Shouldn’t diversity be a two-way street?

(and other thoughts on strengthening Boards)

In a Black Arts Roundtable this past Friday on Chicago Public Radio, director Chuck Smith mentioned that black performing arts organizations had trouble creating strong Boards of Directors to sustain them.  When host Steve Edwards asked why, Smith responded that black theaters hadn’t been able to attract strong administrators or people in the business community to partner with them.

Mr. Smith is scarcely alone in believing that these are major obstacles to building strong Boards, particularly for groups serving nonwhite audiences.  But the Nonprofiteer regards his answer as a pastiche of the half-truths that bedevil nonprofits, whether in the arts or social services.  And though a portion of the problem is race-related, much more of it affects agencies of every color.  Here’s the quick-and-dirty other half of the truth:

  • If the problem is that the current Boards of Directors at black theaters can’t get people in the business community to partner with them, there’s a simple solution: recruit white Board members.  Only in a town as unreflectively racist as Chicago would anyone even have to say that, but unfortunately there are plenty of towns just like that.  Every white nonprofit–arts, social service, environmental–spends some portion of its time focusing on the need to diversify its Board of Directors.  [In fact there are several theater companies in Chicago whose Boards are more diverse than their performing ensembles–but that’s a separate topic.]  Is there some reason why black organizations shouldn’t do the same?  If white people have more of the connections necessary to raise money and produce a strong Board, go get some.  Maybe go get some even if they don’t.
  • If the problem is that black performing arts organizations have trouble attracting top-quality administrators, the solution is the same as in every other circumstance where people say they can’t find qualified nonprofit personnel: pay better.  It’s generally believed that African-Americans with powerhouse management credentials are less willing to work for nonprofit pittances than their similarly situated white counterparts, but the Nonprofiteer knows of no actual research demonstrating this to be true.  Still, more money always helps attract better staff.

But neither of those things is the real problem.  The real problem is the belief that the best Board members are those with corporate connections.  Corporate generosity accounts for less than 10% of American philanthropy, while individual giving represents 75%.  Any person willing to donate, and ask other individuals to donate, will be a great Board member, and any successful career–teaching, entrepreneurship, social work, even the theater–can sustain such a willingness.

So the biggest obstacle to building strong Boards for black organizations is the same as the biggest obstacle to building them for white organizations: a misunderstanding on the part of nonprofit executives and Board members about what, precisely, is needed.  Those groups not laboring under those misapprehensions are doing just fine.

That does, of course, raise the question whether African-American and Latino organizations are less likely than white groups to have access to people who understand nonprofit management.  Unlikely: in either case, finding strong leadership is a matter of the luck of the draw.  Probably there were several theaters in 1975 doing work as exciting as Chicago’s Steppenwolf, but they’re gone.  Steppenwolf survived because it happened to secure a management team as agile and innovative as its artistic team.  There ought to be a way to institutionalize the availability of critical management skills and information to those who run arts groups in particular, and nonprofits in general, but no one’s figured out what it is.

That’s why the Nonprofiteer keeps writing.


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