Insights into nonprofit leadership & governance

Diversifying Leadership at Your Nonprofit

June 18, 2019  

By Crystal Stephens and Ayanna Grady-Hunt 

In our work with nonprofit organizations, many board leaders express a desire to diversify their leadership team. At BoardWalk, we know that a commitment to diversity is never as simple as one key hire. It requires a willingness to listen and adopt new approaches, a desire to confront systemic barriers, and to thoughtfully and intentionally develop an organization-wide commitment.

In a recent convening of nonprofit CEOs of color, BoardWalk hosted high-impact leaders to discuss their experiences and their advice for practical approaches to strengthen and increase diversity in nonprofits.  BoardWalk married these insights with our own 17 years of experience working in partnership with nonprofit boards and the leaders who make them successful.

Following are 5 principles for framing an inclusive approach to diversifying leadership within nonprofits. While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, it is a place to start for organizations committed to increased diversity and equity in nonprofit leadership.

           1. Start with the Board of Directors

Recruit board members who embody the diversity you seek and have a passion for the mission, not just an ability to contribute financially.  Take the time to step out of your comfort zone and look for leaders who identify with the mission and can help the organization reach its goals.  These leaders will view the work not as simply philanthropic, but an opportunity to build organizational capacity or to empower and enable others.   

When the board is diverse, it communicates to potential leadership prospects that the board itself has made a commitment to diversity and the challenge of diversifying the board or leadership of the organization will not rest solely in the hands of the new executive.

Don’t know where to start? Ask members of your staff, or even clients served by your nonprofit.  Consider doing a targeted search, using a board member or consultant to lead the effort. Or, develop an advisory board and groom future board members from your existing support network.

As an example, this month the New York Stock Exchange announced the creation of the NYSE Board Advisory Council consisting of the CEOs of 15 significant public companies. The Council will proactively address the critical need for inclusive leadership by connecting diverse board candidates with companies seeking new directors.

              2. Seek executive staff leaders for whom the mission matters

A diverse executive who “looks” the part but for whom the mission is not central will likely not last long, or not drive the results you need. Leaders who truly care about the mission of your organization will view the work as critical, not simply as charitable work or, just another “executive job” on an ever-expanding resume.

Find leaders who are committed to the change your organization seeks to drive and who have evidence of passion and dedication to this work.  This passion will drive them to think creatively and work tirelessly to deliver success.

             3. Make sure the role is impactful and not (unintentionally) ceremonial

Organizations search to find leaders who mirror the markets they serve, but are not as intentional in ensuring the role provided has the same level of autonomy and power as the title denotes. Board members often lean in too hard in an attempt to ensure success of their new diverse leader, but unintentionally stifle his, her or their independence and ability to truly lead and be seen as the leader.  Do the hard work up front of establishing the correct criteria for a leader and the goals you expect them to accomplish. Once you find this individual, support the leader in accomplishing the organizational goals, and step out of the way and let them lead.

            4. Don’t overlook records of accomplishment

It’s easy to be attracted to leaders with Ivy League education and blue chip corporate experience. They are seemingly low-risk and often over- qualified for the work provided. However, don’t overlook the leader who embodies the experience of those you serve. Studies show that resilience is a key factor in success. If you are running a homeless shelter, how empowering might it be to the constituents served to have a leader who has lived this and come out on the other side?  The choice also does not have to lie in either extreme. There are plenty of qualified, diverse individuals who have a track record of success, a commitment to the work, and the ability to lead. Some of them may be inside your organization already.  Let the record of accomplishments weigh more than their pedigree or background.

            5. Continue the work

Diversifying an organization is not done when you hire a diverse leader. It requires on-going hard work to ensure there is true power-sharing in the organization and a commitment to addressing embedded issues of inequity that often linger just below the radar.  There are numerous consultants and even online tools which help organizations assess themselves. Consider doing an organizational assessment and then assign a team, as a part of their essential daily responsibilities, to interpret this for the organization. Be careful not to make this an extra task, as you then double the work of leaders who may already be stretched and stressed. This could also send the message that diversity is ancillary and not core to the success of the organization. Make this a part of someone’s job with the time, checkpoints, and reward system designed for any other key initiative. 

As the world continues its progress toward a dynamic mix of ethnic, cultural, gender identity and faith expression, nonprofit boards are wise to consider how they challenge pre-existing norms of leadership. In addition to establishing equity, diverse leadership also contributes substantially to the bottom line. The fact is that the more diverse an organization is, the better their results. A McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean. However, success requires active, intentional commitment to the work. Where is your organization on the spectrum and how might you employ the above tips toward a 21st century organization committed to equitable representation at the highest levels?


Crystal Stephens, Senior Director, has been with BoardWalk Consulting for 7 years.  Prior to turning her focus to nonprofits, Crystal found success in the corporate sector as Executive Vice President at and Vice President at IBM. Crystal is passionate about helping organizations reach their goals through effective leadership which reflects the diversity and inclusivity of the missions and markets they serve.

Since joining BoardWalk in 2011, Senior Associate Ayanna Grady-Hunt continues to bring her special passion for faith-based missions and those advancing equitable and inclusive practices on behalf of diverse populations.  Ayanna will begin her PhD studies at Graduate Theological Seminary in Berkeley, CA, in Fall 2019.

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