Number of women on nonprofit boards hasn't changed much in 60 years, and other surprises

As the nonprofit sector is increasingly called upon to supply services that government can no longer afford, studies assessing the not-for-profits are growing more and more vital.

As the nonprofit sector is increasingly called upon to supply services that government can no longer afford, studies assessing the not-for-profits are growing more and more vital.

Yale University’s Program on Nonprofit Organizations PONPO is wrapping up a study examining how organizations in key cities across the United States have governed themselves over a 60-year period. The Six Cities Study explores 90 nonprofit boards of trustees in Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Philadelphia, comparing the gender, race, religion and socioeconomic makeup of trustees at 30 year intervals: in 1931, 1961, and 1991.

Sociologist Rikki Abzug, project director for PONPO’s Six Cities Study and assistant professor of management at New York University’s Stern School of Business, will present a talk at Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Policy Studies on Monday, March 11, summarizing preliminary findings of the three-year study. Professor Abzug comments, “The nonprofit sector, as an important arena of civil society, is not always democratic, inclusionary, and representative – nor was it ever exclusively run by members of the white, Protestant male elite.”

With public and scholarly attention focused on the role of nonprofit organizations in a society of downsizing government and downsizing business, this timely study digs into the past to question the kind of leadership that has governed longstanding and, therefore, “elite” nonprofits.

Some of the findings are surprising.

o Contrary to conventional wisdom, there never was a “golden age” of trusteeship when a small group of community elders white, Protestant male ran all the charitable organizations.

o Even in 1931, the composition of boards varied widely, depending on the “industry”: Catholic charities and hospitals were often run by boards of nuns, while elite educational institutions were more commonly governed by wealthy white, male professionals and managers. This diversity in structure and composition continues all through the study.

o Boards have become slightly more diverse, racially and ethnically, over the 60 year period encompassed by the study, although there has been surprisingly little change in the proportion of women on boards.

o Out of six cities and almost 2,000 trustees studied in 1931, only two board members were African-American. By 1991, that had increased to 8.3 percent. Asian and Latino trustees accounted for another 4.5 percent.

o Women represented almost 28 percent of the trustee population in 1931 and 34.5 percent in 1991– an increase of less than seven percent. By 1991, career women had displaced many of the nuns who served on boards in 1931.

o Back in 1931, boards already differed greatly in size. Community foundation boards in all cities but Minneapolis/St. Paul were small, with fewer than 10 members, while local United Way and family service boards often had over 30 members. Today, United Way boards average 66 members, even before adding honorary, emeritus, and ex officio trustees, while community foundation boards typically number 11 or 12 members.

o Most boards have been dominated by trustees of a particular religious faith, and, despite the apparent secularization of society, boards continue to share a common religious affiliation.

o The notable exception has been an overall increase in the proportion of Jewish board members for the secular organizations in the sample. Excluding Jewish-affiliated hospitals and family services from the sample, over 16 percent of nonprofit board members were Jewish in 1991. By contrast, Jews represent about 4.2 percent of the population in the cities studied.

o Geographic differences in board structure and composition also persist over time. Boston and Philadelphia boards draw on more educational and managerial elites than the boards of other cities. Atlanta and Los Angeles boards have been most open to people of color. Cleveland board members are less likely to be associated with elite clubs than trustees in other cities, and Twin Cities boards retain the highest proportion of female membership.

o “Industry” differences in board structure and composition remain strong over time. Nonprofit hospital boards are often indistinguishable from their for-profit counterparts, drawing trustees from mostly white, male, business and professional elites. United Way and family service boards, in contrast, represent large umbrellas of different community interests, and throughout the years of the study, drew trustees from a far more diverse population than have the hospitals.

Despite common assumptions, says Dr. Abzug, “Nonprofit organizations are not all governed in the same way by the same group of individuals. This has been true historically and remains true in the 1990s. Some nonprofit organizations do offer an alternative to for-profit and governmental solutions, but others look just like their counterparts in these other sectors.”

PONPO is an interdisciplinary research program based at Yale University’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies. Directed by Bradford Gray, professor of sociology, epidemiology and public health at Yale, the program employs theoretical, empirical, historical, and comparative approaches to the study of the nonprofit sector.

For more information on the Six Cities Study, call Professor Abzug at 212 998-0250 or Peter Dobkin Hall, associate director of PONPO, at 203 432-2130.

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