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January 20, 2022
Making Nonprofits More Inclusive and Diverse
By Tyra Sidberry

One would think that nonprofits, many of which work on the front lines of our multi-faceted and increasingly diverse society, would themselves be models of inclusion and diversity. It turns out they often need to pro-actively address these challenges within their own organizations.

Indeed, earlier this year, a survey sponsored by Commonwealth Compact, a statewide diversity initiative project sponsored by the University of Massachusetts Boston, found that while people of color make up 34% of the workforce, most employees of color are concentrated in lower-level jobs and 23% of the organizations had no person of color at all on their leadership team.

Since 1990, Third Sector New England’s Diversity and Inclusion Initiative has worked with nearly 100 nonprofits in an effort to define—within the context of their missions—how becoming more diverse and inclusive leads their organizations to be more mission effective. It is no surprise that often the initial reaction for organizations is to retreat from the challenge once they glimpse the difficulty of redefining themselves after centuries of dominant culture thinking and action. But collaboration with our colleagues has helped us create a framework for building diversity and inclusion within nonprofit organizations.

The following guidelines have helped many nonprofits build a more inclusive and diverse culture:

Prepare for Start-Up: Before introducing organization-wide diversity efforts, senior-level staff and the board of directors should learn as much as possible about implementing a diversity process. They should also identify internal and external resources that they can rely on for support and assistance.

Establish a Framework: A substantive framework will help the organization build and reinforce the commitment to the diversity initiative and respond to pressure from internal and external sources of resistance.

Begin Implementation: During this phase, the organization continues to build knowledge through needs assessments or cultural audit and is able to identify issues and themes that relate to diversity. It also sorts out other issues that represent general organizational and management problems. Perhaps at this juncture, an organization can craft a working definition of diversity.

Integrate Diversity and Organizational Goals: Individuals at all levels of the organization become involved through education and training programs, while diversity committee members continue to review existing policies and procedures as they relate to diversity.

Evaluate Progress: Engage in a formal evaluation with a design and methodology that will assess overall organizational change and measure the impact of diversity efforts. Celebrate your progress.

Redefine Direction and Goals: Use the results of the evaluation to reexamine and redefine your direction, clarify and focus goals and objectives, develop new strategies, and plan for the future.

Consolidate Activities and Policies: The most successful aspects of the diversity initiative should be incorporated into the general activities and policies of the organization. This will help to ensure the ongoing presence and vitality of diversity efforts even as an organization takes steps to address other unmet diversity needs and support inclusion efforts.

The Way Forward

The most important thing to remember about process of becoming more diverse and inclusive is that it is ongoing. There is no point in time when the work is complete. Always keep your focus on what an inclusive and diverse organization would look like, as well as how it would function.
And at each milestone, publicly acknowledge and celebrate that it has been reached. It is vital to take stock of accomplishments along the way and use them to envision the next stages of the organization’s development.

Tyra Sidberry is director of the Diversity and Inclusion Initiative at Third Sector New England. The program, supports nonprofit organizations’ efforts to increase diversity and inclusion among board and staff and build individual organizational capacity to better serve constituents.
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