How Nonprofits Can Address Their Own Biases To Build Better Diversity

Updated: Mar 20, 2019

Before you address racial inequity in the world, you need to first address it within your own organization.

By Ben Paynter

The issues that many philanthropic groups are fighting are results of systemic, institutionalized racism, from unfair housing practices to inequitable education. Which begs the question: What are philanthropic groups doing to make sure they’ve eliminated similar (albeit perhaps unintentional) inequalities and bias within their own organizations?

Even once you’ve acknowledged it’s a problem, figuring out how to fix it it is another, perhaps even more complicated issue. While people of color make up 40% of nonprofit employees, they account for only 10% of CEOs and board chairs, and just 16% of all board members. Those numbers have stayed steady in recent years, despite that fact that people of color typically express more interest than their white counterparts in achieving executive level roles in the sector.

Equity in the Center, an initiative from the nonprofit social sector talent development group ProInspire, finally said: enough.

Rather than focus on achieving just more diversity, the group has focused on how to create organizational racial equity. The difference, says Equity in the Center Director Kerrien Suarez is that groups with diverse hiring goals may treat that as “a checkmark.” It can result in token hiring rather than “valuing those perspectives explicitly and connecting them to the attainment of a social mission.” The result is an entirely new manual for change that’s called “Awake to Woke to Work: Building A Race Equity Culture.” The goal is to identify “the structures, roles, processes, and practices that negatively impact people of color inside and outside of organizations, and outlin[e] specific tactics to mitigate them.”

The report includes input from 120 advisors from across the sector, and an analysis the most current research on these issues. There are also case studies of several groups at all levels of the industry that are working toward this goal, including Year Up, Leadership For Educational Equity, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. (The idea was actually inspired by the Casey Foundation, which in 2015 convened a set of grantees to think about the root causes behind the industry’s lack of diversity, and how to address that.)

Diverse hiring practices are a good start, but don’t automatically change a predominantly white workplace culture. “The progression is actually from diversity to inclusion to equity and we reframe that in terms of awake to woke to work,” says Suarez.

Equity in the Center had dubbed this the “racial equity cycle,” and spells out the goals of each stage as follows:

Awake: “Organizations are focused on representation by increasing the number of racially diverse people.”

Woke: “Organizations are evolving their culture to value all people’s contributions.”

Work: “Organizations are accountable to addressing systemic racism and root causes of inequity internally and externally.”

You can visualize each progression as a sort of geared cog, as you see above. In order to make it rotate forward, seven surrounding “levers” must rotate with it, each of which is an internal factor that needs adjustment. That includes senior leadership, management, the board of directors, and the community being served, as well as the group’s basic learning environment, the way it collects data about these topics, and its organizational culture.

“Our goal is that people will take the report and take some of the recommendations on how to get started, as well as how to address specific levers within their organizations and use it to guide their work,” Suarez adds. “That work has to happen at many levels, so we designed the publication to be practical. If you are a board member, CEO, senior manager or a manager within an organization, you can read this publication and find content that you could then use in your internal conversation either as part of building the case that this is an issue we need to address, or to actually help move a task force’s work forward.”

As the report notes, equitably diverse groups generally accomplish more together. With social issues especially, you can’t really understand a problem until you view it from every perspective.


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