Ask the Ethicist: DEI and Leadership

By the Apra Ethics & Compliance Committee

Dear Ethicist,

It’s so important these days that our boards have representation from folks with diverse backgrounds and identities so that we can grow as an organization. Unfortunately, my organization’s board of trustees is not diverse. I believe that if we want to make real change that it starts at the very top with leadership. The problem is that I’m a prospect researcher and low on the food chain ― I’m not a manager or a director. I’m sort of tired of all the lip service about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and want to see some real change in board composition (among other things). I know that these changes are attainable ― we just need to start! Any advice?

Best Regards,

Stop Yacking and Start Acting

Dear Stop Yacking and Start Acting,

Like you’ve heard, probably in countless fundraising presentations, you’ve got to get leadership buy-in and that can be challenging. However, right now is the time to strike as the iron is burning hot. You can step up and be a leader by making DEI an ongoing goal.

The Ethicist first recommends doing some research and creating an argument, followed by a time-bound plan. Who out there is doing what already? What resources (webinars, websites, books) exist? Why is DEI important? How will it benefit your institution? Part of your research should be to search for programs and resources that will help your organization reach this goal.

For example, if you work at a museum, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has a program they started in 2018 called “Facing Change: Advancing Museum Board Diversity & Inclusion.” Not only do they have good articles and resources on their website, but participants also regularly take part in meetings, check-ins and personal plans. They’ve even decided to go as far as hiring consulting firms to help museums search and recruit new candidates. The Ethicist has also heard that they’ll be accepting new applicants soon. Surely, other industry professional organizations and groups have similar programs, and you may be able to receive an awesome grant. (Check in with your grant team and get them excited too!)


One of Apra's primary organizational initiatives is to define and advocate the highest standards of performance and ethical behavior by those engaged in the profession. Learn more about our ethics and professional standards and access resources here

 If you can’t immediately find a DEI program in which to take part, it is okay, don’t panic. Use their knowledge to make your case and forge a path:

1. Advocate, advocate, advocate! Talk with your manager and others. This is where your relationship skills take flight. Through sharing these resources with your team, you may find a colleague to partner with and help drive change. Have you talked with your donor relations team or communications team to find out what ideas they might have? Let them know how this will benefit the institution and how you can help.

2. Negotiate a goal. How many new board members do we need? How many should be in the pipeline? Establish an aggressive diversity goal. Everyone should be involved — from the research team who is prospecting for candidates; to the board, fundraisers and leadership who are suggesting candidates; to a project manager who is setting up meetings and presenting prospect profiles for consideration and setting up tours and invitations to candidates. This should be a new, regular, established pipeline practice. Don’t limit it to just a year or two.

 3. Research, of course. It’s the integral base that makes the recipe work.

    • Use your tools and research skills to cast a wide net. Educate yourself about local communities and groups.
    • Ask whoever communicates with existing board members or high-end donors for names.
    • Add local business lists or Forbes lists — for example, “Top Black Entrepreneurs in the Bay Area” — to whatever relationship search tool you use. Push those prospects up the chain for review.
    • Search through existing donors and dive more deeply to see if they are candidates.
    • Create well-written, amazing profiles that the board and leadership It is also important to note that there may be inherent bias in the research tools we use and you may need to get more creative in your searches or make caveat arguments. But you can do it. Pivot and innovate!
    • Track your progress. How many people are you sending up? How many people are getting reviewed? How many people are asked? How many say yes or no, and why? Shout your success from the rooftops.

If you’re concerned about how to ethically collect, store and use DEI data, don’t worry — you are not alone. Your own Apra Ethics & Compliance Committee will have a best practices toolkit out this summer to help further guide you. But there are plenty of resources out there to start laying the groundwork.

If your board is more diverse, you’re likely to start seeing more diversity in leadership positions they hire for and, in turn, more balanced and equitable institutions. Leadership happens at all levels. Even if you don’t have a title, you can be a positive force for change. So go get it!

Yours in DEI,

The Ethicist

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