Changing the Boardroom Conversation on DEI

Drexel University’s Gupta Governance Institute and Grant Thornton’s biweekly Nonprofit Directors Dialogue Miniseries features nonprofit leaders and board members as they share insights and strategies for turning today’s challenges into tomorrow’s successes.

What do you see as the nonprofit board’s role in shaping diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE) especially now that promises have been made by most nonprofits?

They’re moving from talking about it, to doing something about it. At the American Cancer Society, we’ve had an effort underway for more than a decade where one person has been in charge of diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s not just one person, but it is one person leading it throughout the organization in all 50 States with various efforts. As it always goes, it starts at the top. It starts with the board, it starts with the CEO and the leadership team. The tone at the top helps with the mood in the middle, which is informed by the buzz at the bottom.

I remember a board meeting in August of 2020, just literally about two months after the death of George Floyd, and where diversity, equity and inclusion were on the agenda. It is on the agenda for every board meeting; however, this meeting was different. The meeting was of course in a virtual environment, but we had the most emotional exchange on the subject that I have ever witnessed a board meeting, whether it be in-person or virtual. There were directors tearing up, and it was very emotional. They were forcefully speaking into their computer screens saying how we have come a long way as an organization, but we must address this in a way that is truly meaningful.

It is results versus activities. I can tell you for sure that diversity, equity, and inclusion have been very important topics for all the organizations that I am involved in, and in companies where I serve on the board. However, I have seen a distinct move from talking about it to doing something about it. It is not just whether we are doing a search for a new Senior Vice President, or we are re doing a search for a new director because somebody is retiring. For example, before we might’ve had a slate of six people, two African American, three women, one Asian American Pacific Islander, or LGBTQ individuals; but in the end, the best candidate was a middle-aged white man. That would be the typical conversation in the past. I’m not being accusatory, that might have been the case. However, now the conversation has become, “No, we must make a change.”