Nonprofit Diversity and Inclusion: Need for Action

NPMag Sept 2015I’m excited to join the team at SynerVision Leadership Foundation in announcing the launch of the Fall 2015 issue of Nonprofit Performance Magazine on Embracing Your Whole Community. Check out my article on page 28.

This article is a primer for getting started – the costs and benefits of becoming more inclusive, followed by key action steps to have the maximum impact in the shortest period of time.

#DiversityFail

mistakeLast month I went with a friend to see the famed Holocaust Memorial Center located in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  It’s one of the finest museums of its kind in the country and, like many people, I hadn’t seen one of the greatest things in my own backyard.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning; the sun was shining in a clear blue sky.  I left my house right on time, confirmed with my companion about pickup location and we were off.  As we drove up Orchard Lake Road, nearing our destination, we could see the huge museum, striking in its external appearance – a combination of brick and metal, stretching up to the sky with large glass windows and surrounded by a large, convenient and *empty* parking lot.

Uh-oh.

By now, some of you may know exactly why the parking lot was empty.  I, coming from a traditional Catholic upbringing, my friend from a Baptist one, both of us living in a Christian-mainstreamed world never gave it a thought.  Until we arrived at the empty parking lot.

And then it clicked.

Judaism observes the Shabbat on Saturday, Christianity observes the Sabbath on Sunday.  This was a Jewish museum.

Diversity fail.

Here we were, out to expand our own cultural horizons and historic knowledge, stopped by our own lack thereof.  It was the ultimate irony.  I share all this because I’m also a diversity and inclusion consultant, even more ironic!  But I share it with purpose.

We all have “diversity fails” at one time or another.  No one is perfect and everyone makes errors out of a lack of awareness – whether it’s Chevy making a “Nova” and trying to sell it in Spanish-speaking countries where “no va” means “it doesn’t go” or it’s hosting a major fundraising event on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

We all make mistakes, and it’s not necessarily about fault.  Granted, I’m not talking about mistakes that involve lying, cheating, misrepresenting facts, or name-calling.  This isn’t about Paula Deen using the N-word or Rachel Dolezal lying about her heritage.  I’m talking about honest, well-intentioned mistakes.  Truth is, we all make them.  You are, along with everyone else, the result of your cumulative life experience.  There will be times when it’s not likely you could have predicted the mistake in advance, given your life experience and your exposure to various cultures and people.

Owning the mistake, learning from it, and making adjustments as you move forward is the key. 

more people would learnGiving yourself permission to make mistakes is essential.  Unfortunately, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, many people are so afraid of making mistakes, of being judged for making them, that they don’t even engage.   Fear of messing up prevents people from sticking their hand in the fire, afraid of getting burned.  It prevents learning.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog called “The R Word.”  It described how many white people are so afraid of being called a racist that they stay out of conversations about race altogether.   Being called a racist evokes shame, embarrassment, and often defensiveness for white people.  Many take a step back, retreat, avoid the conversation in the future. The shame-and-blame strategies of past workforce diversity trainings have left many white people, especially white men, shut down, defensive or avoidant.

But… we’re in this together.  Research has shown that one of the best ways for people to learn when it comes to diversity and inclusion is through dialogue and reflection.  Talking, thinking and practice leads to learning.   Dialoguing across difference supports that process.  If there’s no dialogue out of fear of failure, there’s no learning.  White people especially – be courageous and step into the conversation – lean in.  Give yourself permission to make mistakes, to say, “Oops, I made a mistake.”  Or maybe, “I should have known that, why didn’t I?”

At the Michigan Nonprofit Associations daylong institute on diversity, inclusion and equity in June, I heard Dianna Langenburg from the W.K.Kellogg Foundation say,

“We treat mistakes as gifts, as precious opportunities to learn.”

Several of the morning panelists echoed that same sentiment, talking about how their best insights had come from the times they had made mistakes.

Imagine the creativity, the open-mindedness, if all organizations fostered a learning culture that valued the process of learning and valued the sharing of mistakes made.   Fruitful diversity and inclusion conversations require a safe, trusting space.  That means setting the tone, leading by example, and opening up a discussion which encourages people to talk about their mistakes in order to learn and grow from them.

How do you set a trusting environment where people feel comfortable airing their mistakes?   Does your organization view making mistakes as “precious opportunities to learn?”


