A few months ago, I found myself at a convening for Youth Advisory Council (YAC) advisers. The day saw numerous fun events meant to help the advisers grow and develop their skills. Towards the end of the day, the light, upbeat atmosphere was toned down in favor of a more serious, somber one, as we gathered around for a circle discussion on the state of diversity in the nonprofit world; namely, how to make it so nonprofits and foundations are more diverse in terms of staff representation. The discussion was enlightening and definitely much-needed, but during, it was difficult to ignore a glaring detail: the discussion group of around 20 consisted primarily of Caucasian males and females, one Arab American (me), and one African American female.
It didn’t take me long to notice the irony in the situation. Here we were discussing the lack of diversity in the nonprofit sector, in a group which itself was severely lacking in terms of diversity (it should be noted that this essay is specifically referring to racial and ethnic diversity). Now, don’t get me wrong, the discussion was great and showed a true desire and passion to solve the issue, but, as the lone African-American in attendance noted, the discussion’s almost-uniform whiteness was indicative of the very problem that we were attempting to address. How can nonprofits expect to be effective in their mission to be more diverse when those leading the charge have little to no connection with the population they are trying to reach?
This problem isn’t entirely new. In a 2012 report produced by Commongood Careers and Level Playing Field Institute titled, “The Voice of Nonprofit Talent: Perceptions of Diversity in the Workplace”, the racial disparity in the nonprofit world is put under a microscope, clearly illustrating the issue at hand. Despite people of color representing a growing percentage of the population (estimated to reach 50% of the population by 2042), they are severely underrepresented in the nonprofit world. According to the 2012 report, 82% of nonprofit staff is white, with the other 18% being people of color (which further breaks down into black, Hispanic/Latino, etc.).
This clear lack of diversity should be of concern to everyone, as it has ramifications not only in the nonprofit world, but also in the communities that receive support from the various nonprofit organizations. In nonprofits, a visible lack of diversity can act as a deterrent to potential non-white employees, as they can be less willing to apply to an institution that appears to have a work environment that is exclusive in regards to people of color. This all just leads to a vicious cycle of being unable to attract diverse employees, keeping the staff homogenous.
A perceived lack of diversity in the workplace has repercussions in the surrounding community, as well. A lack of diversity translates to a lack of diverse perspectives—perspectives that are crucial when addressing different communities. Without these different viewpoints, it becomes increasingly difficult to effectively support certain communities, as there exists a great disconnect between the organization and the community it is attempting to address. How can an organization expect to help a community it doesn’t understand? Additionally, it becomes difficult for a strong sense of trust to be built, as the target community can find it challenging to instill their trust in an organization that doesn’t seem to understand its needs.
There are definitely ways to address this issue. The discussion that took place a few months ago is certainly a good start, as it forces everyone to confront the issue and face their demons (to put it dramatically). An organization and its leaders can profess a commitment to diversity as much as they want, but only when those words are put into practice does it become meaningful. Take the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF), for example. In an effort to connect to more diverse communities, CMF began creating “learning communities” around the state of Michigan, which are identity-based affinity groups that work towards public policy reform. These learning communities are representative of the populations they hope to serve; this allows for individuals with a deep understanding of—and a strong connection to—community issues, to be involved in the decision making process.
A perfect example of this in practice is CMF’s Michigan Forum for African Americans in Philanthropy (MFAAP), which is an affinity group that evolved from a learning community. CMF realized it needed to be more diverse and expand its reach, and, in an attempt to better understand the African American community, engaged the talents of African Americans involved in philanthropy. The group has been successful, as it was able to launch a highly effective Mentor Program in 2011 to help foster leadership and grow talent amongst African Americans in philanthropy. Additionally, CAAP and CMF are also currently developing a learning community of Arab Americans in philanthropy.
Solving the issue of diversity in the nonprofit and foundation world, while not easy, is not impossible. As seen with the Council of Michigan Foundations, it is possible to intentionally diversify your organization’s representation. Including members of the target community in any decision-making surrounding said community is an effective way of both creating a more diverse workplace and creating a stronger connection to a diverse community. Most importantly, however, organizations need to put plans into action; anyone can express a desire to be more diverse, but it takes real effort and dedication to implement meaningful change.
CAAP Program Generalist
The Voice of Nonprofit Talent: Perceptions of Diversity in the Workplace by Robert Schwartz, James Weinberg, Dana Hagenbuch & Allison Scott