Building More Diverse Boards of Trustees

Summer 2023

By Jan Abernathy, Naledi Semela

This article appeared as "Beyond the Surface" in the Summer 2023 issue of Independent School.

As friends who both identify as Black, colleagues at the same boys’ school, and trustees at different independent schools, we’ve had occasion to observe board dynamics while being neither parent nor alumnus, as many independent school trustees are. We each came to our trustee roles by different roads and at different points in our independent school careers, but we have a shared experience and observations about the importance of diversifying boards. 

Jan always jokes that she got her start in independent school board service the old-fashioned way—her neighbor was the board chair and their children were great friends. She was told she seemed like a “good fit;” she was a dedicated volunteer with an interest in the school’s progressive pedagogy, and given that she and the board chair had both contributed to the school’s first capital campaign, assumptions were made about her family’s capacity and willingness to contribute financially to the small school’s coffers. 

That was 2003. It was still an era of deep belief in the value of colorblindness, and although Jan was the only Black trustee on the board, she was not being asked to weigh in on diversity issues—simply because they were rarely discussed. Nor was there a concerted effort to bring diversity onto the board. As a cooperative school, the board of trustees was not self-perpetuating, and trustees were elected by all of the families in the 400-student school. Current trustees often asked friends and committed volunteers to stand for election, and although “unaffiliated” candidates were sometimes successful, the board often exhibited more unanimity of thought than might have been helpful or needed. 

By all measures, Naledi was also a prime candidate for trusteeship. Having attended an independent school in New York City and serving three terms on its alumni board, including in leadership roles, he demonstrated the commitment of an ideal trustee. When he started his career working in independent schools as a communications professional at a peer institution, he was invited by his alma mater to take part in an internship designed to expose young alumni to school governance and train them for eventual board opportunities in schools and nonprofit organizations. This quickly paid dividends as he was soon invited to serve as a trustee at a nursery through 8th grade independent school in New York City. By that time, he had amassed experience in education, diversity and inclusion, and nonprofit leadership, and as an unaffiliated trustee, he could provide important perspective and guidance to the board. 

Among the many things our experiences and perspectives as trustees and practitioners has made clear is not just that schools must diversify their boards to be effective, but that it is critical to move beyond relying on certain trustees for representation and create a more inclusive model for board membership. And while many boards today are increasingly committed to diversity, and schools across the country—including the ones for which we serve as trustees—have made great strides in diversifying their boards, we (and they) know much work remains. 

The 2022–2023 NAIS Trendbook notes that in 2021–2022, the percentage of trustees of color in independent schools was 23.8%, while the total U.S. population is almost 42% people of color, including 53.3% of all children. The Trendbook encourages schools to assess the demographics on their boards, and, particularly to diversify the sources from which they recruit individuals to be involved in school governance. However, it also notes that increasing board diversity to reflect the student population ranked among the lowest concerns in importance for trustees. If boards are to become truly representative of our student populations now and in the future, we need to bridge that gap.  

To do this work and to do it well—in a way that recognizes how being the “only one” in a powerful group can be an isolating experience and that builds toward lasting progress—schools must focus their board-building efforts on three key areas: sourcing, committee structures, and board culture.

Starting at the Source

It doesn’t take very long to size up who is asked to be on the board and why, even if that assessment doesn’t always tell the full story. Boards can tilt one way or another depending on what’s needed at a particular time, whether it’s generous giving, social or alumni connections, or certain kinds of professional expertise. Scratch the surface, though, and you may also find that trustees might be more likely to be native to the area in which the school is located or may have attended the same independent school or college as other leaders of the school. It’s natural to wonder, then, how schools are recruiting trustees, even when a board composition matrix is in play. How do individuals become known to the board and why are some trustees selected after only a few years in a community, while others have been there for much longer? And how does board service become more accessible to a school’s current families and unaffiliated community members, such as administrators at local nonprofits and educational institutions? 

Governance is typically a short section on school websites, and, given the increasing scrutiny of independent schools’ programs and curricula, some no longer publish trustees’ names, heightening the sense of mystery. Whether it’s a small school or large one, the 80/20 rule (that is, 80% of the work is always done by 20% of the people) for volunteering or giving still applies, and a relatively small subset of families becomes known beyond their child’s classroom or grade. Coupled with the fact that day school boards tend to be populated mainly by current parents, it’s no wonder that boards are self-perpetuating in ways that don’t always expand access, points of view, or identities. 

