One Source of Answers to Our Educational Divide: Diverse and Inclusive Nonprofit Boards

People who get all their news from the front page, the home page, or the first 10 minutes of the evening news could be forgiven for seeing in the United States a country irretrievably fractured along unbridgeable fault lines.

But look a little more closely and you’ll see a different picture. You will see a country with disagreements on important issues, yes, but also a civil society held together to a significant degree by more than a million and a half nonprofit groups — such as religious institutions, neighborhood associations, kids’ sports leagues, and educational organizations. Each has a mission: to do important work that makes this a better world. And each has a board of directors, citizens who, in their free time, work hard to steward the group’s affairs and keep it focused effectively on its mission.

Taken together, they form a web that can bridge the gaps that separate us. This capacity to help restore civility to our society is especially important in the world of education, where boards hold the power to ensure that their organizations fulfill their potential to improve the opportunities available to all children and address the glaring and persistent inequities in our public schools. There are countless nonprofit educational organizations — public charter schools, charter management organizations, most colleges and universities, and reform-oriented organizations such as the two we lead — each governed by its own board.

Each nonprofit board is a little civil society all its own. Working side by side on a board provides an opportunity for proximity, which is fundamental to bridging differences and lessening discrimination, distance, and divide. On boards, we work month after month with people we might never have otherwise met. We share late nights in board or committee meetings, wrestling with complex decisions for which there are no easy answers. And often, we find time to ask about one another’s kids, parents, and hobbies, share why we found ourselves serving on this board for this mission at this moment, and dream together about what this organization and its beneficiaries can achieve.

Effective boards offer the opportunity to knit our society back together through civil discourse, compromise, and collaboration. The processes and structures of good governance provide guardrails for the conversations.

In the area of diversity, however, many boards and many organizations are falling short, jeopardizing their bridging capacity as well as the promise of their missions. Too many boards are not racially diverse and reflect neither the society around them nor the people they serve. A quarter of all nonprofit boards in the U.S. are all-white. Eighty percent of nonprofit board members, and 90 percent of board chairs, are white.

In many cases, this happens because the majority of nonprofits are launched and maintained for the benefit of the disadvantaged, many of whom are people of color, by those who are more fortunate, most of whom are not.

That the better-off would organize to help those who are less well-off is laudable. But UNCF’s seven decades of experience helping students of color go to and through college have taught us that movements for social change — for example, the charter schools of which we are both enthusiastic supporters — find lasting success only when the beneficiaries of change are at the table, often at the head.

To exclude, even unintentionally, the beneficiaries of change from the leadership leads too often to policies and actions that conflict with the culture and traditions of the beneficiary community, and are thus well-intended but unsustainable. It leads to reform that is done not “with” communities, but “to” them, as was examined in UNCF’s report, Done to Us, Not With Us: African American Parent Perceptions of K-12 Education.

Effective nonprofit boards exercise strategic and thoughtful leadership that helps organizations achieve their missions, and they bring citizens together in meaningful ways, building connections within and among communities. They understand and implement the tenets of good governance, exercise independent and informed thinking, operate transparently, and hold themselves accountable. And they actively seek board members who bring diversity of thought, characteristics, and perspectives. Our society is diverse, and its social institutions should be governed by diverse boards. We maintain that boards cannot be effective drivers of their organizations’ missions, or engines of civil discourse, unless they are diverse and inclusive.

Diverse boards are not the only answer to what ails our not-always-civil society. But without them, change cannot take root; they are an important and powerful part of our ongoing journey toward civility.

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