Branding A “Cop College” in the Age of Social Unrest

Learn how to brand your nonprofitReflecting on various themes and insights to discuss in an article about branding, I kept coming back to the experience I had working with John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the dramatic impact this program has produced for the college. This ignited my decision to present this program as a framework for discussing all of the issues surrounding a comprehensive branding program, from its inception through its evolution and enrichment. One of the valuable by-products of discussing the John Jay brand is the role it, and its President, have played in addressing the inflammatory issues surrounding social and criminal justice these past five years.

The Challenge

The college has been around for 50 years, founded at a time not unlike the present day when there was deep concern about the role of police and urban American issues of race, conflict and violence. When a number of national commissions recommended that police officers get a college education to better prepare for their role, John Jay was formed to serve as the police academy of the New York City Police Department. It offered courses on Shakespeare, chemistry and social sciences, as well as criminal justice and law. Fast-forward to today, John Jay is now a college of 15,000 students offering a broad range of majors. Some students still go into law enforcement, but an increasing number are moving on to medical school, law school and a wide variety of professions.

As part of the City University of New York (CUNY), the largest public urban university in the world with over 500,000 students, the college provides access to students who come from immigrant and working-class backgrounds where higher education is not typically part of the family conversation. When Jeremy Travis was appointed President over a decade ago, the institution initiated a major transformation program. They became a full four-year liberal arts college, phased out the Associate’s Degree, and accepted baccalaureate, masters and doctoral students. This put pressure on the college to raise its profile in the world of philanthropy, corporate affairs and civic life.

Coping with this major transformation, in the words of President Travis, “brought to the surface some deep questions about our identity and our future and past and how we were going to reconcile where we wanted to be—our aspirations against our history. The notion of John Jay as a vocational school, trade school or a cop college was a drag on our identity. This limiting image got in the way of recruiting the best faculty and best students, raising money for research and new projects and positioning the college nationally and internationally.”

Purpose – The Prerequisite for a Distinctive Brand Identity

To lay the foundation for the brand platform, we emphasized that a brand identity is derived from a clearly defined purpose—your overriding reason for being, what problems you are trying to solve, and the driving force behind the college’s strategies, decisions and investments.  In other words, Your True North.  Given all the disruption and change at the college, defining a clear and upbeat purpose would provide coherence for the faculty, students, alumni, Board and donors. It could be their positioning or be the force behind a distinctive, memorable positioning.

When we work on a project of this scale, we structure our research into three areas. One, the dynamics of the market they are operating in. Two, the multiplicity of audiences that we want to engage with and support the college. And, what we believe to be the most critical consideration: Engaging all the stakeholder groups on the campus to define the culture, unique strengths and passions that provide the foundation for defining the college’s purpose, positioning and voice.

In looking into the competitive educational space they were operating in we found

a profusion of noise in the marketplace.  We looked for opportunities to differentiate the college. Who’s in the space? How are they positioning their programs? What do they stand for? How is John Jay perceived? What are the misconceptions about John Jay? Do we see any leverage points—how can we move the needle, differentiate the college and opportunities to own a new and exciting brand identity.

Know Your Audience (They Know the Answer)

We had to address a vast array of audiences who have influence in any educational institution. The Provost, Deans, and Faculty will play an active role in bringing support and credibility to any brand identity program. The students were a particularly challenging audience. The student body is incredibly diverse, politically correct, financially challenged and eager to translate their education into a job. An upbeat and informed alumni is be critical to making this transformation successful. Finally, the college has an accomplished Foundation Board that plays a vital role in raising financing for special programs, research and events.

Our process for drawing out the unique character, programs, and passions at the college was highly interactive and engaging for all stakeholder groups on the campus. We made presentations to the faculty senate. We held extensive focus group sessions with students and conducted individual interviews with all of the members of the Board. We went outside the college to talk with leaders in the educational market and media and reviewed all the literature produced by the marketing and public affairs departments. And we carefully studied every speech their exceptionally articulate president had ever given.

