Why diversity, equity, and inclusion matter for nonprofits

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The National Council of Nonprofits stands with others in denouncing racism, bigotry, and intolerance. Yet taking a "stand" is not enough. We, along with many other charitable nonprofits, are traveling a journey to identify how to build the core values of diversity, equity, and inclusion into all our nonprofit’s operations, as well as model those values as we advance our mission. We believe that embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion as organizational values is a way to intentionally make space for positive outcomes to flourish, whether in the nonprofit capacity building or public policy spheres. Similarly, we urge each nonprofit to articulate its own values and be guided by them. Let’s use our staff meetings and board meetings to discuss our core values. How will the nonprofit apply those values in its daily operations? The National Council of Nonprofits is asking these questions and will continue to highlight resources, such as those below, that any nonprofit can use to examine internal biases and adopt practices that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion for all. We're starting with honest internal dialogue that encourages our staff and board members to reflect, listen to each other, and learn from one another's experiences. We know we can learn from other nonprofits how they are incorporating these values while advancing their missions and we're eager to share.

For some organizations, the moral imperative of equity may be enough to spur action. Others may be moved by data showing that diversity can boost the quality of decision-making and that a diverse workplace can encourage people to be “more creative, more diligent, and harder-working.” Studies have also shown that a more diverse staff can foster enhanced innovation. And when board members, employees, and others who shape the values and activities of a nonprofit come from a wide array of backgrounds, they each bring unique perspectives that shape, blend, and influence how to advance the nonprofit’s mission and solve problems in potentially more inclusive and innovative ways.

At the National Council of Nonprofits, we are on an intentional journey to assess, understand, and broaden our own understanding of how our organization can champion diversity, equity, and inclusion as values for our sector, and help charitable nonprofits on their own DE&I journeys. Has your nonprofit discovered Awake to Woke to Work? This resource offers a terrific starting point and includes a glossary, a comprehensive list of resources, and a framework for how to look at the levers that influence and support a nonprofit's race equity culture. We encourage you to take a look at the other resources below for inspiration about how to introduce and embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion as fundamental values - and to inspire ways to make sure these values are reflected in the operations and activities of your nonprofit. As a starting point, you may be interesested to a look at the Statement of Cultural Equity adopted by Americans for the Arts. And remember, values written on a page are not authentic until they are demonstrated by your organization’s actions. We hope the following practice pointers, questions to consider, and resources will be useful in your organization’s journey.

Practice Pointers

  • Many organizations find that starting out with an exploration of the definitions (see this glossary, for instance) of various terms helps spark deep conversations about how we individually interpret and experience discrimination of whatever nature. “Getting hung up on definitions can prevent us from confronting the issues. This Social Justice Glossary from the YWCA offers a common vocabulary for difficult conversations.”
  • Understanding your own and your team’s implicit/unconscious biases is key to opening doors to equity. Project Implicit offers a “quiz” to test your implicit associations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other identities.
  • Convene a conversation with employees and volunteers about what diversity, inclusion, and equity mean to them. This instructional video, A Place at the Table, is a tool you can use to help explain what these values mean for a productive workplace.
  • Remember that race (and/or whatever is visible on the outside) is just one dimension of diversity. Diversity can show up in gender, sexual identity, nationality, socioeconomic status, educational attainment, veteran status, age, physical ability, and many more expressions of identity. An interesting exercise is to ask team members to describe what identit(ies) they think they project when they are at work? Having this discussion in a trusted environment can break down barriers and fortify your team’s ability to empathize with each other’s perspectives of their own identity.
  • As explained in this article, 6 Steps for Building an Inclusive Workplace, a diverse team is only part of what makes a more equitable workplace. Making sure that different voices are heard, that people feel respected and valued, and that they are in environments where they can do their best work, is where inclusion comes in. Fostering an inclusive workplace can be modeled by board members and senior team leaders by reaching out to others on staff for intentional conversations about ways the nonprofit could be more inclusive in all its operations. Other strategies that may be useful include consciously celebrating employee differences, assigning newer employees “buddies,” and making sure there is a mechanism for employees and volunteers to provide feedback. For some nonprofits, including the nonprofit’s beneficiaries/consumers on its board of directors, may be an excellent way to ensure that all perspectives are included.
  • Your nonprofit does not have to hire an expensive consultant to "do the work" internally to create more awareness about diversity, inclusion, and equity. This Diversity Toolkit: A Guide to Discussing Identity, Power and Privilege offers ideas for DIY facilitation that will stimulate conversation and learning. (Source: University of Southern California)
  • Consider that adopting a separate “diversity policy” may send an unintended signal that your organization does not consider diversity as integral to all its operations and/or needs a policy to remind everyone how important diversity is. What other ways can your nonprofit ensure that diversity is woven into all strategic decisions, and that inclusiveness is an operational priority? How does your organization not only articulate, but also demonstrate its values? Yale professors ponder these issues from a leadership perspective: What do Leaders Need to Understand About Diversity? (Source: Yale Insights) And this post from Nonprofit Law Blog identifies ways to embed aspirational lofty ideas into actual daily operations: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Nonprofit Bylaws (Michele Berger of NEO Law Group).
  • Is the organization’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity part of the orientation message for new board members and incorporated into onboarding new teammates and volunteers?
  • While there is awareness about complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, creating an inclusive culture for persons with disabilities goes beyond what the laws require: Tips for disability inclusiveness are available from the Corporation for National and Community Service.
  • Perhaps your staff and board will want to start with a self-assessment to measure perceptions about the nonprofit's culture. The Michigan Nonprofit Assosciation offers a Diversity, Inclusion & Equity Assessment Tool.
  • Learn from others! Take a look at how Americans for the Arts launched its DE&I journey: 10 Steps We Took to Create The Americans for the Arts Statement on Cultural Equity.

Questions to Consider when Cultivating Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity as Values at Your Nonprofit

  • Does your organization expect its collaborative and community partners to uphold its own values? The United Way of the USA’s statement on diversity and inclusion affirms that it expects its partners to reflect those core values.
  • How can your nonprofit open its board recruitment and staff hiring pipeline to talented candidates from among underrepresented groups?
  • How transparent is your organization about the steps it is taking to become more diverse and encourage inclusive practices? How does your organization communicate to the public that it values diversity, strives for equity, and that its practices are inclusive?
  • Are organizational values published on the nonprofit’s website or otherwise shared publicly so that someone interested in a paid or volunteer position can read them? 
  • How is your organization recognizing and affirming the diversity that already exists in the workplace or among the organization’s clientele/stakeholders?
  • How effectively is your nonprofit reaching out to diverse groups in your community?
  • Does your nonprofit create opportunities to listen to the voices directly from community, grassroots, or young leaders in low-income, under-served and/or marginalized populations within its community?
  • As a nonprofit leader, ponder how your own identity(ies) influence your perspectives.
  • How will your nonprofit assess the progress you are making towards your goals of diversity, inclusion, and equity?  What will success look like? Feel like?
  • Has your board of directors discussed how inequities in the community or unequal access to resources in the community impact the mission of the organization?

Resources for Your Nonprofit’s Learning Journey

Unconscious / "Implicit" Bias

Diversity on Boards of Directors

Diversity in the Workforce


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