Why Diversity Matters and How to Get There

by Joan Garry

Are you a champion of diversity but struggling to change the culture at your own organization? Hopefully this article will help you start on the right path.

It comes up so often with clients that I can no longer ignore the elephant in the middle of the room. And it’s a white elephant. Not an elephant of color.

Discussions about diversity reveal a great deal about who people are – their view of the world.

Any hopes to move to a more diverse organization rest on your ability to be honest with yourself and to promote honesty, avoid blame and shame, and begin a generous process of educating your peers that the work of your organization is better, richer and more impactful with a choir of unique voices around your table.

But there can be an awful lot of slogging to do.

I have found there to be three distinct profiles of folks when it comes to what people believe about the importance of diversification.

Group 1: The “Obstacles”

These folks don’t get it at all. People have actually said the following. I kid you not.

OK, OK, I hear you. We have to do this but I’ll be damned in I’m going to sacrifice the quality of the work we do.”

“OK, if you are going to make me diversify our board, there goes any thought of a higher give/get.”

Group 2: The “Practicals”

These folks get it but for the wrong reason. They are not obstacles. They see if from the practical point of view.

OK, I get it. Funders need to see our diversity numbers.” 

Group 3: The “Champions”

It’s clear as a bell for this group. They are diversity champions and understand that for the work to be the best it can be, there must be diverse opinions, life experiences, and cultural experiences around the organizational table. These folks say things like this:

How can we serve communities of color? How will they feel welcomed and supported without a diverse staff?”

“Homogenous organizations create group think. Ideas are there very best when shaped with tough questions from people with differing points of view.”

So now that the elephant of color is in the middle of the room, let’s talk about how folks in an organization can shift the culture to a “Champions” culture.

But first, the big fat mistake that diversity champions make.


Ready? Wait for it. It’s very complicated.

They assume that being right is enough.

They believe that all they have to do with the two other groups is keep their feet firmly planted on the high road and be truth tellers.

Not only is that not enough, but also it’s a strategy that can backfire.


First off, don’t write them off. At least not without solid effort. What would that look like?

  1. Do not accuse them of being insensitive

    Setting up a confrontational relationship gets you nowhere. Come on strong with a firm stance and people are quite likely to dig in their heels. We call that a strategy that backfires.

  2. Show and then deconstruct

    This group will not be easily persuaded. Can you prove your point by illustrating the value of diversity in your organization? Or illustrate a specific missed opportunity in a discussion because there is a missing perspective at the table?

  3. Be prepared to abandon

    It is possible that some members of this group may be immovable. While you may have trouble respecting their position, at least they are not masking it. It may be better to focus your attention on the “Practicals”.


Advocacy groups might call this group “the moveable middle.” All through the 2016 election cycle, you will hear the term “swing voters.” These aren’t people who lindy to the voting booth. Rather, they see both sides and could go either way. You can influence them.

The “Practicals” are absolutely critical to creating a culture that values diversity. You have to reach a tipping point of “Champions” and most organizations don’t have enough of them.

Here’s how to approach your “Practicals.”

  1. Dig in a bit – are any of your “Practicals” really “Obstacles” at heart?

    Sometimes folks are astute enough to know that owning your “Obstacle” status is not at all kosher. And so they can mask their real feelings by talking a different game.

  2. Ask questions (non threatening)

    “Why do you think X funder cares about diversity?”“Do you think our board meetings would be different if the group was more diverse? How so?”

    “How do you think the diverse communities we serve feel when they see largely white staff? Does it diminish our credibility that our staff has not shared the same possible marginalization or life experience that our client has?“

    “How does an African American school kid feel looking at an all white faculty?”

    (Sometimes taking it out of your own arena can make the point more strongly.)

  3. Educate and work to move this group

    These are the folks worth the investment. They are movable. But as I mentioned, take the “fact” that you are “right” out of any discussion. Lead them to the conclusion with examples, by asking questions and by allowing them to shift without being pushed.


With both “Obstacles” and “Practicals”, one of the best strategies can be to take a look at other organizations. For example:

A Breast Cancer Research Organization

“Obstacles” and “Practicals” might think more narrowly and imagine that an organization in this space might be run largely by women. I hope not.

Why does diversity matter here? Where do I start?

  • How about men who have lost their sisters, wives, mothers to the disease?
  • How about racial diversity? Why? To check off boxes? Uh, no.
  • How about the large number of studies that show that black women are nearly 20% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. And oh by the way, that is not all genetics. There is also the disparity in access to health care, many women now take growth pills for breasts, specially if they have had cancer before

So if this organization had no black women on staff or did not have men or women on the board or as donors, the organization would not reflect the population they serve. In strategic discussions about the work, there would be key voices missing at the table.

An Organization Working for Equality Across Genders

Every man has at least woman in his life (his mother.) And that is just for starters.