It’s What’s Insight that Counts

All this research brought to the surface deep insights about the college’s identity and how we might reconcile where the president and his leadership team wanted to be—their aspirations against their history, their future versus their past. We had to articulate any contradictions and tensions that needed to be resolved before we could move forward. The college had already completed a market research study, which provided invaluable information about where John Jay stood in the market, how they compared to competitors, and opportunities to differentiate the college from competitors. It indicated how the students felt about the college, what they were looking for in the future and what their parents were looking for. Some of the most interesting and salient insights came from in-depth interviews with guidance counselors in high schools.

Connecting the Dots to Create a Breakthrough Brand Identity Program

All the research findings confirmed that John Jay had been transformed into the preeminent national and international leader in educating for justice—a broadly envisioned educational experience embracing social, economic, political and criminal justice. A new and exciting vision for education in justice provided its students with the skills, insights and passion to become positive agents of change.

We found that John Jay students were defined by their resilience, their passion for justice and their aspiration to public service. The college’s focus according to President Travis “… is to subject this passion to the rigors of critical thinking and analysis and to test and support their aspirations by building bridges between the world of intellect and imagination and the world of practice.”

Courage, resilience, integrity, progress and impact—the attributes of the John Jay community—was captured in a inspiring and bold PURPOSE for the college:

Fierce Advocates for Justice

It is important to emphasize that this purpose statement is not an advertising slogan. It is a standard bearer of what the college stands for, a rallying cry and a lens for making strategic decisions. It dramatically sets the college apart from its competitors. This is enhanced by the fact that President Travis is an authentic and articulate spokesperson for this proactive new direction.

The purpose statement then provided the foundation for the college’s positioning statement:

AS FIERCE ADVOCATES FOR JUSTICE, WE ARE DEDICATED TO PROVIDING A NEW VISION FOR AN EDUCATION IN JUSTICE THAT IMBUES OUR GRADUATES WITH THE SKILLS, INSIGHTS AND PASSION TO BECOME POSITIVE AGENTS OF CHANGE.

We also wanted to reinforce that John Jay looked at JUSTICE through many different lenses by developing a graphic that imbedded the many faces of justice—from criminal to religious to political and, for the English faculty, poetic—into their traditional EDUCATING FOR JUSTICE tag line.

Another critical element in this program is the brand voice—the way we speak to all of the constituents with a distinctive, clear and authentic voice across all platforms.

We felt the college’s communications should be BOLD, HUMAN, DYNAMIC and CLEAR. As fierce advocates for justice and leaders of change, we want to inspire people to stand up and take notice.

“It has given us a language. The multiple definitions of justice allow us to talk about  expression and our value proposition in an effective way. It has helped us in talking to and recruiting new students, promoting scholarships and positioning the college for the future,” according to President Travis.

“Yes this Captures Us”

When this strategy work was presented to the president and his staff, the faculty, and the foundation board, it was approved with enthusiasm. They sensed that it captured who they were, their institutional values, educational philosophy, aspirations and distinctiveness. Unlike experiences I have had with a few other institutions, we were able to immediately move ahead to build out the program without getting distracted by layers of approvals from various committees that would disrupt and complicate things. In the words of the dean of the advertising business, David Ogilvy:

Search the parks in all your cities

You’ll find no statues of committees.

The final element we had to consider was the visual identity system. We conducted an audit of all the college’s communications. When we showed the displays of disparate and uncoordinated materials produced across the college, President Travis said, “Oh my Lord, what have we done?” 

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The focal point of the new visual identity is a big, bold, powerful expression for John Jay. The design system featured upbeat photography in the print materials, elegant videos and a refreshed website. The organization’s PURPOSE was stenciled in large type on walls along with the graphic depicting the expanded definition of justice. We maintained continuity across all the publications by using JUSTICE in the names—Justice Matters is the name of the semi-annual magazine sent to all students, faculty, alumni and thought leaders in the justice field.

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This was a “big, bold statement” that felt appropriate for a major New York City institution and a fierce advocate for justice.

Good Things Come in Threes

There are three programs that have been extremely effective for John Jay.

