Board Connection and the Importance of Nonprofit Board Diversity

Serving on a nonprofit Board of Directors is a rewarding, inspiring experience.  Yet the fiscal and governance responsibility that comes with it can also be daunting.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

From learning the nuts and bolts of nonprofit finance to exploring what diversity, equity and inclusion means in communities still reeling from the impacts of Covid-19 and an increased awareness of racial and ethnic disparities, United Way’s Board Connection is building the skills and knowledge of individuals who are stepping up as our communities’ future leaders.

“The Board Connection program was exactly what I was looking for – a thorough crash course into the world of non-profit boards of directors,” said Sebastien Cimon Gagnon, a participant in the Fall 2020 Board Connection program who went on to join the Somerville Homeless Coalition Board of Directors. “I especially appreciated the Agency Fair at the end of the program, which provided me the opportunity to meet with six nonprofits, and eventually join the board of one. Board Connection gave me the knowledge I needed to quickly adapt to my new responsibilities.”

Board Connection consists of four sessions, detailing fundamentals of board service, governance, finance, fundraising, and the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) principles in both the operation and composition of boards.

“It is essential to have diverse representation on Boards for multiple reasons,” says Katie Padmore, Volunteer Engagement and Data Analysis Manager at United Way. “Boards work best when members bring their varied perspective and lived experiences to the group. Members of different ethnicities and socioeconomic status can help others on the Board to more deeply understand the needs of stakeholders to inform and develop more effective decision-making.”

While racial and ethnic diversity of Boards should be a top priority for nonprofit organizations, diversity can and should also include age, gender, disability status, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, native language fluency, and more.


A 2017 survey of 1,500 U.S.-based nonprofits by BoardSource showed that 84% of board members and 90% of board chairs were white. Four years later, a similar study shows those percentages decreasing, with 78% of board members and 83% of board chairs identifying as white. While the data is trending to be more inclusive and representative, BoardSource’s “Reviewing the State of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion of Nonprofit Boards,” report dives deeper into the DEI takeaways from the 2021 findings.

The report notes that the data collected for the 2021 study predates three seismic events in our nation’s history, all of which have occurred in the last two years: the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on communities of color; the racial reckoning following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and several other Black men and women; and the insurrection of the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021.  These incidents are resulting in organizations having more inclusive practices, and spurring individuals to reflect on their own understanding of systemic racism. Future studies will reveal whether this renewed pursuit of racial justice has already had an impact on the diversity of nonprofit boards.

Among the findings more deeply explored, the study found that 82% of chief executives reported that racial diversity is important for external leadership and 70% within that group said they were dissatisfied with the demographic characteristics of their boards. However, only half of that subset have incorporated diversity goals into their recruitment tactics.  The report suggests that boards should be intentional about their approach to diversifying membership, prioritizing demographics during recruitment.


In our region, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley is striving to contribute to the diversity of prospective nonprofit Board members by increasing the diversity of individuals in the Board Connection program itself.  We recently experienced the most diverse cohorts of Board Connection participants to date: In the Spring 2021 series, 4% of registrants identified as Latinx, while 18% of Fall 2021 registrants identified as Latinx. Of the 124 participants in either the Spring or Fall 2021 programs, 53% did not identify as white.

United Way’s corporate partner, Sun Life, is sponsoring spots for BIPOC individuals to register for Board Connection’s Spring 2022 trainings and Agency Fair at no cost. Those interested in this spring’s Board Connection program can register here. Once registered, participants will gain access to the Board Connection portal, which allows professionals to browse open board seats and connect with participating nonprofits through a custom matching algorithm. As of December 2021, 127 organizations and 219 Board candidates are registered on the portal.


The next Board Connection series launches on March 23 and meets for four consecutive Wednesday mornings, culminating with an agency fair on April 27. Click here for more information.