Skip to main content

Who's at the table: Diversifying boards and committees

By Jeremy Freeman

Large conference table in office with empty chairs
Bringing diversity, whether it be ethnic, age, gender or socio-economic status, into your committees and executive boards can strengthen your approach in addressing community needs. As evidenced in this summary by the National Council of Nonprofits, board diversity is critically important to its effectiveness. Some of the benefits diversity brings include better decision making, better connections and networks, and better insight and discernment into the lived experiences of individual members within the community. If we want to represent and govern our organizations on behalf of the community, ensuring the lived experiences of young people are taken into account when decisions are made, working to diversify our governing bodies so they represent the community is a good first step. 

Yet if we look practically at the makeup of our volunteer networks, particularly boards and committees within youth development programs, what do we see? Many of the seats in executive boards, county Extension committees and program development committees (PDCs) can be filled with like-minded individuals who passionately support our programs because of their inherent affiliation. This is a common trend. While gender diversity on nonprofit boards may be at parity, according to a recent report, diversity in age, race and ethnicity on nonprofit boards falls short of reflecting the overall diversity within the United States. Strikingly, in another report, nearly half (49%) of chief executives said they did not have the right board members to 'establish trust' with the communities they serve, and even fewer (28%) place a high priority on membership within the community served.

So how can we begin to take steps to diversify boards and committees within our community programs?

Below I highlight a few ways, but I’d love to hear from you about your experiences. 
  • To begin with, we have to acknowledge that simply adding a new member is not enough. Building an inclusive culture and climate within a committee is essential. I appreciate the way BoardSource framed it: "An inclusive board welcomes and celebrates differences and ensures that all board members are equally engaged and invested, sharing power and responsibility for the board’s work, the organization’s mission and its purpose." A culture of inclusivity is about more than representation. It takes into account who has power, how decisions are made, whose voices are heard, and what responsibilities are valued. 
  • Secondly, building awareness of the current diversity within a structure is a good starting point. In Appendix D of Working Effectively with Advisory Councils and Other Leadership Groups, you can find a table on selecting a diverse advisory council. It’s a great visual to see the current makeup of your committee, and where you may have some gaps. It also recognizes that diversity means more than ethnicity. Members of different ages, with diverse skills and expertise, build diversity.
  • Third, consider developing a recruitment committee made up of external and internal appointees tasked with identifying diverse candidates for board membership. Rather than relying on diverse members to come to us, this appointed committee can turn intent into action by being on the front-end of welcoming and engaging new candidates.

By expanding and diversifying our committees and boards, we are doing more than meeting parity, we are positioning ourselves to be active contributors within our communities to address the critical issues and needs of all Minnesota youth.

-- Jeremy Freeman, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Thank you, Jeremy, for bringing this up. It has prompted me to critically consider the groups I am involved with, both professionally and personally. I align with the perspective that we shouldn't wait for diverse individuals to approach us for committee service; instead, we should take a proactive stance in seeking out individuals who can provide strong representation and valuable contributions to our program.

    1. Abby, being proactive is an essential step in growing and developing our governing boards. I encourage committees to maintain a running list of potential board members. Not all of them may be ready to commit at the current moment in time for the group, but keeping the list active and growing helps ensure that we are thoughtful in planning out succession.

      We often fall into the trap of first asking 'does this person know my organization' when a more crucial question raised by my post should be "does this person enhance trust within the communities I serve."

      Learning the organization is important, and we want to ensure members commit to our mission and purpose, but all of that falls short if they are not someone who exemplifies trust and can serve on behalf of the community.

  2. Thanks for this post. I especially appreciate that you discussed the importance of organizational culture and climate with regard to creating a board (or really any volunteer experience) that ensures dignity and belonging for new volunteers whose identities are not well represented on the current board. You've got me thinking about how to engage current board members as partners in the work of investigating how decisions are made, whose voices are heard, and what responsibilities are valued. Thanks again, Jeremy.

    1. Marisa, I appreciate your idea of engaging members as partners in this process. Depending on the committee this approach may invoke a measure of discomfort, anxiety or fear of the unknown - what will happen if we break up the status quo?

      Finding individuals within the board who can champion and support the work is essential and utilizing a partnership approach is a great strategy.

  3. What do you think about the idea now being proposed by several high school students - to require that every public school board include at least two voting student members, elected by students?


Post a Comment