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The Importance of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Nonprofit Sector

Nonprofits do important work.  From civil rights to gender equality to the environment, if there is a social issue that matters, there is likely a network of nonprofit organizations driving the agenda forward.  Despite the importance of their work, like for-profit companies, nonprofit organizations struggle with equity, diversity, and inclusion at all levels. For nonprofits, though, the stakes can be even higher.   A business that lacks diversity might still make money, but without equity, diversity, and inclusion, a nonprofit cannot succeed at all.  This entry will explain the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion to the nonprofit sector.

A business that lacks diversity might still make money, but without equity, diversity, and inclusion, a nonprofit cannot succeed at all. Click To Tweet

Nonprofits Need Diversity

Because nonprofits often work directly with marginalized communities, many assume that nonprofit leaders would be more aware of diversity and related issues.  But this is not necessarily the case.  Like the corporate world, the nonprofit sector is far from diverse.

Nonprofits struggle with diversity at all levels.  A 2017 report found that 84 percent of nonprofit board members are white.   Though women are 75 percent of nonprofit employees and staff, women are just 45 percent of nonprofit leaders.  The situation is no better in the employee ranks.  According to recent data, though people of color are roughly 40 percent of the U.S. population, they are only 18 percent of nonprofit employees.

The lack of diversity is more than a numbers issue.  Nonprofits need diversity for their missions to succeed.  When nonprofit board lack diversity, important voices are left out of decisions and discussions that shape the direction of the organization.  Moreover, the lack of staff diversity creates a vicious cycle of exclusion, as diverse people are less likely to apply to organizations without diverse employees.  Most troubling, without employees who represent diverse lived experiences, nonprofits are less-equipped to meet the needs of the people and communities they are charged to serve.

Inclusion: An Imperative for Nonprofits

Though “diversity” and “inclusion” are often combined, they are distinct terms.  As previously mentioned on this blog, “Inclusion puts the concept and practice of diversity into action by creating an environment of involvement, respect, and connection—where the richness of ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives are harnessed to create business value.”  Put another way, diversity gets employees in the door, but inclusion retains them and helps them do their best work.  Inclusion can take many forms, but successful inclusion efforts create workplaces where all employees feel valued and respected for who they are without having to conform to the organization’s dominant culture.

Because most nonprofits do good work, some nonprofit leaders believe that they need not do much to welcome diverse employees.  However, the research indicates otherwise.  A recent survey found that 20 percent of LGBT employees at nonprofits felt that their sexual orientation had harmed their professional advancement. According to The Nonprofit Times, a recent survey of nonprofit employees found that 25 percent of African American and 15 percent of Latinx employees had experienced discrimination in the previous month.  Of course, when employees feel that they are being mistreated for who they are, inclusion is not present.

To promote inclusion, nonprofits must create practices designed to prevent discrimination and address it as soon as it happens.  Failure to do so will lead to employee loss. According to research from CommonGood Careers, 64 percent of the employees who cited a lack of diversity and inclusion as the reason for leaving their nonprofit were people of color.  As previously mentioned, these departures make it more difficult to recruit people of color.  They also hurt the organization’s bottom line.  Employee loss is costly for any organization, but cash-strapped nonprofits can ill-afford to create a revolving door for employees.  To avoid these negative outcomes, nonprofits must embrace inclusion at every level.

Equity is Essential for Nonprofits

As previously discussed on this blog, equality and equity are not synonyms.  In the U.S., equality generally means treating everyone the same.  But equity is a broader concept that requires leaders to make “appropriate accommodations for people from underserved or historically marginalized groups to allow them full access to the rights and privileges enjoyed by the majority.”   Equity requires organizations to evaluate the systems that create disparities and work to eradicate them.  While all organizations should embrace equity, nonprofits that reject equity cannot fulfill their goals.

For nonprofits, equity concerns can be either internal or external.  Internally, many nonprofits have recruitment practices that exclude marginalized groups.  Many studies have pointed out that nonprofits often recruit from within or use limited searches.  These methods reduce their chances of finding diverse applicants.  Requiring a degree when one is not required to do the job also creates barriers for marginalized applicants.

Externally, nonprofits must work to understand the current and historical barriers faced by the communities they serve.  For instance, a nonprofit that works on educational issues should work to understand the historical patterns of segregation and poverty.  Then, it should begin to understand how that history shapes the students, parents, and schools that they serve.  By developing a full understanding of these issues, nonprofits will be better able to create effective solutions to difficult problems.

Nonprofits need to incorporate equity, diversity, and inclusion into their policies and practices to survive and thrive.  To learn more about the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion, enroll in the Equity Toolkit e-courses.  The Equity Toolkit is an interactive, four-course online series containing essential, research-based concepts on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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