Representation and diversity in nonprofit

Representation and Diversity in Nonprofit Leadership Matters

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About a month ago I came across a quote in a Nonprofit Quarterly piece that stopped me in my tracks.

“It’s estimated that 80 percent of the nonprofit workforce in NYC is made up of people of color, and 80 percent of those workers are women of color. Yet, only 16 percent of nonprofit CEOs in New York are people of color. I couldn’t find the stat on what percentage of those were women, or Black women for that matter, but I’ve never been able to get that data out of my head. We’ve got work to do.”

This is the case in New York City, one of the most diverse cities in our country. However, this reality is a prevailing theme across the country. There is a vast disparity between the demographics of the communities that are served by nonprofits, as well as the volunteers who are doing the work, and the demographics of the leaders of these organizations. These leaders are the ones who are making the decisions about everything that nonprofits do - from programming to fundraising to the day-to-day operations.

I couldn’t help but wonder – shouldn’t there be a broad spectrum of perspectives and opinions when these decisions are being made, particularly perspectives from the communities who are being served?

After digging a little deeper, I decided to have a few conversations with people who might have better insight into this issue. I wanted to first explore why diversity and representation is important in nonprofit leadership teams. Then I wanted to zero in on ways that we in the nonprofit sector can be better about welcoming a variety of perspectives to the leadership table.

Why is Diversity & Representation Important in Nonprofit & Social Change Organization Leadership?


Beach Pace, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Columbia Northwest

My first conversation was with Beach Pace, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Columbia Northwest. When Beach took this role about five years ago, one of her biggest goals was to increase the diversity of her leadership team. She explained to me that one of the most important reasons to ensure representation at the leadership level is so that people (from staff to the communities being served) in that organization have a role model that looks like them.

It was a personal experience that ingrained the importance of representation into the fabric of who Beach is. As an alumnus of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, as well as a member of the LGBTQ community, she remembers how she felt when she was first accepted into West Point. “I remember how I felt being not the majority when I was in the military, and I absolutely knew what I was getting into. People made fun of me. People didn’t understand why I would join the military. Why did I have this subtext of ‘why would you do that?’ It didn’t really hit me until later, but it was annoying.”

It wasn’t until Beach was well into her senior year when she remembers finally meeting a female general and instructor. She says, “I actually saw a live female general, not a picture. I didn’t think it would affect me the way it did, but I was like, ‘Oh, I actually have a chance.’ [This is important] because it gives people hope and it makes people want to stay. I felt there was hope and everyone should feel that way, everyone should be able to join an organization and, in some way, see themselves reflected.”

It’s that experience that Beach has carried into her work with nonprofits in working towards inclusion and diversification of her leadership teams. One thing that she has come to realize over the last few years is that it’s important to really focus on representing the culture of a community, not just check a box by including a bilingual staff member. She told a story about how her leadership team, with the best of intentions, was planning an event for their largely Latinx population. The event was to be held on the Saturday before Mother’s Day. One of her Latinx team members pointed out that, in this culture, mothers are revered and celebrated all weekend long. The timing of this event would not have properly served the community that they were trying to celebrate had it not been pointed out by someone on the leadership team that the timing of this event was not aligned with the cultural norms of the community they were serving. They rescheduled the event, and it was a success.

Nikki Floyd, Project Manager at Signs of Justice

I also had a conversation with Nikki Floyd, Project Manager at Signs of Justice, a local sign printing company who has pivoted to design and sell signs that benefit social justice. The small business’ success has taken off over the last few months as cries for justice after the killing of George Floyd have moved to the national spotlight.

Nikki feels strongly that “in order for a conversation to encompass everyone’s needs, everyone’s concerns to address issues that are universal for a community, you have to have representation for each group that’s in the community.” Otherwise, the conversation is “being slanted in such a way that those who are in the community end up being left out.” She continues, “If you’re in a leadership position and you’re actually part of the decision-making team, then you can actually direct that conversation. Because even … when you’ve got people in the conversation, but they actually aren’t the decision makers, the decision maker [could be] still aiming the final result in the wrong direction.”

She also recognizes the importance of representation for all communities, and uses the shift of what we are seeing on television over the last 5-6 months as an example of how people are starting to see a much more representative view of the real world we live in. “We are starting to see a lot more people who look like me, and like my daughter, and like my neighbors. It looks more like the real world we live in. If you’re not having conversations that encompass the world that you live in, you are putting the conversation in a place that doesn’t actually address the reality. Then you have cracks in your system, you have police brutality, you have social services that aren’t actually addressing the root of a problem. So, they’re not really resolving a problem, they’re just continuing to band-aid the issues.”

