Diversity and Inclusion in the Nonprofit Sector

by Anne Walker, Ph.D., Director of Learning & Professional Development

When the 115th Congress gathers in January, it will be the most racially diverse congress in US history. According to The Hill, “record numbers of Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and women of color will serve in the next legislative session.” This trend reflects the growing diversification of the US population, with Hispanic and Asian populations comprising the fastest growing racial ethnic groups in the US.

It is no wonder, then, that the nonprofit sector is seeing greater emphasis on a diverse representation among its workforce. However, we’re still behind the curve. According to the Profiles in Diversity Journal, “about 43 percent of new entrants to the workforce will be people of color in coming years. Most industries have been making changes to reflect this increasing figure, but the nonprofit sector has been slower to react. Currently, nonprofit employees are approximately 82 percent white, ten percent African American, five percent Hispanic/Latino, three percent other, and only one percent Asian/Pacific Islander. Employees of color make up about 14 percent of leadership or upper management roles, and less than six percent of specialized positions.”

In addition to the many ways in which our attraction and recruitment processes for hiring a more diverse workforce must be overhauled, diversifying our workforce requires full inclusion of marginalized voices in organizational decision making. Toward this end, institutionally-sanctioned, organization-wide conversations about the differences that exist among us must occur. We cannot work toward organizational—or sector-wide—diversity and inclusion if we are not willing to talk openly about our differences.

I suggest four potential reasons that we don’t often pursue explicit conversations about diversity and inclusion in the workplace:

  1. It’s Personal: Bringing one’s personal life to work is not a core value in North American professional culture. Most of us were socialized to “leave our personal lives at the door,” when we come to work. This can make conversations around diversity and inclusion—which necessarily invite our identities and stories—feel like risky endeavors. Furthermore, what is personal is often emotional. Bringing experiences and stories to work that reflect sometimes painful aspects of our emotional lives can feel like a considerable vulnerability. Most of us do not want to display strong emotions at work, and there is not often hospitality for such displays. If we are going to begin to do the highly relational work of diversity and inclusion in the nonprofit workplace we have to begin to create hospitality for our stories, our histories, and even our emotions.
  2. It’s Uncomfortable: On a very basic level, conversations around difference are designed to place us into encounters with that which we do not know. Again, the ways that we have been socialized to behave at work do not help us here. By and large, professional culture does not reward displays of ignorance, and honestly, nobody wants to come to work only to have their lack of knowledge in a particular area displayed. That is to say, many of us do not want to enter conversations around diversity and inclusion because we might say the wrong thing about a culture or perspective about which we do not know. We don’t want to offend those around us, and we don’t want to appear ignorant or culturally insensitive. On the other side of the coin, there are those among us to might also fear harm as a result of participation in conversations around diversity and inclusion. Especially from the perspective of marginalization, opening oneself to dialogue around difference with dominant-culture colleagues can mean opening oneself to harm and violence, for our speech, as well as our actions, can inflict pain. Furthermore, from a leadership perspective, organizational synergy and harmony is often our goal, so initiating conversation around the differences among us may feel as if we are inciting conflict with destructive potential.
    It is important to keep mindful that people from both marginalized groups and dominant-culture groups may display hesitancy, self-protection, or suspicion when conversations around diversity and inclusion are initiated. To the extent that every person owns his or her own experience and expertise, but also realizes the limits of that expertise, a climate of curiosity—instead of a climate of competition—can be fostered. This is an institutional climate in which new ideas, new perspectives, new sources of knowledge, data, and truth are held and considered without judgment, where snap decisions on strategic and procedural issues are suspended to consider the range of perspectives and solutions offered. For, not only does representative diversity and true inclusion bring our organizations a new range of perspectives, diversity requires us to think harder.
  3. It’s a Process: The work of diversity and inclusion is relational work that is an ongoing process, not a short-term project. In the nonprofit workplace, where we are so often focused on concrete deliverables and measurable outcomes, it is a significant cognitive shift to embrace practices that don’t reflect clear outcomes. Simply adopting a diversity and inclusion policy or holding a cultural competency retreat (while both important explicit moves to signal an organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion) are not enough. This work requires long-term commitments, the ability to confess when we have not met those commitments and to re-double our efforts toward diversity and inclusion when we make missteps.
  4. It Involves Soft Skills: In the hustle-and-bustle of nonprofit work life, highly relational, so-called “soft” conversations about diversity and inclusion can seem less important than the “hard” skills of fiscal management, governance, and concrete deliverables upon which we are so often focused. The work of diversity and inclusion is, indeed, hard work. We have to create organizational space—truly, physical space: blocking out our calendars, slowing our pace—for these conversations to occur.

Vu Le, author of the blog, Nonprofit with Balls, the Center’s featured speaker for our Spring 2017 National Speaker Series, writes an excellent article identifying the ways that nonprofit leaders can adopt a posture of curiosity: a long-term, vulnerable posture of honesty and integrity that pursues diversity and inclusion, and ultimately challenges injustice. Join us for National Speakers Series with Vu Le, join our Nonprofit Management Certification Program (which includes sessions on diversity, inclusion and conflict management), or adopt a consulting project through the Center focused on Cultural Competency.

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