  • A fundraising campaign
  • The Justice Awards
  • An exciting advertising program launched earlier this year to build the college’s visibility and attract the best high school seniors in the region

Justice Should be Supported

To support its first significant fundraising campaign, the college prepared a handsome, fact-filled newsprint magazine, 10 Exciting Reasons To Support The Ongoing Transformation of John Jay. It contained a comprehensive explanation of the reimagined academic programs, the revitalized faculty—including background on Pulitzer and Presidential award winners, a presentation of the major research programs, the global reach of its programs, and a listing of John Jay graduates with leadership positions in the public and private sector.  The information in this publication provided invaluable source material for proposals, presentations and other communications.

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Justice Should be Rewarded

Every two years we provide Justice Awards to three people who are fierce advocates of justice. Elie Weisel is one of the recent awardees. Last year Gloria Steinem, Bryan Stevenson, and Anthony McGill were honored for their accomplishments in the face of injustice.

“All over the world, I hear children say two things: it’s not fair, and you’re not the boss of me!” – Gloria Steinem

“Most of us think, if theres places in our community where there is despair and neglect, stay as far away from those places as possible. I think justice means the opposite. I don’t think we can do justice until we get proximate to the places where injustice prevails.” – Bryan Stevenson, the Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative

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Justice Can Be Your Vocation

Finally, the college introduced an extremely successful advertising campaign on the New York City subways. The first ad copy said, “Go To Any College To Learn To Write Code. Come Here If You Want To Learn How To Right Wrongs. There are seven ads in the campaign that were viewed by over 6 million subway riders, along with 2 million connections on a special digital version.

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Program Impact

This program has been a major force in the success John Jay has experienced in the past 4 to 5 years. Here are just a few highlights:

  • Annual fund raising increased 60% when the program was first introduced and has continued to grow at similar rates since. The number of alumni donors has jumped by 35%, and alumni have contributed over 50% more in recent years.
  • There has been at least a 34% increase in applications since the advertising campaign was mounted.
  • The foundation board has successfully recruited 12 new highly motivated and accomplished members including alumni, business leaders and not-for-profit executives.
  • The college ranked #3 in the Military Times “Best Programs for Vets.”

So let me tell you how this program fits so well with this institution and to me personally,” President Travis mentioned in his annual address. “When we welcome a new class we say—‘Welcome to a community of fierce advocates for justice.’ When we first opened our new building, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended.

When I introduced her I said: ‘Secretary Clinton, you occupy a position once held by our founding father John Jay. Welcome to John Jay. You too are a fierce advocate for justice.”

Fierce Advocates for Justice.  Those four words have given John Jay a powerful identity and a reenergized future.  Our work here is done.




Is Your Nonprofit’s Branding Strategy Fatally Flawed?

Nonprofit Branding Marketing Strategy You’ve got a great cause and the passion to pursue it – but how’s your marketing? Are you making a fatal mistake with your branding?

If marketing were easy, everyone would excel at it.

Thing is, it’s not. There’s a lot that goes into devising a successful marketing strategy. You need to know your target audience, for one – you need to know what they’re looking for, and what resonates with them. You need to understand what they care about, and what sort of language they best relate to.

But more importantly, you need to understand yourself, too. What’s your core message? What sort of personality do you want your brand to have? And sure, you want to make the world a better place – but how do you intend to do that, exactly?

And why do you want to?

These are all questions you need to ask yourself at the outset, before you even think of hosting any sort of charity event. Because if you don’t know the answer to them, you can’t rightly expect anyone else to, either. As a result, your messaging will end up blurry and confused – and it’ll inevitably wind up getting lost in the noise made by the thirty other nonprofits that are trying to attract your audience’s attention.

Of course, even if your branding is on-message, you also need to think about how your logo looks.

“The two big reasons nonprofits often deal with brand confusion is that their logos are matchy-matchy,” reads a post by branding agency Frog-Dog. “In innocent cases, it’s because a color or symbol signifies something related to the cause. So many cardiovascular and HIV/AIDS causes pick red, and cardiovascular causes play with heart icons while HIV/AIDS causes incorporate red ribbons. The problem is that it becomes difficult for the average person to distinguish between the brands.”

What can you do about that, though? A few things, actually:

  • Avoid using multiple logos for the same nonprofit. Just as your messaging needs to convey the same sort of language and personality on every platform, your branding needs to be unified and
  • Avoid aping what other nonprofits in your field have already done with their logos. While it’s alright to use similar colors or imagery, do something interesting with them. Be unique – don’t just settle on the imagery common to your cause.
  • If you see another organization infringing on your logo, do something about it. If you allow copycats to flourish, then even the most unique logo will end up looking boring and samey.
  • Design your brand logo with your audience in mind. Ask yourself what sort of imagery your target demographic would love to see in a logo, and see if you can make something from that.

