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A Board Room Dilemma: Why we should diversify our boards

By Angilee Shah for Borealis REJ

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

BoardBuilding007 asks: Why should we diversify our board and how do we go about doing that?

Dear BoardBuilding007,

For a long time our conversations about diversity in the media were divorced from revenue and fundraising strategies. But this is the core of how decisions are made at institutions, so whether your organization is two or 200 people, it is important that the spaces of power such as your board are reflective of your values. Indeed, this is where structural biases and organizational culture begins.

Gabe Schneider wrote elegantly for Reynolds Journalism Institute about the “exclusive club” of editorial boards in newsrooms. He says that “if papers want to demonstrate a commitment to the communities they serve, and they insist on having an editorial board, then there is a necessity to ensure they actually represent those communities.”

The same is true of governance or oversight boards. Whether your board’s primary function is financial oversight, strategy or you give your board power to shape the direction of your organization, the people on it can and should have influence.

When I advise organizations on this subject I ask a very simple question: What skills are most important to the long-term health of your organization?

These skills often include:

  • technical skills such as lawyers, actuaries or accountants
  • connections to local businesses
  • nonprofit and foundation know-how
  • networks to fundraise

But they should also include something crucial: Trust from the people you want to serve. It’s an often undervalued skill for a board member but a crucial one if you are building a media organization that is responsive to a particular community.

Stephanie Castellano wrote at API last year about how to form a community advisory board. It’s a useful guide to increasing the power of more people in your editorial process. I would argue, though, that your core board, the one that is in charge of governance, would do well to follow these principles as well.

From my experience coaching new and long-running organizations, as well as serving on the board of my local news organization, one of the best things you can do is to recruit people to your board because they have a skill that you think will be valuable to your community and organization. Here are few more tips to recruit a board that reflects your community:

  • Do not recruit people solely to fill a demographic quota. Rather, articulate what is valuable to you, including board members’ relationships with and understanding of different people who are your stakeholders. Think across demographics, including race, disability, age and class.
  • Being on a board is a service (sometimes volunteer, sometimes not) and a mark of prestige. It can be pro-forma or incredibly time consuming. Be clear about what you want from potential board members in terms of their time and skills. Explain what they will gain from the experience.
  • Many people think — through experience — that in order to be on a board, you need deep pockets or connections to people with deep pockets. Indeed, many organizations expect their boards to contribute financially. Be clear about the revenue model you are trying to build and how you think a potential board member can help. Be direct about any existing board members and what they bring to the organization.

Good luck on your mission, BoardBuilding007!

Angilee

P.S. Gabe is also the editor of The Objective, which is a must-subscribe for people interested in representation in news media.