Serving on a board of directors can provide a platform to push for major social change—but that change can take time, said Dennis Chookaszian, ’68, speaking at the On Board 2015 conference on nonprofit board service hosted by the Social Enterprise Initiative at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

The retired chairman and CEO of CNA Insurance Companies shared his experience trying to cultivate diversity and inclusion as a member of both corporate and nonprofit boards of directors. As a long-time member of the Boy Scouts of America national board, Chookaszian has spent close to a decade working to end the organization’s exclusionary policies based on sexual orientation. “You can’t change attitude,” he said. “But you can fix process.”

At the second annual On Board conference on February 27, Chookaszian kicked off the sold-out event with a Q&A moderated by Steve Edwards, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics and former host of WBEZ’s The Afternoon Shift and Eight Forty-Eight.

Chookaszian, who also teaches strategic management at Booth, sums up his approach to board service as “noses in, fingers out.” Board members are there to ask tough questions and guide strategy, he explained, but as long as the organization is sound, members should leave everyday management to staff. If the board finds elements of the organization amiss, like out-of-step policies or an entrenched lack diversity, that’s when members have a responsibility to step up.

Over time, he has found that even if he disagrees with some of an organization’s policies, he can be more effective remaining on the board rather than resigning in protest. “I realized if I stayed within, I could work from within to try to bring about change that I thought was important to society,” said Chookaszian.

When it comes to building an inclusive culture in an organization, “what you’re really looking for is diversity of thought,” he explained. “You get diversity of thought from people with a diverse background: diverse racial background, diverse gender, diverse sexual orientation.”

He’s still working to change the policies of the Boy Scouts of America in his role as a member of the 75-person national board of directors to make the organization fully inclusive, and to eliminate any membership restrictions regarding sexual orientation—in the same manner that the Boy Scouts are fully inclusive with regard to all other individual characteristics. “The Boy Scout program plays a very important role in society by helping to build citizens with strong ethical character and self-reliant abilities,” Chookaszian said. “And it must be fully inclusive to accomplish those goals.”

He voted against what he saw as a compromise resolution that removed the restriction denying membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation in May 2013 because it didn’t go far enough, he said, and the policy for adult leaders remained in place. He acknowledged that while change is circuitous and slow, he believes he can push for it best from a seat at the table.

“I’m still trying to bring about change wherever I can, because I believe every element of society benefits from a truly inclusionary environment.”

To learn more about the On Board conference on nonprofit board service and get details about next year’s conference on April 15, 2016, sign up for updates using the form below.

Story by Deborah Ziff
Photo by Joshua Koerner (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons