Color Blind or Color Brave: More Flies in the Buttermilk

colorful-markersBy Makiyah Moody, Governance Initiatives Director

For the last two years I have worked with dozens of nonprofit boards to support them in building their capacity and competence as oversight bodies. Board members have three critical responsibilities: enable the organization to achieve its mission, provide strategic leadership, and protect the public’s interest. An extension of these three areas include: shaping the mission, monitoring and improving organizational performance, and ensuring leadership and resources. These charges are broad, interdependent and complex, requiring a board comprised of thoughtful leaders who bring wisdom and critical inquiry to issues facing the nonprofit. It is insufficient for the board to only provide oversight. Equally important board members must offer foresight and insight – the ability to intentionally plan ahead to ensure the organization’s success while inventing the future by leveraging a sixth sense.

Being in a leadership position as a board member can sometimes be uncomfortable. With the constant scrutiny over resource allocation and the consequences of Sarbanes-Oxley, there is a lot at stake for incompetent or misinformed board members. Courageous leadership is a prerequisite for service. Board members who question the status quo add immense value. When anticipating challenges related to competition, access to resources or program effectiveness, a board of divergent thinkers increases the creative problem-solving quotient.

High-performing boards recognize the value proposition of diversity (including race, gender, skill, geographic affiliation, socio-economic status, etc.) and strive to create a governing body that is representative of the community served. Boards that are relevant, effective, and grounded in the needs of the community understand the premium on diversity and are intentional about recruitment and selection of board members who will increase the organization’s image and impact.

In her illustrative and compelling TED Talk, Color Blind or Color Brave, Mellody Hobson, CEO of Ariel Investments, challenges us to walk towards the proverbial “third rail” and boldly go where no one has gone before confronting the issue of race. She offers several examples that motivate us to consider whether we are color blind or color brave as we make hiring decisions, create company policies, and provide oversight in our respective organizations.

Hobson notes that “although white men make up only thirty percent of the United States population, they hold seventy percent of corporate board seats.” Further, she says that of the thousands of publicly traded companies today, only two are chaired by black women. These are fascinating, yet disturbing data points. Why is there such racial disparity not only in corporate board representation but across health outcomes, income, wealth distribution, educational attainment, access to safe and affordable housing? Is there correlation between the amount of diversity in leadership and the amount of equity an organization creates in the community? What responsibility do board members have to wave the banner of diversity and inclusivity as leaders across the nonprofit sector?

Board members have a significant amount of responsibility to ensure that an organization’s mission and aspirations are fulfilled. This requires a keen understanding of who is being served, what the consequences are of decisions made in the boardroom, and perhaps most importantly, how the public good will be impacted through policy and programmatic choices. Every decision that a board makes is like a spoke on a wheel with the entire wheel being the sum of the organization. Without cogent and cohesive policies emanating from the nucleus (mission) of the wheel, the organization may not fulfill its potential. With the broad array of issues – financial, personnel, governance, compliance, programming – facing organizations, diversity of thought and diversity of the collective body are a mandate. Strong governing boards recognize the value in having more flies in the buttermilk and work deliberately and strategically to ensure there are multiple voices and perspectives at the table.

In a column written for Harvard Business Review (December 2013), Angus Deaton, Professor at Princeton University and author of The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality, analyzes the health and wealth gaps between rich and poor nations. He writes, “It is one thing for some people to escape deprivation and leave others behind. It is quite another when the escapees use their newfound freedom to block the paths of those trying to find their own way out.”

Inherent within Deaton’s quote is the expectation, or rather mandate, which as stewards of the public’s trust responsible for enhancing the public good, nonprofit board members must understand not only the value of diversity but the necessity for it. The world is not becoming more homogeneous, so to adequately address the realities of cross-cultural dynamics, diverse perspectives and life experiences are crucial. We learn who we are as leaders in the context of difference. It’s time for nonprofit leaders, and corporate leaders, to elevate the discourse within their boardrooms and leverage the assets that diversity brings to decision making.


  1. Take Perspective: During discussions, make it a point to perspective take and consider the implications of the decision for individuals unlike you. For example, if there is a discussion about whether or not the organization will subsidize transportation for Literacy Nights, consider the steps a single mother of three would have to take in order to participate. Let that reality influence your decision, not simply the reality that you have a car.
  2. Acknowledge Bias: We are each born with our own set of biases and predispositions. There is power in recognizing that our default setting may not be the most appropriate when representing others through our board service. Take stock in bias when it rears its ugly head and course correct.
  3. Be Bold: Sweaty palms. Racing heartbeats. Most people don’t enjoy conflict, but the fact is there is growth in adversity. Be courageous in demonstrating your leadership and interrogate your world.

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