If you’re running a nonprofit, it’s to make the world a better place – and that’s awesome. But good intentions aren’t all you need to be successful. Without an understanding of marketing and knowledge of branding, even the best intentions won’t bring people to your side.

The Marketing Matrix: Six Elements of a Nonprofit Marketing Plan

Nonprofit Marketing PlanEvery nonprofit would love to enjoy the success of a marketing campaign such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge or the charity: water Thank You campaign.

The success of these nonprofit marketing campaigns is not accidental. Each campaign intentionally followed a plan that was laid out in advance. Likewise, think of your marketing plan as a roadmap that’s going to guide you to a chosen destination.

As with any journey, you begin with your destination in mind, and then start by charting your route from your starting point.  There is no sense in beginning unless you know where you want to finish.

Before you start to create a marketing plan, put your communications into perspective. Frame your perspective on your overall communications strategy with a simple statement. For example:

  • Our goal is fundraising. Our marketing communications are donor communications.
  • Our goal is member services. Our marketing communications are intended to nurture member engagement.
  • Our goal is recruiting volunteers. Our marketing communications help manage volunteer experience.
  • Our goal is trust. Our marketing communications will contribute to building trust between us and our constituents.

How Do You Attract, Inform, Inspire, and Engage Your Intended Audience?

Imagine that your goal is more than marketing. Instead, imagine that your goal is to build relationships through engagement, ultimately arriving at stewardship. Marketing becomes a means to that end.

Marketing is too often a one-way, short-term, transactional exercise; relationships are built through conversations and interactions to engage your audience. Marketing may tend to drive one-time interaction; relationship-building encourages long-term engagement and stewardship. Marketing has the potential to be superficial; engaging your intended audience over the long run helps to develop deep affinity and meaningful relationships.

Marketing is just one component of your comprehensive communications strategy. The most successful nonprofits focus on nurturing relationships; employing a marketing plan and applying it to specific campaigns is part of an engagement continuum.

What’s an Engagement Continuum?

An engagement continuum is a series of touch points between you and the intended audience whom you are trying to reach. Your marketing plan must attract, inform, inspire, and engage donors and stakeholders. Along this continuum, you will find what you consider to be “marketing” will decrease, while relationship-building will increase.  A marketing plan is the path you and your audience follow to arrive where you nurture and steward the relationships formed along the way.

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Strategy helps you begin the journey; a marketing plan serves as a map to guide you to your destination.

Forming the Matrix of Your Marketing Plan

Think of your marketing plan as a matrix woven from the elements of Motive, Message, Market, Medium, Method, and Means. Each element can exist independently, but together they are robust and cohesive.

  1. Motive: What is the purpose for your marketing plan (beyond “the board says we need one.”)? Why are you conducting this campaign? What is the goal of the campaign or plan?
  2. Message: What is the call to action? What is the one message you’re conveying, the story you’re telling, or narrative you’re supporting?
  3. Market: Who is the intended audience you’re trying to reach or persuade? Who are the partners, advocates, and ambassadors that can help amplify your message?
  4. Method: Based on your goals and purpose, when will you launch the campaign? Will it be interpersonal or conducted through media? Where will you conduct the campaign?
  5. Medium: What platforms or communication mediums will have the most success in reaching your intended audience? What specific touch points have the most potential to reach your audience with the message and content you want them to engage with?
  6. Means: How much will this campaign cost? Understanding and investing for success will help you measure the return on your investment.

Before you get overwhelmed with creating a comprehensive marketing plan for your organization, consider the establishment of micro-plans that help you focus on specific goals to achieve. These micro-plans can be campaign-specific or audience-specific; together they will form a complete marketing plan.

If you begin with the idea that you are creating a marketing strategy, and not only executing a marketing plan, you will align your goals with an essential foundation through a smart, tactical communication plan.

Above all else, remember the rule of one: focus your communication on one cause, one mission, and one purpose, sharing that purpose with one voice.

