successes may be small and take time to achieve. But progress can be made! My advice to sustain your sanity: document those successes because you can look back on them to spur your stamina over time. Trust me: this documentation actually helps, and I wish more boards did this as part of an annual board progress assessment, not in a “pat ourselves on the back for doing nothing” way but rather a “what did we set out to do, where did we succeed, where did we fall short, why, and how will we move forward” kind of way. It may feel slogging at times, but nevertheless, she persisted, am I right?
  2. Leading this effort will take an extra toll if you are a BIPOC board member at the helm. It is exhausting to uproot the bias you experience on a daily basis, and that goes double if you’re volunteering your time to do it. In addition to the assessment advice above, I recommend exploring ways up front to sustain your energy that address racism in the professional sphere. Talk to your board chair or ED about allocating board resources to support your health to lead this challenging work. For example, does the board have funds set aside for members to attend professional networking sessions (like Future for Us) and BIPOC affinity groups (like, EPOC or the BIPOC Project)? Can you use board meeting time and space to host a BIPOC affinity group if you are fortunate enough to have multiple BIPOC board members? Your insight and membership are critical to achieving the RE vision, so build in ways to support YOU from the start because you’ll need it. (And, if you’re a white board member reading this, PLEASE SUPPORT YOUR BIPOC PEERS!!! If you want a resource on how to do this, check out these guidelines for white allies from Racial Equity Tools.)
  3. Create a coalition for change! Are there others on the board who are also committed to this work?Can you convene them to shore up energy before taking it to the whole board? This is especially helpful with large boards who don’t meet often or those that have had high turnover. Bring these allies in. You will need their support in this journey, and you can work together to become a united force speaking with a clear and consistent voice. This may be the start of your board RE committee!
  4. If your organization has an equity statement, center it in your rationale for the board work in RE: What are the responsibilities and tasks of the board and how can these support or hinder this vision? Does our board reflect the communities most impacted by the injustice our organization strives to address? If the board has already expressed a desire to address equity (as so many have), why do we want to undertake this work? What are we willing to risk to do so, and what do we risk if we don’t? etc.***


Okay! That is it for this blog and I hope it was helpful. I know that this is hard work, but you don’t have to do it alone: I can help! If you want more support than the resources and tips above, contact me to discuss how I can help you address racial equity at the board level. This is absolutely critical work and you should not have to do it without support. You got this; I got you; together, we can make this happen. 

Notes:

* As a refresher or if you’re new to working with boards, npo boards are designed to guide visioning and planning and oversee the macro-level organizational functions; they hire, assess, and (if needed) fire the ED; they fundraise; they network; they donate their skills and expertise. NPO boards are often made up of highly passionate, highly skilled volunteers who believe deeply in the mission of the organization. But they are also highly removed from the npo’s daily functions and they spend maybe 30 hours a year together as a group. Then, there’s the diversity issue!!! Most npo boards are majority white, even in sectors most impacted by injustice that is perpetuated/justified/upheld by whiteness (the mind reels with contradictions!). There are oh so many reasons why this dynamic exists and I’m not going to get into all that here (if you want to, though, check out this Board Source report or see the many links below). But all this  – the demographic makeup of the board, its general detachment from the organization, each other, and communities served, and the lack of real accountability to move beyond verbal commitments – has made addressing racial equity on HWL boards a serious challenge.

**More resources on board development: 

***If your organization does not have an equity statement yet, consider making this the first step in the board’s work towards RE by dedicating board time to work with the staff to create one (use the activity in my blog last month to push this process). Because the board serves the organization, it is very important to envision the organization’s RE journey first; then the board can determine their role in getting the organization there. Also, if you are a board member considering RE, it is highly likely your ED is already thinking about this, like the countless number I’ve talked to lately who are trying to figure out how to bring their boards along. I would bet your ED would LOVE to have a board member approach them to discuss how the board can embrace RE to better support the organization!

Know an equity leader in your community that we should highlight? Drop us a line!


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