Moving your board toward diversity is tough. Everyone knows it has to be done; yet, as Newton’s first law of motion states, a body at rest tends to stay at rest. Inertia, the tendency of a body to resist change, is the norm. Similarly, without a push or a pull, we continue to look to our usual sources for new board members. Or worse, to satisfy ‘best practice’ requirements, we collect tokens.
But what if the incentive is big enough to disrupt the inertia? If your board foresaw a financial crisis, all of a sudden the trustees would start looking for funds. But what external force would push a board to focus on diversity? Is there a compelling reason to really embrace diversity on a board?
Yes. The future.
As reported by David Feitler in Harvard Business Review, two different studies show that diverse groups are more likely to foster innovation. Prof. Lee Fleming and his colleagues at Stanford University found that “higher-valued industrial innovation…is more likely to arise when diverse teams are assembled of people with deep subject matter expertise in their areas.” Prof. Ben Jones and colleagues at Kellogg Business School of Northwestern University found that “the most influential [research] papers…exhibited an intrusion of interdisciplinary information” and “groups were more likely to foster these intrusions than solo researchers.”
Surprisingly, it’s not a great leap to go from research and industrial innovation to nonprofit boards; even in the nonprofit sector, research supports the idea that greater diversity promotes greater organization success.
Of course, research is great, but if you want to hear a real world example, I can attest to the excitement that comes from having a diverse board. Meeting with the board of a regional theater group, I showed them a headline from five years in the future. “Exclusive interview: Theatre Group tells how they did it!”
Their assignment? For the next ten minutes, write down what amazing things the organization had accomplished that prompted this headline. What activities or initiatives did you take that made it possible? How did you do it? Whom did you collaborate with? What did it do for the community?
When we regrouped, the stories started emerging. But instead of centering on what the organization was currently doing, each individual brought her own vision of what the organization could become. One focused on the what the competed capital campaign would make possible. One added the idea that their education programs became a template for programs across the country. Another focused on building the writers’ workshops. Another focused on collaboration with a number of other community arts organizations. As each idea was presented, conversation grew more animated, as each added details from their own backgrounds.
Because of the diversity in age, experience, life stage, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, they built a rich picture of the future that no single one of them could have imagined. The stories they created together are forming the basis for a vision toward which they’ll work.
This same exercise, in a much less diverse group, produced stories that were less visionary. Group members were almost all of the same ethnicity, age range and socio-economic level. They built on each others’ ideas, but with incremental steps in the same direction. The difference between the two groups was evident.
We tell people to think outside the box, but it’s not easy. We are bound by our own experience. Yet when your board is filled with people who naturally come from other backgrounds, the scope of imagination is enlarged by this rich diversity.
Diversity isn’t a box to check on a grant application, or an ‘ought to have. Diversity of experience and thought is vital to the future of your organization.
What do you think? How have you seen diversity add to visioning the future? I’d love to hear your experiences; or, if you’d like to bring these ideas – or this exercise – to your organization, let me know. You can reach me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.