Diversity is not about quotas but fair representation. Following on from her previous analysis of NGO boards, Fairouz El Tom lays out the considerations NGOs should keep in mind when appointing board members.

An executive board is the supreme governing body of a non-governmental organisation (NGO). Its decisions determine the organisation's direction and policies, and eventually its impact on the people it serves. Board membership is therefore vitally important.

Almost all NGOs recognise that diversity and inclusion are key values. However, the board membership does not appear to reflect this. Too many are demographically and ideologically homogeneous, and reproduce established gender, class and ethnic hierarchies. Too few adequately reflect the experience and diversity of those they seek to serve.

Clearly, men can individually contest the unequal status of women. Individuals of European origin can oppose the exclusion and marginalisation that many people of different ethnic origins experience. And highly educated persons can choose to figure out how the world appears to those with little or no education.

Nevertheless, governance systems that primarily rely on personal empathy and imagination are fundamentally unsatisfactory. The truth is, where governing bodies have a different social composition from the populations they seek to serve, they will imperfectly understand those populations and will not represent them or their interests adequately, and their decision-making will suffer as a result.

Homogeneous boards are also likely to be blind to certain social realities, as responses to a recent survey on NGO boards revealed. A number simply did not record the ethnicity of board members, refusing in effect to take account of the influence of power and privilege on exclusion and disadvantage — issues that in many instances are central to their mandates and values. Many also failed to perceive the implications of their links to the arms, tobacco and finance industries and arguably failed in their duty of due diligence.

In the end, how an organisation governs itself is a choice. However, organisations whose declared objective is to improve the lives of poor or disadvantaged groups cannot afford to ignore attitudes or behaviour, in their own conduct or in society at large, that shore up illegitimate, unjust social structures. NGOs that de facto exclude those they are meant to serve from the most powerful positions in their organisations, or appoint individuals who serve industries that oppose or hinder their mandates, must expect to be challenged.

So what should an NGO keep in mind if it wants to appoint a board that is sound and appropriate? Four considerations spring to mind. Taken as a whole, its membership should:

• Include a sufficient number of individuals who are recognised and trusted by the (principle) communities it serves.

• Possess enough relevant professional and operational expertise (governance, finance, technical skills, etc associated with the NGO's mandate).

• Include a range of voices to ensure that the board maintains oversight and standards of due diligence, and brings a sufficiently broad ethical perspective to its deliberations.

• Be consistent with the organisation's mandate and values (with respect to diversity, social objectives, etc).

Achieving a balanced board is challenging, and the more activities and audiences an organisation has, the harder it is to represent them adequately on a board of normal size. Nevertheless, the effort is necessary on ethical grounds, for reasons of efficiency, and to manage risk. It is certainly less difficult for most organisations to appoint a sound board than to achieve their mandate.

At the same time, one must tread carefully. Boards exclusively composed of western-educated African or Asian women will be as limited in their worldview as those dominated by heterosexual, middle-aged men of European descent. The same can be said of gender-balanced boards whose ethnically diverse members all belong to elites in their respective societies. Meaningful diversity is not about quotas but equitable representation. To take account of different ways of communicating and experiencing life, it is necessary to balance fundamental values and a variety of specific concerns.

According to Robert Jensen, if we want to meaningfully change the world, "the first step is to tell the truth. Not just the truth we can bear, but all of the truth. Part of that truth is our own complicity."

NGOs should accept that, to act more authentically, they need to be transparent about, and accountable for, the choices they make. If boards themselves are usually responsible for their composition, most participants in NGOs have a role to play in this. Staff can choose which NGOs they work for and can ask their managers and boards to address diversity and inclusion. Members can place these issues on the agenda of their organisations, and elect members accordingly. Donors can take diversity and inclusion into account when they select whom they fund.

With that in mind, here is a non-exhaustive list of additional questions that NGOs might ask when they appoint members.

• How is she connected to the problems we are trying to solve?

• Does his experience hinder him from understanding the reality of those we seek to serve?

• Does she bring a different and relevant experience to the table?

• How do some of her life experiences compare to those of others on the board?

• Are his professional affiliations in line with our objectives?

• Do his actions match his words?

• How does she relate to 'difference'?

• What world does this person aspire to?

Clearly, there is no one or easy way to achieve social change. NGOs should think, speak and act coherently, and question their beliefs and standpoints more strongly. Failing that they are likely, as Arundhati Roy cautions, to "unwittingly reinforce racist stereotypes and re-affirm the achievements, the comforts, and the compassion (the tough love) of western civilisation", acting as "secular missionaries of the modern world".

If we do not explore with open minds the richness and variety of human experience, we will be unable to imagine concretely the new world we say we want to create.

Opinions voiced by Global Minds do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Global Journal.

The article was originally published on The Guardian - Global Development Professional Network.

Related articles: Diversity And Inclusion On NGO Boards

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