Begin by asking the following questions. As you do, you can fill in your answers following the same framework.

Motive: What Is Your Purpose and Goal?

A marketing plan must be relevant to the purpose for which you’re creating it. Raising awareness and raising funds are two different primary objectives (even though they are complementary to each other); attracting new donors and marketing an event requires different strategies and tactics to achieve your goal.

What is the aim or purpose of your marketing plan? Some examples include:

  • Raising awareness
  • Raising funds
  • Attracting new donors
  • Promoting an event
  • Nurturing trust

What Is Your One Message?

  • What is the one message you want your intended audience to remember?
  • What is the one story you’re sharing in which you want your audience to engage?
  • What is the one call to action you want your audience to answer?

Who is Your Market?

  • Who is the primary (intended) audience you’re trying to reach with this plan? (Remember that everybody is not your audience. Think of the one person who best represents the audience you’re seeking to reach and keep them in mind as you create the strategy.
  • Who might help you reach this audience? Are there partners with whom you have alliances?
  • What other groups, ambassadors, fans, and advocates share your enthusiasm for your cause and can help reach your intended audience?

What Methods Will Be Relevant?

Effective marketing plans are not conceived and executed in a short time. Plan at least three months out, and consider the timing and intersection of your message, market, and medium.

  • Where will you conduct the campaign?
  • Where is the most promising intersection of message, market, and medium?
  • Will it require advocacy, public relations, digital, print, or traditional advertising?
  • When is the right time to conduct your campaign?
  • How long should your campaign run?
  • When must you start planning for a year-end campaign?
  • How frequently should you share the message?
  • Do you need to create content (such as a blog article, event page, or landing page) in anticipation of tactical planning?

Which Mediums and Touch Points Will Help You Achieve Your Goal?

It’s tempting to begin planning the tactics at the beginning of a marketing planning process, but as a communication professional, you will remind your board and executive management that planning precedes doing.

How you reach your intended audience begins with creating meaningful content (i.e., your message) that you share using specific touch points. Think of a touch point as the point (or intersection) where your message and the medium you use to deliver that message touches your intended audience.

The effectiveness of your touch points is dependent on the quality of your content.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed with the number of touch point choices available to you. If you know you can reach your audience through Facebook and email, why spend the time with Twitter if it’s not going to help you achieve your goal?

For example, after analyzing the effectiveness and reach of its current Facebook, Twitter, and email list, a nonprofit society that relies on publication sales to fund its mission decided to focus on Facebook and email as its primary touch points. Twitter would be allowed to grow organically, recognizing that it is not an efficient way to reach and build its intended audience or sell its products.

Key to success: Choose your media and tactical touch points based on where you will have the most success reaching your intended audience.

Regardless of the touch points you select, all must be integrated—working together to achieve your marketing plan’s goal. Integration means that your messaging, marketing, and methods have continuity between the elements.

For example, if you’re using a phone bank or a direct mail acquisition campaign to solicit donations and send potential donors to your website, the landing page content must match the appeal. Your method for collecting donations must create a straightforward and memorable donor experience.

  • Content and Insight Marketing: Publish content on your website to inform and inspire your intended audience, drawing them into your cause and making them want to be part of your story.
  • Social Media Platforms: The obvious choices of Twitter and Facebook are relevant if that’s where your intended audience is found. Snapchat, Pinterest, and Instagram may also have their place in your continuum if the platform is suitable for delivering your message to your intended audience. If it’s not relevant, focus on the platform that is.
  • Email Marketing: Email remains an effective method of connecting with your audience if you’re telling (your story) and not selling (constantly asking for money.)
  • Print Media: Print remains an effective medium to reach your audience. Not only can print be disruptive in a digital age, it engages more of the audience’s senses than digital media. According to independent research from Sappi Paper, digital media engages sight and sound, but print engages sight, sound, touch, and smell—making your message potentially more memorable.
  • Video: YouTube is a destination and useful for integrating video with email marketing and other digital media, but it’s just one choice. Consider how you can integrate Facebook Live, Twitter video, and Instagram video stories as additional video platforms.
  • Google AdWords: The Google for Nonprofits program enables eligible organizations to qualify for up to $10,000 per month in Google AdWords. Let that sink in. A $120,000 yearly grant for digital advertising. If your organization hasn’t applied, what are you waiting for?

