Nonprofit Diversity & Inclusion: Getting Started

GoWelcome!  Below are three first steps which will give any nonprofit organization a solid beginning for creating an actionable diversity and inclusion plan.  If you’ve already begun this work, you may be able to self-facilitate these steps, however using a skilled consultant will help you mitigate the effects of internal power dynamics, identify potential sore spots and ensure a smoother, more timely process.

STEP ONE – Identify who will do the work

Form a group of people who will move the diversity and inclusion initiative forward. Your group of people (at least 3) – many call it a Diversity & Inclusion Committee – should include either the Executive Director/CEO of the organization or someone in a top leadership role who is directly connected with the ED/CEO and has the power to move action items forward.  The committee should also include someone who is knowledgeable about diversity and inclusion.  This can be a skilled staff member, a volunteer, or a paid consultant.

Why is the committee important?   Nonprofit staff are busy, often wearing 2-3 hats and diversity and inclusion efforts can fall below other organizational priorities and last minute deadlines.  A group of committed individuals will keep the work moving forward.   You must be intentional and action-oriented in your efforts and that means identifying the people and adequate time to devote to the effort.

STEP TWO – figure out your “why”

Articulate why this is important to your organization. Craft a values statement which will provide the foundation for all of your diversity & inclusion actions and decisions.

Why is this step important?  Many folks move right to the “doing” part of the work.  We need more diverse staff.  We need a more diverse board. We need to do better outreach to specific communities – our marketing is too Eurocentric…  These are all important concerns, but if you move to working on the action items before having a clear understanding of why it’s important, you’ll leave your spokespeople (all board and staff) ill-prepared to have meaningful conversations about the importance of diversity, inclusion and equity to your organization.  You risk making only surface-level changes that don’t dive deeply into the organizational culture, of becoming diverse for diversity’s sake without a clear understanding about the value of inclusiveness.

Articulating why this is important will provide a firm foundation for the entire organization – the words to speak intelligently and meaningfully about diversity and inclusion – for you and your staff and board.   It will further tie diversity and inclusion values directly to your mission and tell outside people what you’re doing about it. It builds commitment.

How you write a values statement – four key components:

  1. How your organization defines diversity and inclusion.
  2. Why diversity and inclusion are important to your organization’s mission.
  3. What you are doing to advance diversity and inclusion.
  4. How people will be able to tell you are doing it.

There are a few of participatory exercises you can use to gather information about these key components from your stakeholders.  At a minimum, you should involve internal stakeholders such as board and staff in the discussion.

  • Host a brainstorming session with both staff and board. This can be done jointly or separately, based on the power dynamics that exist between your staff and board, or perhaps just sheer convenience.  Be sure you are providing a safe space for all participants to share their opinions.  An outside, third party facilitator can alleviate inherent power conflicts.  Be sure your facilitator is skilled in preparing groups to engage in these conversations, adept at managing conflicts that may arise during discussion, and has experience with similar initiatives in order to be an effective helper and guide in the process.
  • Discuss defining both diversity and inclusion for your organization. This worksheet from The Inclusivity Project by The Denver Foundation can help  Additionally, here’s a great sample definition that provides good starter language:
  • Discuss the benefits to your organization for building greater inclusion – think about the benefits for advancing the mission, improving programs, changing marketing/communications strategies, operations. Here’s another worksheet from The Inclusivity Project which can help:
  • Once you’ve completed these activities, enlist your Diversity & Inclusion Committee in the process of drafting a Diversity & Inclusion Values Statement based on the information gathered from your brainstorming sessions.  Make sure the statement includes the Four Key Components listed at the beginning of this article.
  • Share the statement with both staff and board, then revise.
  • Ask the Board of Directors to issue a formal resolution approving the Diversity & Inclusion Values Statement.
  • Share your statement broadly – post it at building entrances, on your website, in job postings.

Step three – assess your strengths & weaknesses

Assess your diversity and inclusion needs.  Convene a meeting with your staff to discuss your strengths and weaknesses as an organization relative to diversity and inclusion.   While some organizations may want to include board members, staff are usually most knowledgeable about the day-to-day operations of an organization and have clear insights into what’s working and what’s not working.

The Council of Michigan Foundations has a useful tool to help get the conversation rolling, called “Is Your Foundation Leveraging the Power of Differences?”  While the target audience is meant for foundations, it can easily be adapted for nonprofit organizations.  You can access it here.

You’ll want to identify a neutral, skilled person to facilitate the conversation and block off at least two hours to have conversation and reflection time.  Make sure you provide the packet to staff in advance and ask them to read and record their thoughts – coming prepared for discussion.  Once assembled, break into small groups of 3-4 people each and have them record their ideas and report back to the larger group.

What’s next?

Now that you’ve assessed what kinds of changes you think need to happen, there are a number of next steps to determining exactly what to do and how to go about it, including:

  • Prioritizing and sequencing the ideas you’ve collected.  Which ones are of paramount importance?  Which ones are easiest to implement; which are more complex?  Which ones have a prerequisite step for success?
  • Identifying your organization’s capacity limits.   How much time are staff expected to devote to the effort?  Are they supported in managing their time to include diversity and inclusion tasks?  Have you included diversity & inclusion training as an objective?  Will that cost time and money?  Is that in your budget?
  • Reviewing best practices for nonprofit diversity & inclusion.  Which ideas will work best?  Which have been successfully tested by other nonprofit organizations?  Which ones will be best able to push your organization along with maximum effectiveness?

Engage your Diversity & Inclusion Committee on further exploring these areas.   This can be self-facilitated, however unless you have a diversity & inclusion professional on your staff, it usually takes much longer than it would if you hired an outside consultant.  Some organizations will take 6-12 months to move from ideas to concrete plan.  This can reduce energy and excitement about the work and feed the fears of staff who have been through unsuccessful diversity and inclusion efforts in the past.  It’s important to keep the momentum going.

A Word of Caution

As just mentioned , one of the number one fears that staff have of engaging in diversity and inclusion initiatives is, “what if I lend all this energy to this process and nothing happens?”  While it may seem a small investment – just some staff time – it has a high emotional price tag for staff members who are very interested and committed to growing more diverse and inclusive workplaces.  Lack of follow-through on the stated values may lead staff to “check out” or become less invested.

On the flip side, many others have participated in activities that have resulted in putting them on the defensive and shutting them down; they may be wary of participating in another similar process.

Moral of the story?  Be sure you’re ready before starting.  Here’s a quick online assessment that will help you determine if you are ready to engage.

Doing it on your own?  Visit these links for more information on: 5 Action Steps for Getting Started, Diversity Recruiting 101, Expanding your Recruiting Pool, Mentoring Programs, and the Importance of Transparency.

Interested in learning more about how a consultant can help?  Read my Frequently Asked Questions page.


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