Making Diversity a Priority

Since 2009, ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, has led an effort to improve diversity and inclusion across its locations. The Memphis-based nonprofit’s leaders conduct regular employee surveys and focus groups, and they have established “business resource groups” they call BRGs, that bring together staff from underrepresented populations to help with recruitment, retention, and community relations. ALSAC managers receive regular training on diversity and inclusion, and division heads work with human resources to measure progress.

Not coincidentally, ALSAC has grown fundraising to an annual $1.7 billion a year to support the increasing needs of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which has an annual operating budget of more than $1 billion.

We’re continually asking ourselves, ‘Are we attracting the next generation of employees who reflect the cultural balance of the population we’re serving?'” says Evelyn Homs Medero, SVP of multicultural marketing and business development at ALSAC. “As a nonprofit, it’s important that every community in America understands our mission, and that we bring them in as donors. The only way we can be authentic is by having a diverse workforce that can communicate our mission with the passion, knowledge, sensibility, and respect that every community deserves.”

ALSAC’s experience may be the exception to the rule, as most nonprofits still struggle with building and maintaining a diverse workforce. A report by Community Wealth Partners found that, while people of color represent 30 percent of the American workforce, only 18 percent of nonprofit staff and 22 percent of foundation staff are people of color. The numbers are worse in the leadership ranks: BoardSource’s “Leading with Intent: 2017 Index of Nonprofit Board Practices” found that 90 percent of all nonprofit executive directors and board chairs are white.

“The nonprofit sector has been talking about how diversity matters for many years, and there have been a variety of initiatives, and yet it hasn’t moved the dial,” says Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, co-director of the Building Movement Project, which generates research and resources to help nonprofits improve equity and inclusion. “The barriers are basically the same across the whole country. The fact that white men are often heads of the biggest organizations with the biggest budgets speaks to the structural inequities. That filters down to people of color having less opportunity to move into top leadership roles.”

Diversity can have a big impact on financial performance, as many grant-making foundations consider the makeup of a nonprofit’s board, leadership, and staff when making decisions around philanthropic giving. Having a diverse workforce can also affect mission success: when communities do not see themselves reflected in a nonprofit’s workforce, they may be less willing to connect and engage.

“It really is at the bottom line for nonprofits,” says Rick Cohen, chief communications officer at the National Council of Nonprofits. “Each organization can benefit in a different way, but at the end of the day, a more diverse workforce helps advance our communities, and that’s what we’re here for.”

Experts and nonprofit diversity leaders shared their perspectives on some key steps organizations can take to move toward diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Filling the Pipeline

Many nonprofits fall short when it comes to attracting a diverse pool of candidates. Worse, they alienate potential employees through their hiring and onboarding processes.

“If you’re just putting a job description in a spot where you’re going to get the usual suspects applying for a position, that’s not a way to bring in additional candidates,” Cohen says. “Being as transparent as possible will help bring in the right candidates and help ensure you are being equitable as you’re bringing them on to your team.”

Nonprofits should cast a wide net and focus their recruiting efforts in communities where they lack representation. HR leaders should scrutinize their hiring process to consider how certain practices — such as probing interview questions or psychometric testing — may be off-putting to potential candidates. Hiring managers can make a more positive first impression through candor and openness.

“I was talking to a young man who took a job in an organization because, of all the places he interviewed, they were the only place that said to him, ‘We understand that our city has a reputation as a difficult place for black professionals,'” says Valerie Batts, Ph.D., co-founder and executive director of VISIONS, Inc., a consulting firm serving nonprofits and other organizations.

Creating an Inclusive Environment

Hiring is only the first step in building a more diverse workforce; to support long-term retention, it’s vital that organizations invest in creating a workplace culture that supports a diversity of opinions and backgrounds and makes everyone feel welcome. Ongoing training and open discussions about diversity and inclusion, as well as related concepts like unconscious bias and microaggression, can help surface issues before they fester into larger ones.

“A lot of big, well-meaning nonprofits struggle with how to have their people feel valued in the workplace,” Batts says. “People bring different worldviews to work these days, and organizations that are going to survive will have to learn how to manage that. If you were raised in a culture where people work hard, get paid, and don’t complain, that’s not going to fly in this current world. Older management systems and ways of approaching work have to be challenged.

“When we are successful, organizations can talk openly and honestly about issues of difference,” Batts continues. “They have strategies for how to interrupt them and address them and move forward. They become culturally aware and they become open to actively engaging in those issues. Over time, you will see changes in who is in charge of what, you will hear people openly engaging around those issues, you will see changes in demographics, and you will see changes in how people relate across the hierarchy. Also, employee surveys will get better as people feel they can bring their full selves to work.”

