Opinion
September 15, 2015

It Isn't Enough to Talk About Diversity: 4 Ways to Tell if You're Doing Enough

Nonprofit and philanthropic organizations have long valued diversity, economic development, and equity. We write about those principles, campaign for them, and incorporate them into our goals. We talk a good game.

But do we go far enough to carry out those goals? Here are some questions to help your organization think that through:

Do you take steps to ensure your job-candidate pool is diverse enough that every set of finalists includes at least one person of color?

Even the National Football League has the Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview at least one person of color for each head coach and senior football operations job. Before the rule, only two out of 32 head coaches, or 6 percent, were African-American, while today 19 percent are members of minority groups.

Do you tie staff evaluation and compensation to diversity, equity, and inclusion goals?

If you have values tied to diversity but untethered to measurable outcomes, staff activities will not match your values.

Do you measure spending with minority vendors?

Improving the economic status of people of color is an important goal for many organizations. But if you don’t spend money in the communities you serve, you won’t have a meaningful impact. Many cities have databases of minority- and women-owned vendors, with access for a nominal fee. You can also develop your own list of priority vendors.

Do you talk about this work in places where you have influence?

It’s not enough to make these changes quietly within your own organization. Instead, become a resource for peer organizations trying to adopt similar strategies, develop a list of vendors to share with others, and be a visible advocate for equitable practices.

My organization, the Minnesota Council on Foundations, has been a leader in diversity, equity, and inclusion for about two decades. In 1996, ours was the first regional association of grant makers to adopt a set of Principles for Grantmakers that organizations must sign as a condition of membership. One of the eight principles is to "reflect and engage the diversity of the communities we serve in our varying roles as grant makers, boards and employers, economic entities, and civic participants."

Since 1995, we have also done field research to help Minnesota foundations understand how much progress they are making toward diversity goals. In 2011, the council released a Diversity and Inclusion Action Kit to help them identify the steps they need to promote diversity in their various roles.

But despite leading these efforts, our own goals and processes didn’t match what we were asking others to do. Our staff determined that to move the needle on equity, we had to increase our spending with minority- and women-owned vendors.

It was a small but concrete way for the council, which has an annual budget of less than $2 million, to make a difference. And we hoped the ripple effects would be felt far beyond our balance sheet. We wanted to model one straightforward behavior that our members (and, frankly, anyone with money to spend) could copy to put their economic influence to work for the greater good.

Minnesota has one of the nation’s highest unemployment gaps between whites and people of color, so expanding opportunities for minority-owned businesses is imperative. Studies show that such businesses are more likely to hire other people of color, so increasing our spending with them could have a broad impact.

Last year, the council set a goal to devote 20 percent of its spending on outside services from minority- and women-owned businesses — and every staff person incorporated this goal into his or her budget plans. We didn’t have records to show how much we had spent in the past on those kinds of vendors, but we estimated it had been 5 percent.

We made it easier for our staff and our 180 member foundations to find those businesses by purchasing a subscription to CERT, a small-business certification program with a searchable database of more than 2,000 Twin Cities businesses.

We switched vendors for our recurring day-to-day expenses, which we knew would be easiest for our members to notice and imitate. For example, our program staff, which spends regularly on catering, decided always to give the first opportunity to a woman- or minority-owned business instead of habitually using the most familiar or closest restaurant. We now have several dozen caterers on our list.

As we’d hoped, members who came to our catered meals noticed the changes. We encouraged caterers to display business cards on the buffet tables and urged our members to get in touch with us for any other information about them.

Our communications staff went through a similar process with print vendors, designers, and other contracted services, and we make sure we include minority- and women-owned businesses in our requests for proposals.

Our biggest challenge was identifying vendors to renovate our new office space in 2014. Because construction costs would be a big chunk of our spending that year, it was important to find companies that met our new criteria. We finally identified a women-owned architectural and design firm and a minority-owned general contractor and construction company to lead this critical project.

As we found more women- and minority-owned vendors for each of our organizational needs, we developed new relationships that often led to lower costs and higher quality. And we far surpassed our 20-percent goal, spending 62 percent of our 2014 budget for outside services with companies owned by minorities and women.

An exciting recent development is the opening of Breaking Bread Café and Catering in North Minneapolis. Lachelle Cunningham, its executive chef, was a preferred caterer for our events, and we often referred her to our members because of her focus on scrumptious local food. The cafe also serves as a job-training incubator for at-risk youths to learn culinary arts, work-force readiness, and entrepreneurial skills. We hope our small investment and the visibility it provided was one piece of the puzzle that is allowing Ms. Cunningham to make an even greater investment in our community.

The bottom line: If you’re serious about creating equity in your community, put your money where your mouth is.

Trista Harris is president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations.