women in the workplace

Are Nonprofit Boards Infected with White Savior Syndrome?

In Featured by Gail Letts

Would you believe that corporate boards on average are MORE diverse than nonprofit boards?  While much of the media attention has been focused on increasing diversity on corporate boards (and justifiably so – we still have far to go), less attention is paid to the nonprofit boards that are abundant in every community.  The racial breakdown of a corporate board on average is 38.5% non-white while a nonprofit is 22% non-white.

Nonprofit boards are often touted as a great place to build and hone leadership, serve as a place to network with highly influential individuals and an opportunity to create lasting societal change.  Nonprofits are created to support a vast number of sectors from education to healthcare to the arts to human services and more.  And many evolve out of a need to support the “less fortunate” members of our community, which are overwhelmingly communities of color. So why is it that the nonprofit boards who govern the effort to create societal change, more often than not reflect the racial makeup for the communities and populations they serve?

Have you ever heard of white savior syndrome or white savior complex?  It is the narrative so often written where the white person swoops in and saves the person/people of color from their plight.  And the world of volunteering has become painfully infected by it.  Perhaps you have heard the Tara Winkler TED talk about stopping orphanages?  Seems like a terrible thing- where would these poor children go who are supported by the dollars Americans send, the mission work we do to help them?  The gut-wrenching truth is that they would stay home with their families.  I won’t spoil the talk for you, but our white savior syndrome has created a corrupt world overseas where young children are ripped from their families to live in an orphanage so we can go on a mission trip and take a selfie of the great work we are doing with the poor children… because it is profitable.  Seriously, watch the TED talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/tara_winkler_why_we_need_to_end_the_era_of_orphanages?language=en

But white savior syndrome is not just an issue with overseas orphanages, it is prevalent on the vast majority of our boards… where our predominantly white board members make decisions and effect societal change that impacts communities of color.  It is with good intentions to help others that we often ignorantly make decisions for others. Not only are people of color prevented from having a seat at the table and a voice to represent those of color, they are also kept from the benefits of being on a board that I alluded to earlier – the chance to hone leadership skills and flex influence on the community, the chance to rub elbows and impress people already in a position of influence.  We need to make more room at the board table… we cannot claim a value of inclusiveness in our mission as a nonprofit and not accurately reflect that on our board of directors.

As we press for representative equality in workplaces and on corporate boards, let us not forget how important it is that we have this same representation on our nonprofit boards.

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