The (White) Elephant in the (Board) Room: How White Board Members Can Step Up By Stepping Aside

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

Hi, Everyone! My last blog on racial equity and boards received a lot of support, so thank you for reading and sharing it! Surprisingly, it also received a number of requests from white board members asking me to push them even harder. That is amazing! Yes! Let’s do it! As a response to those requests, my latest board-focused blog below asks some hard, introspective questions about power. If you are a white board member on a majority white board and you want more of an RE push, this blog is for you! That said, consider the last blog like algebra class and this one is like calculus: If you felt really challenged by the last one, spend time to digest it more thoroughly before jumping to this one. Because this one is gonna poke at some sensitive spots, so you’ll need the resilience that comes from regularly grappling with racial equity and whiteness. Okay. You’ve been warned. Let’s go!

Acronyms used: HWL – Historically White Led organization; RE – Racial Equity; BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, and People of Color; BLM – Black Lives Matter; NPO – nonprofit organization.  

Welcome back, white board members, to the next step in your RE board development work! (note: be sure to read my last blog on racial equity and boards before launching into this one) So much of our effort to change our boards focuses on diversifying the board composition and bringing in more BIPOC members. But today, I want to take a closer look at the other demographic already in the room: the white board members. And, as part of my commitment to offer practical strategies in these blogs, I included a step-by-step activity for you to engage in.

An illustration of an elephant eating dinner in what looks like a fine-dining restaurant. Source: Unknown

Let’s start by setting a scene: imagine for a moment…

It’s a Friday night and you want to take your family out for a good meal, so you call the restaurant ahead of time and make a reservation. You show up on time, the kids are hungry, and you’re ready to enjoy tasty food after a hard week. You see that the restaurant is super crowded (this is a pre-covid scenario), and the host apologizes and says they don’t have capacity right now and asks you to wait to the side. You and the family do so patiently. 

As you wait, you notice a few things: 

  • Only about 1/3 of the diners are actively eating, and the rest seem to be finished with their meals and are simply chatting with each other at their tables; 
  • A few new parties enter the restaurant and get seated right away even though they don’t have reservations and haven’t been waiting (but you notice their “sleight of hand” tips to the host); 
  • Some of the other folks who are waiting get frustrated and leave vowing never to return to this restaurant; 
  • Some of the other folks who are waiting notice another restaurant across the street that has space and they leave quietly to go there. 

Finally, at around 8:30pm, a party gets up and leaves their table, and the host rushes over to you with apologies and asks if you’d like to follow him to the table. How does all this make you feel?

Now, let’s replace this hypothetical restaurant with your board room. The two are actually very similar:

  • Board rooms also have limited capacity;
  • It takes time for board members to “leave the table” (term limits); 
  • Not everyone in the board room is actively engaged and are simply taking up space (as nonprofit reformer, Vu Le, says: “I have a Rule of One-Thirds when it comes to boards: 1/3 of them are helpful [and] 2/3 of nonprofit boards are useless or harmful.”);
  • There are many ways to get onto boards that aren’t always consistent or advertised to the public (i.e. applications, recommendations from current members, recruitment by staff, a large donation, etc.) and this causes confusion as to who gets a seat, when, and why; 
  • Boards have lost potential members who:
    • Leave to go to other boards; or, 
    • Leave frustrated and offended by the long wait and the lack of communication, and then let their communities know not to trust this organization. And the board members in the room may never realize the damage they have caused with their passivity. 

Sound familiar??? This frustratingly common scenario is way overdue for analysis. So, that is exactly what we are going to do today! We need to stop being passive “diners” taking up space in limited capacity rooms. We need to actively examine our board rooms, not only for who we want to bring into the room but who is already in the room and if they should still be there.  This is going to be hard because dominant culture does not encourage people in power (especially white people) to question whether they should have that power, how they got that power in the first place, and if those methods were racially biased. So, the activity below may be uncomfortable. But that’s good! If we’re not at least a bit uncomfortable doing this work, then we’re not doing it right! 