Drilling down, what have been the barriers to entry, or even to inquiry, that underrepresented groups often experience? This is a highly nuanced area of investigation because it deals with perception and with things unsaid, actions not taken. For parents whose children join independent schools by way of academic achievement in public schools and who receive considerable financial aid to cover tuition costs, participation in the independent school community can feel like perpetually playing an “away game.” Even those who fit the more typical financial profile of an independent school parent may encounter unexpected barriers due to racial identity, gender expression, or social class. 

There are unwritten rules and strategies for networking and standing out as potential candidates for trustee cultivation, but like any unwritten rules, many don’t learn them until it is too late (if they learn them at all); others enter school communities well-versed in these rules and see trusteeship as a goal. So how can schools find people who care deeply about the mission, are eager to learn and collaborate with others (sometimes over challenging issues), and are able to neatly separate their position as trustee from others that they may have within the school community—without relying on those who know the secret code?

In 2020 and 2021, as part of his masters work in school leadership at Penn GSE, Naledi conducted a qualitative research study of 27 parents and guardians of Black students who had recently attended New York City independent schools to examine their experience of belonging. Parents of students who entered independent school during middle school shared feeling that volunteer leadership—particularly trusteeship—is rife with barriers to entry. One participant shared how she was approached after her child graduated from the school and asked what parents of color she had met who might be great prospects for a board looking to add representation, especially of Latinx community members. This mother reported feeling like she was finally being made aware of the table’s existence, but only after it was too late to secure a seat. Governance is shrouded in confidentiality, and necessarily quiet and removed from school life; board sourcing that is equally opaque, and runs on word of mouth or exclusionary recruiting tactics, does not mitigate but rather amplifies the intrigue. 

Board governance committees would do well to look at their current trustees of color on their board and examine if and where their pipeline differed from those of more “traditional” trustees. For example, trustees are often identified by advancement professionals as not only those who may be devoted to the school but also have the capacity to significantly fund a capital campaign. If trustees of color are not in that pipeline, it’s worth asking questions: one, whether the advancement team has an accurate picture of the philanthropic capacity for families of color; and two, how many seats should advancement procure for trustees for whom financial capacity is a significant motivating factor for selection. Another good question to ask is whether those trustees selected for their ability to participate in significant fundraising endeavors are as highly vetted for mission appropriateness, support of the pedagogy, and culture fit as those nominees who are not selected for that reason.  

The Committee Challenge

Electing a more diverse slate of trustees is merely a first step. Every board relies on a variety of committees for the day-to-day work so that the collective body can concentrate on generative and strategic issues. While every board committee should be performing a role that is essential to the governance of the school, the fact remains that some committees, such as finance, development/advancement, governance, or building and grounds, are viewed as plum assignments because they so directly relate to the board’s fiduciary responsibilities. The composition of these committees is sometimes driven by the members’ professional expertise, their giving history, board tenure, or even because the board chair feels they’d be a good fit with existing members. 

It’s natural to think that the people who have the most professional experience in an area—finance and building and grounds, especially—should be asked to serve in those areas because that will be the most efficient way to solve problems. Everyone in the group will “speak the same language” and will understand the goals. While there’s no question that efficiency should be one goal of any decision-making process, its pursuit can often run counter to making sure that all stakeholder perspectives are represented. 

Consistent with the understanding of the value of diversity in all spaces, having varied experience represented on committees has the effect of making the committee smarter. Diversity can improve committee wisdom without sacrificing efficiency as long as norms and best practices are established and followed. Conversely, relying entirely on the conventional wisdom of committee makeup can lead to all the pitfalls of groupthink. Sound proposals can stand the test of inquiry and even challenge and become sound decisions. Untested decisions perpetuate the status quo, which has been found to be inequitable. For example, a development committee that is comprised of large donors may be less likely to understand that families of more modest means might see certain events as elitist or inaccessible. The sense of elitism could weaken the overall strength of parent engagement. A finance committee wrestling with a budget and setting faculty salary increases would do well to include not only wealthy donors, but trustees who perhaps better understand the impact of these kinds of decisions more acutely. 

