December 19, 2014

Need for Diversity at Nonprofits Is More Vital After Garner and Brown Cases

Nonprofits have struggled to diversify their work forces for years, but the urgency for all types of organizations — for-profit, government, and nonprofit — to do so has deepened as we witness the tragedies of unarmed African-American men being killed in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., and the protests that have occurred since grand juries declined to indict police offers accused of the shootings.

These events and the aftermath have released a new civil- and social-rights movement that picks up where the earlier ones left off. The need to create truly inclusive organizations and to improve conditions is as critical today as it was in the 1960s.

Today we can learn much about diversity from a place that nonprofits probably wouldn’t think to turn: the business world.

Studies of for-profit companies done by Catalyst, Credit Suisse, Center for Talent Innovation, and McKinsey demonstrate that diversity in the for-profit world can increase financial performance, boost an organization’s reputation, help it attract talent, and promote stability and innovation.

Many people believe the same is true in the nonprofit world: that greater diversity helps expand the pool of donors willing to support charities, improves the quality of strategic thinking at organizations, and makes them more responsive to the needs of clients and better able to attract the most talented workers.

While most nonprofits have a mission and commitment to helping people who aren’t in the majority, not all organizations reflect that in their employment policies.

Nationally, up-to-date research on nonprofit diversity is scanty, but recent research done for Green 2.0, a group that promotes diversity at environmental groups, found that "the racial composition in environmental organizations and agencies has not broken the 12 percent to 16 percent ‘green ceiling,’ " efforts to diversify have been lackluster, and "alienation and unconscious bias" hamper recruitment and retention of talented people of color.

A study by the Level Playing Field Institute, a group that seeks to get more minorities into science and math programs, found that "while almost 9 out of 10 employees believe their organization values diversity, more than 7 out of 10 believe their employer does not do enough to create a diverse and inclusive work environment."

And it’s not just ethnic and racial diversity that is a problem. A report on compensation issues in September by GuideStar confirmed a longstanding gender pay gap (11 percent at small organizations and 23 percent at large ones). GuideStar last month announced a promising new effort to obtain more demographic data: Nonprofits can use a tool on the GuideStar site to generate statistics on their board members, employees, and volunteers that show their gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, and any disability they might have. While we wait to see what the data show, nonprofits can take steps now to adopt what for-profits have already learned about diversity. Among the ideas:

Make diversity a top priority.

When the chief executive of an organization says diversity matters, that gets attention.

For example, Michael Brown, the head of Symantec, the information-technology security company, set a goal, with the company’s board of directors, to increase the percentage of women on the corporation’s board of directors. They made a deliberate decision not to include three criteria that tend to limit pools of candidates identified by search committees. A candidate did not have to be someone already known to a board members, a former chief executive, or someone with experience on corporate boards.

Symantec asked a search firm to reach out to candidates with international, governmental, and financial expertise who could help ensure that the board had a diverse representation of men and women as well as people of different ages, races, and ethnicities. In a relatively short time, Symantec identified two new qualified candidates. The company’s board now has three female members, for a total of 30 percent — a feat that many technology companies have found challenging to achieve. The company also just set a new companywide goal of increasing overall diversity by 15 percent by 2020.

A number of years ago, I was asked a related question when I helped the Equal Justice Society, a nonprofit advocacy organization, recruit a new fundraiser (a field not known for its diversity). After analyzing the skills needed, my colleagues and I broadened our search beyond people who held the title of development director. We reached outside of normal recruiting networks and within a short time had a pool of candidates to consider that included men and women of color. Eventually, the group hired a Latino male, who went on to do outstanding work.

Be transparent and hold management accountable.

The adage "what gets measured gets done" holds true. It is standard operating procedure for companies to analyze work-force data to determine diversity, both to improve their performance and to comply with government-enforced legal requirements. In the technology field, it was only recently that companies began sharing that kind of information with the public. Tech companies such as Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Yahoo have been in the spotlight because their transparency revealed a lack of diversity in their employee ranks. Disclosure is the first step to doing something about it.

John Donahoe, the chief executive of eBay, made gender diversity a priority in 2011. To measure progress and maintain performance, eBay looks regularly at the share of women in jobs at all levels across the company and by division, function, and region. In addition, eBay reviews hiring, promotion, and attrition data on its female leaders and conducts an annual employee-engagement survey, analyzing responses by gender, and openly sharing the data within the company. According to eBay, the number and ratio of women leaders at every part of the company have increased since the effort started.

In another example, Ron Glover, vice president for global work-force diversity at IBM, includes in performance evaluations information on how well managers and executives do in promoting diversity in their units.

And at Deloitte, the company’s western regional office undertook an audit to look at gender diversity, which leaders say forced the business to focus on whether the business was doing its best to advance women and what more it might do to promote gender equity.

Encourage flexible work environments. Many nonprofits already offer flexible work situations. That arrangement occurs in part because the salaries nonprofits offer are so much lower than in business that it helps to add this perk. But for flexible schedules to help make a difference, chief executives and others must show they support employees and managers who don’t do all their work in a standard 9-to-5 day at the office.

Demand for flexibility is going to grow because millennials take a more relaxed attitude toward work hours and location. And it’s proven that flexibility adds value to every organization: An Urban Institute report has found that a flexible work situation leads to increased innovation, quality, productivity, and market share, as well as lower turnover. Research into redesigning work by Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research has uncovered new ways to think about these issues. Organizations can offer part-time work, flexible hours, job sharing, compressed weeks, and predictability in work shifts. Some organizations are dropping all ideas about workweek hours and focusing only on the results an employee achieves, while others are offering ways for people to move in and out of demanding careers easily when they face family challenges or other situations that make it hard to keep working under traditional conditions.

Leaders must find the policies that best fit their organizations and ensure that senior-ranking managers are visibly exercising flexibility in their own work lives. When employees see that high-achieving people take breaks and focus not on hours in the office but on what matters, they will be less fearful about asking for a nontraditional schedule.

Create an inclusive environment.

Nonprofits can’t just talk about a commitment to diversity; they must act on it.

Doing that usually starts with honest conversations about difficult subjects of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, and cultural stereotypes. Follow up on these talks with efforts that go beyond recruiting job candidates from the usual networks, and seek a diverse pool of both candidates and interviewers for each opening. We in the nonprofit world need to do more to work with each employee to chart out smart career paths, develop mentorship programs, and adopt policies to help ensure that people of diverse backgrounds have a chance to develop the skills our organizations need.

Stereotypes too often hold us all back, but it’s important to make managers and others aware of new ways to combat bias. For example, research has found that instead of setting targets for hiring women or people of color, it’s smarter to suggest that a leadership team or other group avoid homogeneity of any kind, as a way to improve performance and innovation.

And many companies are now looking beyond mentors and trying to enlist what are known as sponsors: people who will push a talented person for a great job opportunity, not just coach that person about how to deal with a challenge.

Another smart tactic is to hire a diversity officer and make that position a senior leadership role.

Diversify your board of directors.
Nonprofits have traditionally had a more difficult time achieving inclusivity on their boards than in their staffs.

Even when boards appoint people from groups not previously included, it can be a challenge to truly welcome new people and integrate them into the workings of a board. 

Taking all these steps can help nonprofits meet the challenges of serving the needs of today’s communities by diversifying their staffs and creating more inclusive environments. Research shows that diversity of thought improves productivity, and nowhere is that needed more than at organizations we count on to change society.


Ann Lehman is a governance and gender consultant and a principal of Zimmerman Lehman, which advises nonprofits on fund-raising and management.