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Zabeen Hirji is chair of CivicAction, a non-profit city-building organization that brings together established and rising leaders from all sectors to address pressing issues in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. She is also executive adviser on the Future of Work at Deloitte, and executive-in-residence at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business in Vancouver.

COVID-19 continues to have a profound effect on our lives and livelihoods. Across Canada, we’ve united in common purpose to respond, recover and ultimately thrive – a cause for optimism. However, we’ve also been reminded in recent months that we’ve failed to live up to our declared values of equity, diversity and inclusion.

One issue we must address is the limited diversity on boards of non-profit organizations. While we’ve made good progress with women, that is not the case with racialized groups. The recent 2020 Diversity Leads report, released by the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, found that while 51 per cent of Toronto’s population is racialized, just 16.2 per cent of voluntary-sector board directors are racialized.

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In Vancouver, 49 per cent of the population is racialized, compared with 16.8 per cent of directors. A scan of websites of non-profit organizations indicates that many prominent boards have zero Black, Indigenous and people of colour or BIPOC directors.

These numbers speak volumes. A large proportion of non-profit boards simply do not reflect the talent pool, nor the people they serve. When boards don’t have directors with diverse lived experience or who understand important histories and cultural nuances of the groups they serve, can they optimally govern and address the needs of the entire community?

Diversity is a demographic fact in Canada. Inclusion is a choice.

Inclusion has many benefits. When efforts are made to harness diversity and create an environment where all can contribute their best, it changes the quality of conversations, leads to creativity and innovation, and fosters a constructive challenge that strengthens governance. It takes new behaviours and ways of doing things to harness this diversity.

Much work is required to fully address systemic barriers, but we must act now. We don’t need to wait for yet another research report.

As civic leaders sitting on non-profit boards, we must act and model for others. Consider taking these actions:

Talk about it and establish baseline data

Put diversity on your next meeting agenda and have a meaningful, possibly uncomfortable, conversation. Then invest in deeper learning.

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Collect diversity data, disaggregated for racialized groups, as experiences vary. This is a pretty simple task and will help you determine your current state.

Aim higher. Set goals and report transparently

Establish representation goals. Organizations set goals for all important issues. Transparently communicate goals and outcomes through annual reports, websites and donor communications to stay accountable and inspire others. If we aren’t keeping score, we’re just practising.

Advocate for transparent diversity reporting for the sector.

Assess director recruitment policies

Review director recruitment policies and practices, including the skills matrix, to identify systemic barriers – then take deliberate action to remove them.

For example, do all directors need to have fundraising capacity as individuals or through corporate or personal affiliations? Consider adding lived experience or deep understanding of histories and cultures of racial and cultural groups in our communities to the skills matrix?

Cast a wider and deeper net

Request each director to identify at least one BIPOC candidate. Be cautious of “culture fit” – this can be code for “just-like-me” hiring? Look outside existing networks, not simply the usual places. Consider a self-nomination process.

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Inclusion means integration

Provide customized onboarding support and continued mentoring for new directors. Pay attention to board culture. Demonstrate inclusive behaviours and watch for microaggressions. Diversity without inclusion is hollow.

Be open to learning and enhancing your practices

This is not a one-and-done. Be open to feedback, learning and continuing improvements.

The talent is out there, but boards need to recognize the value of diversity and cast a wider net. History has shown progress will be glacial without strong leadership, ambitious goals, clear accountability and bold actions.

This is a moment to collectively address systemic racism against Black, racialized and Indigenous peoples, and achieve greater inclusion. It’s not simply the right thing, it’s also the smart thing to do. When individuals achieve their full potential, so do organizations, economies and societies.

One thing is for sure: More of us must speak up and, more importantly, take meaningful action. If not now, then when?

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