A few years back I was engaged to do strategy work for a cultural organization that focused on the Tibetan community. Not a single board member had any connection to this community. There was no advisory board so that the organization could deeply understand the culture and the needs of the community.
I thought an analogy might help them see that this was deeply problematic. So I asked them to imagine an African American community center with no African American board members or any people at all who might represent them. I felt sure I would create a powerful aha moment about the importance of board diversity.
Instead, I had one.
Several of them said they could totally imagine that — and that board service is all about skills and wealth and wealth adjacency.
Honestly, if I had asked that question and heard that answer when originally discussing the engagement, I would not have taken the organization’s money. I didn’t ask enough questions about this board’s composition and values.
I should have.
The nonprofit sector model is deeply flawed. For the most part, power rests in the hands of largely male, largely affluent white people. For the most part, organizations are too far removed from the communities they serve.
Today I’d like to talk about things that are troubling me and a few reasons why nonprofit organizations MUST engage in work around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
THE MURDER OF GEORGE FLOYD WAS A SEMINAL MOMENT AND…
I am deeply troubled by the box-checking I see. Like board search committees who attempt to tie search firm fees to the number of BIPOC candidates they bring forth for E.D. positions.
I am deeply troubled by those who say (and they will say it to me as a white woman because they think I’ll get it): “The world has gotten so politically correct since the murder of George Floyd…”
Organizations select BIPOC leaders who can be set up to be total rockstars but are not given funds for professional development and coaching. These leaders land in very white organizations — sometimes one that serves largely people of color — and the organization believes the BIPOC leader will take responsibility for doing whatever needs to be done.
How many large organizations — direct service, advocacy, foundations, higher ed institutions — rush to create a diversity strategic plan with the primary action item: “Hire a Chief Diversity Officer.” Someone who is “in charge” of the multitude of identities, has little staff, and may have power but not much authority. And the strategic plan that’s been created is far too often focused simply on race.
Very few of us are getting it right. But most of us still have work to do — and that includes me.
SO, WHAT DOES “RIGHT” LOOK LIKE?
That’s not a simple question to answer, and it definitely deserves more than a blog post. But I do know what it looks like when I see it.
Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, made a commitment to this work and in some public statements did not mention folks with disabilities. Rightfully, the disability community mobilized and came on strong to the Foundation.
What did Darren do? He invited the activists who had mobilized to meet with him as a group. He said that he had missed something and wanted to do better. I wasn’t in this conversation but I know that its result was the creation of an Office of Disability Rights headed by my friend Rebecca Cokely. She was asked what would give her a real sense of belonging when she arrived at Ford as a little person. She had a simple answer: “I’d like a bathroom where I could put my purse on a hook I can reach.”
So, Darren Walker converted an entire bathroom into a little person’s bathroom.
WHY DEI WORK — REAL DEI WORK — MATTERS IN NONPROFITS
I’m going to keep this really simple:
- Those who work and volunteer with nonprofits have fire in their bellies to make things right. Whatever those things are. They have special glasses and see injustice more clearly. So reason #1: Nonprofit leaders already have the passion to do hard things.
- Nonprofit leaders are driven to be very good at their work. To make a real impact. To change the world. Without lived experience crawling all over your organization — including its staff, board, and volunteers — you can’t be really good at it.
- Homogeneous thinking and decision-making NEVER drives innovation. Think about that board I described at the beginning. Homogeneous. Their high-level discussions were polite, most folks in sync on issues that could have generated exciting, messy discussion and innovative ideas. That is what is possible. I talk about diverse boards like the best dinner parties you have ever been to. With people so different from you talking about issues from a perspective you had never considered. Respectful disagreement. People building on top of one another’s interesting ideas. Messy in the very best way (hold the food fight).
- Nonprofit organizations rely on a volume of people to have an impact. I say that people = power. Nonprofit leaders need to build armies of engaged citizens across all races and identities — because BIG armies affect change. During an engagement, a board member said (yes, literally), “If we can just find a billionaire, we will be successful.” That is just plain not true. Every organization needs to build a movement at the grassroots. And with the changing demographics of our society, nonprofits must engage with diverse communities to bring them closer. There won’t be an army without them.
- There are not enough models of organizations that are really getting it right and the nonprofit sector has the intrinsic values built into it to be the model for other sectors. A game-changing kind of leadership if you ask me.
I could say a lot more and my friend and fellow blogger Vu Le has lots to say on this topic, but I wanted to share something with you that my friend Ken Cloke shared with me during my vacation in southern California. Ken runs Mediators without Borders and has mediated gang disputes in east L.A. and with the Cuban government.
He trained me to be a certified mediator.
We were talking about difference, about conflict, about tensions in neighborhoods and around the world, and he said, “It all boils down to this Joan. All of these conflicts and tensions revolve around the concept of us vs. them. And the work of leaders in families, in towns, in nonprofits, and in all those places you find leaders is to keep reminding people that there is no them.”
“There’s only us.”
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