Mirroring Community on Boards: How to Create Diverse Boards
Non-profit governance structures, like many other Canadian structures of power and authority, fail in diversity. This can be an uncomfortable and unsettling fact to accept; one that we must handle with care. The reality is that many marginalized groups have been historically excluded from decision-making, even when an organization is dedicated to their causes. Here’s a little exercise for you:
- Choose a Canadian non-profit organization and open their website.
- Find and click on the ‘Board of Directors’ page.
- Reflect on the following question: How many board members appear to be or are described to be under the age of 30, Indigenous, Black, a person of colour, transgender, queer, and/or living with a disability?
People from equity-deserving groups bring a diversity of thought to the boardroom. Their diverse lived experiences provide an incredible source of new ideas and perspectives that enable an organization to provide more comprehensive support to their community members, innovate with new solutions, and remain relevant for achieving their vision. Despite these benefits, people from equity-deserving groups often experience tokenism when serving on boards. Tokenism means that people from diverse background are asked to represent their group, embodying only one of their many social roles. In this role, a person may make assumptions about what others from their group would need or may only be present without an actual say in the decision-making process. For example, a person with disability might be asked to always embody disability and represent voices of people with disabilities, while their professional expertise may be disregarded. For meaningful participation, people need to feel like they genuinely belong and not exist as tokens, which makes a culture of inclusion an imperative on any board.
Having this in our mind, Vantage Point set a goal to improve the position of equity-deserving groups in non-profit governance. We began this project with the support of Vancouver Coastal Health (Health Promotion Community Investments) and the City of Vancouver (Social Policy Division) with the aim to develop a series of workshops that would support both members from equity-deserving groups and current non-profit board members. We are trying to empower participants from communities or groups, who are under-represented on boards, to seek better conditions and use their agency to join non-profit boards. We are inviting them to be part of a community that is starting at a foundational level without judgment. We are also building new educational workshops to support current board members, to help them understand how the non-profit sector in Canada perpetuates existing colonial structures and practices and in what ways they can contribute to a collective unlearning process and systemic change.
As new board members from equity-deserving groups and current board members, mostly from culturally dominant groups, come to this process with different perspectives, our goal was to create a shared understanding of what is expected and/or needed from both sides. We approached this task with a mirroring methodology, maintaining a similar set of topics but reflecting the different starting position of each group. We approached the development of the workshops with the philosophical stance “nothing about us, without us,” inviting current and new Knowledge Philanthropists to assist us in this process and share their lived experiences both as people coming from equity-deserving groups and as board members.
What is mirroring?
The idea of mirroring blossomed for us when we began to see how important it is to create a reciprocal relationship between those who want to join boards and those who are current board members. There is a two-sided nature to it; they both feed each other.
When a member of public or an outsider to a board joins that board, they are faced with challenges of an unknown board culture. They must uncover the expectations and assumptions that an existing board culture has about their own practices, which can take months or even years. In many cases, people joining boards already have previous experience with non-profit governance. This means that while the system itself is familiar, it is the organizational culture that will take some time to understand.
When someone is entirely new to a board role and has diverse lived experience, their inclusion may require a higher level of support. It is important to create a shared understandings on both sides. The two mirroring workshops that we developed support new board members on one side, and established boards on the other.
Volunteering on Non-profit Boards
Organizations, such as MOSAIC and For a Network for Change, identified a gap in support for newcomers to Canada to learn about non-profit boards and governance, and received overwhelming response. With an opportunity to contribute to diversification of non-profit governance, Vantage Point has developed a three-hour workshop that helps beginners learn what board governance is, what type of commitment is required from them, how it benefits the community, and what they can expect in terms of practices, procedures, and responsibilities they can expect. The workshop is open to those who identify as one or more of the following: youth (aged 18-35), Indigenous, Black, person of colour, person with disability, 2SLGBTQIA+, and newcomers to Canada.
Board Diversity and Inclusion series
Next came the work to review and reflect on our workshops for existing board members. The question we asked ourselves was this: ‘What conversations are missing among board members that can address systemic exclusion?’ We issued a call to our volunteer base of Knowledge Philanthropists, who responded with expressions of interests to contribute to this task. The contributors to this work all had diverse lived experiences with unique intersectional positions and board experience. It was clear that the topic of board diversity and inclusion would require a variety of spaces and themes depending on how comfortable and familiar a participant feels in this area, so we are working towards a four-part series of workshops, each of which can be taken individually or as a set. They are:
- Introduction to Key Concepts
- Deepening Foundations and Embedding Actions
- Inclusive practices for people living with a disability or chronic illness [in development]
- [Draft title] Decolonizing practices and navigating power dynamics [in development]
The Vantage Point Board Diversity & Inclusion series of workshops supports people from traditionally represented groups on the board to change their mindsets and make space for other voices to be heard. While our Volunteering on Non-profit Boards workshop empowers equity-deserving community members to seek their place on a board and understand the perspectives of current board members. Both groups have a lot of learning to do. Systemic change is slow and comprehensive. While we may not see change occur overnight, we believe that we can begin to uncover new truths and learnings that can transform non-profit boards into a new kind of space.
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