The nonprofit society mentioned earlier received a Google AdWords grant, and within one week of implementation realized an 860% increase in traffic to its website and a measurable increase in donations and product sales.

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Key to success: Integration between touch points allows you to measure and share content. For instance, Instagram is owned by Facebook.  Images posted on Instagram are easily shared on Facebook and Twitter, including links to content. Custom or shortened links (created with bit.ly) allow you to measure engagement with any digital or print media.

How Much Will Your Campaign Cost?

The cost of any marketing plan must be measured in personnel time, creative investment, and media expenses. How much will vary depending on the extent of your marketing plan.  Do not forget to consider the value of your investment as you evaluate your ROI (return on investment) and ROE (return on engagement).

Case Study: A Marketing Campaign to Drive Awareness and Visitors to Your Website:

As a practical example, let’s apply the Marketing Matrix to a nonprofit society that sells products and literature to fund ongoing mission-based work.

1. Motive:

  • Attract and engage donors to a new website that sells literature products and resources, empowering the intended audience to be advocates for the shared cause

2. Message:

  • What is the one message to convey? The products and resources are easy-to-read and targeted to specific groups, making them easy to share and appealing to the recipient.
  • What is the call to action? Visit to learn more, read examples, and purchase a product.

3. Market:

  • Who is the intended audience we are trying to reach? Men and women in the continental U.S., aged 24-60, with strong alignment with the values of the organization, and affinity for the cause of the organization.
  • Who are our partners, advocates, and ambassadors that can help amplify our message? Among Facebook and email communities, encourage sharing of motivational and inspirational messages based on our for-sale products.

4. Method:

  • The society is engaged with its community on Facebook, Twitter, via email, and through a Google AdWords grant campaign.
  • The most relevant methods are digital and social media, due to limited means for print-based marketing and the distribution of the audience across the continental U.S.
  • Measure of targeted URLs through Google Analytics conversion goals.

5. Medium:

  • What specific platforms or communication mediums will have the most success in reaching our intended audience, in order of priority? Email, social media, Google AdWords.
  • How will we reach our audience with the message and content we want them to hear? Email to the intended audience directly two times per month, with a minimum of seven scheduled weekly posts to Facebook. Pause current Google AdWords campaign and create a new targeted campaign based on audience and product push.

6. Means:

  • How much will this campaign cost?
    • Email marketing: included in the monthly subscription of service and creative agency retainer.
    • Facebook: Creative and social media management included in the monthly subscription of service and creative agency retainer.
    • Google AdWords Cost: Allocate full $10,000 of in-kind AdWords support for 30 days ($329/day) to targeted landing page.

Within the context of a strategic communications strategy, this campaign serves as one component of a 12-month marketing plan.

Whether you think of a marketing plan as a roadmap or a matrix, beginning with the end in mind and including the elements of Motive, Message, Market, Medium, Method, and Means will ensure your plan is intentional, consistent, and cohesive.



Increased Board Performance Through Diversity

Nonprofit Board Resources - Increased Board Performance Through DiversityWhen non-profit boards underperform against the expectations given, it’s a natural reaction for those in charge to want to terminate board members who sandbag.  But there’s no quick fix for turning around inactive or ineffective boards, so the planning of board member selection needs to be done strategically with deliberate action of injecting cultural and professional diversity.  It’s through diversity that you can increase board performance from the beginning.

Here in the United States, nonprofit organizations are required by law to have a board of directors for the governance of their operations.  Individual states set the requirements that dictate a minimum number of members needed, their duties and responsibilities to the public, and policies they’re mandated to draft.  But depending on the state in question, this may differ.  While forming an organization and acquiring tax exempt status is an arduous task, establishing an effective board of directors remains even more challenging for many.  I’ve seen this first hand.  Someone with a great idea wants to satisfy a need in society, so he or she hastily forms a nonprofit organization to fill that void, oftentimes overlooking program longevity.  The founders of these startup nonprofits recruit board members from their immediate circle of influence including their friends, family, or acquaintances to satisfy those pesky legal requirements.  These are people they trust, which adds a certain amount of comfort in bringing them on board, but over time, what seemed like a great idea turns into a nightmare with challenges around fundraising, recruiting volunteers, managing finances, appointing a CEO, developing programs, and the list goes on.  The board has passion and wants to support.  After all, this is their friend.  But what went wrong?  The answer is simple, what the board of directors lacks in professional know-how, business sense, and social capital, cannot be made up through any amount of passion alone.