Do men care about pay equity for women? My senior associate Seth Rosen sure does. He and his husband have an adopted daughter. Don’t tell me he doesn’t care about equity for Sarah.

Is he now working with the Ms. Foundation to engage more men in the work? You bet he is.

Conversations about other organizations can be enlightening and non-threatening. They can start a conversation where the leader can figure out where everyone stands and then develop strategies accordingly.

As a certified mediator, I know these conversations can cause people to swim in turbulent waters. But being open to hearing the dissenting opinion, using the technique of non-threatening inquiry, and taking the examples outside of the organization can make a big different in highly charged conversations.

Last and certainly not least, one of the core tenets of mediation is critical in really talking about why diversity matters.

Begin with a conversation in which you surface the common threads staff, board, volunteers, donors, etc. have with regard to the hopes and aspirations they share for the organization. The more you talk the more evident it becomes, especially to the “Practicals”, that a commitment to diversity is not just practical. It is also vital to the fulfillment of your mission.

8 thoughts on “Why Diversity Matters and How to Get There”

  1. Hi Joan,
    I like this post, and the good advice on dealing with nay sayers.
    I read some stats yesterday about the UK that said that companies with good gender diversity are 15% more likely to have greater financial returns than their peers. In companies with ethnic diversity that number goes up to 35%.
    It’s simply commercial to be diverse.
    Good read, thanks. Sue

  2. Hi Joan. I note that all the articles I read are about the lack of diversity in male-dominated organizations, both gender and racial diversity. But what about the organizations that are mostly all female? I know of several non-profits that are close to exclusively female and have a solid lock on all-female managerial staff—for example, several social service and arts organizations I’ve worked with as a consultant.

  3. Gender balance is key in any organization, even those that serve women and girls. Because of course the truth is that every man has women in his life that mean the world to him. Starting with his mom. I have worked with organizations that were disproportionately women and they are largely in organizations serving or advocating for women and girls. The value of a male perspective and a solid dose of testosterone is critical to a successful and well functioning organization. Thanks for raising a good point.

  4. Hi Joan – Great article. Diversity is so complicated – gender, race, age, socioeconomics – all play a role. Just writing this wants me to stick my head in the sand. And yet – there’s too much to be done. I am still in process of diversifying my board – we’ve done a great job of balancing male/female ratio – now I have to tackle the other three – and make sure that the consumer voice is represented. Yes, it might have been easy to do both at the same time, but many board referrals came from other board members and often reflected similar demographics. Coming from a very homogenous corporate environment into a very diverse non-profit staff, I have learned to truly appreciate the value of diversity – even when it’s messy.

  5. Creating a diverse organization is always messy. And can never happen overnight – for many reasons I outline above. The value is clear, the path not always so clear. That’s why I thought that looking at how different folks approach the topic might help leaders think about how to effect change in their own backyards (board and staff)

  6. There’s another article coming I hope, or maybe a series, on what happens after you’ve convinced your organization that diversity is important. It’s difficult to transition from a white group to a mixed race or predominately black and brown organization. At times I despair of it as a possibility. Do you have examples where it has worked?
    Here’s some of the problems:
    When I said, “predominately black and brown organization,” did you feel resistance to that idea? Even well-meaning white people are very likely to dominate and attempt to control a mixed race group.
    The “outreach” to diversify is often clumsy and reveals hidden white bias– again, because most of us white people are fairly clueless about white supremacy. We talk to black and brown people like we are doing them a favor to work with us.
    We expect black and brown people to be comfortable in mainly white settings.
    We don’t listen to them if they don’t talk, act or react in ways that we’ve been taught are correct.
    We expect them to do a tremendous amount of work just to stay in the room and we don’t give them any credit for it because we mostly don’t even see it.
    These are a few of the things I’ve seen and some mistakes I’ve made.
    Joan, you are so right that this is a crucial issue. Help us out. Help us out.

  7. Joan,
    This is a great beginning, but I vote for more articles on this topic. There is much going on around the country to “dismantle” racism and encourage organizations to see and embrace the change that is coming. I have been on several boards and now lead a very diverse board, but it has been done with “Intention”. When a colleague in Yuma, Arizona asked about engaging the Latino community I looked at his all white staff and said “good luck with that”. It is no fun being the “only” Person of Color(POC) at the table. We don’t speak for or represent the entire group and it is not fair to us to be perceived that way. The tipping point of our country becoming more brown than white has been in the works for some time. This summer L.A. became one of the first cities with more Latino births than Caucasian. Then the question becomes where to start? I suggest an Equity Assessment. This is an opportunity to see your organization as a whole. Where are the POC’s? Do you employ any? Are they in management or custodial labor? Start with where you are and create a map of where you would like to be. Engage non-profits that do this type of work as their mission and be open and ready to learn. Don’t tokenize us. We are tired of this treatment. And if you don’t know where to start, admit this and ask for help. The Center for Diversity in the Environment in Portland is a good start.

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