Nonprofit organizations, which are legal entities that must be approved by state governments, allow people to join together and combine resources to achieve common goals. Most often nonprofits are started by people who are passionate about addressing social problems or responding to needs in their communities.
So why do so many nonprofits fail to address the issue of class among staff, members and volunteers – and even fall into the trap of exacerbating classism?
Nonprofit organizations sometimes lack representation from some segments of the community they serve. For example, a group working to address an issue affecting people living in poverty may not have anyone on the board that is low-income. Similarly, even when the board includes a working-class person that represents the community served, if only one individual is represented on the board, that person may feel like a “fish out of water.” Two or three or more are much better.
Perhaps most important – and overlooked by organizations – are we prepared to make adjustments to our organization if we do increase the diversity of the board?”
There are significant benefits to organizations whose board membership is more diverse. Some of these are:
- To incorporate those most affected by the work of the group into that group’s decision-making. Those most affected understand best what it’s like to be living in poverty or working class.
- To be more responsive to all segments of the community, and especially to those who are most important to the group’s mission and primary goals. If the group is working with people of various economic and social classes, skin colors, religions, genders and gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, ages, etc. at least several should be represented on the board.
- To emphasize the organization’s social responsibility and inclusiveness. For example, groups working with people of different class backgrounds should ensure that those with less social and economic privilege can participate actively and effectively on boards.
- To help establish trusting partnerships and relationships between the organization and the community with which it works.
- To help make policies that are more user-friendly and less agency/client structured to reduce differences in power between the organization and those it serves.
- To provide a feeling of ownership and being able to have a say for those who may feel left out by the organization (and society in general), to offer the opportunity for them to be givers and decision-makers as well as receivers.To recognize that boards need not just professional skills (legal, accounting, organizing, nonprofit management) and resources (having funds to donate, a willingness to fundraise or give time to the group) but also experience as a beneficiary or constituent or consumer.
- To operate more effectively and creatively because of the breadth of perspectives and experiences that a diverse board membership brings to the organization.
Nonprofit organizations, whatever the makeup of their board, should consider this question of diversity, including class diversity. Are we confident that most or all of the factors above are being addressed? Do we have a written policy regarding the diversity of our board? Do we feel our current board is as diverse as it could be? If not, are we taking steps to diversify the membership of the organization’s board (and committees as well)?
Perhaps most important – and overlooked by organizations – are we prepared to make adjustments to our organization if we do increase the diversity of the board?