What I’m about to say here isn’t new, nor will it shock you, but most people surround themselves with others like them.  While this isn’t a bad thing, and even though these friends (the newly appointed board) are well intentioned, there’s an increased likelihood these “friends turned board members” have similar values, points of views, and perspectives.  The board likely has cohesion, and while not always the case, there’s a possibility that this can result in social behaviors like groupthink.  This is when decision making becomes impaired by cognitive inhibitors due in part to lack of openness and perspective.  The appointing of the board of directors has greater implications on the tone, culture, and overall performance of the non-profit they govern.  Forming the board is one of the first steps in founding a non-profit organization, and it’s also the most important.  Forming the board needs to be done through diversity, because in the end it affects performance.

Strength through diversity

Josefa Iloilo, the former President of the Republic of Fiji once said, “We need to reach that happy stage of our development when differences and diversity are not seen as sources of division and distrust, but of strength and inspiration.”  While this was said in the context of diversity as a sovereign nation, the same can be applied to any workplace, volunteer corps, and board of directors.  There’s a certain agility that comes from having ethnic, gender, and professional diversity.  Having diversity creates a permissive environment for shared openness, different perspectives, a wide array of professional expertise, and social capital.  Pew Research Center projects the disappearance of a single racial or ethnic majority in the United States by 2055, so with a more diverse America, a board that can think and act through the lens of the communities they serve provides advantages.  This is the bottom line; having a diverse board creates an environment where creativity and innovation flourishes.

Why diversity matters in the long run

It’s always the easy choice for organizations to recruit board members from their pool of members and associates (and even friends and family).  However, it’s not always the best idea.  The board has a primary function of ensuring the organization fulfills its commitment and responsibility to the public as stated through their mission, code of ethics, and charter.  They achieve this through a check and balance system where accountability plays a vital role.  Diverse thought and experience will benefit the board when creating policies around whistleblowers, conflicts of interest, and financial auditing and management because diverse groups are likelier to have stronger accountability measures.

Another function of the board is resource acquisition.  When acquiring resources for longevity of organizational success, you also increase the avenues in which you look for support, thus increasing one’s networks.  Some of the resources in question may include human capital or be related to finances, but through diversity, acquiring said resources can be accomplished with social capital.  This can include the board’s access to personal and professional contacts that have the necessary resources for the organization.  A diverse board will be able to satisfy the acquisition of resources through their reputation or credibility (this is mostly true with members who have high visibility).  High visibility board members can create a sense of “legitimacy” to the organization’s stakeholders and the public.

More importantly for organizations that are focused on social reform and advocacy work, there’s also the consideration of board members who have political clout.  Political capital that exists amongst the board (think connections with local, state or federal governance) can work wonders when advocating or trying to change legislation that impacts those you serve.  Diversity can also assist in setting the organization apart from others.  There’s an added benefit of being held in higher esteem by the public versus organizations that aren’t diverse.  Boards that are diverse are adhering to social norms and acceptance, sometimes resulting in garnering more support.

Tips to increase diversity

Whether your board is already formed, or you’re starting from scratch, it’s not too late.  Try some of these practices to develop a board that’s inclusive and starting off on the right foot.