The strongest teams are assembled where diversity is amplified by critical mass, which can reduce the phenomenon of tokenism. When trustee experiences and perspectives vary, there is less pressure to conform to the culture, perspectives, and practices of the dominant identity. 

Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch

The well-known “meeting after the meeting” phenomenon can occur in any organization, resulting in cliques that can amass power in the hands of a few—and can make trustees of color feel left out.

On many boards, there’s often a subset of members who socialize outside of the boardroom. Trustees might share close ties through children who are friends, by living in the same neighborhood or through support of other nonprofit organizations. This can sometimes lead newer trustees and trustees of color to feel as though they’re on the outside looking in on a group that already has its own norms or hierarchy. One way to combat this is by creating social gatherings for the board—perhaps a dinner at the beginning and end of each school year—that offers the time and space for folks to forge friendships within the group and broaden their circles. Board leadership can also create more formal mentor-mentee relationships between seasoned trustees and board newcomers. New trustees should also be encouraged to dive in—additional work on task forces or special committees as their time permits, offers a different kind of exposure to trustees rather than standard committee assignments, which may replicate a similar hierarchy as the main board.

During board orientation and refresher training, it’s helpful to remind trustees that while they can engage in conversations with one another about what went on in the boardroom, these conversations should never relitigate decisions or be used to whip votes for upcoming ones. This is another area where groupthink can predominate, clouding the ability to value decisions that are in the best interest of the school or consider multiple perspectives and constituents. It’s helpful to consider whether a trustee who isn’t inside this circle could rightly feel that this is information they ought to have known or that would be helpful for the entire board to discuss. 

No trustee wants to be perceived as junior or to feel that there’s a “superboard” that makes all of the decisions. Similarly, boards that routinely have executive committee meetings should broadly share with all trustees the issues this body is discussing so that it doesn’t appear as though the full board’s vote is merely a rubber stamp for decisions that have already been made by an insider group. 

Board chairs should routinely confirm that all trustees feel their opinions are heard in the boardroom and that they feel comfortable offering alternative views. This is particularly important after a contentious discussion around a thorny issue, because in a group situation where a few loud voices dominate, it can be very challenging for others to speak up. Trustees, especially ones without much specific board training, may behave in the boardroom in ways that don’t encourage maximum collaboration—driving toward solutions without hearing countering views, interrupting others, or simply talking too much. Even on boards where discussion is routinely placid, leaders should consider having a brief coffee meeting or phone call at least once or twice a year between individual trustees and the board chair or an executive committee member as a way to make sure no trustee feels disconnected from the group. It’s incumbent on the board chair to create a safe environment where all voices can be heard, including trustees who are not first to raise their hands and those who seem to have something to say about every issue. The key here is active listening and management of the conversational flow. Saying “let’s hear from someone who hasn’t yet spoken on this issue” or redirecting the trustee who is communicating in an aggressive manner are ways the board chair can create an atmosphere that allows for greater participation from a wide range of trustees, regardless of their relative status on the board or their inherent temperament. This requires some understanding of group dynamics, but board leadership will build that muscle over time in the role. 

Intentional Practice

Creating and maintaining a diverse board is not something that happens overnight, and it’s not likely to happen unintentionally. Like any new practice, it requires attention and an awareness that it’s easier to fall back into old patterns than it is to create new ones—and outdated practices embed processes that are comfortable but not effective or equitable. The great thing about diverse groups is that they are also more highly productive groups that make better decisions. And isn’t that what everyone in schools wants?

Go Deeper: Case Studies

What to do when trustees are conducting board business outside official board meetings? When new trustees take a conversation in an unexpected direction at their first board meeting? When you’re trying to evaluate which candidates to nominate to the board and whether to ask a current member to serve a second term? Dig in deep on these scenarios and more with NAIS’s Governance Case Studies. The 12 case studies, aligned to the NAIS Principles of Good Practice (PGPs), are based on real-life situations that have occurred in many schools over time and represent the types of challenging situations that schools routinely face. View the Governance Case Studies.
Jan Abernathy

Jan Abernathy is the chief communications officer at The Browning School and a trustee at Grace Church School, both in New York.

Naledi Semela

Naledi Semela is the director of equitable practices and social impact at The Browning School and a trustee at the Town School, both in New York.