Ensure your DEI work takes root: How to engage your Board of Directors in DEI

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An organization’s board of directors serve as important roots. They help establish many foundational elements of an organization that then extend throughout it like the branches of a tree. In the past year many organizations have had an increased desire to engage in necessary diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work, which they must extend to their board of directors.  

Whether they are aware or their responsibility or not, board of directors are crucial in an organization’s DEI work. As articulated by BoardSource, due to the responsibilities of their position they “[serve] as a reflection of an organization’s values and beliefs about who should be empowered and entrusted with its most important decisions… [and] play a critical role in helping organizations understand the context in which they work and how best to prioritize resources and strategies based on that reality.” 

Though many organizations and board of directors want to engage in this work they might lack the knowhow or even self-awareness to begin it themselves. “I think an example of [what can hold back a board from engaging in an organization’s DEI work is when they uphold] processes that have existed without any introspection,” said Kathleen Von Euw, who works at YW Boston as an InclusionBoston Manager. “Maintaining the status quo may be continuing to perpetuate structures that are inequitable.” 

InclusionBoston provides long-term partnerships to organizations, including board of directors, and assists in the creation of a tailored plan to help implement DEI-based practices and policies. We recently talked to Kathleen as well as Evan Hines, who also works at YW Boston as an InclusionBoston Manager, about how board of directors can engage in DEI work making their organization a more inclusive space.

1. Make diversity a priority within your board  

According to BoardSource’s 2021 Leading With Intent Data Report,  a majority of those serving on a nonprofit board or in board leadership positions identified as White/Caucasian/European – significantly more than half. 87% were chief executives, 83% were board chairs, and 78% were board members. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) representation at the board level was shown as being extremely scarce. Corporate board diversity may fair even worse with 84% of Fortune 500 board members identifying as White according to a 2018 report from Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity.  

An organization’s attempts at DEI efforts mean nothing if the members of the board itself are not representative of the diversity of stakeholders and communities they intend to serve. At YW Boston, we reference a tool called the Organizational DEI Journey. This helps organizations visualize where they are as they take steps to ultimately become a Fully Inclusive Organization. A well-meaning organization and board of directors may make official statements on diversity but still have a lot more internal work to do when it comes to the actual diversity of their board. This would put them in the “Symbolic Change” category of the Organizational DEI Journey, several steps away from being “Fully Inclusive.”  

“If there’s an organization that says that they’ve got a statement about diversity on their website, one of the first things I’m going to look at is their board of directors,” said Evan. “If there’s no diversity there, I’m like, ‘well, it’s just a statement.’” 

The more diverse an organization’s board of directors are the easier they will be able to work with the community their organization represents. As Robin Stacia wrote in Bloomerang, “When [a] board is composed of diverse members they are better able to understand the voices and perspectives of the community, their concerns, and their interests and, ultimately, join the community as a partner in the strategies they are seeking to implement [at the benefit of the organizations they service].” 

Robin later gives advice on specific action board members can take in order to increase diversity mentioning that board members must stop relying on “traditional practices.” Relying on the immediate circle of current board members as well as current community leaders are “practices [that] serve to ignore eligible board candidates of color.” Anouska Bhattacharyya, Ph.D, Director of Inclusion Boston said, “This is like a board only [growing] roots in one direction, which isn’t a healthy way to source all the nutrients a tree [, and board,] needs to grow!” 

2. Take time to understand diversity, equity, and inclusion 

Board of directors cannot focus on diversity alone while engaging in their DEI work as it’s not enough nor sustainable. In order to help foster diversity among their board members and related workforce it is essential to build inclusive practices and equitable structures as well. 

By educating themselves in DEI work board of directors are better able to reflect DEI work in the organization they serve and in the decisions they make. As stated on BoardSource, “An awareness [created from being equity-focused,] of how systemic inequities have affected our society and those an organization serves enables boards to avoid blind spots that can lead to flawed strategies, and creates powerful opportunities to deepen the organization’s impact, relevance, and advancement of the public good.” Board of directors must also focus on inclusiveness which allows each individual member to show up fully as themselves as they are. “An inclusive board culture welcomes and celebrates differences and ensures that all board members are equally engaged and invested, sharing power and responsibility for the organization’s mission and the board’s work.” 

