Don't Worry About Them, They're Just the Token Board Member...

As organizations seek to diversify their leadership, they often only bring on a single board member to represent an entire community. Why does tokenizing happen? What are the consequences?

I recently joined a startup organization in the HR space for both corporate and nonprofits organizations. As part of its mission to transform HR in areas including diversity, performance, and strategy, I've found myself particularly interested in our organization's critical work in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) and the theory in which they approach the work. While many organizations believe that diversity statements, ethnically-based employee resources groups, or other short-term approaches are the solution, our organization is clear in stating that these half-measures ultimately won't cut it. Only a complete infusion of DEIB into the soul & culture of the organization long-term will create an authentic, holistic, believable change for the organization. Unfortunately, when approaching the topic of diversity in the leadership of our own community, I find that many of our organizations fall into the same trap of these half-measure approaches. 

The half-measure that we'll explore today: tokenizing on nonprofit boards. 


What is Tokenizing? 

We'll get more into the "why" of tokenizing in a minute, but at its core, tokenizing is the act of having a single representative serve as a means to "fulfill" a diversity requirement. For Japanese American nonprofits, "diversity" can mean several different things; skillset/occupation, age, pre-war/post-war lineage, gender, and ethnicity are just a few examples. 

When a nonprofit has a super-majority of a single group but wishes to diversify their board, many times, they'll bring on a single member from an underrepresented group as a means to start the diversification process. 

While the intent is positive, when that single individual remains the only voice from that underrepresented group, they become the token board member. 


So What Are the Consequences? 

In the short term, the primary consequence of tokenizing is the inability to retain new diverse talent. Operating within a super-majority culture can be uncomfortable and silencing for token board members. Culturally, token board members may feel hesitant to speak up when their perspective contradicts the norm. Even worse, if that counter-perspective is not received wholeheartedly or dismissed by the super-majority, it further silences and alienates that board member. 

The primary consequence of tokenizing is the inability to retain new diverse talent.

In many cases, the board does have an earnest desire to listen and learn from a perspective that is not their own. However, if that token board member is expected to be the primary spokesperson on behalf of their community in every scenario, that can be exhausting and beget the question, "am I only on this board to represent this single thing? I thought I was useful for more..." Not a great feeling.

Together these two feelings of silence and isolation create short-term retention issues, but the real detriment is in the long run. With many organizations facing declining membership and donor support, finding ways to resonate with their target audience is essential, but rapidly changing community demographics and behaviors make that a complex and challenging thing to do. While not wholly applicable, I'm reminded of the phrase, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Having leadership that represents your diverse audience is essential to ensuring that activities and decisions resonate with your community. But boards that cannot retain diverse new voices will be less equipped to serve and stay relevant to their changing target audience. 

Having leadership that represents your diverse audience is essential to ensuring that activities and decisions resonate with your community.

Beyond finding difficulty retaining or growing their support base, organizations will also generally be less innovative. While there's something to be said about tradition, "doing things the way they've always been done" is often used as a rationalization when in fact, there's just a lack of creative thought. In these cases, the organization will continue to miss out on establishing newly relevant activities that will grow its audience and base of support. 


Why Does it Happen?

I always hesitate when writing or presenting this section because of the frank reality that truth hurts. But a vulnerable admittance around the hesitancy or resistance to diversifying boards removes your blinders so you can approach this work with eyes wide open. 

As stated above, initially, many boards will identify that they have a monolithic demographic of leaders and will implement initial measures and outreach initiatives for diversification. There's typically a desire for quick solutions and immediate progress, so the first steps in diversification are usually met with enthusiasm and support. 

However, beyond the initial outreach & recruitment, why do those new members become singular token representatives? Why doesn't the board continue the charge? One word: power. Token board members create the illusion that the board is diversifying without the entrenched leadership giving up any real decision-making power because they still hold the super-majority. 

Token board members create the illusion that the board is diversifying without the entrenched leadership giving up any real decision-making power because they still hold the super-majority. 

For many of our leaders, their extracurricular involvements have become critical parts of their identity, essential elements of their very existence. In all cases, we owe a debt of gratitude to these leaders for the blood, sweat, and tears that they have invested in our community's organizations. But at some point, the legacy has to be passed on. Even though there is a realization that the organization's longevity can and should outlive their own individual involvement, the practice of giving up their hold on the organization can be challenging because of the loss of identity or loss of existence that comes along with that shift of power. 

It is in this shift of power that we find the most difficulty. We are so grateful to those leaders who spent decades sustaining our organizations, but to innovate and evolve, the power needs to shift from that previous group of leaders to the next, not in tokenized half-measures, but in a wholehearted way.


So What Can We Do? 

First and foremost is mindset. Share this article. Read and re-read the paragraphs in the previous section to get into the right attitude. Sustainable board diversity comes from both a commitment and a willingness to shift power from an existing group of leaders to a new group. Communicate this goal during board meetings and be honest about the fact that while board diversity is essential, the shift in power to get there may engender a feeling of loss amongst individual members. 

Tactically, have a year-round nominations committee and term limits in place; and not just term limits with an infinite amount of renewals, term limits where board members are mandatorily forced to step off the board after a fixed amount of time. This enables the board to constantly vet, recruit, and integrate new blood. In addition, a year-round nominations committee brings intentionality to the recruitment process and ensures there's always a pipeline for leadership. 

Sustainable board diversity comes from both a commitment and a willingness to shift power from an existing group of leaders to a new group.

As the board considers recruitment, consider using a board recruitment matrix. The matrix provides an honest demographic assessment of skills, ethnicities, genders, ages on your board. But again, it all comes down to mindset. If you complete the inventory of your board and clearly depicts that you have a monolithic board, don't rationalize, instead observe where diversity is lacking and commit to both the recruitment of new demographics and a shift in power.


It's never an easy topic to genuinely grasp and execute, and that's the reason why so many of our organizations find themselves lacking the diversity they need to evolve. While most will put off the problem until tomorrow, you have the opportunity to act today! Imagine what your organization can become with the right talent and diversity of thought sitting around the board room. 

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