More Women in Nonprofit Board Seats Than in Private Sector—But Still Much Room for Growth

iStock_000002379502XSmallBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

The Boston Club released a study in May that examines the gender diversity of women directors and chief executives in the Massachusetts nonprofit sector. The 2013 Census of Women Directors and Chief Executives of Massachusetts’ Largest Nonprofit Organizations: A Benchmark Report is the first of its kind to track the number and percentage of women in the boardrooms and in senior leadership positions of the largest nonprofits in the Commonwealth.

Beverly A. Brown, PhD, is director of development at the Center for Global Health and Development at Boston University’s School of Public Health and an author of the report. Brown credits this as the first report to “shine the bright light” on gender diversity in the education and health sectors.

The report found that:

  • 1,090 women serve on the boards of the 142 largest nonprofit organizations in Massachusetts, representing 35% of all board members in those organizations.
  • 20% of the chief executives of these organizations are women.
  • 124 organizations have 3 or more women on their boards.
  • Only 1 organization has no women on either its board or in the chief executive position.

The Boston Club has long conducted research on women’s leadership and the gender diversity of boards and executive suites of Massachusetts’ largest public companies. The report lays the groundwork to monitor the progress of gender diversity in the nonprofit space, one of the state’s largest employment sectors. Research partners for the project were Simmons College and Mercer.

Measuring Impact

Brown explains how the process got started: “The Boston Club has a committee called the Nonprofit Board Committee which seeks to increase the representation of women on nonprofit boards,” says Brown. “I recently joined and asked two questions: what are the ‘highest’ impact nonprofits in this state by revenue, and is there still an underrepresentation of women on these boards and in the lead executive position?” With the support of The Boston Club, blessing of the Nonprofit Board Committee, and collaboration with Patricia Deyton (faculty at Simmons and member of The Boston Club), Brown led the Nonprofit Census Committee to address both questions.

“From this report, we really learn how important both of these sectors are to the economy of Massachusetts,” says Brown. “I was pleased at the large percentage of women on boards of these largest nonprofits while disappointed that the CEO percentages didn’t correlate well. At least both percentages are higher than what we see in the corporate census.” Brown added that she was also pleased that the size of the nonprofits didn’t matter for the board diversity but did for the CEO.

JoAnn Cavallaro, president of The Boston Club, explains that because of the importance of the mission, some of their nonprofit board committee members stepped forward and volunteered to take on this immense project. “We were delighted and went full steam ahead,” says Cavallaro. “We recognized the significant role nonprofits play in the Massachusetts economy in terms of revenue and employment and believed a nonprofit census would complement our Census of Women Directors and Executive Officers in Massachusetts Public Companies.”

Laying the Groundwork

As a benchmark report, the 2013 Census lays the groundwork for future analysis about what correlates with some nonprofits—and not others—having more women as executive officers and on their boards. “As it stands now, this report is a roadmap for identifying which nonprofits are more open to strong representation by women in leadership positions and which are not,” says Brown. “The ‘old girl’ network can be activated at those nonprofits as women seek employment and leadership opportunities.”

This census will become a biennial publication documenting the status and trends of women in the boardroom and in senior leadership positions in nonprofits in the Commonwealth. Future reports will not only track progress, but will also look at some of the questions this first report raises, such as:

  • What are nonprofits doing to appoint more women to their boards, and what more should they be doing?
  • Are there key differences in the responsibilities of nonprofit and for-profit boards that affect or influence the difference in the number of women?
  • For nonprofits, is there a correlation between the gender of the chief executive and the gender composition of the board as there may be in public companies?
  • How do women directors and executives fare in the ongoing mergers of major nonprofits?
  • Why isn’t the number of women board members and chief executives of nonprofits much greater than it is?

“Although the number of women who hold board seats or chief executive positions in nonprofits is significantly greater than their colleagues in the private sector, the numbers just aren’t good enough,” says Cavallaro. “Just like our work to advocate for more women on corporate boards, there is much unfinished business.”

Brown concludes that she is pleased with the response and conversation that this landmark report has catalyzed. “It is gratifying to all of the Census Committee members to see it so well received,” says Brown. “It tells us that our work is of value for Massachusetts, and we are optimistic about the change it will enable in gender diversity.”