While the US population is rapidly diversifying, the same cannot be said of the boardrooms of the nation’s most influential environmental organizations. According to the 2021 Green 2.0 Report Card, the number of people of color sitting on the boards of environmental organizations has been increasing over the past five years. However, only recently—between the years 2020 and 2021—has this increase become statistically significant. With the most recent census data showing that nearly four of 10 Americans identify with a non-white race or ethnic group, this is hardly sufficient progress.race or ethnic group, this is hardly sufficient progress.
According to a report from Keecha Harris and Associates, Inc. (KHA) and the Institute for Strategic and Equitable Development (ISED) that we coauthored, even that very modest win came as a result of the horrifying murder of George Floyd and the subsequent moment of national racial reckoning. One board leader we interviewed said to us, “I think institutionally we have not prioritized it prior to, honestly, I mean, if we’re super honest, the past two years…And then I think we have the same challenge, we haven’t built our organizations in a way that it naturally recruits and leans to communities of color…”
All told, our team interviewed a total of 74 people, including 39 Black leaders as well as 35 board leaders, most of whom were white. Together, interviewees represented 16 prominent green organizations. The purpose of the report—titled Race to the Board: Strategies for Readiness, Recruitment, and Retention of Black Trustees on Green Nonprofit Boards—was to answer the question: How can nonprofit boards in the conservation and climate sector become ready for, recruit, and retain Black trustees?
We wanted to know where successful recruitment and retention was happening and why. Equally important was to hear from Black leaders about the challenges they experienced as they served on environmental nonprofit boards, so they could directly inform recommendations to the field. We wanted to understand what issues current board members and Black leaders agreed upon and where they offered differing perspectives.
Our research tested our hypothesis that three elements were needed to successfully diversify the boards of environmental organizations: readiness, recruitment, and retention. No single element alone is sufficient to address the long-term challenges of recalibrating board practices, building connections, creating co-owned solutions, and increasing sectoral impact with Black leadership.
Essential to this work was developing an understanding of what Black leaders saw as the challenges to board service, amplifying their voices, and highlighting their solutions. In our view, green groups needed to better prepare their boards to understand what equitable and inclusive governance would look like. They also needed to increase organizational capacity to identify and implement equitable paths toward mission success.
The joint work, if done, would increase mutual respect and the perceived benefits of collaboration for both Black leaders and the current (largely white) leadership of green organizations. Our hope is for green boards to implement wide-ranging strategies that diversify membership and forge more inclusive approaches to addressing environmental challenges. The inclusion of multiple Black trustees would also help change minds, goals, and practices within green organizations.
What we found in our research were two starkly different, overarching narratives about why the boards of green organizations lack diversity. Several white board leaders we interviewed were evasive. For example, one leader said, “[Black] people within the environmental justice organizations…are working really hard simply to keep their organizations moving. So they frequently simply don’t have the time to then spend on the board of another organization. Or there’s a situation that there are so many organizations now asking them to be on their boards, that they are expected to be the representative of their race, of their background for everybody.”
One Black leader called this a “lazy narrative” and said, “Look at who some of [the] key stakeholders already are, whether they’re funders, whether they’re volunteers, whether they’re committee members…that’s why I say sometimes it’s a lazy narrative when board leaders are like, ‘Well, we can’t find Black people to join our board.’ Are you looking? Are you sure? Let’s think about this.”
How to make sense of these different voices? To analyze the data, we organized our research around learning questions centered on readiness, recruitment, and retention.
What We Found: Readiness
Our first learning question demonstrated the size of the challenge. To recall, we interviewed a total of 35 board members from 16 organizations. We found that 31 percent of those organizations (five of 16) had no Black board members. We also found that, at most of the 16 organizations, top leadership is predominately white even though the majority of interviewees rated diversity as very important. One board member said, “Environmental work has been historically focused on the needs of rich white males within this country. And that means that it has been exclusionary and that it has in some cases even not just benefited but also created issues with diverse communities.”
This disconnect between values and practices was vividly described by one board leader, “We have some old-school folks who don’t really get it. They understand that we as an organization need to look different. And I’ve explained it to them, and they’ve all bought in, but I don’t know how much of that is like, ‘Okay, yes, the right thing to do, people expect us to do it’ versus ‘This is really important to me personally.’ …Nobody’s dumb enough to say, ‘I don’t get why we have to help these communities and these people.’ So, we have smart-enough board members not to say those sorts of things, even if they might think them.”
We wanted to better understand what would cause a change in board culture to create readiness. We learned that three things were needed: a rejuvenation of board culture; authentically prioritizing DEI; and a willingness among white board members to do the work themselves. Although most board leaders confirmed these priorities, some still view DEI work as trivial, secondary, and even unnecessary.
As one Black leader said, “If you’re really doing the work, it’s going to be uncomfortable. You should feel uncomfortable. And the moment that a white male board member feels comfortable, they should be concerned. Because where we are in this country right now is an uncomfortable moment and will remain so for a very long time.”
Another part of readiness, according to some interviewees, is to dismantle, recalibrate, and rebuild systems historically rooted in white supremacy. As one interviewee said, “What would it look like for an organization to really look at anti-Blackness? What do their human resource practices look like? What does their staff team look like? What are they prioritizing? And go ahead and do that work, and then start to recruit, right?”
