Diversity, equity, and inclusion in a board setting

Last year I auditioned for a non-profit board. Meaning I sat in on their discussions and we tried to see how I could work with the other board members.

I deeply care about this organization's mission and love their work. I am not an expert in what they do, but they had been very successful in leveraging the internet for distribution (and donations). And so we thought there might be good overlap with what I do professionally.

It was an interesting session. A ton of very smart people with diverse backgrounds coming together to put something beautiful into the world. Discussions ranged from becoming more effective at doing the work to increasing donation size and conversion along the funnel of engaging with the work.

There was another potential board member observing. They came from a different walk of life, having worked primarily in government and with NGOs. Their speciality was DEI, or diversity, equity, and inclusion, in particular in this type of organization.

Now, to set base expectations, this is an organization that by virtue of its work cares about reaching broad segments of the population. It cares about adding good and beautiful things to people's lives. It does so without in any way referencing its audience's nationality, race, class, gender, sexual orientation. In fact by virtue of what it does, these things should not matter.

And yet the presence of this type of DEI advocate sucked the oxygen out of that board room (Zoom!) quicker than I ever thought possible. A meeting that started with discussing the organization's objectives - its true strategic imperatives - ended with equity, in particular racial equity, at the very top of its agenda.

The real reason was silence. Not one of the board members, who clearly were not themselves in any way disadvantaged or oppressed people, felt comfortable pointing out that this application of DEI would make the organization less effective, make donations less well-spent, and in fact was wasting everyone's time. No one spoke up.

Justice, social and otherwise, is a high common good. We all are called to work at the peripheries, to alleviate suffering, to bridge divides, to look deeply at each other and serve our omega (Matthew 25:40, Revelation 22:13). But this was something different: it was using DEI as a power play, it was making everyone in that room and the organization itself an instrument to this person's agenda. In the way it was framed, it was the only agenda that it was possible to have. Any opposition to it would be bigotry, racism, etc.

All across the West, these types of politics are gaining ground. Most companies I work with aren't strong enough, and many founders don't want to, pick that fight. Easier just to roll over and let the advocates have their way.

I don't believe this is a viable path and at least I won't go along with it without speaking out. I do think it is an organizational imperative to make everyone feel welcome at work. I think it is beneficial for companies to encourage a high degree of diversity so as to hire the best talent they can. And I think making any organization make sure its mission is the good, true, and beautiful is the only way to ensure long-term survival.

But it is also key to keep this type of politicking out of the organization if at all possible. I didn't join this board - I wasn't invited to. But I can't say I'm sorry about not having to waste my time.