Opinion: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: What do nonprofit leaders really think?

Eight current and former nonprofit executives weigh in on DEI effectiveness.

Dzmitry Dzemidovich - Getty

Concerns about diversity and fairness within the nonprofit sector are not a new phenomenon. While it is hard to get good data on the subject, the available numbers give credence to the critique that “nonprofits are ruled by white people,” as the Stanford Social Innovation Review archly suggested in 2011. 

The murder of George Floyd in 2020, and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, helped to turbo-charge efforts to make sure that nonprofits are truly providing access and opportunity to all of their staff members and clients. All of a sudden, it seemed that every nonprofit was launching “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) initiatives designed to address not just issues of race but gender and sexuality and religion and immigration status and much more. While the exact features varied from place to place, there were some common elements: “Anti-racist” statements on websites. Staff training sessions about implicit bias and other topics. The transformation of HR into “people & culture” departments.  A review of organizational hiring and salary practices.  And a commitment to looking for racial disparities in organizational programming and impacts. 

The increased focus on diversity within the sector has not been universally beloved.  Some critics have charged that “diversity, equity and inclusion” are not a benign set of aspirational values but rather a trojan horse for an ideology that is in tension with traditional liberal values like merit, fairness and equality. Others have bemoaned the expenditure of massive sums on diversity trainings given that the research about their impact is not terribly encouraging.  And, as Ryan Grim reported in an essay in The Intercept that was widely shared among nonprofit executives, the internal focus on diversity has helped contribute to meltdowns and declining effectiveness at many nonprofit organizations. 

So what do the people who are charged with running nonprofits really think about diversity, equity and inclusion?  To get a sense, I reached out to 8 current and former nonprofit executives (half of them people of color), asking them three questions and granting them anonymity in order to maximize candor.  What follows are excerpts from what I heard back.  

What's the best thing that you can say about the work that has been done in the nonprofit sector over the last few years regarding diversity, equity and inclusion?  What concrete results/improvements have been achieved?  

The leaders who responded to my inquiry agreed that there has been a significant shift in the nonprofit sector in recent years.  “Organizations who were pursuing a DEI framework are no longer out on an island,” said one senior manager at a large nonprofit. “The shifts in the broader culture, sadly brought on by George Floyd’s death and the immediate aftermath, shifted the landscape. The organizations who found themselves not confronting the issue became the outliers.”

In general, my respondents had positive views about how the recent focus on diversity has played out within the nonprofit sector. They tended to see DEI initiatives as a mostly healthy corrective within an industry that has long been plagued by tyrannical leaders and staff that skewed whiter than the populations served. 

In many agencies, DEI efforts have originated from the ground up, driven by the advocacy of junior and frontline staffers. “There’s a demographic shift in our workforce,” explained one nonprofit executive, “And those demographics are pushing nonprofits to change.” 

DEI initiatives are a way to signal to staff that organizations want to build healthy internal cultures.  According to the executive director of a citywide nonprofit, “Nonprofits are seeing a tangible return on investment on their DEI efforts through increased employee and community member engagement, satisfaction, and retention.” Another executive director concurred: “DEI helps encourage participation at all levels of an agency because it allows staff to give voice to something everyone shares -- personal experiences, background and culture. When done well, DEI improves internal communications.”

According to my respondents, DEI initiatives have not just improved organizational cultures but changed the pipeline of people coming into the sector.  As a senior executive at a national nonprofit told me, “There has been more of an effort to develop non-white talent, more of an effort to promote pay equity, and more of an effort to hire justice-impacted staff in particular.” 

“Awareness about the importance of this issue is way up,” reported one director of development. “Looking around the NYC nonprofit landscape, I see almost every organization looking for a person of color to be the executive director when the people whom they serve are people of color.”

What, if anything, worries you about the way that nonprofits have sought to advance the goals of diversity, equity and inclusion?  Are there common mistakes that you see organizations making?  Are there any unintended consequences or trade-offs?