A cartoon featuring two people standing on either side of an elephant, who is sitting on a living room sofa. The caption reads “What elephant?” Source: Pinterest

Step 1: Establish context:  

  • Remember that NPO board members are volunteers. Yes, they are volunteers with a lot of responsibility and many even bring in large donations or powerful connections, but board members do not get paid by the organization for their work. So, any discussion about who should or should not have a board seat will not result in losing a job. Egos are at stake here, not paychecks.
  • Let’s acknowledge the fear: you may be concerned that having hard conversations about whiteness and power with board members will result in them feeling hurt or offended, which may lead them to pull their donation or access to their networks. That is a possibility. We need to prepare properly for hard conversations, but we also need to give members the benefit of the doubt that they want to live their beliefs and will continue to support the good work of the organization without being “paid with power” to do so. 

Step 2: Examine your beliefs:

With that context in mind, let’s establish some shared beliefs. I crafted this list from the many npo racial equity and/or “we stand in solidarity with BLM” statements out there. So, keep in mind that I am not inventing these beliefs but rather restating them here as context for the self-reflection questions later. 

“I believe…”Circle one:
I believe systemic racism is real and directly connected to the work of my nonprofit.YES     NO
I believe racism can manifest in any/all structures, including in the structures of the board I serve on.  YES     NO
I believe npo boards have power, which impacts the communities their npos serve.  YES     NO
I believe BIPOC understand racism in ways white people can’t (i.e. reading “The New Jim Crow” as a white person is not the same as living as a Black person in America), and this understanding should be centered in racial equity work.  YES     NO
I believe BIPOC have or can cultivate the necessary governing/leadership skills to serve as board members.*YES     NO
I believe those who are most impacted by racial equity decisions should have the power to make them.
(note: If you amended this in your head to read, “have input on decisions” rather than “have the power to make them,” ask yourself if you really believe the previous two statements.)
YES     NO
I believe white allies on boards play a critical role in racial equity, and their actions should center the needs and voices of those most impacted by racial injustice.YES     NO
I believe racial equity work is urgent and needs to happen now.YES     NO
A cartoon featuring an elephant lying on a couch while a therapist listens and writes notes. The caption says “I’m right there in the room, and no one even acknowledges me.” Source: Pinterest

Step 3: Ask yourself some hard questions:

If you answered YES to any of the belief statements above, and especially if you did so for all of them, then continue to the questions below. These questions are designed to help you examine the power you have as a board member and why you have it. 

  1. Why do you serve on your board? 
    • This seems like a simple question but let’s really analyze this. Most board members serve because they want to support an organization working on a cause they really believe in. Members are often asked to join a board because they have skills, networks, or experiences they can contribute to the benefit of the organization. But think about that logic for a second: being on a board is a power-position; does this mean we think board members are only willing to donate their skills, networks, or experiences in exchange for decision-making power? Is that true for you? Are you only willing to donate your services in exchange for a board seat? Or, would you be willing to donate your skills, networks, and/or experiences but without the final decision-making power of a board seat? If not, why not? 
  2. Are you a member of the community/ies most impacted by the injustice your nonprofit is trying to address? 
    • Whatever sector your nonprofit serves – education, environment, housing instability, food scarcity, etc. – I can guarantee you that middle to upper class white people are NOT the most impacted by its injustices. So, if you are a middle to upper class white person and therefore least impacted by the work of your nonprofit, should you have the power to make decisions that affect those who are most impacted? Really grapple with this question. Clearly articulate your rationale and hold it up against the beliefs above. 
  3. Are you taking action to be a white ally on your board?
    • As stated in the beliefs, we need white allies in this work to collaborate with BIPOC and leverage their privileges to identify and uproot racial bias in systems and build real, antiracist solutions. In other words, all “diners” need to be engaged and active in RE work when sitting in this limited capacity “restaurant.” As a white person, are you doing that RE work on your board? If so, what is that work? Attending meetings or working on a gala once a year is not RE work. If you attend meetings and hold the room accountable to evaluate their decisions with an antiracist lens, that is RE work. If you work on the gala and use your influence to equitably fill the room and contract a keynote on racial justice in your sector, that is RE work. If you are not doing this work, why not? What are the expectations of allyship for your white board members? Is there an unspoken assumption that the “new” board members (i.e. BIPOC) will be the ones to take on the RE work, and it’s optional for the “veteran” members?
  4. Does your board turnover match the urgent rate of injustice? 
    • When working with majority white boards, I often hear, “we need to make room at the table for BIPOC to join.” But with limited seating, the only way to make room now is for the folks already there to leave. Are members only rolling off at the rate of your board term limits? Does this rate match the rate of the injustice your organization is trying to address? I have yet to hear a nonprofit director or board member say that their work isn’t urgent and doesn’t need to be addressed right now. If you believe your nonprofit work is urgent and that work is directly connected to systemic racism (see beliefs above), then developing the proper composition of your board to do that work most effectively needs to be just as urgent. Would you be willing to give up your seat before your term limit in order to make space for someone who is more impacted by the decisions being made at the board table? (note: this does not mean you would have to leave the work or the organization. There are other ways to contribute…see below.)
  5. Have you considered flipping your role? 
    • Many majority white boards establish “advisory boards” comprised of the individuals most impacted by the injustices their npo is working to uproot: ex. an environmental org may have an advisory board of Indigenous Tribal Members. These folks are asked to “advise” the white majority board on decisions but they do not have the power to make these decisions on their own. Why not flip that model? As a least impacted person, would you be willing to serve as an advisor to a board comprised of folks who are most impacted? You could share your expertise as a policy-maker, lawyer, program-specialist, etc. If giving up this power makes you uncomfortable, dig into that. Go back to the list of beliefs above. Which of those beliefs are connected to this option of stepping up by stepping aside, and do you believe those?

