This is the third in a series of posts inspired by “Doing Good in the 21st Century,” a joint project with Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy to explore what the sector will need to succeed in the new reality.
I have the same reactions every time I hear commentary around how nonprofits need to be more diverse.
First, I’m surprised over and over that the conversation seems to be almost exactly the same now as it was in the 1980s. I was a fresh-out-of-college nonprofit employee and we all talked about the need to be more diverse. In those days I was working and volunteering in the environmental, LGBT (although there wasn’t much “B&T” in those days – and “Q” was forbidden), and local political sectors.
The conversation seems very little changed 30 years later. Then and now the conversation gets reduced to numbers: more people of color on the board, more people of color on staff, and more in management.
Second, I’m struck by the need to do this differently if we’re going to make meaningful progress. We need to not only be more open as individuals, not only commit to adding more people of color to staff or to the board — rather, we need to be truly open to making our organizations different than they are now. I’ve seen over and over that the barrier to greater diversity in “mainstream” organizations is not just about the difficulty of hiring diverse staff, for example, but is the challenge of becoming a new organization. There are a variety of difficult-to-describe cues around culture, communications, and operations that tell the world that the organization goes beyond being friendly to diverse people — that the organization is actually a home for diverse people, a home where staff, board members, volunteers, and clients of diverse backgrounds can be their whole selves.
Although I’ve seen organizations that make themselves a home for diverse people occasionally through the years, I find it hard to understand intellectually what it is that is different. It may be the limitations of my own background, but I can’t see the path to move from “mainstream” to “truly different.”
Any understanding of how organizations become truly different leads me back to my own inadequacies. I’ve been in positions to help organizations make this change before. Where I’ve seen changes take place, that change often is not characterized by wide-ranging openness to diverse people. Instead, it looks like a change from one group of people to another. In other words, the group is still not truly diverse. In most other cases, very little true organizational change took place at all.
This question of who defines the organization is, really, a question of power. It may be an old-fashioned analysis these days, but the question of who has the power to define organizational focus and culture is decisive. A change in who is central to the organization can be understood as a change in who wields power at an organization. And, unfortunately, I’ve seen few examples where that power is shared across groups, and more (though still only a few) where it is transferred from one group to another. Is the difficulty of sharing power a human trait we need to just live with? Or are there good models we can emulate for how it can be done? Maybe my observations — and my capacity — are too limited by my own race, gender, and age, so I don’t see the models around me?
The interviewees in this video segment from “Doing Good in the 21st Century” say all the things that need to be part of successful change — that the people involved need to be allies, be open, be humble, be understanding about how people in power need to participate in the change, and appreciate people who are complementary rather than similar. Great tips … but I’m still not sure what the path is to move an organization from here to there.
I want to end this reflection with hopeful questions. I know there have to be examples out there of organizations that have moved forward successfully in becoming deeply diverse. Where have you seen this happen? What are the key lessons from those examples – how did the organization succeed in their change process? How did they manage to share power among diverse people rather than just turnover leadership?