Sunday, September 25, 2016

Expanding Board Diversity

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz on September 12, 2016, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post, which discusses the complexity of diversifying boards of directors, here.

US Olympic Gymnasts 2016
In many areas of arts and culture, it is an article of faith that cultural groups, and the boards that oversee them, must better diversify. Greater similarities between boards and organizations and their communities is a laudable goal and makes complete sense; parsing what this really means and how to achieve it, however, is much more complex and difficult. What we know is this: to be successful, we must embrace the complexity of the topic and confront some uncomfortable issues.

Dr. Francie Ostrower, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, concluded that each cultural and ethnic group participates in cultural activities differently and is motivated differently, so connecting to them requires a tailoring to their interests and behavior patterns – “one size fits all” will not work. In more recent research, she similarly emphasized that nonprofits must think differently to truly diversify their boards. When identifying the characteristics sought in a board candidate, for example, they need to consider the candidate’s interests, capabilities and behavior.

The July-August issue of the Harvard Business Review focused on diversity in the corporate arena. The article concluded that diversity-forward intentions and actions are very often ineffective even if a commitment is strong. Organizational culture and dynamics, it was found, are consistently too tough to overcome. What has proved effective, however, are mandatory, enforceable requirements that address the root of the problem at a critical choke-point: the review of potential community participants.

For example, in the 1970s and ’80s, American orchestras recognized that they were not hiring women, despite a great number of talented female musicians in the applicant pool. To address this, many orchestras required that auditions take place behind a screen so that hiring committees could not know a candidate’s gender, race or age. The result? A large increase in women players winning permanent seats in orchestras. More recently, the National Football League recognized, that it, too, needed to change and instituted the “Rooney Rule,” which requires minority candidates to be included when any coaching or senior administrative position in the league needs to be filled. As with orchestras, this mandatory policy brought about a marked increase in leaders of color in the league.

Yet if mandatory processes clearly deliver progress, they are not sufficient in and of themselves in addressing the full complexity of the diversity issue: for organizations to succeed they must also address cultural differences. While blind screen auditions may open the door for women, they do not confront the issues that make it difficult for players of color to train as professional musicians.

As I have written before, identifying a problem is never enough; advocates must propose concrete solutions to forge the progress they seek. People will argue that by the very act of diversifying our cultural institutions, these issues, challenges and questions will naturally be addressed. If this is true, then the best path is to follow the example of the orchestras and the NFL and impose mandatory rules and structures. But doing so without a real conversation to understand how an institution brings value and relevance to its community may prove counterproductive — especially if those things alter that organization beyond recognition.

Read the entire fully developed post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.

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