Monday, December 12, 2011

Building diverse board capital

"We really need a more diverse board." When most of us think about diversity, we start with demographic kinds of definitions: ethnicity, gender, age, education, neighborhood, etc. - characteristics and qualities that, for the most part, we can see.

Those aspects of diversity absolutely are important and must be incorporated into the board's recruitment goals. But there are other ways of infusing diversity into your board that carry the potential to transform the governance outcomes and experiences - not to replace the demographic factors, but as an enhancement.

One of my favorite additions to the diversity mix introduces social capital that we bring to the boardroom. In this recent post, Harold Jarche introduces three types of capital that we all carry within us, but express in different ways and levels. Fans of Malcolm Gladwell's seminal book, The Tipping Point, will recognize them immediately. I'm one of those fans. And, as always happens, when I read Harold's post, I instantly connected it to nonprofit boards.

Jarche describes the three capital types this way:

  • Intellectual capital (ability to collect, retain and share information)
  • Social capital (ability of people to work together)
  • Creative capital (ability to combine diverse ideas)

We all have the capacity for each inside of us. We use all three at some point in our daily lives. But usually, one or two will feel more natural as ways of working and interacting. (For example, when I read Gladwell years ago, I recognized myself immediately in his version of intellectual capital, the Maven. My primary role is to share, create, and curate information that others may find useful. If you interact with me on Twitter and other social media sites, one of life's great mysteries has just been solved.)

I'd like to propose that boards that have a better mix of these types of human capital will have a greater potential - and capacity for what governance requires. Let's explore what each type might bring to the nonprofit boardroom.


These are the people who have specific knowledge to share (mission area or governance role specific), and a knack for translating it into something useful for board work. We all bring intellectual capital to the boardroom. But, if we've recruited wisely, some of us have a particular way of sharing and expanding our understanding in the process.

  • They bring deep knowledge and experience, and they share willingly with the board, to expand member understanding of the issues and work that bring them together.
  • They bring articles and other resources that inform the board's work, recognizing that it's not the CEO's job alone to educate members.
  • They ask the questions that encourage us to not accept quick solutions, bringing information and perspectives to flesh out the discussion.


We all have the responsibility and (hopefully) are talking about our mission regularly. But these individuals are especially comfortable, connected and willing to lead the outreach on your behalf.

  • They are constantly thinking about whom to approach and how - and pushing the rest of us to do the same.
  • They are not afraid to call on people, both those they already know and those they've yet to meet.
  • They naturally find those embedded opportunities to tell our story and act on them.
  • They serve as role models for fellow board members.
  • They willingly act as mentors who can accompany board members (and the CEO), to encourage effective outreach.
  • They are persuasive people, effective in making the case for support and inspiring others to act.


These are the people who find connections in unexpected (and occasionally weird) places. They'll bring seemingly unrelated, or tangential, ideas to the table and somehow translate them in ways that not only make sense but change the way we look a the question at hand.

  • They'll ask the "what if..." and "how about..." questions that stretch us and lead us to the visionary work of governance.
  • They'll encourage us to feel and see the issues that we're deliberating - taking us out of our heads (since boards like to intellectualize things). Doing so potentially helps us connect more easily to the meaning-driven and meaning-making work of governance, and the purpose that drew most of us to accept a board seat in the first place.
  • They'll be most likely to introduce the kind of creative play that Pamela Meyer encourages to transform the way we work - IF we empower them to do so. They won't allow us to sit passively listening to reports and rubber-stamping proposals from staff. 
  • They will occasionally drive us nuts,  in good ways.

I realize that that last description of creative capital sounds pretty idealistic. If I'm romanticizing that particular capital, it's because I see it as the place where boards are most likely lacking. We recruit members for what they know: they have some expertise that we need, either as a leadership group or for our mission area. We recruit members for their connections to donors, stakeholder groups and others. What we don't often actively seek - in part, because we don't know we should - is creativity and the people who will stretch us in creative ways.

I originally intended to include a few social capital-focused recruitment tips to close this post. But as I review those tips today, they either seem repetitive of advice offered in previous entries or too facile to be truly effective. I'll continue to work on them and instead ask for conversation and feedback on how you either already approach recruitment in ways that naturally bring all three types of capital or how you might adapt your process to incorporate this different type of diversity.

No comments: