If Your Board Looked Like Your Community

Moving Board Diversity from a ‘Problem to Solve’ to ‘Something to Practice.’ Staff and Board Members Weigh in on Common Hurdles and How to Overcome Them.

Josephine Ramirez
Jun 15, 2016 · 16 min read
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Oakland Museum of California’s Pacific Worlds Community Welcoming | Photo: Alessandra Mello
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Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Fellows Retreat | Photo: Tommy Lau

Hurdle #1: Considering diversity an important qualification of board membership.


Recognizing the Opportunities a Diverse Board Brings

The common expectations for a board of directors are well known across the arts field–help us raise money, help us think and act strategically, and, for “working boards,” help us get the work done. But does who is on the board matter as much as what they’re doing? The first hurdle you might face in convincing the board to consider its own makeup is that representation matters.

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  • A board composed of members from many different backgrounds and experiences enable you to solve problems more strategically because every member brings a unique lens to the issue at hand.
  • Given the complicated (ongoing) history of diversity and inclusion in America, people who look, act, or think differently than “the majority” have likely learned unique adaptation skills that your organization will find valuable.
  • It can be invigorating for a board to hear directly from the communities that are impacted by the art on your stage or your walls; a board member who is deeply embedded in one of those communities can serve as a constant guidepost.
  • Maintaining a board representative of your community, with the capacity to help share that community’s story, is captured in the spirit of why boards exist in the nonprofit structure.

Getting Started

Two years ago, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival made a commitment to inclusive casting, to hire 50% actors of color across their season and achieve gender parity. “We had a background for these types of discussions. But it was still hard. Segmenting our board into specific categories goes against our culture of ‘y’all come,’” described Toby Leavitt, Executive Director at San Francisco Shakespeare Festival.

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  • Explore different models of financial giving expectations for board members, particularly if you are concerned about the short-term negative economic impact of diversifying your board. “We have three options for board giving: give, give/get, and a ‘meaningful’ contribution based on your personal circumstances, a gift that is among the three largest you give in a year.” Paula Ely, Board Member of Cornerstone Theater Company.
  • Use hard data as a jumping off point. “I sit on another board that just hadn’t been educated about what Orange County looks like today. They live in neighborhoods where they don’t have a lot of exposure to the diversity of our community. I brought in census data for Orange County by age and ethnicity, how much it’s changed in the past ten years. They were blown away when I put the data in front of them.” Mildred García, Board Member of Pacific Symphony.
  • Keep at it, even when it’s hard or uncomfortable or risky. “Don’t think of board diversity as a one-shot deal that you can talk about once and then it goes away. The leadership at the top needs to be committed to it, and use their pulpit to keep the organization focused on it. Take the time to talk about it, wrestle with all the complexity. If the board is fearful of change or skeptical of the value, it’s your job to convince them.” Mildred García, Board Member of Pacific Symphony.

Taking Action

Big change starts with small steps. Here are some examples of steps you can take today:

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Cornerstone Theater Company presents “Urban Rez” | Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell

Hurdle #2: Defining your community and what it means for your board to be “representative.”


Choosing Who Is Important to Your Organization

“We worked with the DeVos Institute of Arts Management to create a description of our ‘ideal board,’” explained Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez, Executive Director of MACLA.

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An “ideal” board composition slide excerpted from MACLA’s “Ideal” Board Charter Presentation.
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An excerpt from Cornerstone’s internal tracking spreadsheet of board diversity, giving, and expertise.

Getting Started

John Forsyte, President, Pacific Symphony described, “Our approach to board member recruitment is driven by our organizational strategy, goals, and values.”

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An in-progress draft of the introduction to Pacific Symphony’s Statement of Inclusion.
  • Attend performances and be aware of the audiences. Have an anecdotal feel for the community, what they’re feeling, what they look like,” Barbara Fatum, Board Member of San Francisco Shakespeare Festival.
  • Get below the rough cut of census data. Develop evaluation criteria for the staff and the board. Bring in more inclusion training. Resist the overly generic, ‘we just need more Asian Americans’ type sentiment, and instead focus on increasing cultural competency, not just adding new people to the board,” Toby Leavitt, Executive Director of San Francisco Shakespeare Festival.
  • Find opportunities to instigate change, like winning the support of a new funder, undergoing a transition of leadership, or kicking off a strategic planning process. “Our grant from Irvine gave us a useful prompt to start codifying something inherent to our culture, but hasn’t been as deliberate as perhaps it should be,” John Forsyte, President of Pacific Symphony.
  • Evolve your board as your community changes. “Tracking board diversity metrics is a dynamic process. We’re always trying to evaluate where we are now, what we are learning, and how we need to change as our community is changing.” Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez, Executive Director of MACLA.
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Taking Action

Definitions can make us uncomfortable. Here are some examples of steps you can take today:

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State of the Valley Conference in Santa Clara | Photo: Carolina Wilson (Peninsula Press)

Hurdle #3: Finding and recruiting new board members that are representative of your community.


Finding Them

“We look for board members in a variety of ways,” said Michael Garcés. “From business owners among our neighbors in the downtown arts district to colleagues of our existing board members to people we have met in the communities where we’ve worked. It’s a collective effort by the board, ensemble and staff to generate a list of potential new board members and then we work together on cultivation. Diversity is one of the many factors that we consider when evaluating new members.”

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A LinkedIn message from Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez (Executive Director of MACLA) to Veronica Juarez (Head of Enterprise Initiatives at Lyft).

Recruiting Them

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Taking Action

Reaching a diverse set of potential board members can require a diverse set of approaches. Here are some examples of steps you can take today:

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Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Fellows Retreat | Photo: Tommy Lau

Hurdle #4: Getting new and old board members to work together and learn from each other.


Letting Yourself Change

“Inclusion is about bringing in individuals that will have new ways of doing things; don’t let them assimilate into what you already have. That’s scary for institutions. It takes time, for people to share their ideas and fears,” advises Mildred García, Pacific Symphony Board Member.

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  • Be transparent. “It’s more awkward for us than them, to talk about their capacity to give. Potential board members just want to know what’s expected,” Paula Ely, Board Member of Cornerstone Theater Company.
  • Give board members a project to tackle. “In our work with DeVos, we realized that like many other boards, we were pretty inward-facing. The board was spending a lot of time in meetings reviewing financial statements, approving policies, hearing reports from different staff members, who themselves were spending a ton of time trying to assemble a giant board book for every meeting. We flipped the ratio, so now we’re giving fewer backward-looking reports and instead engaging the board with our artistic plans for the future, and giving them an opportunity to identify projects they want to take on, to enlist their friends and colleagues in helping us, which keeps everyone more engaged,” Megan Wanlass, Managing Director of Cornerstone Theater Company.

Taking Action

Even after the right people are in the room, it’s still hard work. Here’s a step you can take today:

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Cornerstone Theater Company presents “Urban Rez” | Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell

We want to hear from you: What are the hurdles you’re facing in representing community on your board?

Log in to Medium to respond below.

We’ll host a follow up story in the coming weeks with more of your insights and a few more thoughts from our grantee-partners.


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Josephine Ramirez

Written by

Portfolio Director, The James Irvine Foundation

NEW FACES | NEW SPACES

Inspiring stories and practical advice about embedding art in our communities and community in our organizations.

Josephine Ramirez

Written by

Portfolio Director, The James Irvine Foundation

NEW FACES | NEW SPACES

Inspiring stories and practical advice about embedding art in our communities and community in our organizations.

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