Open-Mindedness + Inclusion = Innovation

innovationAt a recent talk I attended, I heard the cure for our diversity and inclusion woes – basic open mindedness.  Simple, right?   Yes, and… no.

I had the opportunity to see Dr. Steve Robbins speak last week at a daylong institute on diversity, inclusion and equity, hosted by the Michigan Nonprofit Association.  He was insightful, compelling and engaging – I highly recommend you take the opportunity to see him yourself, should you get the chance.

Many people would probably agree that a lack of diversity and inclusion is driven by basic closed-mindedness.  But he took us much deeper.  Closed mindedness is grounded in a biologically and historically natural level of human bias which is, in turn, shaped by and programmed into us by a lifetime of societal messages.  This is in alignment with all the recent research on implicit and unconscious bias.

Bias plays out in the form of pre-judging people and circumstances based on social programming and also based on the brain’s ability to fill in the gaps when it sees a pattern.  You don’t have to know someone now to judge them – your brain will help you do that automatically – it fills in the gaps of what you don’t know about someone with social programming.  These patterns are commonly known as stereotypes.

Still with me?  The next one’s easy.

Exclusion is the problem.

Exclusion is one of the primary symptoms of stereotyping and closed-mindedness.  At some level, the brain is saying, “I already know this type of person” and then associates feelings and makes behavioral decisions based on that pre-determination.  It happens all the time.  In the workforce, perhaps it’s most obvious when it falls along identity groups like race, religion, sexual orientation, age, and more.

I think it’s easier to pick up on exclusion when several people in a group are getting the same or similar exclusionary treatment, several people are smelling the same stinky odor – like racial bias – whose exclusion often plays out as micro-aggressions.  It’s harder to pinpoint when the exclusion feels different to each individual (although they could also be labeled micro-aggressions, they smell a little different) – when the one Millennial staff isn’t taken seriously and the one lesbian is never asked about her partner, and the one single person never gets asked to socialize with the boss and his/her spouse, and the differently-abled person always gets asked if s/he needs help.

It’s much harder to see the forest when it looks like you’ve only got one tree – you might miss the shrub, the ground cover, the lily.

What’s the big deal?  It’s backed by neuroscience which demonstrates that exclusionary experiences, and the feelings that accompany them, actually create the same pain patterns in the brain as getting punched in the face.  It hurts, and it sends people reeling.

In short, it’s a real workplace downer.  Not only does it leave valuable members of our organizations out in the cold, it shuts down creativity and innovation.  It leads to higher turnover, lower productivity, and poorer performance for the organization overall.

What’s the solution?

1. Know thyself.  For those who are invested in making interpersonal changes, Dr. Robbins advises, “practicing mindfulness.”  He has a range of videos viewable for free at his website that explain some of his core concepts about brain function and neuroscience as it relates to diversity and inclusion.  To learn more, visit his website at http://slrobbins.com/.

2.  Assess Your Organization.  There’s an excellent 2008 Harvard Business Review article that’s still very relevant today, called “Is Yours a Learning Organization?”  In fact, in the face of the today’s on-demand and in-your-back-pocket technology, I’d wager it’s more relevant than ever.

The article provides access to a free anonymous online assessment tool for individuals who wish to assess their own organization’s learning environment based on their own perspectives.

I took the test.  Results were provided in real time, online and included categories such as psychological safety, appreciation of difference, openness to new ideas, time for reflection, experimentation, education and training, and information transfer.  It provided an interesting snapshot of my relationship with a particular work team.  The process of taking it led me to think more deeply about how I am landing on people in that team.  The article further provides a framework of four principals for cultivating learning organizations.

3. Use Tools to Boost Open-Mindedness.  There are a number of online resources that can help organizational change agents help their staff move out of the closed-mindedness pattern and into an open-minded one.  A resource I’ve used (that a group of young college students introduced me to a few years ago) is called Mindtools.com and has a range of excellent resources available to managers and supervisors, including decision making models, building communication skills and creativity exercises.

Is open-mindedness the key?  There are probably many keys, but this one looks promising – not only for building a more inclusive organization, but also inspiring engagement, creativity and innovation.


Kathleen LaTosch is a consultant specializing in diversity and inclusion planning for nonprofit organizations.  For more information about Kathleen’s work and availability, email her at klatosch at gmail.com