Don and Luanne, WRAL TechWire
Maximize Your Impact: How diversity and inclusion can transform your board

Don and Luanne, WRAL TechWireMaximize Your Impact: How diversity and inclusion can transform your board
by Donald Thompson, October 3, 2023
Reprint of article originally published in WRAL Tech Wire 

At the heart of every nonprofit organization is its board of directors – a visionary team that shapes the agency’s mission, values and strategy. These leaders are more than stewards, they are champions and ambassadors. They are given the vital role of upholding the trust placed in our society’s critical nonprofit organizations.

As business leaders, we can put our talents to use in our communities and for the families in them by raising funds for or serving on the board of directors at nonprofits that align with our professional and personal interests. I have gained so much as a leader from my time serving on nonprofit boards, including Easterseals UCP, Raleigh Chamber and ECU Health Medical Center.

In today’s dynamic nonprofit landscape, the most successful boards are actively cultivating – and transforming – culture by implementing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as core tenets of their efforts. Not only do these organizations improve philosophically, though, there is a significant business case for diversity-led initiatives, which serve as catalysts for increased productivity, innovation, trust and better financial outcomes.

When nonprofits embrace DEI, they inspire foundations and contributors to invest in their future, making a profound impact on the lives of communities they serve. Because they are better able to connect with diverse communities, they inspire trust and generate better outcomes. In turn, when organizations succeed, it inspires foundations and contributors to continue investing in the organization’s future.

Luanne Welch, President and CEO of Easterseals UCP, encapsulates this sentiment perfectly when she says, “No matter how hard we work to foster the inclusion and engagement of our clients in community life, if our board and staff don’t reflect the diversity of the communities we serve, our mission will not ring true. That’s why we’re committed to our DEI journey.”

Advantages of board diversity
To unlock the many benefits of DEI, boards must recruit individuals who authentically represent the communities their agency serves. The advantages are both profound and far-reaching:

  • Community Advocates: Diverse board members become advocates and valuable sources of firsthand information about its impact in their communities.
  • Varied Perspectives: A diversity of viewpoints enriches board discussions and leads to more well-rounded strategic decisions.
  • Broad Skills and Experience: Diverse board members bring a wealth of skills and experiences, enhancing the board’s collective capabilities.
  • Wider Audience Reach: Diversity broadens and extends the organization’s reach, connecting it to a larger audience of potential donors, employees and board candidates.

Diversity without inclusion: missing the benefits
Some nonprofits build a diverse board of directors, but fail to establish an inclusive mode of communicating and collaborating. A variety of viewpoints may be at the table, but not all perspectives are welcomed and not all voices are listened to. In this type of board culture – where trust and respect are absent – there could be the appearance of cohesion. If a board isn’t comfortable hearing different opinions – and experiencing healthy conflict – they won’t see any benefits from assembling a diverse board.

In an inclusive culture, all board members are treated with fairness and respect. Each individual’s uniqueness is recognized and appreciated. Each feels a sense of connection to the group. Every board member feels confident about speaking up and motivated to further the organization’s collective goals. Their diverse experiences and perspectives will lead to better decisions and improved outcomes for those individuals the nonprofit serves.

Practical steps on the path to inclusivity
Effective boards must dedicate themselves to operating inclusively from the outset, even before recruiting a diverse group of directors. An inclusive culture fosters belonging, trust and motivation among board members, which leads to improved decision-making and better outcomes. Here are some practical steps to foster an inclusive board culture:

  • Clear Expectations: Define and communicate expectations for board members, especially since they are volunteers.
  • Cultural Competency Training: Actively educate and train board members on cultural competency and diverse groups.
  • Inclusive Language: Promote the use of inclusive language to create a safe and welcoming environment.
  • Engage Everyone: Encourage the active engagement of all board members, seek diverse perspectives and embrace healthy conflict.
  • No “In” and “Out” Groups: Ensure that no cliques or groups form within the board. Instead, address conflicts openly and constructively.
  • Strength-Based Language: Use strength-based language when describing individuals, families and communities served by your agency.
  • Respect Individual Identity: Respect how individuals wish to be described in various contexts.
  • Inclusive Problem-Solving: Encourage collaborative, inclusive problem-solving sessions.

Championing inclusion: a leader’s role
Boards that are diverse and inclusive are able to take on difficult topics, challenge ingrained beliefs, manage conflicting views and find common ground to make the best decisions. Board chairs especially should take the initiative to foster an inclusive culture, but remember, an authentic culture of inclusion cannot simply be mandated.

As leader of the board, it’s critical to model inclusion, cultivate it with your board members through ongoing education and hold your members accountable for their actions. The more inclusion is practiced, the more the board and its leaders will grow. A culture of inclusion depends on consistent behavior, the way each person communicates and collaborates.

In embracing diversity and inclusion, nonprofit boards take a giant step toward fulfilling their mission, strengthening their communities, and realizing the true potential of their organizations. It is a journey that promises profound transformation, making the world a better place for all.

To learn more, consult The Diversity Movement’s latest publication, specifically designed for nonprofit organizations: The Inclusive Language Handbook, Easterseals UCP Nonprofit Edition by Jackie Ferguson. You’ll discover how to drive positive culture change by spreading the practice of inclusive language throughout your board of directors and the agency you serve.

Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 Southeast Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement to change the world. As TDM CEO, he has guided work with hundreds of clients and through millions of data touch points. TDM’s global recognition centers on tying DEI initiatives to business objectives. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics. Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events and his podcast, or contact him at for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.

Easterseals UCP and PORT Health are trustworthy, compassionate partners providing exceptional disability, behavioral health and addiction treatment services to help our neighbors live their best lives. Purpose, dedication and empathy drive our in-person and telehealth service delivery. Our diverse and inclusive 2,600 member team provides more than 10.2 million hours of meaningful support to 40,200 kids, adults and families in 11,000 home, facility and community locations across North Carolina and Virginia. Learn more at