Building Diversity Strategies into Your Recruiting Process

Just as companies and nonprofit organizations are increasingly concerned with creating diverse teams, so are the Boards of Directors that govern these organizations. In my work as an executive recruiter in the nonprofit sector, I frequently partner with boards who are hiring their next CEO. As it should, diversity usually comes up as a desired priority for the CEO search. But boards rarely look inward, and acknowledge their own lack of diversity, much less take steps to change it.

Studies show that board diversity has barely changed in the last two decades. BoardSource, which conducts the nation’s largest surveys of boards, shows that almost 27% of nonprofit boards do not include a single person of color, a number that hasn’t changed in the last two years. A recent survey my own firm, Koya Leadership Partners, conducted on board demographics at 100+ nonprofits around the country, revealed a serious disconnect between intent and action when it comes to board diversity. While 96% of respondents reported that diversity is a critical strategic priority, only 24% have actually taken steps to increase diversity.

Boards understand the importance of diversity and want to do something to increase it. But time and time again, our interviews showed, they do not take action. In most cases, this is simply because they do not know what to do. Like many managers and HR leaders who have been tasked with diversifying their teams and organizations, boards of directors lack the skills and knowledge needed to significantly move the needle on diversity.

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Culture plays a big role in any organization’s ability to attract and retain a diverse workforce. Changing workplace culture requires buy-in and collaboration across the entire organization. But the truth is that there are some basic steps that any leader, whether a board director or a team manager, can take to start building a more diverse team.

The first is to stop hiring by first-degree networking. When you fill a role by asking the people that you know who they know, you are almost certain to hire someone who is like you. Sociologists know that individuals are highly likely to be connected to people who reflect them in terms of race, culture, and socioeconomic status. So if diversity is your goal, tapping your networks may not net the results you seek.

Instead, develop a diversity-focused recruiting strategy that goes beyond the people you know. You can do this by posting opportunities broadly (including leveraging LinkedIn), purposefully tapping the networks of wider range of staff members (you can make this easy for people by sending out an email with a job description that people can simply forward to their own networks), and being intentional about building diversity into your outreach.

Don’t be afraid to let people know that you are specifically seeking to build a diverse pipeline of candidates. Instead of saying, “I’m looking for an amazing product manager, let me know if you know anyone,” say “I’m hiring for a new product manager and am especially interested in building a pipeline of diverse candidates. Is there anyone you might recommend I reach out to?”

Another strategy that I encourage all boards and hiring managers to consider comes straight from the NFL: The Rooney Rule, which requires that teams interview at least one candidate of color before making any senior coaching hires. Developed in 2003 and named after the league’s former diversity committee chairman, Dan Rooney, the guideline has since been adopted by a number of corporations and nonprofits and can be extended easily to any hiring or appointment process. It can be a simple way to set goals and create accountability for building diversity into the hiring process.

Whether you’re on a board of directors of a local nonprofit or a corporate team leader, the simple steps outlined above will help you begin immediately building diversity into your recruiting process.

Molly Brennan

Molly Brennan
Molly Brennan is Founding Partner at executive search firm Koya Leadership Partners, which is part of the Diversified Search Group, where she is also the nonprofit practice lead. 

Molly Brennan

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