Time to Get on Big Boards

At almost every major diversity conference or symposium I attend, there is a panel session about getting more minorities and women to serve on corporate boards. The diversity profile of most public corporate boards leaves much to be desired, and it is clear that there is still a lot of work to be done.

One strategy often mentioned is the need for women and minorities to hone their leadership skills and gain governance experience by serving on nonprofit boards. I agree with this strategy, but the problem is that most women and minorities target boards for smaller, more community-based nonprofits.

Women and minorities need to get on what I call big boards, which include boards for the opera, ballet, symphony and art museums. Usually when you review these institutions’ boards in most metropolitan areas, it reads like a who’s who of local leaders, including CEOs, managing partners, university presidents, top attorneys and venture capitalists. Clearly, besides having a love for the arts, big board members are power players. That is why serving on these boards often leads to corporate board assignments.

What I do not often see is a significant presence of women and minorities on big boards. Like with anything else, getting serious consideration to serve on these boards isn’t just about character and expertise, it’s about who you know. Getting on these boards means women and minorities need references from high-ranking corporate peers who tend to already serve on such boards.

I believe the reason we do not see enough women and minorities on big boards is because we still have a ways to go to move up the nonprofit board trajectory. Many women and minorities are still paying their dues through hard work and leadership on more local, smaller community nonprofit boards.

To the chairmen and nominating committees of the big boards, I say stop turning to the usual suspects to fill your seats. These art institutions need to be governed by individuals with deep relationships in the communities where the organization is based, not just by those with deep relationships with the members of private golf courses and executive clubs. Women and minorities have community relationships, and their active involvement on smaller boards should signal they are more than qualified and ambitious enough to serve.

Much like in corporate America, the leaders who serve on big boards need to sponsor and advocate for the inclusion of more women and minorities. By leveraging their visibility and credibility, these leaders can help ensure the profiles of the big boards are more diverse and inclusive tomorrow than they are today.

Board membership is something we need more of our young women and minority professionals to not only discuss, but actively consider. Young professionals probably view nonprofit board positions as something they should consider when they are older and more established. We need to change this mindset. It is never too early to serve and to give back in a significant way to our local communities and nonprofits.

Those of us who have influence and mentor young women and minority professionals need to encourage them to serve on these boards. And we need to remind them that serving is not enough; they have to add value. They need to make the nonprofit better. They also need to take the initiative and galvanize the board to lead it to greater heights so it accomplishes its mission.

We need existing big board members to actively sponsor more women and minorities for inclusion. And we need more women and minorities to not only begin serving on smaller nonprofit boards earlier in their careers, we need them to do a better job of distinguishing themselves once on the board. Only then can we accelerate the advancement of women and minorities on the big nonprofit boards.

Robert Rodriguez is president of DRR Advisors LLC, a management and diversity consulting firm, and author of Latino Talent. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.