Can Women Make a Substantial Mark on the Non-Profit Sector?

In an article by Bradshaw and Wolpin titled “Women on Non-Profit Boards: What Difference do they make?”, they site a study about women and non-profit boards that suggests that the higher the proportion of women on the board, the more likely the board is running a lower-prestige organization. Granted this article was published in 1996, it still leaves you to wonder the truth about this statement in a 2012 context. Furthermore, what makes an organization less “prestigious” and does this status matter in the grand scheme of things?

After my emotions subsided over the audacity of this study’s finding, I had several thoughts about the kind of organizations to which Bradshaw and Wolpin are referring.

– They are less glamourous say in comparison to the Museum of Modern Art
– They probably don’t have big operating budgets
– That prestige doesn’t correlated with the quality of the work an organization is producing

This last observation is key in relation to all or majority female boards. If we are to consider a non-profit with an all female board, what is the likelihood that that non-profit is concerned with women’s issues? Very high. Now if we zoom in on this further, what separates women’s issues non-profits from the rest of the sector? Their ultimate goal is to create social change.

Social change is rarely considered to be prestigious at the time it is be instigated. It requires grassroots efforts to change social or cultural systems that are impeding advancement of some group.These systems have usually being around for some time and are deeply intrenched in our way of life. In order to create social change, activism is absolutely key. This is where women have a leg up on men – they are more likely to be donors and activists to an organization, which is why they are more likely to create substantial and lasting change.

At its roots, activism is composed of efforts to promote, direct or impede social, political, economic or environmental change. When you think of an activist, you probably think of someone protesting but activism can take many forms including letter writing, boycotts, marches, hunger strikes or sit-ins. The main goal is to persuade people to change their behaviours rather than the government changing the laws – hence social change. A good example of an organization focused on activism and that has an all female board is Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW). Their focus is to end violence against women – including rape, torture and other sexualized violence – none of which are topics people are actively talking about in conversations with friends. In some ways, this almost a taboo subject. Yet, their staff and volunteers are highly visible in the community attending marching, community events, writing letters to the government and producing incredible awareness campaigns. In society’s eyes, the feminist fight to end violence is not news worthy. But to those who have been victims or knows someone who has been effected this is a prestigious fight to be fighting.

Activism and prestige are two very different concepts, which I think Bradshaw and Wolpin make clear in their article. But in the end, it is activism that will allow non-profits realize their vision. And hopefully it will be all female boards will be leading the charge of effective in governance and creating a culture of activism and participation among constituents. In this respect, all female boards will also be the ones that foster in a new era of non-profit organizations. One where non-profits create profound social change that shapes culture and society for the coming generation.


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