Expanding the Conversation Around Board Diversity

Guest blog by Janai Gilmore, Director of Systems Transformation,
Co-authored by Shamyle Dobbs, CEO, Michigan Community Resources

The majority of us who invest our time, talent, and treasure into the nonprofit sector- whether as employees, board members, consultants, volunteers, advocates, or donors - do so because we have observed and/or experienced injustice and inequity in the world and want to do something about it. We want to be the change.


We strive to create a world in which characteristics like a person’s race or social class would not be a telling indicator of things like their life expectancy, how likely they are to live in an impoverished community, whether and for how long they will be incarcerated, or, if they’re a 4th grader - how likely they are to be reading at grade level.


Our work in this sector, in many respects, is about helping people navigate broken systems and take incremental strides to success on playing fields that are not designed for them. And, as the results of the 2021 Detroit Nonprofit Leadership Census indicate, the playing fields on which Detroit’s nonprofits operate have never been level.


The Census, an effort spearheaded by Data Driven Detroit, Co.act Detroit, and the Michigan Nonprofit Association with support from the Knight Foundation, was the first effort to gather Detroit-specific data about the racial variance and demographics of nonprofits.


Unfortunately, the data gathered from over 200 survey respondents offers evidence that the same racial disparities in funding for nonprofits surfaced in national studies such as Race to Lead or Echoing Green’s analysis of its 2019 fellowship applicant pool appear in Detroit as well. This was not a surprise to many of us – but offers a concretized opportunity to do something about it.


Data from an analysis of E-filed forms 990-N/-EZ data for 79 responding nonprofits showed that while majority of BIPOC-led organizations' revenue ranged from $3,494 to $2.8M, revenue at majority of White-led organizations ranged $231,050 to $3.2M. Likewise, while the majority of BIPOC-led organizations' assets fell between $471 to $1.8M, assets at the majority of White-led organizations fell between $63,228 to $3.6M.


These apparent disparities in access to resources is undoubtedly related to another set of data points from the survey about board diversity.


In spite of the reality that some of us are nearly exasperated that conversations such as the one recently hosted by Detroit Philanthropy, “Board Diversity: How to Identify and Recruit Diverse Leadership”, are still necessary in our sector, the results of the Leadership Census indicate that they clearly are.


  • In a city in which 10.5% of the population is White and 85.7% of the population is Black or Hispanic, 58.7% of board members at White-led organizations are White.
  • 4.9% of White-led organizations have no BIPOC board members.
  • 44.1% of BIPOC-led organizations have boards that are 100% BIPOC.


Most of these conversations around the absence of board diversity, are largely framed around strategies for majority or exclusively White boards to recruit more people of color. Panelists Gina Coleman, Senior Vice President, and Chief Diversity Officer at PNC Bank; Dr. Darienne Driver Hudson, President & CEO of United Way for Southeastern MI; and Kevin Roach, CEO of Methodist Children’s Home Society offered great insights and ideas for how nonprofits can approach making their boards both more diverse and inclusive (e.g., by making sure voices from the population being served are included, having accountability metrics, and considering diversity from multiple angles). All useful approaches.


However, as a critical and important next step, we must continue to unpack these issues and have difficult and radical conversations around root causes.


As Vu Le wrote in “20 subtle ways white supremacy manifests in nonprofit and philanthropy”:


“White supremacy is not just the cross burnings and racist marches and other awful things we see in the movies. In nonprofit and philanthropy, it manifests in ways we may not even realize, or in ways we refuse to acknowledge as white supremacy. These things add up. They make whiteness the default. They keep power concentrated in white leaders and institutions. It makes it easier for injustice against racialized people and communities to take place.”


At Michigan Community Resources, transforming norms, practices, and attitudes to foster equity within the nonprofit ecosystem and the communities we serve is at the heart of everything we do. We ask the difficult questions. We attempt to unravel complex problems. We provide capacity building supports to nonprofits that often lack access to the funding, knowledge, and networks to broaden and deepen their impact in communities. We center our services around those that are being impacted by philanthropic redlining, “an institutionalized and normative feature of funding that tends to disadvantage organizations that are deeply embedded in disinvested, highly impoverished and racialized communities. We aim to be the change.


Through programs such as Kresge Innovative Projects Detroit Plus, North End Resilience Project, and one on one consulting, we work with organizations led by people living and working most closely to the issues they seek to address.


Many of them do their work without recognition and pay. They are in the neighborhoods, seeing the need, experiencing the need, meeting the need, nurturing the hopes and dreams of communities that have historically been economically, socially, and culturally marginalized. And many of them are led by BIPOC.


We not only believe in their leadership, but we advocate tirelessly for better access and outcomes. We believe that to create thriving communities and a more equitable nonprofit ecosystem, the COLLECTIVE WE - that involves everyone reading this article- must be intentional about asking how we can invest in these organizations with our time, talent, and treasure – whether as board members, donors, or advocates.


We also need to be willing to have those courageous conversations.


To continue this conversation, join us and our co-host Co.act Detroit on May 19, 2022, from 9 am to 1 pm for a conversation about how we can more equitably invest in organizations like these to advance racial and social equity in the communities we serve at  “How We Invest” - the 2022 Detroit Capacity Building Forum. Register here.