To borrow a quote from columnist and nonprofit leader Anika Rahman, “Non-profits are our conscience.” As science comes to support what we already knew, that diversity begets innovation and creativity, many nonprofit organizations find themselves in a bind when it comes to implementing and maintaining consistent, effective diversity, inclusion, and equity (DI&E) initiatives. Let’s skip the entire lesson on the differences between these three processes and jump straight to the point of inclusion, which is necessary before diverse employees can extract genuine equity from their organizational experience.


Now, back to the point of conscience. The majority of nonprofits exist to support, advocate for, preserve, uplift, and perform research for a whole host of underrepresented populations, cultural institutions, and societal needs. Simply put, they exist to make the world a better place to live. This significant role in society means that nonprofits must prioritize the implementation and maintenance of realistic, genuine inclusion initiatives as they are often the most powerful voice for multiple often alienated groups of society.

Diversity in employees at nonprofits send the message that the organization invests in and represents the community in which it operates. A nonprofit’s inherent value system is derived from its employees, directors, board members, and volunteers. These individuals are often tasked with representing marginalized groups of society. Therefore, diversity in a nonprofits’ employees serve to maximize the potential for the nonprofit to connect with and subsequently advocate for its beneficiaries. However, this is idealistic. The road to inclusive, equitable work environments has many twists and turns along the way.


Existing Inequities and Constraints on Success

Nonprofit Quarterly provided some alarming numbers from 2014: only 8% of board members were people of color, almost 33% of boards have zero people of color, and only 18% of nonprofit staff are people of color. These are only a few examples, and these statistics are only pertaining to underrepresented race. In order to portray realistic narratives and establish operational goals, nonprofits must carefully consider the voices, in particular, coming from people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, women, people with disabilities, and working-class families. The Nonprofit Center of North Central Florida found that while 75% of workers in nonprofits are women, only 45% of women hold executive or top leadership positions. The “Leading with Intent” 2017 report from BoardSource states that 65% of nonprofit executives have acknowledged the need for higher diversity but know that they have not prioritized such initiative. Furthermore, 41% of board members admitted that they knew increased diversity was not a top priority in their organizations. There is obviously a long way to go.


Nonprofit employees see such inequity with concern and have acknowledged the barriers they’ve seen impeding further success. A study from the Commongood Careers and Level Playing Field Institute found that the overwhelming majority of employees acknowledge diversity’s essential nature in their field, yet only a quarter thought their organizations were actively pursuing such initiatives. One such setback is thought to be the recruitment process. From the same study, 71% of employees of color reported that they examined prospective employers during the interview process and their perception of the work environment. They want to see verbal evidence that the organization is committed to diversity while also avoiding racial profiling and tokenism. For these reasons among many, nonprofits often have trouble attracting these populations in the first place.


The source of this unfavorable perception lies in many concrete forms throughout organizations. Many communities and donors find issue with organizations harboring a disconnect with the people they exist to serve. If an organization’s promotional materials and physical or digital media doesn’t match the stated values and culture, the disconnect widens. When talking the talk, walking the walk should be intuitive.


The lack of diversity in nonprofits is, in essence, a systemic and structural problem that provokes isolation of diverse populations. Being able to appreciate differences is wonderful, but it is not enough to retain diversity. Inclusion and subsequent equity is vital. There must be realistic paths to leadership and equitable positions for diverse employees. How do we tend to growing paths of equitable opportunity for marginalized populations? There are many places to start.

Operationalizing Realistic Inclusivity Tactics

A completely exhaustive list of solutions for promoting inclusion would be an impressive and mighty undertaking. While what follows is by no means comprehensive, there are several ideas worth listing and considering as starting points, depending on an organization’s previous efforts and current circumstances.


Consider bringing new employees from diverse populations on in groups of two or more to reduce perceived isolation. Foster a board culture that encourages participation from diverse backgrounds; examine photographic assets and all media for inclusive imagery and vocabulary. Ask for insight from diverse employees to improve these efforts. Don’t pressure them for answers. Give them space to voice opinions as they wish. Inclusivity should not come at the hand of singling people out who wish to simply carry about their business and responsibilities without a spotlight.


Implement organization-wide or encourage individual donations to nonprofits led by communities of color. Supporting these organizations grows the talent pool of experienced professionals of color and creates nonprofits that are inherently more in touch with the needs of their beneficiaries. It allows for the development of new nonprofit cultures and makes the rest of us aware of ways existing, traditional cultures could bend or evolve. When nonprofits led by these communities struggle to get by, it follows that they will not be able to get involved in mainstream nonprofit efforts they are often pursued for – board membership, collective impact, general advice and insight; they are stretched thinly enough as it is.


Adapt hiring practices. Consider divergence from the traditional practices. Is having a college degree absolutely required for each position? Are there some skills that can simply be taught in-house? Connect with local leadership programs that mentor and teach professionals of color. Fund these programs on a personal or organizational level. Inform them of job opportunities. Be transparent about efforts to reach out to underrepresented populations and communities. Honesty about a difficult topic and even more complex processes will be noticed and appreciated.


Staff should feel safe expressing their views on barriers to advancement, perceived biases, and experiences with tokenism. This brings issues that are already bubbling beneath the surface to the top, where they can be discussed and explicitly processed. Professional maturity and historical understanding is vital in nonprofit leadership. Leaders must be willing to hear these viewpoints, understand their context, and work cohesively to fight against inclusivity roadblocks. Perhaps distribute a survey to all employees to gather their perception on leadership and their perception of present opportunity available to them. This can spark necessary conversations.


At larger nonprofits, perhaps consider hiring someone specifically to head DI&E. Examine salaries, potential discrepancies, and where any inequality might be perceived. Delivering on these initiatives involves having an active board, those with the largest span of control and voices for change. What is valued at the top will be felt at the bottom. There is no need for an expensive nonprofit consultant; all that is needed is the right mediator and facilitator for discussion. The University of Southern California has created an excellent diversity toolkit that is a good place to start. Establish ground rules before starting the conversation.


In a personal, practical sense, nonprofits must also analyze variable family backgrounds and subsequent needs for an inclusive workplace: do employees have reliable, affordable healthcare and childcare available to them? Are employees receiving enough benefits, enough mental health and sick days, enough maternity leave, or any of the other difficulties that accompany family life?


This should go without saying, but ensure the workplace meets or exceeds ADA standards. Examine accessibility for all disabled persons and establish a safe environment for those with invisible disabilities who are often met with invisible barriers in the workplace.


Partner with other nonprofits who are undergoing similar processes and seek advice from those who are making notable progress. Be open to new ideas. Access free tools and resources online to find updated research, case studies, worksheets, and conversation starters. Many foundations (like The Denver Foundation) make such items available on their websites.

All Things Considered

Committing to diversity is a life-long effort. Inequalities exist in every workplace, but the sooner they are confronted the better. Nonprofits must be courageous to meet intrinsic challenges in the quest for unity and a brighter future. Employees should hold management accountable, and the community should hold the organization accountable.


Values written on paper are not values unless they are actively represented through organizational action. Facing the reality and historical impact of prejudice, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and gender discrimination is no simple task. It requires being comfortable with discomfort. The key is to remain consistent and continually evaluate progress even when it feels especially tough. This is when many organizations slack and when it is most important to uphold the essential need of DI&E as a value intrinsic to the function of the organization. How tired do you think marginalized communities are of broken commitments and efforts? Persevere. Being uncomfortable is how progress is made. It is a duty of the organizations that uphold our collective conscience.