Creating an Inclusive Environment


Changing Board Culture: Changing the culture of any group of people is difficult. An organization usually creates its culture over time and groups often take as long as three years to make more substantive cultural change. Culture is often invisible, so just identifying the current characteristics of a board of directors' culture can be challenging.

Making cultural shifts related to issues of race, ethnicity, and who has power and influence in an organization can take even more time than other desired culture shifts, and anxiety and unpredictable behavior often accompany such shifts. Don't expect that re-creating a culture of a board of directors that has been relatively homogeneous for some time will happen overnight.

Fortunately, most people are resilient, and as long as the leadership communicates frequently and effectively, articulates expectations clearly, and shows a sustained commitment, most people will stay with the process while the shifts occur.


Commitment from Board Leadership: A more inclusive board of directors will only develop if the leadership of the board is attuned to issues of inclusiveness. It is important for the chairperson (or the equivalent thereof) to reinforce regularly his or her commitment to the work and to remind other directors of the reasons the work is important to achieving the organization's goals. Ideally, the board chair will also ask important questions and encourage others to ask questions such as:

  • What kind of strategic alliances will best move forward the work of the organization?
  • Whom do we need on the board to promote those alliances?
  • Whom do we hope to have on the board of directors in order to achieve our strategic goals?


Leadership Roles: To best create a more inclusive board of directors, the organization should not only ask people of color to serve on the board but also to serve in leadership positions. In many organizations, the bulk of the work of the board happens at the committee level, especially within the executive committee. If an organization does not promote people of color into these positions, it will not maximize the benefits of a diverse board.

Organizations that seek deep organizational change and a change in perceptions from internal and external constituents will find that the process can be facilitated by having a person of color serve as the chairperson of the board of directors, if this is not already occurring. Brian Gallagher, the president and CEO of the United Way of America, stated that when he joined the United Way in 2002, he was committed to having a person of color serve as the board chair of United Way, which had not had an African-American chair in the organization's 116-year history. He followed through on his commitment and Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole became the chair within eighteen months of Gallagher's joining the organization. (See Bibliography: Boardsource)


Address Expectations and Inclusiveness in the Interview and Orientation Processes: Many boards of directors do not take the time to spell out the expectations that they have of board members. This can create significant problems for new board members, particularly board members who do not have the same background as the majority of the existing board members. It is important to use the same screening, interview, and orientation process for all new board members, so that each board member understands the organization's expectations.

For example, some organizations expect that every board member attend the majority of special events. Such an expectation may be comfortable and even fun for someone who is already a part of the social circles that generally show up at the organization's events. A new board member who has different social circles, however, may not take as much pleasure in attending the events and may decide to make his or her contributions (of time, money, and/or talent) in different ways. However, the fact that he or she does not attend events can lead to unspoken resentment on the part of those who do attend and feel that the new board member is not participating fully, when in fact the new board member is just participating differently. Clearly articulating expectations of board members is critical, including the expectation around individual financial contributions by board members.

Furthermore, the board's commitment to inclusiveness needs to be articulated and clarified upfront. This can be done in many ways:

  • Discuss inclusiveness, as well as board member expectations, when interviewing new board prospects.
  • Include a section in the orientation packet for new board members with an overview of the inclusiveness statement, data from the information-gathering process, and so on.
  • Be explicit in job descriptions about the expectations of all board members.
  • Regularly reiterate the organization's commitment to inclusiveness whenever appropriate opportunities arise.


Creating Shared Experiences: One of the most effective ways to change the culture of the board of directors is for all of the directors to have shared experiences regarding the organization's inclusiveness practices.

This can take the form of going through an exercise together such as Benefits of Having a More Diverse and Inclusive Board of Directors.

It can take the form of spending time together in a retreat format looking at inclusiveness issues (see Organizational Culture for more on this subject).

Many organizations find value in educational forums that provide the board of directors with an opportunity to learn about different cultures and their experiences in relation to the work of the organization.

The board can create positive shared experiences by attending cultural events together, such as plays or concerts that might lead to stimulating dialogue about cultural differences and the role of race and ethnicity in society and in your organization.

On a very informal basis, the board can make a concerted effort to spend social time together getting to know one another, especially if the board considers the cultures and traditions of different groups while constructing social events.

Governance Committee and Board Assessments: Creating a governance committee (sometimes referred to as the board cultivation committee or the board development committee) can be an important step in addressing issues of inclusiveness in an organization. In addition to recruiting candidates for a diverse board, a governance committee should regularly administer self-assessments for the board of directors. A board self-assessment can provide valuable information about the operations of the board as a whole. Assessments also can include information that helps an organization understand its progress toward creating a more diverse and inclusive board of directors.

Note that the point of assessing the board is not only to understand how the board members of color experience the organization; it is also important to understand how the whole board adapts to the changes.

The governance committee should take responsibility for regularly conducting the self-assessment and for working with the CEO and board president to address the issues that surface from the self-assessments.

The board governance committee can take on additional responsibilities to help ensure a diverse and inclusive board. However, it is the responsibility of the whole board, not just the governance committee, to establish and maintain a commitment to inclusiveness. Therefore, it is important that the governance committee not be exclusively assigned this responsibility. 


Example of Non-discrimination Statement and Policy


Overview: Board of Directors


Why Board Composition Matters


Setting Goals for a More Diverse and Inclusive Board


Creating the Pipeline


Recruiting Board Members of Color


Retaining Board Members and Utilizing Exit Interviews


What To Do When a Potential Board Member Says “No”