Nonprofits should also take steps to ensure their public-facing services are in line with the needs of diverse communities. YMCA of the USA is the coordinating body for roughly 2,600 YMCAs across the country. When multiple local Ys discovered that Hispanic and Latino families were shying away from sending their kids to YMCA overnight camps, the Ys created a family camp option. With the recommendation and full support of the national office, local Ys also added camp policies to ensure transgender kids feel welcome and engaged, and they offer “inclusive household” memberships to accommodate all types of families. Last year, YMCAs nationwide welcomed more than 100,000 newly arrived immigrants during its “welcoming week” initiative. Each year, the YMCA New American Welcome Center serves more than 400,000 new immigrants.

“Think of what that means for elevating ourselves as an inclusive space to work or volunteer,” says Lynda Gonzales-Chavez, chief diversity, inclusion, and global officer at YMCA of the USA. “If our practices as an organization are not reflective of the needs of our communities of color, then they’re not going to want to come work for us. All these things are connected. It’s not separating out recruitment goals and race and ethnicity goals, but combining those with organizational support mechanisms for long-term pipeline building and retention.”

Moving Toward Equity

Nonprofit leaders should bear in mind that building a more diverse workforce is just the start of the journey. “If you have a more diverse workforce, there’s a possibility that the diverse viewpoints will not always be in alignment; there might be disagreement and tension,” Thomas-Breitfeld, of the Building Movement Project, says. “Then the organization has to shift toward really valuing inclusion, and that moves an organization toward having equity, which is about power within organizations.”

As an example of how leadership can be shared, the vast majority of Special Olympics’ chapters in more than 190 countries and territories have at least one board member with intellectual disabilities, while its international board has three such members. Input from these members has contributed directly to key organizational decisions, such as how to communicate the strategic plan for the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities.

“We embrace the idea that the group we work with should have a voice at our most senior leadership level,” says Denis Doolan, chief of organizational excellence at Special Olympics. “It brings different perspectives and experiences to the table to ensure you’re not just thinking about a problem in a certain way. It has definitely made our culture more inclusive and tolerant.”

Special Olympics has adopted a “Unified Leadership approach,” in which training is provided not just to intellectually disabled people who take jobs within the organization but also to their co-workers and managers. “It’s not just training people with intellectual disabilities to do certain roles; it means training everyone else to facilitate those roles,” Doolan says. “It’s about asking people, ‘What would help you feel supported?'”

Getting Help — and Thinking Long Term

Tackling diversity and inclusion can be daunting, and nonprofits should not be afraid to tap the expertise of outside organizations. An array of resources are available to help start the conversation (see sidebar, below), but organizations should take stock of and develop solutions tailored to their unique circumstances.

“There’s not a cookie-cutter approach to this,” Batts says. “It starts with figuring out where your organization is in the process of moving from one that doesn’t understand anything about diversity to one that is woke. Where are you in the journey? Don’t try to figure it out on your own. Get some consultation, at least to assess where you are. Conduct an organizational assessment, a diversity audit. This can help identify what your barriers are at each level.”

It’s also essential to have senior-level buy-in and a demonstrated willingness to invest time and resources to drive the necessary change. ALSAC’s Homs Medero notes that her organization’s efforts are successful in large part because they are spearheaded by the CEO and his executive team. “When senior leaders believe in the strategy, then the company follows,” she says.

Defining goals and setting up systems for measurement are also key to staying on track. “Organizations have to have a very clear definition of what diversity means for them,” Homs Medero says. “What are they solving for, and what is it they want to have their workforce look like in the future? Define it first, then determine the vision and strategy you need to create that change. But you also need commitment and accountability, because otherwise the vision and strategy will die on a piece of paper or in a conference room. Leadership has to keep it alive throughout the year by asking the difficult questions.”

Boosting diversity can have immense payoffs, but leaders should remember that the transition toward race equity is never-ending. “Leaders have to think much more expansively about the time horizon for change,” Thomas-Breitfeld says. “Organizations often want to fix the diversity or race issue in their organization in a condensed period of time, as if there’s going to be an endpoint. What people very quickly learn is there is a cyclical nature, a never-ending element to becoming more inclusive and equitable. What that requires as a leader is a level of comfort and facility in having difficult conversations over an extended period of time.”

The following is republished with the permission of the Association of National Advertisers. Find this and similar articles on ANA Newsstand.

By Chuck Kapelke

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