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The Secret Weapon Every Board And Committee Should Have

The slew of benefits include managing risk and making more informed decisions

Loh recognises that there might be challenges in assembling a diverse board, or even overhauling one to ensure it is not homogenous

As someone who is a vocal opponent against homogeneity, it is only natural that Winifred Loh has had a colourful career dabbling in a variety of roles both in for- and non-profit organisations. The 53-year-old Singaporean is the Director of the Centre for Non-Profit Leadership (CNPL), an organisation parked under the auspices of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre. One of the key messages she champions is the importance of having a diverse board.

This is something Loh has come to appreciate – but not before spending more than 20 years in sectors such as retail, professional services, high tech, telecommunications, and pharmaceuticals.

In the non-profit space, she has been the president of Singapore’s leading women’s advocacy group Association of Women for Action and Research; sits on the Board of the Singapore International Film Festival; and served as a mentor and facilitator of the Afghanistan Fellowship Programme, done in partnership with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of the activities that fill up her schedule. More importantly, it has led her to celebrate being different, particularly in a non-profit.

“With a diversity of experience and expertise, a non-profit is in a stronger position to plan, manage risk, make prudent decisions, and take full advantage of opportunities,” says Loh, who joined the organisation in 2014. “A diverse board that is sensitive to differences in gender, culture, age and religion is usually one that has a stronger capacity to attract and retain talented board members – as well as to be in touch with community needs.

“Diverse boards are also more likely to attract diverse donors and grant makers, who are increasingly focused on diversity.”

She points out that homogeneity in a board can lead to near-sightedness and group-think, which are dangerous and defeat its purpose. In particular, when it is made up of family and friends, it cultivates an environment where no one challenges the status quo because of fear of upsetting the peace.

“When there is no robust discussion on substantive issues, and board members focus on the leaves rather than the forest, it shows that they are not clear about their responsibilities for governance and oversight.”

Yet, Loh recognises that there might be challenges in assembling a diverse board, or even overhauling one to ensure it is not homogenous. To her, it requires intellect, energy, integrity and time.

Also, there has to be a willingness as individuals and as a group to identify, confront, and work to remove blind spots and prejudices that are embedded in the board and organisation’s culture.

There are a few ways to achieve this. Introduce a formal policy to remind the board of what it wants to achieve. Alternatively, set a goal of bringing on board individuals who have the experiences and interest that best fit the board’s needs.

However, she warns that setting a numeric goal is a double-edged sword, as diversifying a board should never become a matter of filling a quota.

Do not neglect either the monitoring of a board’s progress in embracing diversity. Loh recommends tracking retention rates of diverse members, and conducting exit interviews to identify areas for improvement.

“Board self-assessments are also a useful exercise to tackle complex issues, such as the need for board renewal and diversity. The multiple perspectives of members will provide valuable insights on where it can focus its energy for the good of the non-profit and its cause.”

At CNPL, it has a PulseCheck solution that gathers feedback from individual board members and measures the collective performance of the board. Since 2013, it has supported 23 non-profit boards in the social, health and arts sectors on their board self-assessments.

With useful tools like this easily available, there is really no excuse for board homogeneity.