Ways to Build a Culturally Competent Board - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Ways to Build a Culturally Competent Board

Can greater cultural competency help funders better align their resources with needs? Despite notable accomplishments and donors who care a great deal about serving historically underserved populations, philanthropy continues to struggle to achieve social change for the communities and populations that need it most. 

Even the most thoughtful and productive philanthropists—including those who aim to serve, and do serve, highly diverse constituencies—may innocently overlook one component when assembling their boards or advisors: cultural competency, the ability to interact effectively with people from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Donors may inadvertently apply their own cultural lens in defining the needs of communities and populations, and in researching and offering solutions to these needs,” according to D5, a 5-year coalition to increase philanthropy’s diversity, equity, and inclusiveness, “or they may assume that there are no real differences across communities.”

Set the Stage

Board members are typically chosen for their commitment to the foundation’s mission, level of involvement in the community, field knowledge, proficiency in financial management, legal expertise, or other specialized skills.

“When foundations achieve more diverse and inclusive boards,” says D5 Director Kelly Brown, “that factor can go a very long way toward engendering greater cultural competency throughout the organization, no matter the size.”

Of course, less-than-diverse boards cannot automatically be considered bad. And boards that reflect greater diversity may not necessarily be truly equitable or inclusive.

“Foundations can have diverse boards, and that is definitely admirable,” says Brown. “But the real issue is to have board diversity that is the right kind: the kind that works, the kind that is really inclusive and allows each board member to be truly effective and not just token. What it comes down to is realizing the need to be much more creative in finding ways to make boards more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.”

See “Diversity, Inclusion and Effective Philanthropy,” a philanthropy road map (Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors)

Embrace Diversity in All Its Forms

In the search for diversity and inclusiveness, many boards may focus on qualities such as race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Not as many think about age—age as in younger than 30, or even younger than 10. It’s a concept Alexis Marion knows quite well.

A program assistant and junior board advisor at the Frieda C. Fox Family Foundation, Marion has long thought young adults and children can and should have a voice in the foundation boardroom:

My parents always thought children should be encouraged and allowed to do what they can, no matter their age. About 14 years ago, and about a year after the foundation was started, one of my siblings asked at one of our family gatherings if children could be on the foundation’s board, especially since the Fox Foundation is dedicated to maximizing the potential of children and youth. It was decided that it would make a lot of sense to have those as young as 8 on the board. One reason is because children, especially the current generation, are better able to embrace diversity. They do so because they know it so well in today’s world.

“It does take extra work to make a board composed of children and young adults function,” says Marion. “I spend a lot of time doing things like driving children to meetings and making connections with their parents to get them involved in the foundation’s work. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it when we see what the young ones are able to do, and it’s really worth it when we see what they bring to the adults on the ‘regular’ board and to the adults on the foundation’s staff. These kids are cultural competency in the flesh.”

Position Yourself Close to Community

Gratifying and productive as it can be to increase a board’s size and diversity, it may not always be possible. At Sauer Family Foundation, Executive Director Colleen O’Keefe is the only staff member. The husband and wife who founded the foundation are, with O’Keefe, the only board members. Still, the foundation’s commitment to cultural competency runs strong.

Recently, the foundation embarked on a $200,000 child welfare initiative in Minnesota’s two most urban counties. O’Keefe decided this initiative required a different approach from some of the others she has taken during her 9 years at the foundation:

I realized I needed to do everything I could to engage directly—to be as close as possible to the work we want to do. That meant really being out in the community and not sitting in my office reading proposals. It meant spending the past year interviewing about 30 different people within the child welfare system, including judges, lawyers, social workers, parents, and children.

I learned that in Minnesota—and I suspect elsewhere—there is controversy regarding the idea of keeping children within their cultural groups versus placing them with families holding greater socioeconomic status. I would not have known that had I not made the effort to get out and learn the information firsthand.

For me and my foundation, cultural competency, diversity, and inclusiveness are concepts we can achieve if we really work at it, despite our small size and small and traditional board.

It is becoming increasingly clear that outcomes related to diversity, inclusiveness, and cultural competency will require more than just discrete programs. What will be needed is a fundamental restructuring of philanthropic operations and countless teachable—and sometimes awkward—moments along the journey to lasting organizational culture change.

Management and organizational consultant Howie Schaffer brings decades of experience working in diversity, inclusiveness, and cultural competency. Follow Howie on Twitter @inclusionguru


  1. […] Share decision making. Funders can work to create a culture of shared decision making in two key ways: Consider whether your staff (if any) represents the communities you serve, and explore whether it’s time to bring community members onto your board or an advisory group. Building a representative staff and board can provide grantmakers with a better in-house understanding of what’s happening in the communities they serve and how grantmaking can make a difference. Read about building a culturally competent board […]

  2. […] their board rooms. How can you bridge this gap with greater sensitivity, awareness, and inclusion? Whether you consider small steps or bold moves in this arena, you’ll put your philanthropy on a path toward more informed investments in the social issues you […]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *