House under construction

Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Getting On Board: Advancing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Governance of Community-Based Organizations

Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the national spotlight on systemic racism, 2020 brought into sharp relief a number of technical and adaptive challenges facing the nation’s community-based organizations. In particular, the focus on systemic racism highlighted an urgent need to reexamine and improve organizations’ governance structures to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of their work.

In “Getting On Board: Promising Practices for Advancing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Governance of Community-Based Organizations,” a new paper co-published by the Center and NeighborWorks America, I report on research I conducted as a Gramlich Fellow. In the course of my work, I interviewed 17 board chairs, board members, and executive directors from ten different organizations in the NeighborWorks network that provide affordable housing and other services about their efforts to advance race, equity, diversity, and inclusion (REDI) in their leadership and governance structures. I also spoke with 24 scholars, organizers, coaches, and consultants who specialize in inclusive governance.

Through this research, I identified five major principles, each reflective of key learnings for the boards as they try to advance REDI. The paper also includes case study examples to further illustrate the principles:

1. No Single Size Fits All

Every community––and therefore, every organization and its board––is different. Since 1) equity is rooted in the needs of a community, 2) representative diversity will look different in different communities, and 3) the work of inclusion must necessarily be reflective of the people being included, boards must take care to assess their own context and develop a plan that is right-sized for their organization and the community it serves.

Key Learnings:

  • Don’t assume what people need.
  • Listening requires the willingness to change.
  • Be intentional, mind your impact, and strive for ownership.

2. Root in Data & Story

Quantitative metrics are critical to understanding both problems and solutions, but in the context of REDI, this data must be understood through the lens of history and the lived experiences of board members, staff, and people in the community.

Key Learnings:

  • Shared information provides shared context and understanding.
  • Examine and refine the quality and resolution of your data.
  • Provide greater access for community voices and actively engage with ideas surfaced by them.

3. Focus on People

Advancing REDI is fundamentally about who is in the room and whose voices are being heard when decisions are made and policies are implemented. Attending to those people––what they want, what they need, and what they believe––is critical for any lasting change.

Key Learnings:

  • Boards are comprised of individuals volunteering their time and expertise.
  • Time is the most important asset people have. They spend it on work that is important, not easy.
  • Back up important work with the support and resources people need to accomplish it.
  • Resilient relationships, based in trust and facilitated by grace, are essential.
  • Culture change is a collaborative effort, but often requires a leader to drive the change.

4. Form Determines Function

In organizational structures, form determines function. To advance REDI not just as a one-off initiative or publicity stunt, the structures organizations put in place must be top of mind. If we understand that forms of exclusion are structural in nature, we must work to make our inclusion efforts structural as well.

Key Learnings:

  • Recruitment strategies dictate who gets in the room.
  • Agendas decide what is discussed.
  • Budgets reveal priorities.
  • Committee structures reinforce power dynamics.
  • Terms and term limits drive rates of change.

5. Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

Organizational culture change takes time, and just as people and communities change over time, so must the approaches of the organizations seeking to serve those communities. As several interviewees highlighted, this work is a journey that is never finished, and organizations must focus on continuous improvement.

Key Learnings:

  • Celebrate progress, but don’t rest on your laurels.

While most interviewees reported that they had a long way to go in their journey to advance REDI in their organizations’ governance and leadership, most felt confident that their efforts had already improved their attempts to serve their community and advance their mission. I hope my paper, the product of their collective wisdom, will provide readers with a thought-provoking resource that provides actionable ideas to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion in the governance of community-based organizations.