Differences Equal Strength

Nonprofit boards should be heterogeneous.

Did you know that the makeup of nonprofit boards can influence the trajectory of a regional economy?

Studies of cities in the Rust Belt have shown that when boards had little overlap, it stunted collaboration and led to fractured consensus about the future direction of the region. On the flip side, when board members had excessive overlap, there was an even greater problem — groupthink.

What’s ideal? Heterogeneous boards that have members who also serve on boards of other sectors, and board members who serve on several boards within a single sector. This sweet spot in social leadership supports the infusion of new ideas while also unifying leaders and residents around key assets and opportunities.

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Heterogeneous boards are the mechanism that allowed cities such as Allentown, Pennsylvania, to embrace new industries and spin off new sectors in the wake of the American manufacturing decline, while other cities such as Youngstown, Ohio, did not. Social leadership that brought together disparate groups of people played a major role in enabling post-industrial cities to reinvent their economies.

With these examples in mind, and with the knowledge that major legacy industries in New Orleans, such as oil and gas and port-related shipping, have lost thousands of jobs since their heyday in the mid- and late-20th century, we looked at the composition of nonprofit boards within Southeast Louisiana. From this, we determined which nonprofit sectors had substantial board member overlap and which ones were siloed.

We particularly focused on the environmental sector and its board overlap both between other sectors and within itself. This social sector is at the epicenter of the water management economic cluster and thus, incredibly important to New Orleans’ environmental fate and prosperity going forward. Water management is potentially the federally fueled economic ramp that New Orleans can take toward a more prosperous, sustainable future. With more than $8.7 billion from BP for coastal restoration and protection and $2 billion from FEMA for urban water management over the next two decades, a water management cluster — one that contains local companies large and small that compete, innovate, collaborate and ultimately sell their services to other regions, all while growing jobs in Southeast Louisiana — is within reach. Water management has the potential to be to Southeast Louisiana what software is to Austin, what biotech is to Boston or what e-commerce is to Seattle. But, heterogeneous nonprofit boards will play a surprisingly important role in ensuring that ideas are exchanged and goals are aligned in the water management sector.

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Examining the composition of nonprofit boards, we found that environmental boards are significantly siloed not only from other sectors, but also from each other. With just 4 percent board member overlap within the environmental sector, these boards are missing out on knowledge-sharing and vision alignment. More troubling still, environmental boards are also poorly connected with other sectors.  

At The Data Center, we didn’t just identify this opportunity, we scraped the data to make acting on this opportunity as easy as downloading a spreadsheet and making a few phone calls.

You can make use of our nonprofit boards data, which includes the names of board members of hundreds of Southeast Louisiana nonprofits and important information about these nonprofits, including their locations and sectors.We also show which nonprofits have overlapping board members. 

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Board overlap can happen in 3 ways

By building networks across organizations you can boost the cross pollination of ideas and optimize leveraging of resources.


A near total overlap of board members between organizations or sectors. Leads to groupthink and lack of innovation.


A balanced overlap of board members between organizations or sectors. Leads to a healthier mix of ideas and resources that can spur economic development.


A lack of overlap of board members between organizations or sectors. Leads to turf wars, duplication and misalignment of work.

By the numbers

Environmental board overlap with boards in other sectors:

This 0 percent overlap with many other sectors prohibits the region from fully benefiting from the exchange of ideas and civic alignment that can follow from diverse boards.


Economic development






Social Science
Disaster Preparedness
Science and Technology

Allison Plyer is executive director and chief demographer of The Data Center in New Orleans. Dr. Plyer is author of The New Orleans Index series, developed in collaboration with the Brookings Institution to track the region’s progress toward prosperity, and she leads The Data Center’s research on the development of the water management cluster in Southeast Louisiana as published in The Coastal Index series.



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