Creating a Diverse, Equitable & Inclusive Board

Because social change is complex, creating an effective team representing diverse constituencies, proved essential, researchers found. Future Generations University refers to the three groups that must be included in a partnership for social change as the “Bottom-Up,” the “Outside-In,” and the “Top-Down.”


Source: “What Is Social Equity?” Melbourne Social Equity Institute, socialequity.unimelb.edu.au/stories/ what-is-social-equity



Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has always been essential in establishing an effective nonprofit board of directors and is even more relevant now in our ever-changing world. We tend to hear these three words together—Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (or DEI)—but what do they really mean?

  • Diversity is the involvement of people from a range of backgrounds and perspectives, especially those who have been historically marginalized by their racial or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, disability, or economic status.


  • Equity in DEI refers to social equity, meaning that all members of a community can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. Equity is not to be confused with equality, however. Have you seen this clever illustration of the difference between equality and equity? Equality (on the left) provides equally for everyone. Equity (on the right) flexibly accommodates each person’s need to arrive at an equal outcome.


  • Inclusion is the practice of including and accepting people who are different from you, in every possible way, and providing them with equitable access to resources and opportunities.


A diverse board that practices equity and inclusion will greatly benefit your nonprofit. It will allow opportunities to discuss deeply-rooted community issues from multiple perspectives, leading to more creative and informed ways of tackling challenges and pursuing goals.

Although many boards strive for DEI, they sometimes fall short in recruiting a truly diverse membership. An excellent model for creating a diverse board can be found in the world of community development.


Some years ago, Future Generations University and Johns Hopkins University conducted a study of large-scale efforts at community change, examining approaches worldwide over the previous century. They identified core principles for successful community change and described them as part of a system they called SEED-SCALE. One of these core principles is the three-way partnership.


Because social change is complex, creating an effective team representing diverse constituencies, proved essential, researchers found. Future Generations University refers to the three groups that must be included in a partnership for social change as the “Bottom-Up,” the “Outside-In,” and the “Top-Down.”


The first group—the Bottom-Up—are the people who will do most of the work or reap most of the benefits (think of your staff and volunteers and those your organization is helping). The second partnership, the Outside-In, are the outsiders that have an interest in transforming the community (think consultants, researchers, people interested in your organization although they may not have direct involvement in it). The third partnership, the Top-Down, are the leaders whose decisions affect the community (think of your leadership, board of directors, high-profile donors).


Because all three of these groups of people have knowledge that should inform the direction of your organization, it is vital they all have representation on your board. Strategic planning and other decision-making are typically undertaken by the Top-Down with their bird’s-eye view, perhaps with input from the Outside-In. Rarely is the lived experience of the Bottom-Up invited in.


Including the Bottom-Up on your board of directors, particularly those from marginalized groups your nonprofit serves, can present challenges It may require extra effort to create equitable opportunities for everyone to participate, such as additional training or even arranging for their transportation to your meeting. It may include actively soliciting their ideas and then listening to a critique of services you’ve worked hard to provide. It may even feel uncomfortable handing power to someone who you feel is less prepared to lead than you are.


But the payoff to practicing DEI is great. It can lead to more holistic and informed approaches. It can empower those who have been long excluded from wielding power. And as research has demonstrated, practicing DEI is essential for achieving your nonprofit’s vision for meaningful, large-scale, lasting change.


For additional information on this topic, see National Council of Nonprofits, DEI Tools and Resources National Association of Colleges & Employers (NACE) Diversity & Inclusion Self-Assessment.


This was an original blog post for the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits (ACN).


Kaycee Bunch, M.A, is the owner of Kaycee Bunch Consulting, which specializes in Community Development. Kaycee has worked with over 20 nonprofit organizations both nationally and internationally, focusing on strategic planning, program development, and fund development.

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