Casting Your Nonprofit Board’s Net WIDER

In some ways, it seems the conversation about nonprofit board diversity has been happening for decades, yet the 2021 Leading with Intent study from BoardSource revealed that, in the US, 78% of board members and 83% of nonprofit board chairs are white.

But, as we know, diversity is not only a race issue, and the study also shows that 99% are cisgender and about 70% over the age of 45.

These are disheartening figures indeed; however, they are unsurprising, given that board recruiting, cultivation, and evaluation require much more attention from the sector than they currently receive. So, what should nonprofits be aiming for?

The WIDER Goal

For a successful board recruitment strategy, nonprofits must think WIDER.

W is for Welcoming

Organizational culture is critical for attracting a broader range of board applicants, and before a board can be diversified, a nonprofit needs to fully examine inclusivity across the spectrum of activity. Is the organization merely an echo chamber or is room made for differing views? Also, regularly review the general onboarding process and consider more bespoke onboarding activities tailored to individuals.

I is for Inclusive

To ensure that nobody is excluded from service due to lack of prior board experience, a board-buddy program can be useful. Teambuilding programs will also help new, inexperienced board members to integrate with existing board members more quickly.

D is for Diverse

Crucial, too, is to recognize that nobody, not even CEOs of nonprofits are immune to unconscious bias. Project Implicit is a survey tool developed by Harvard University that will help identify such biases. Ongoing diversity training for the board to address any biases is essential.

E is for Equitable

Sometimes board hierarchies can emerge that are based on the relative wealth of board members. Remember that a board has 3 functions: strategy, governance, and resourcing, and also remember that fundraising ability is not the sole facet of resourcing. Look at what each board member brings to the table in terms of educational experience, industry experience, and life experience and treat all assets as equal in value.

R is for Representative

Nonprofits need a strategy for recruitment that is not about filling vacant seats at the board table; it must be rooted in the needs of the communities it serves. Indeed, the same study shows that nearly 50% of the nonprofits surveyed did not believe that their boards had the diversity required to build trust with their communities. Recruiting board members with shared lived experiences as beneficiaries is not always/often possible, but try to get as close as possible. You could also consider setting up a “shadow board” composed of community members that feed into the official board.

Unfortunately, despite many matching platforms serving the for-profit sector, there remains very few effective, scalable, or efficient board-matching services for the nonprofit sector at this time. Nevertheless, with the right vision and leadership, technology can help board recruitment become more successfully diverse, but only on the condition that the sector, its funders, and every nonprofit applies WIDER values to board recruitment and governance.

Read more about the need for and development of technological solutions for improving board-level leadership in Doug Bolton’s chapter, “Technology and Services are Poised to Create WIDER Nonprofits” in Transforming Disruption to Impact: Rethinking Volunteer Engagement for a Rapidly Changing World, out now from Amplify Publishing.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

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Purpose-Driven Volunteer Impact, Purpose-Driven Language

The number of volunteers mobilized.
Number of hours served.
Number of agency partners engaged.

These metrics will be familiar to anyone working in the voluntary sector who have had to report their activities. As you might discern from the use of italics, the nonprofit world communicates with a certain tone, which might not be doing volunteerism any favors. “Mobilized” sounds authoritarian, “served” sounds transactional, and “engaged” sounds soulless.

In her chapter “Purpose Driven Volunteer Impact” in the new book Transforming Disruption to Impact: Rethinking Volunteer Engagement for a Rapidly Changing World, nonprofit consultant Sue Carter Kahl says: “Language influences actions and can inadvertently narrow how we define impact. For example, it is common to talk about measuring impact. Unfortunately, measuring frames impact in terms of numbers only [which can be] poorly suited to illuminating the complexity of nonprofit work, which deals with humans and transformation.”

Words, therefore, are powerful tools—for good or bad—so is it wise to regularly rethink the ones we use?


Among a great many other disruptions, COVID-19 sparked what’s been dubbed The Great Resignation—a mass exodus of workers from employment following a sudden review of their life and work in the light of the pandemic. It is no passing fad, either. Surveys suggest that Americans (indeed, people all over the world) are ready at any time to quit their jobs if those jobs are no longer fulfilling. In short, we have become a more purpose-driven society.

However, the language we use as a sector has for too long reflected the demand from funders and advocates for statistical outputs. But this no longer serves the need for mission-driven outcomes. Indeed, even the terms “outputs” and “outcomes” are problematic: would everyone who’s interested in hearing about the work you do share your understanding of what this jargon means?

It’s more pressing than ever that organizations reflect on the language they use so that it matches potential volunteers’ sense of purpose, desire to make a difference, and longing to be part of a social group.


Here are a few questions to ask regarding the language of your volunteer program.

Is our language inclusive?

This question is harder than it appears because, sometimes, the language of inclusion can, in fact, be alienating. Take “intersectionality,” for example. While commonplace among nonprofit professionals, this word means very little to many people without a definition. Jargon is useful shorthand for many of us, but it can put off potential volunteers, so look out for it and find a work around, even if it means using longwinded phrases.

Also, weed out functional “funder speak.” Consider more emotive alternatives, such as replacing “mission” with “purpose” or “value” with “worth” or “measuring” with “capturing.”

Is our language specific?

Some common vocabulary is guilty of being too vague. Take “community,” for example. What community are you talking about, exactly? Using broad terms can be dehumanizing, especially when they relate to race, gender, and disability.

Is our language authentic?

This relates to both inclusivity and specificity in that it is about reflecting and respecting the language of the people you work with. How do your clients and beneficiaries talk about the issues affecting them? What vocabulary do they use? It might not always be appropriate vernacular, but it’s always beneficial to listen and, whenever possible, provide a platform for the voices from within the communities you work with, rather than superimposing the voice of your organization.

In conclusion, then, the topic of language does not solely pertain to volunteer programs; it should be addressed across the organization’s operations, from fundraising to service provision. Clear, consistent terminology and vocabulary will reassure staff, stakeholders, volunteers, and beneficiaries alike.

Jerome Tennille is a corporate responsibility and social impact strategist, and a co-editor of Transforming Disruption to Impact: Rethinking Volunteer Engagement for a Rapidly Changing World, out now from Amplify Publishing. For more information, read Dr. Sue Carter Kahl’s chapter, “Purpose-Driven Volunteer Impact.”

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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