  • Implement and enforce board terms and term limits.  Have a set number of years per term, and also limit members to a set number of terms.  This forces selection of “new blood.”  With the introduction of new members comes new ideas, different perspective, skills, and access to resources that can be acquired through a member’s social capital.
  • Avoid generalized screening methods.  Implement a process that screens for particular skills and expertise in areas where you have requirements.  With a more stringent vetting process, you weed out those who may be well intentioned, but lack management skills or those who may be incompetent.  This results in onboarding of members who exercise critical thinking and sound decision making and who work effectively.
  • Provide diversity training.  Invest time and money into training your board of directors like you would for other volunteers or paid staff.  Like skills training, other forms of training will benefit the governing board.  Even though the effectiveness of diversity training is largely debated, there’s evidence that training helps create empathy, reducing discriminatory behavior.  Training alone isn’t the cure, but it’s a great step towards minimizing discriminatory behavior that negatively impacts the board’s satisfaction.
  • Include others in a diversity strategy.  Diversity means inclusion, so take an inclusive approach, allowing others to be part of a holistic strategy beyond a single person or decision maker.  This can take the form of working closer with cultural centers, community partners, and other reputable nonprofits who specialize in diversity and inclusion.  By working with partners who may be subject matter experts, you can increase immersion into the cultures you’re trying to better understand and serve.

Diversity isn’t the “end all,” it’s just the start

While diversity in and of itself won’t lead to success, this is a great start.  By implementing a selection process, adopting governance policy, and investing in workforce training, you take necessary measures to set up the board for success.  These steps will encourage and foster an environment of inclusion for the organization’s other aspects.  The impact will transcend staff, even increasing diversity in the volunteer corps.  Boards with cultural, ethnic, gender, and professional diversity tend to have a more diverse leadership cadre, resulting in diversified resources.  Just be sure to err on the side of caution, don’t get overzealous and select polar opposites; this may create the perfect environment for conflict.  Doing so could act as a pitfall if not navigated in a thoughtful manner, but when done correctly will increase the likelihood of success from the onset.  Diversity in nonprofit governance will continue to be a sought after “must have,” and not just for the obvious reasons of cultural and societal norms.  Diversity also impacts long term performance of an organization, so get ahead of the curve and plan for the future today.

Tips for Achieving Diversity on Nonprofit Boards

Tips on Developing a Nonprofit BoardI knew that question would arise. My last article was entitled “Diversity on Nonprofit Boards.”

The question I received was “You have convinced me that diversity is important. But how do I go about achieving diversity on my board?” I knew that excellent question would arise.

First, identify the diversity you would like to include on your board. Perhaps you realize the need for young people on your board or African-Americans or program participants.

Then tell your board and staff members about this need. Ask them to send you information about the individuals they are recommending.

If you do not receive sufficient names of applicants this way, check with groups in your community which serve individuals in whichever diversity you are seeking. Ask the local boy scout or girl scout troop for recommendation of young people. Ask the NAACP President to recommend African-Americans. Check with the Hispanic Community Center or the pastor of the Hispanic Church to obtain names of possible Hispanic board members.

If you would like program participants specifically to join your board, send a brief note to all present and past program participants, asking them to volunteer or to recommend others.

Give the board’s Nominating Committee the responsibility of reviewing the various recommendations you have received. Then have a member of the Nominating Committee set up appointments with prospective members. You might want to hold the meetings in the organization’s office and include a tour e.g., day care program, senior citizen center. Holding the meetings at a local coffee shop may work as well.

Make appointments to see several individuals in each category. Leave enough time to set up the appointments and to hold them before board nominations are due. Remember that many individuals you visit may decline an invitation to serve on your board.

Start by telling the prospective board member about the services provided by the organization.
Tell the individual about the board’s role in setting policy. Give the individual a copy of a board member job description. Make sure you emphasize that all new board members will receive an orientation.

If you are going to recommend that the individual be offered a board position, tell them you will
contact them soon. If you decide that you are not going to recommend them for a position, just be positive and thank them for the opportunity to tell them about your program.

One recommendation I have dubbed the “Noah” approach. If your board is not diverse, try to name two African-Americans or Hispanics or young people to the board at the same time. Then the new individual might feel a little more comfortable.

At each new board member’s first meeting, make the new board member welcome. Make sure to have all present board members introduce themselves. It is not necessary to identify their “diversity.” They will know right away that they are the only program participants or African-Americans without you having to announce it to the entire board.

After the meeting, make sure the Nominating Committee member who met with the individual, now a board member, calls that individual on the telephone. Answer any questions the individual might have. Thank them again for attending. Remind them of the date of the next board meeting.

You will find that diversities disappear. The new board member who may have seemed “different” now is just a board colleague who has an interest in promoting your organization or program.

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