Regarding trainings and doing the work, one white board leader said, “I have heard from other CEOs that they tried to do, for example, implicit bias training or anti-racism training, and it was a disaster with the board, a disaster…You can mandate that kind of training of employees, whose primary work association in the work world is actually with this organization. But with board members, you’ve got a couple of billionaires who rule the world. Telling them that they need anti-racism training and asking them to, at the board table, do a bunch of psychological work, I wouldn’t do it, no way.”
Black leaders that we interviewed offered a contrasting narrative. One said, “I think very often organizations jump into this posture of, ‘We, as an organization, want to recruit more people of color for our board, and we want to recruit more staff members of color, and we want to bring in these diverse perspectives.’ But the individuals that comprise the organization are completely ignorant about their own internalized biases and sometimes their own lack of awareness, understanding, and appreciation for the ways in which race, power, and privilege play out in their own lives. And so, I’m a big advocate and proponent of starting with the individual first. So, you move from the self to the organization, to the institution, to the system. If you jump any of those stages, then chances are you’re missing something.”
What We Found: Recruitment and Retention
Our interviewees diverged in their ideas of what successful recruitment looked like. White board leaders focused on technical fixes like hiring better recruitment firms. In contrast, Black leaders asked for their services to be valued differently. They discussed wanting to know that they are being recruited for the value and skills they bring to a board and wanting to ensure that their recruitment is not an act of tokenization. As one Black leader explained, “I would need to understand what their goals are with having me there, like are they really trying to have change, or is this just a token effort? What are they doing to make sure that I’m not the only person of color or Black person on this board, and how are they holding themselves accountable to embedding racial equity and justice within the board and for the organization to follow?”
There was widespread agreement that better pipelines to Black communities and candidates was a necessary step. One leader said, “If you really want to build the pipeline, you have to create opportunities. I think you have to create opportunities not only on the boards, but you also have to create opportunities within the leadership of environmental organizations, and you have to have a more diverse set of environmental organizations. That then comes back to foundations, putting more money into, well, either environmental justice work or organizations that have a very diverse workforce.”
The Black leaders interviewed stressed that they do not always want to be relied upon as the experts on or voices of diversity. One leader said, “I wouldn’t want to be the only Black person on a board…Black folks are not a monolith. There are so many Black experiences, especially when you factor in the experiences of folks who are immigrants and children of immigrants. So, acknowledging that and not putting being the only Black person on a board on one person’s shoulders is very important to me. That is the first thing.”
What We Found: Indicators of Inclusive Culture
Underlying all three of the Rs is the idea of what constitutes an inclusive organizational culture. A fundamental disconnect in this most basic building block of measuring diversity surfaced in our interviews. Black leaders were clear that measurement metrics needed to exist at every level of board governance, while some white board leaders suggested that voluntary self-identification was a sufficient way to collect data about board diversity.
One Black leader said, “They need to have equitable metrics. It needs to be in their bylaws; it needs to be in their strategic plan. They just have to be very intentional, and you have to do things that hold them accountable to it. It has to be more than just, ‘Because we feel good, we’re going to do it this time.’ It has to be something that says, ‘You’re not actually in alignment with our values or with our actual formal structure, our legal structure.’ Put it in the bylaws, say that one of the categories is representation, one-third of the board needs to be BIPOC.”
In contrast, while more than half of the board leaders we interviewed supported collecting demographic data to measure diversity, others didn’t see the value in collecting such information. One board leader said, “I’m never going to ask somebody if they’re gay; it’s just none of my…business. But I can tell if they’re Black or if they identify as Hispanic or something like that, so that’s fine. Again, I’m not going to go overboard and try to do a full demographic profile of our board.”
Black leaders stated that collecting demographics of board members is the bare minimum and that boards should have both quantitative and qualitative measures of readiness, recruitment, and retention. One Black leader suggested using multiple measures. “There’s who’s on the board, and there’s who participates and who leads. And so, trying to find ways to think, not just about, we have a Black person on our board, but who’s your board chair? Who is coming to meetings regularly? …Are you actually…keeping people? …What is the tenure of folks on the board? …Do they serve out their full terms, or do they leave in the middle of them? …What are you prioritizing? I think about budgets, too, which is still, that’s the ED’s job, but with board oversight. …is the organization shifting where their money is going, or shifting where they’re focusing their policy work, and their collaboration efforts? Those are things that [should also be measured].”
In our report, we found a disconnect between what environmental organization board members are saying and doing and what’s required to make Black board members feel welcome. Simply put, recruitment and retention get all the attention, while readiness often falls off the radar screen of most white environmental board members. Yet research shows that readiness is a fundamental part of engaging in authentic and genuine equity and inclusion. It cannot be ignored.
Indeed, readiness is the starting point of DEI—both personally and organizationally—and must be prioritized. Due to the historic white supremacist culture present in many green organizations, Black representation has often not been welcome. In short, there is considerable hesitancy towards and mistrust of DEI that the field must work to overcome. The ISED/KHA report offers a road map for organizational change, but such change will not occur without a change in the culture of environmental organizations to create a welcoming atmosphere for board members of color. If the environmental sector is to achieve its potential, intersections between social and environmental justice work must be central and regularly prioritized.