NPO board members are all generally aware of the value of board diversity, yet many NPO boards lack either the knowledge or commitment needed to turn that awareness into action. In order to appreciate and identify the gaps in diversity, NPO boards should perform regular board self-assessments.
Such self-assessments would typically evaluate the board’s effectiveness, its strengths and weaknesses, the quality of board engagement, appropriateness of board size and committee compositions, skills gaps, and board demographic diversity, in each case within the context of the mission and operations of the organisation. It takes strong leadership within the board to conduct an honest self-assessment and thereafter take action to improve the board.
Refresh boards regularly
One of the underlying root causes of a lack of diversity on NPO boards is stagnation or insufficient board renewal. NPOs or charities (in particular) are not subject to legally mandated director term limits. Under the Code of Governance for Charities and IPCs (Code of Governance), charities would only be required to have periodic re-nomination provisions for its directors, and to disclose reasons for letting board members serve on their board beyond 10 years. So, while board members may be required to periodically be re-nominated for election to board membership, they can continue to stay on the board for an unlimited number of terms.
Until today, many charities have sizable number of board directors serving more than 10 years. Without regular board renewal, NPO boards will struggle to pursue greater board diversification in accordance with prevailing organisational needs.
“I think it is important for NPOs to make sure that the chairman and board members change regularly. If the chair changes regularly (and I think sometimes that a ten-year tenure is a bit too long), then the organisation can rejuvenate itself.” – Chandra Mohan Rethnam
NPO boards should seek to regularly infuse “new blood” into the board. This recharges the board, brings new perspectives, refreshes the collective skillsets of the board and also gives exposure to new directors.
Needless to say, NPO boards should avoid sudden and significant board overhauls that would likely disrupt organizational operations. Any effort to improve board composition should be undertaken gradually. NPO boards should view each appointment as an opportunity to deliberately improve its diversity.
Utilise board skills matrixes
NPO boards should also utilise board recruitment matrixes to map competencies and skills, alongside demographic and other qualities to get the right mix on the board.
“As Chairman, I would seek to identify the organisation’s requirements and prioritise key diversity attributes to pursue.” – Edmund Cheng
Pick the relevant diversities; tokenism not beneficial
Boards must be careful not to seek demographic or skill diversity for the sake of it. Each NPO director must firstly display the characteristics necessary for NPO leadership (described above), but in addition, should have suitable experiential attributes (i.e. one or more of the relevant skillsets or expertise, as illustrated above) and, ideally, add to the board’s demographic diversity. These three domains described above are all important to picking a good NPO board director.
When pursuing board demographic diversity, it is also important to consider the need for critical mass to support broad thinking and create a culture that thrives on the creative tension of different perspectives and the cross-pollination of ideas, all of which are necessary to achieve good corporate governance. Appointing a token director from a particular gender, ethnic or age group will likely lead to feelings of isolation (particularly if that single token director ticks all three boxes of demographic diversity) and may not reap the desired results. There is no point engineering board renewal and diversity if new board members cannot feel welcomed and assimilated into the board, because they will not stay for long or contribute to the best of their abilities.
“When I make [board] appointments, my key consideration is whether the candidate has the necessary expertise, and whether their personal values resonate with the mission of the organisation.” – Anita Fam
Review the pre-conditions of financial contribution for board directors
NPO boards should consider removing pre-conditions of financial contribution for board appointees. While almost all NPOs could use additional funds to support the cause, financial contribution requirements act as a barrier to entry for younger prospective board members and members from lower-income backgrounds whose real contributions to the board and the NPO would not be financial in nature. Such a policy seems to suggest the board’s thinking that only people with financial means are qualified to serve at board level, which is certainly not the case.
Every director plays a role in recommending board candidates
There is much that every NPO board director can do to help improve board diversity, rather than let the chairperson or the nominating committee solely address the issue. Likewise, NPO chairpersons and nominating committees should share with the entire board the kinds of skillsets or demographic differentiators they may be looking for in the next director, so that individual NPO directors can then actively look out for suitable candidates.
“The plans for boards are not just for the here and now, they extend over a period of time. You can sometimes see a potential connection which isn’t applicable just yet, but it could become very strong in a year or two.” – Lee Tzu Yang
Cast the net wider
The majority of NPOs today still exclusively or primarily recruit new board members by word of mouth. This often reinforces continued homogeneity on the board. Directors (and indeed all individuals) are often unaware of how limited their networks are, because people tend to interact most with others within the same circles. There is a much larger universe of candidates out there and NPOs simply need to cast a wider net.
Boards should consider using executive search firms, as they have databases of people with diverse skillsets and backgrounds, and some professional search executives may be open to giving such recommendations on a pro bono basis. The Centre for Non-Profit Leadership (CNPL) also operates “Board Match”, which matches senior executives from the public and private sectors to NPO boards. It maintains a pool of CVs from existing and aspiring NPO directors, with a very wide range of useful skillsets and diverse backgrounds. This is often the first port of call for many well-run NPOs in Singapore when it comes to creating a shortlist of board candidates.
Most NPOs have also, in more recent times, relied on online and social-media job postings, using Linkedin’s Talent Solutions (with a dedicated module for NPOs) and also seeking recommendations from key donors and experienced volunteers.
Grow the pool of first-time directors and mentor them
NPO directors should also bear in mind that as with most men, the majority of women directors were appointed to their first board seat because someone actively championed them. New initiates to the boardroom are often introduced by more experienced directors who have seen them in action and can vouch for them. To embed the culture of effective board renewal into the NPO sector, NPO directors must actively champion new or younger potential board members and also look to mentor them.
“You have to either positively create new mechanisms to enable women to rise to their capabilities, or to remove mechanisms which have inhibited women from being able to rise to their natural capabilities.” – Ho Kwon Ping
Integrate potential board directors early into NPOs
Where appropriate, the best candidates should be introduced and integrated into the activities of the NPO gradually through being co-opted committee members, task force members, or activity participants or volunteers. Such gradual integration allows for existing and potential board members to familiarise themselves with each other and for a better assessment of cultural fit.