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How to Make Socioeconomic Diversity a Priority in Your Board Search

Written by: Drew Lindsay
Published on: Feb 5, 2020

Albert Ruesga grew up without his father. His mother, a Cuban immigrant, worked full time and did what she could to provide for her family. But it was sometimes the kindness of strangers that put food on the table, and there were years where they lived in a roach-infested ghetto tenement. "We were unambiguously poor," he remembers.

You wouldn’t easily discover this about Mr. Ruesga. Today, he’s a philanthropy consultant, with degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a resume that features stints at prestigious foundations, including seven-plus years as president of the Greater New Orleans Foundation. Nor does he readily talk about these hard times. "It’s not something you wear on your sleeve," he says.

Mr. Ruesga and others like him present a conundrum for nonprofits that want to build boards that are socioeconomically diverse. They are ideal candidates — accomplished individuals with intimate knowledge of some of the problems charities aim to solve. Yet their resumes and credentials hold few clues to their socioeconomic class or experience with poverty.

To find the Albert Ruesgas who can serve on your board, organizations need to make recruitment a more holistic, intentional process, champions of diversity say. Too often, charities do casual searches that rely on scanning candidates’ credentials and tapping board members’ personal networks. Instead, they need to purposely seek individuals who might never hit the radar of a traditional search.

Here are some ways to go about it:

Build talent pipelines and groom people for boards. The work to build a diverse board must begin long before a position opens up. Organizations should identify up-and-comers in their cause area or community who are likely to become standout leaders, says Kate Dewey, president of the Forbes Funds, a Pittsburgh grant maker that works to strengthen management of nonprofits. One resource to scout talent: published lists of leaders in business, technology, health care, and other sectors outside the nonprofit community.

Initial outreach may be informal, but some individuals should be recruited — and paid — to join corporate-style leadership programs that introduce them to the group’s work and its board while they serve as quasi-members, Ms. Dewey says. Through this relationship, the organization can get to know the individuals, their background, and their fit on the board. Those people, meanwhile, can learn about the group and become its ambassadors.

Focus searches on less-than-wealthy regions. The California Endowment could easily fill its board with people from the wealthy regions of Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Silicon Valley, says President Robert Ross. But it purposely looks for some members from the Central Valley, a farming region and home to some deep poverty. "That’s our Rust Belt," he says.

Interview, interview, interview. Vincent Robinson, founder of executive-search firm the 360 Group, says organizations need to go further than the typical formal interview. He suggests they meet with candidates several times, and outside the office, to look beyond their resumes and credentials and get a sense of their background and values.

The California Endowment makes a point of talking with candidates repeatedly in casual settings. "It’s a lot of cups of coffee," says Dr. Ross, an M.D.

Dig beyond traditional diversity markers. Racial, gender, and ethnic diversity are important, Mr. Robinson says. A woman of color will bring to the board table a different "lived experience" than a white man, and thus different perspectives, he says. But a multiracial, multiethnic, gender-balanced board doesn’t guarantee such diversity of thought, especially if it tilts toward rarefied groups like Ivy League graduates or corporate executives — which makes economic diversity equally critical.

Use a search firm. Not every expert embraces this advice. But Dr. Ross says the California Endowment retains several firms to help find nontraditional board candidates. "They know how to deploy resources to expand networks," he says. They’re also responsive to a client’s requests for candidates who fit a particular profile, he adds: "That’s their job."

Seek a variety of perspectives and personalities. Hoping for boards that are collegial, nonprofits often look for "safe" candidates who won’t rock the boat, Mr. Robinson says. "You have to realize that you’re not creating a cocktail party or a dinner party; you’re trying to create a force that can drive innovation in the work that you do."