Dear Nonprofiteer, Why do women Board members sweat while the men just glow?

Dear Nonprofiteer:

As a junior-ish female member of my Board, I’ve been gritting my teeth as the chair, the ED, and maybe all others openly favor men.  It’s getting worse.  They bribe the male minority (about 30-35%) on the Board to stick around with better assignments and opportunities, more praise in front of outsiders, and lots of credit for work they didn’t do.  I groused to a female peer, and instead of condoling she noted that our work (youth services) needs visible male role models: "We don’t want to be the ladies who lunch."  What we’re doing is like the affirmative action for men now going on in undergrad admissions–they get to be unreliable and flighty, we’re expected to work like burros.  Ticks me off to toil and then have to simper at a meeting while Dude of the Week, who can barely follow what he’s being heralded for, gets the props.  Do I have to choose between sucking it up and taking shelter on an all-female Board?  Signed, Young Turk

Dear Young Turk:

What you’re describing is the lethal compound of societal sexism and scarcity.  Nonprofits often devalue women’s contributions precisely because the sector is dominated by women: we figure what we do can’t be very important or else men would be doing it, and when a man actually does he’s a representative not only of his own efforts but of the social validation our work is lacking.  Small wonder Board Presidents and Executive Directors fall all over their male Board members: they’re like the stay-at-home dad in the play group. 

Men are also often invited to join Boards based on illusions about their "contacts" and "connections," in other words their imagined ability to raise money through imaginary effortless means.  People who are raising money the old-fashioned way, with hard work–but who hope to be relieved of the task through the wand-waving of the guy with contacts–are often desperate to please, placate and pacify those they’ve identified as their rescuers.  So they over-praise, and under-utilize–and, surprise, many of these guys leave because they haven’t been given anything meaningful to do and they don’t, despite others’ fantasies, actually have a magic money spigot in their pants.

You’ve also reported a couple of false assumptions floating around your Board: that somehow male Board members are "role models" for the [male] youth you’re serving, and that somehow male Board members make the organization more credible to funders than it would be if it were a simple gaggle of "ladies who lunch."  (Stephen Sondheim doubtless rolls his eyes every time he hears this misuse of his phrase: he was talking about women "lounging in caftans and planning a brunch on their OWN behalf."  But it’s a phrase used commonly in nonprofits to denigrate the work of women who plan events, because it’s easier to make fun of them than it is to, say, help them.) 

But there’s no reason to think your young male clients give a damn about whether there are men on the Board, though it may well be important for men to provide direct service.  If the latter is the case, you should suggest forming a committee of male Board members to recruit male direct-service volunteers.  After a couple of months the guys will either embarrass themselves by getting nothing done, or succeed and feel empowered (a favorite nonprofit word) to take on other tasks in the future.  Perhaps they look like morons standing next to their women co-chairs because their women co-chairs–fearing to overtax the money supply–never give them anything to do.

And while it’s probably a good idea to include men on social-service Boards because their absence invites institutional funders to wonder what other aspects of diversity might be missing, there’s nothing to suggest that those funders equate male names on the Board roster with professionalism, or their absence with lack of seriousness.  If the agency has professional staff to do its job, that satisfies foundation donors–and if it doesn’t, Board gender balance is not your biggest problem.

Underlying all these issues is a question about Board recruitment.  Does the group have a clear statement of Board member expectations?  Is it thoroughly explained to prospects during the nomination process?  If there is no written statement, it’s a lot easier for some Board members–in your case, the men–to get away with doing less than others.  And if it isn’t part of the routine that the Board Development committee goes through with every prospect, then some prospects–in your case, men–will be recruited with the promise that they’ll have to do nothing but "use" their "contacts," a phrase in which neither verb nor noun has been defined–whereupon nothing is just what the new Board member will do. 

So let me suggest that you go directly to the Board president and tell her you’ve observed an unequal allocation of responsibility within the Board, and that you think the problem may lie with the messages being sent during Board recruitment.  (Note absence of reference to gender.  It’s deliberate.)  Volunteer to join the Nominating/Board Development/Board Recruitment committee, to write or revise the Statement of Board Member Expectations, and start choosing Board members who are prepared to meet them.  You may want to choose men, to reduce their scarcity value and because as soon as you put two or three functional ones on the Board the others will measure up or quit (men respond only to male competitive cues).  You will certainly want to choose people who expect to work and who will do what they say they will. 

In other words: be the Board you want.  The only way to have colleagues you value is to go get them yourself.  This may not be a task you covet, but for what it’s worth, Board recruitment is the most important fundraising work an agency ever does.  And it won’t matter if a job well done doesn’t elicit acknowledgement from the Board President or Executive Director, because every recruit will be your acolyte (at least for a while) as a result of the process. 

But beware!  The most effective Board Recruitment/Board Development/Nominating chairs always end up as Board President.  As President, you can make sure male Board members aren’t over-valued and under-worked, but being President is a pretty high price to pay to assure that.


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