Kathleen said she thinks it’s necessary for an organization to develop a DEI understanding. “[The] board is sort of pulling the levers of approval for resources, time, [and] the setting of priorities,” which is why the understanding of DEI work is important. She further explains that if an organization is making an effort to prioritize DEI work but the board isn’t consistent in this reflection it could have a negative effect on the organization. Without the board of directors having gone through necessary DEI work and reflection, the staff is going to potentially get pushback as they try to implement DEI initiatives.  

Here at YW Boston our own board of directors have made a continued effort in understanding DEI through participating in workshops. Wendy Foster, YW Boston Board Member, highlighted this sharing:  

“This past year, as part of its learning agenda, the YW Boston board participated in two board workshops: Understanding Racial Equity and Understanding Implicit Bias.  We tackled topics such as social identity, mental models, how to have inclusive conversations that promote learning and growth, and how to disrupt bias in decision making; and we practiced applying these topics in case study discussions.  Learning individually and together in workshops like these is helping us create a more inclusive and equity-focused board culture.  To have the greatest impact, boards have to ‘walk the talk’ and do the work!” 

Wendy Foster, YW Boston Board Member

This sentiment was echoed by Robin Vann Ricca, Clerk on the YW Boston Board and Vice President, Organizational Development and Human Resources at Road Scholar sharing: 

“The opportunity to participate in our own continued learning and development through participation in YW Boston’s Understanding Racial Equity workshops designed especially for the board have been invaluable as we seek to deepen our own practice, knowledge and commitment to the important work of supporting and guiding the organization’s work to fulfill YW Boston’s mission.”

Robin Vann Ricca, Clerk, Vice President of the YW Boston Board
3. The board of directors and the organization as a whole should hold themselves and each other accountable with DEI efforts 

One of the takeaways we hope will guide your board of directors is that engaging in DEI work across the culture of an organization shouldn’t just stem from one place. Board of directors, leadership team members, and staff all have to holistically work together to move the organization to the Fully Inclusive stage of their Organizational DEI journey.  

This collaborative work can be difficult. Both Evan and Kathleen acknowledged that there are power dynamics between a board of directors and the leaders and staff within an organization. While this can be challenging, regularly checking in about your organization’s DEI efforts will help you stay on track. As Robin Stacia wrote in Bloomerang, “Through prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion your board and nonprofit are committing to transformational work that will benefit your organization and community.” 

"One of the takeaways we hope will guide your board of directors is that engaging in DEI work across the culture of an organization shouldn’t just stem from one place." Share on X
YW Boston’s The Role of Governing Boards in Driving DEI Work workshop can help give your board of directors the framework and tools to help your organization successfully engage with DEI work. 

The U.S. is becoming more diverse each day. As reported by The Washington Post, “[By 2045], there will be no racial majority in the country.” This makes the DEI work your board of directors accomplishes more important than ever as it not only helps your organization adapt to an increasingly diverse Boston but also can help the economy of Boston. As stated by former Boston Mayor Martin J Walsh. “Equity is not only essential to achieving a just society, but it’s also a strategic imperative for our economy. America is getting more diverse, not less. And the world is getting ever more connected.” Our workshop can be an organization-changing first step in this process.  

For more information or to discuss scheduling a consultation please contact Sheera Bornstein at sheera@ywboston.org. 


About YW Boston 

As the first YWCA in the nation, YW Boston has been at the forefront of advancing equity for over 150 years. Through our DE&I services—InclusionBoston and LeadBoston—as well as our advocacy work and F.Y.R.E. Initiative, we help individuals and organizations change policies, practices, attitudes, and behaviors with a goal of creating more inclusive environments where women, people of color, and especially women of color can succeed. 

Whether your organization is large or small, you’re just starting out with DEI, or are further along on the journey, YW Boston will work with you to find the right solutions. YW Boston offers a variety of DEI Services designed to create lasting change. For more information, please contact Sheera Bornstein at sheera@ywboston.org.

About InclusionBoston  

InclusionBoston advances diversity, equity, and inclusion by partnering with organizations looking for improved results. Using our advanced assessment tool and the latest research on behavioral and organizational change, we partner with organizations to create an action plan and provide them with the resources needed to drive lasting change. Our customized, evidence-based approach builds internal capacity and promotes cultural change while supporting organizations throughout their journey. YW Boston also offers one-day workshops where participants explore frameworks, develop knowledge, and engage in dialogue.

Ready to unlock the power of diversity in the workplace? Click here to learn more about InclusionBoston and request your free consultation.