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    Closing the Gender Gap on Nonprofit Boards

    Findings presented by Prof. Cathryn Cushner Edelstein.

    One of the leading issues within the nonprofit sector is board diversity. Boards are often composed of people from the same socioeconomic status, the same gender, race and overall, the same demographic. Why do you think this is, and what steps can a board of directors take to change this?


    In its results, Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, shared that 72% of nonprofit CEO/Executive Director positions are held by females, while only 48% of females are Executive Board Members and 42% are Board Chairs. An article I wrote, Nonprofit Board Membership and the Gender Gap, published in Tripodos, takes a look at the processes that may explain these results and how to change the outcome. 


    Here are some findings...

    When organizations are first created, the board of directors often consists of the founder and their friends or colleagues who share enthusiasm for the organization’s mission. Often the members resemble each other as they are in the founder’s circle of contemporaries. Though the members are supportive of the founder and the cause, they may not have the necessary expertise needed as the organization grows. It is at this pivotal time of growth when a board has the opportunity to change its composition.


    When a board reckons it should recruit new members, existing members may simply ask around and see if friends or colleagues are interested or use past metrics and tools. Doing this will most likely keep the board's composition as it is - stagnant and exclusive. Instead, a board should use this moment to take a different approach - beginning with an open discussion about its composition goals and what new tools they will use to assess needs while adding diversity to its membership. Board assessment tools are plentiful but not all address board composition. Take a look at McKinsey’s Board Assessment Tool,  it contains comprehensive prompts about board composition.


    Reasons to change a board’s composition:

    • Increasingly, funders are requesting information about board diversity and want to know if the constituency served is reflected in the board’s membership. (
    • Donors now have access to the demographics of a Board’s composition through GuideStar, and are hesitant about donating to organizations with exclusive Board composition. 
    • “With a diversity of experience, expertise, and perspectives, a nonprofit is in a stronger position to plan for the future, manage risk, make prudent decisions, and take full advantage of opportunities.” (Council of Nonprofits) 
    • In 2021 diversity is key. (CEO Monthly)
    • “Women control more of the financial pie than ever before.” (Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors)
    • It is the right thing to do. 


    When a board realizes and accepts the notion of adding women and perhaps also decides to add greater diversity to its membership, what steps can it take to recruit members? The short answer is to look outside the current members’ circle of friends and cast a greater net in a different direction. 


    There are numerous professional groups, and other potential leads to sources, that provide access to diverse leaders interested in joining boards.  Here are a few ideas:


    • Boardlist, with access to 5000 candidates is, “Connecting exceptional “diverse candidates with global board opportunities.” 
    • Seek a wide range of online and print publications to post the position. For example, try posting a description of the position along with information about the organization on LinkedIn. 
    • Become a partner organization with the African American Board Leadership Institute (AABLI). 
    • Contact your state’s nonprofit sector network for ideas.
    • Check out BoardSource’s Board Posting and Matching by Region. 
    • Lastly, watch the Candid/learning webinar video, Steps You Can Take Immediately to Diversify Your Board and Major Donor Base, to better understand how boards can identify and recruit diverse board prospects. 


    The fifth United Nations Sustainable Development goal is Gender Equity and it recognizes the need for women to be in leadership positions. Towards this goal, nonprofit organizations have a responsibility to address gender inequity and exclusivity on boards and confront the challenges that continue to produce exclusive boards.


    Written by Prof. Cathryn Cushner Edelstein, Senior Executive-in-Residence, Communication Studies Department, Director of the Nonprofit Communication Management Program, Emerson College, Boston, MA.