So, What Can Nonprofit and Social Change Organizations Do to Improve Representation and Diversity in Their Leadership Teams?

I found some common themes in both of my conversations, and was able to come up with a list of four things (there are many more!) that nonprofit and social change organizations can do to push for better representation and more diversity in their leadership teams.

Prioritize diversity throughout your organization

Embrace and foster diversity in every area of your organization to benefit from many different perspectives at all levels. Be intentional about who you hire on your staff, which vendors and businesses you engage with, and community organizations and groups that you partner with. Be sure to communicate this goal openly and consistently, both inside and outside of your organization. This will ensure that you are engaged with a rich, multi-layered way of thinking on a day-to-day basis.

Additionally, “encourage your donors to analyze their grant-making portfolios with an eye for race, gender, sexuality and national origin and commit to funding groups led by people of color.” (Forbes article “It’s time to face the facts that we have a gender and diversity problem in the nonprofit world.”)

On the flip side of fundraising, Nikki spoke about busting the myth that communities of color don’t have the funds to donate large amounts to important causes. “We have so much as far as wealthy communities. Some of the wealthiest communities in our country are African-American - right there in Maryland, right there next to Washington DC. Same thing in Texas. There are African-American communities that are extremely well-off, have a great education.” Knowing that, however, it’s important to be respectful about inviting these donors to join you at the table and start having these conversations. They need to feel safe and welcome and listened to. Being represented at the leadership level helps immensely with creating a sense of “you are welcome here.”

Be creative where you look for potential candidates

Basically, do the work. Don’t look in the usual places. Beach talks about what she thinks is the most important piece of making this a priority - “I think it’s a mindset. You have to make the conscious decision that this is important to you, and you have to put it out there. Take extra time and make extra effort [to ensure you have] a good diverse pool. …And then you have to follow through on it. I have heard excuses of ‘there’s not enough people of color here’ or ‘there’s not enough to go around.’ And I think that’s bull. If you work hard – and what I mean by that is you take the time to go to the SEI dinner, go to Centro Cultural events, to Somali events. Recently I even attended an Ethiopian event. Go out and be at those events. And you can still do it on Zoom (during Covid). In fact, it’s easier, right?”

She continues, emphasizing follow through and having the difficult conversations that are necessary… “I think it’s the will of leadership, but then there’s also the follow-through and having these tough conversations to get a team in a room and talk about ‘White Fragility’ or LGBTQ issues or Black or Latinx issues. … We do NOT have to make sure it’s a safe space. People need to come in with a growth mindset and know that it’s going to be uncomfortable. But what comes out of that is growth all around for the whole team. [Also, leaders need to remember that] your most important job is to be with your team in that DEI meeting and be a part of it. Maybe not say so much, but be in the room to hear and understand what’s going on in the minds of your team.”

Create clear career paths, including mentoring programs

Both Nikki and Beach spoke about the importance of making it clear that there are opportunities for your employees of color, or your potential employees of color. It’s important to have professional development and training programs in place to help diverse employees see your organization as a place to grow and stay awhile. One of the most important things that organizations can do is to create mentorship programs that proactively include a diverse group of employees. This can help to ensure that ambitious, smart, hardworking employees, regardless of race, gender or background, feel that your organization is willing to invest in their growth and future, and there is a career path, and a plan, for them.

Foster a culture of inclusion

This starts at the ground up. An organization’s culture needs to truly embrace diverse opinions, perspectives and lifestyles. “Fortunately, there are many ways to achieve that: creating diversity committees with representatives from all levels of the organization and making diversity goals a transparent part of an organization’s overall strategic plan are just two of them. Organizations can also offer flexible working schedules, make accommodations for religious holidays in different faith traditions, and adopt diversity-friendly dress codes.” (Philanthropy News Digest article: “The Diversity Gap in the Nonprofit Sector”)

There are plenty of ideas out there about how to embrace a diversity strategy. This is especially important now, as we come to the end of a year where we have all had to think outside the box about so many things. Now is the time for nonprofits and social change organizations to plan proactively about how to stay relevant as we head into a brave new world.

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