Insights from “The Path to Racial Equity: How Board Readiness Informs Organizational Readiness for Black Board Leadership”

Friday, February 3, 2023

Insights from “The Path to Racial Equity: How Board Readiness Informs Organizational Readiness for Black Board Leadership”

Last Fall, we hosted a conversation exploring the journey toward greater racial equity on boards. As moderator Keecha Harris, who leads an institutional change firm explained, “Conversations like these can be very complex, [but] they are certainly possible. By holding space to be open and authentic, we interrogate how we approach relationships, whom we approach, and how we support organizations moving forward.”

Having a racially diverse board brings exposure to different outlooks, experiences, and skill sets as well as strengthened and improved board performance. Diverse board leadership can also inform staff retention. When a younger, more diverse workforce considers their career path and longevity within an organization, they often look at the leadership as an indicator of potential alignment or misalignment. 

However, a critical examination of the practices and mindsets that contribute to the racial leadership gap on boards is needed, as well as a commitment to building the foundation necessary to usher in and retain board service from Black leaders. Both are necessary for our institutions to fulfill their potential in serving - and ultimately partnering with - communities.

Speakers on the panel included Rose McKinney-James, Managing Principal of McKinney-James & Associates as well as Energy Works LLC, and Nathaniel Smith, Founder and Chief Equity Officer of Partnership for Southern Equity

Acknowledgment and Reconciliation 

In order to recruit and retain board service from Black leaders, it is imperative to examine and evaluate internal operating systems and practices. As Nathaniel Smith explains, “To be someone who is committed to racial equity and inclusion means that you are constantly in a space of interrogation,” Smith said. “[You are] constantly… asking yourself ‘Am I showing up in a way that will help create the change that I want to see in the world?’” 

Such an interrogation process may result in some hard truths, but it is through this process that institutions move forward. Smith added that when self-evaluating, you must “ask yourself the hard questions” such as, what lenses or worldviews are you bringing to determine who is worthy and how this influences the way you look at potential candidates?

Understanding the history of the ways an organization may have caused harm to Black communities and communities of color creates space for an open and honest dialogue. These conversations can also be the first steps in shifting power back to the community, allowing both groups the opportunity to discuss and reset goals and expectations that are collectively agreed upon. Panelists described how this “collectiveness” is necessary for sharing power and creating a supportive, enriched environment.

“Philanthropy has to be done with people, not to them.”

— Nathaniel Smith

Need for Intentionality

In order to continue the momentum toward shared power, panelists also suggested concrete shifts in behaviors and practices during the board recruitment process. In speaking about her experience in creating a more diverse board and workforce, Rose McKinney-James shared: “If you are picking someone because you don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t have, in particular, a Black director, then… you’re missing the point.” 

McKinney-James shared: “If you are picking someone because you don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t have, in particular, a Black director, then… you’re missing the point.” 

McKinney-James went on to describe the ways in which candidates can help an organization achieve its goals, but highlighted that this cannot be done unless they are supported in their new board roles. What’s more, the board must be willing to reflect on aspects of its own culture that may prevent Black leaders from experiencing true inclusion and support and commit to making the necessary changes to its culture and ways of working.

It is also important to ensure that expectations are clear and agreed upon by all parties. For example, having term limits for board members and enforcing them allows leadership to continuously scout for rising talent, be intentional about who is represented on the board, and effectively plan for leadership transitions.   

“... Meet people where you find them in terms of making their experience one that the candidate wants to continue in. A lot of this relates to being very thoughtful in the recruitment effort, in the conversations, in the candor.” 

— Rose McKinney-James

Power of Partnering with Communities 

To share power, it is necessary for philanthropic institutions to examine and adjust the ways in which they engage with both their community and their organizational ideology. If organizational practices and ideology frame the Black community as people who need to be “saved”, it will be difficult to see them as the collaborators they should be. 

As Smith states, “the people who are closest to the problem are also closest to the solution. It is through listening and working together that the community can become co-creators in a future that is collectively imagined.”

Changing this “savior” mindset is an action that should be extended not only to the community but to Black board members as well. It is important for leadership mindsets to shift to fully recognize how the board can be enriched by Black professionals’ knowledge and experience. 

Ingredients for Success

In speaking on success that has been achieved as a result of implementing a diverse board, Rose McKinney-James credits:

  • Shifts in leadership that questions conventional wisdom and longstanding practices; 
  • Willingness to embrace a new vision; 
  • Listening to feedback from other drivers of change within your organization.

Making space for uncomfortable conversations now can lead to more enriching and supportive partnerships later. Smith elaborated on this by making the point that “collectiveness” can be the compass leading us to more inclusive ways of working.


“The road to racial equity is both a journey and a destination.”

— Nathaniel Smith


Smith went on to reflect on his own organization, which has taken a lot of time to compile and develop a set of shared beliefs, “I think goals and outcomes are very important, but the compass you will utilize to get to your destination is just as important, and it is important that you spend time developing that compass... if you are not doing what you can to influence the culture of your organization, by shaping the values that guide that culture, you’re going to continue going back to the same challenge.”

Participating in open dialogue with colleagues and the community enables us all to create a culture ripe with inclusion, compassion, and collectivism. In continuing to interrogate ourselves and evolve, taking the time to listen and collaborate will make the journey to more diverse board service smoother and illuminative.



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