Step 4: Make a plan…then, do it!

Congratulations for making this far into this activity! Now, you may be asking, “what can I do about all this?” Here’s my recommendation: 

  • Do this work intentionally, not reactively. You don’t want to cause harm or jeopardize the legal status of your organization by making rash decisions. Make a plan, but make sure it has an urgent timeline that matches the rate of the injustice your organization is working to address.
  • Redefine what it means to be “qualified” to serve on your board. Base your rationale on the beliefs you stated in your RE and/or BLM Solidarity statements. Ask yourself, “what do we really believe in, and what are we willing to do to live our beliefs?”
  • Develop a pipeline of potential members who meet your new definition of “qualified.” If you need support creating a pipeline of BIPOC board members, consider partnering with an organization whose goal it is to get BIPOC professionals on boards, like the Black Board of Directors Project. Or, really put-your-money-where-your-solidarity-statement-is and hire a recruiting firm (BIPOC owned and operated, please, like BIPOC Executive Search).  
  • Have the hard conversations with your board chair and/or executive committee about who needs to have decision-making power and who can advise those with power in order to best meet the needs of the work (i.e. step up by stepping aside).
  • Examine your board matrix to prioritize who is in the board room and why. Related, hash out the role of white ally board membersand how they will be held accountable to those standards.
  • And finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. This is challenging and very nuanced work. And it needs to happen now. If you want support in this, please reach out to me. I am here to help. You got this; I got you; together, we can make change. 

It’s time we call out the (white) elephants in the (board) room!

Notes:

*I specifically phrased this belief to read “have or can cultivate” the necessary skills to govern as opposed to just “have” the skills because there is bias in recruiting only for established expertise and not the ability to develop them. To start with, many of the skills NPO boards seek are from sectors that are historically white, like fundraising, law, and finance, so that means without specific recruiting criteria that prioritizes racial diversity, you are more likely to have multiple white fundraising professionals, white lawyers, and white CPAs on your board. Because of this dynamic, many white majority boards subconsciously believe there aren’t any BIPOC professionals out there and they need to “lower the qualifications bar” in order to bring on BIPOC board members. Stop that thinking in its tracks. It is flat out wrong and reeks of implicit bias.There are highly qualified BIPOC professionals out there. Just because you only have experience with white professionals speaks more to the history of the professions you are recruiting from. It also speaks to who is attracted to your organization…and who isn’t. Really examine your needs and intentionally recruit BIPOC who have the skills you need. For example, if you need HR experience, then recruit Black HR professionals. Or, consider what skills new board members can learn rather than only recruiting those who have accreditations (i.e. do you really need a CPA on a board in order to run a financial report?). Finally, consider what you are trading if you unwittingly prioritize skills like fundraising as equal to or in higher value than the experience of BIPOC in a racially biased society. Which understanding is teachable and which only comes with lived experience?

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


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