Education, Human Resources, and Nonprofits

Program targets boardroom inclusion

Johnson Center, partnering with Ferris State University, wants to educate members about the need for diverse oversight.

July 26, 2019
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A new program is in the works to help the West Michigan nonprofit sector develop and maintain more diverse and inclusive boardrooms.

The Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, in partnership with Ferris State University, is working to launch the Ecosystem for Nonprofit Leadership.

The program is meant to educate nonprofit executive directors and board members about the need for diverse oversight and how to maintain a culture that ensures effective board experiences for all members, according to Tamela Spicer, program manager at the Johnson Center and co-chair of the program.

“One of the things we sometimes forget is nonprofit organizations are community organizations. We have a responsibility to the community; we're taking community dollars, oftentimes, to do our work,” Spicer said.

“If our boardroom doesn't look like our community, that might impact the choices that we make; that might impact the public value that we bring.”

While nonprofit experts have been studying and talking about the need for diverse leadership for about a decade, few resources exist to help leaders achieve it, Spicer said. The initiative aims to develop a curriculum that can be integrated into existing leadership programs rather than at a single location, making board service training more accessible to the community.

Nonprofits are vital to healthy communities and the success of local governments and businesses, Spicer said, but governing boards often can be the deciding factor in the success or struggles of a nonprofit despite competent leadership and staffing.

“As we've heard stories and we work with clients here in West Michigan, we've continued to hear the same stories that we read about nationally,” Spicer said, “and we thought, ‘If this is a challenge that everybody is facing, why are we trying to deal with this one organization at a time? Why don't we think about coming up with a community solution to a community problem?’”

The goal is to ensure community members are well-equipped for board service and then can easily connect to organizations that will foster that service, Spicer said.

Spicer said one of the barriers that keep people away from boards is they don’t think of themselves as leaders and therefore wouldn’t consider it. “When in reality, leadership comes in all shapes and sizes and in all levels in an organization,” she said.

Other people may have wanted to serve on boards but were unsure of how to achieve that.

Even if leadership understands diverse voices are important, differences in age or background or some other cultural aspect can cause disconnection that may discourage certain people from joining a board or feeling comfortable speaking while there.

When groups have been together for long periods of time, like many of the boards the Johnson Center works with, the members start thinking alike, Spicer said, and they don’t know how to handle a new person who thinks differently.

“So, how do we make sure that our boardroom isn't just diverse but inclusive? There's a big difference,” Spicer said. “They can diversify a group of people in a room, but that doesn't mean we're including them in the conversation.”

Part of the goal is to prepare leadership for those conversations between people of different backgrounds and to understand how to navigate those conversations.

This issue sometimes can take the shape of making assumptions about people’s strengths based on stereotypes — like always asking people of color to serve on diversity committees and women to serve as event planners, or assuming young people have no experience or valid input — said Carlos Sanchez, director of the Latino Business and Economic Development Center at FSU and co-chair of the program.

Instead, it’s important to consider individuals’ skills and experiences to understand where their strengths lie and how they could best contribute to a group, said Sanchez, who joined as co-chair of the Ecosystem for Nonprofit Leadership program several months ago.

Spicer said there has been about two or three years of preparation to launch the program, which has included asking people about their board experiences, learning about barriers that kept some people from being on boards and talking to nonprofit leaders about challenges with their boards, as well as exploration on how communities around the country are addressing this issue.

Deb Bailey, GRCC board member and former Steelcase corporate relations director, also is providing input as the Ecosystem’s honorary co-chair.

Over the past nine months, the Ecosystem leaders put together a program steering committee of business and nonprofit community members, including representatives from Mercy Health, Kids' Food Basket, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Urban League, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Amway and more.

Spicer said there are talks taking place about also having representatives from the city of Grand Rapids and religious communities.

“We'll continue to add the resources that we need as we learn,” Spicer said. “Our goal is to really represent the entire community on our steering committee.”

The goal is to have a training curriculum created by February 2020, to begin testing the following month for a year, and complete evaluation and dissemination of the program by the end of 2021.

Right now, the center is looking at nonprofits that provide outstanding positive board experiences. The Johnson Center’s master’s fellows this fall will be completing some informal case studies to help identify some of those competencies and how they can be worked into the curriculum. 

Through the research, Spicer said Kids’ Food Basket and Alternatives in Motion both are examples of organizations with high-functioning boards that provide positive experiences for their members.

The training that is developed may be implemented into existing leadership training for groups such as the Grand Rapids Chamber’s Leadership Grand Rapids or Sanchez’s training at FSU for the Latino leadership community.

Once the program is perfected, the goal would be to establish it in other communities, Spicer said.

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