The concerns that nonprofit leaders expressed about diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives fell into several distinct categories.  

The first was a concern that these efforts have not gone far enough and that they will prove to be, as one respondent expressed, a “flavor of the month.”  

“Just as Rome was not built in a day, advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion goals do not happen overnight,” said one nonprofit executive. “The most successful DEI efforts are both transformational and sustainable. Nonprofits committed to moving beyond DEI as buzzwords must maintain systems of accountability to drive progress and ensure continuous buy-in.”  One executive director summarized the feelings of many: “half-hearted DEI work easily becomes empty symbolism.”

Issues related to staff training came up frequently. According to one senior executive, “Organizations sometimes just want to look like they are doing something, so they reach for the easiest fix, which is often to conduct staff training.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot of not-good DEI training out there.  Organizations need to do deep, internal diagnostic work first to determine what kinds of training they actually need.”  

Another leader worried that bad trainings can actually harm organizational culture: “Nonprofits should vet trainers and trainings carefully to ensure that the messaging is consistent with the values of the organization. I have seen some trainings that include messaging that would be highly objectionable to our Board and others. Not all trainings are the same or are useful and meaningful.”

One executive director bemoaned the fact that the supply of effective DEI consultants has not kept pace with the demand: “Buyer beware: the baseline is low or mediocre quality service.”

Some executives raised concerns about separating people by race.  Organizational affinity groups can be an important source of employee support, but they can also backfire and lead to balkanization.  According to one nonprofit leader, “There is a lot of pressure at times to treat people of different races differently, which is extremely problematic. I personally think that would be a terrible step back.” 

The calls to hire and promote more leaders of color were mostly embraced by my respondents, but several did raise warning flags: “Many capable white people do not think there is a place for them in nonprofit leadership right now.  Is that a bad thing?  Not necessarily – unless we lose some very competent leaders forever in a sector that really needs effective leadership.”

Finally, respondents noted that the organizational focus on DEI inevitably comes at a cost. According to one former nonprofit executive, “In my experience, the appetite among nonprofit staffers to talk about issues of identity is essentially bottomless. Once the conversation starts, it becomes really hard to prevent it from taking up a disproportionate amount of an organization’s bandwidth.” In a similar vein, a senior nonprofit leader argued that, “Leaders are still figuring out how to calibrate the attention they give to DEI [alongside] their mandate to get the business of their organizations done. We don’t have the luxury to take a pause from our broader mission while we right-size our organizations to the imperatives of DEI. We must do both. At times, some of our colleagues lose sight of that.”

Where should the sector go from here?  More of the same?  Or should it pivot in a different direction?

None of the leaders I reached out to felt like the time had come to abandon the sector’s work to advance diversity, equity and inclusion, but there were calls for more thoughtfulness in how the work is approached.“The focus now should be on diversifying boards of directors,” said one respondent.  ‘There are lots of good efforts in motion on this already, but change is very slow on this level, way slower than regarding day-to-day leadership.  

Several respondents suggested that nonprofits link internal DEI work to efforts to “influence broader policy and systems change.”  Echoing this thought, one leader hoped for change in the philanthropic community: “Where are the funders?  Where are the DEI grants that seek to strengthen an organization’s culture?  Some funders are starting to make these kinds of grants, but more foundations need to be looking at their own work and the types of grants they make.”  

There were also calls for greater inter-agency communication and support.  “We need more conversations about how to do DEI better,” one leader said, “There shouldn’t be any secret sauce here.”

While the battle to create a nonprofit sector where everyone feels welcome and where leadership reflects the diversity of the city is still very much ongoing, several of my respondents also acknowledged that significant progress has been made. One said: “No company can succeed these days by saying ‘blacks need not apply,’ or ‘women can only ascend so far up the ladder.’  We already live in an era of success in many respects.”

Greg Berman is the distinguished fellow of practice at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and a founding editor of Vital City. He previously served as executive director of the Center for Court Innovation.

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