NFPN survey reveals support for continuing DEI initiatives

by Shari Finnell, Not-for-profit News editor/writer

(First in a series of articles about Charitable Advisors’ NFPN “How Are You Doing?” survey)

Many nonprofit organizations are still grappling with how to address diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) policies — more than a year after protests erupted nationwide after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer.

And that work still matters, according to nearly 70 percent of about 450 nonprofit employees who responded to a recent Not-for-profit News survey about how they’re coping in the aftermath of one of the most tumultuous periods in the nation’s history.

When asked if their organization’s stance on DEI personally impacts them as an employee, 30 percent responded it impacts them “a great deal,” 42 percent said it impacted them “somewhat,” and 28 percent responded, “not at all.”

However, based on the survey responses, employees also said that their employers likely think that they are doing better than they actually are — or at least in comparison to how the employees perceived they were progressing with DEI issues.

When asked, “What do you think your leadership would say about your organization’s progress on DEI?,” nearly 35 percent of employees responded that their leaders probably would feel that the work isn’t new — “we have always valued inclusion and equity.” About 34 percent said that their employees would believe that they “are having some hard conversations and making important changes,” while nearly 24 percent said their leadership probably would feel that “we are talking about it but not doing anything, not doing much,” and 7.75 percent would say, “we aren’t talking about it.”

In contrast, employees’ perceptions about that question, “What do you think about your organization’s progress on DEI?” was as follows:

  • This work isn’t new to us — we have always valued inclusion and equity — 23.06 percent
  • We are having some hard conversations and making important changes — 29.37 percent
  • We are talking about it but not doing anything, not doing much — 36.17 percent
  • We aren’t talking about it — 11.41 percent

Survey respondents weigh in on DEI successes and challenges 

Some respondents said that their organizations have been committed to undertaking DEI work not just since the social justice protests — but for some time.

One survey respondent said, “The organization has been working for a while now on DEI. I feel like we are on the right track, but we still have more to improve on. We need more diverse leadership and board representation.”

Others shared a wide range of thoughts about DEI, revealing various challenges such as coming to a common understanding of what it means. Some believed that the solution requires an extensive undertaking, while some believed it is much less complicated to undertake. Here are some responses:

  • “We need to stop arguing about the reality of racism and accept that systemic racism is real and that we must address it to succeed in our mission.”
  • “We need to judge people based on their character and not their color, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It’s really simple.”
  • “We need to be more modern … stop letting the older Baby Boomers make decisions that affect a wide swath of people. This group (in our organization, at least) doesn’t want to make changes or doesn’t understand why they’re important.”
  • “We need to weave it into our daily practice, educating ourselves in it, holding each other accountable.”
  • “Add diversity to the team, address a misogynistic work environment, stop training our organizations on topics we refuse to even talk about. Dismantle the good ‘ol boy stronghold.”
  • “We need more internal communication, so everyone understands it.”

While many respondents said that their organizations are committed to DEI, some pointed out that it can be challenging to seriously invest in it to create substantial change. Others felt that their organizations weren’t fully committed to the work.

“It’s tough when we are remote,” one survey respondent said. “Not to do DEI, but to do SERIOUS anti-racism work. DEI is a facade in most cases. Equity is the only part I think impacts systemic change. D and I are just an illusion. We need transformation.”

Another survey respondent said, “We have really avoided this conversation as a team and board despite my repeated attempts at raising concerns. We should at a minimum be looking at our internal policies and having some hard conversations about how we operate.”

One nonprofit employee said that conversations about DEI are difficult because they have become politicized. “There is a reluctance to take a public stance on DEIA (diversity, equity inclusion and accessibility) issues — especially addressing them head-on,” the employee said. “However, general public statements do not protect those of us who have had to accommodate the feelings of others for decades. Being a leader today on issues around DEIA is just seen as too political. This is so very antiquated in perspective. My human rights to be myself don’t have anything to do with politics. But at the same time, my employer is diversifying hiring. So, I’m no longer the only native Spanish-speaker in the building apart from the cleaning staff. There’s that, at least.”

Personal perspectives also came up as challenges that may be difficult to overcome, according to numerous nonprofit employees:

  • “I struggle deeply with issues of DEI. I believe it’s incredibly important, and support DEI efforts wherever I encounter them, but as a white male do not know how to contribute effectively and with respect to colleagues of color, nor do I understand my own position or allowable expression as it relates to accepting or advancing my own career. As a first-generation, college-goer from a blue collar background, I can see how DEI efforts can gain wide acceptance among the white-collar workforce while causing confusion and backlash among so many who take great pride in what they’ve accomplished (and are understandably confused about issues of privilege). The lack of personal connection due to COVID has exasperated this confusion on my part, as my interactions with colleagues feel less genuine and more awkward, while DEI issues have become increasingly important and widely discussed.”
  • “I am the only person of color in my organization. It puts a great deal of pressure on me to perform at a near inhuman level.”
  • “I wish we were doing more. I’m in the majority and I don’t think people in the majority can do much to make positive change.”

Implementing DEI in the workplace — perspectives from two nonprofit organizations

For nonprofits undertaking DEI initiatives in recent years, the process is continually evolving as teams better understand what it takes to achieve successful outcomes, according to two survey respondents who agreed to be interviewed.

Sally Bindley, MSW, founder and CEO of School on Wheels, said the 20-year-old organization in Indianapolis started focusing on DEI initiatives in 2016. At that time, the team developed a diversity task force to broaden and diversify School on Wheels’ volunteer tutor base. “We wanted it to be more representative of the students we served,” Bindley recalled. School on Wheels received a grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc., to support the work.

It didn’t take long for the School on Wheels team to realize that diversity, equity and inclusion needed to be integrated into all aspects of the organization’s operations — not just as a side project, Bindley said.

“Diversity is not a task. If you approach DEI as a standalone initiative, you check the box. This way it’s more of a thought process,” she said. “We made it a standing committee of the board of directors — a diversity committee led by a member of the board. Just as we have regular reports from other committees, finance, executive, development, we have regular reports on diversity.”

As a result, employees and board members have become increasingly more aware and intentional on how to include diversity in all areas — from identifying where diverse volunteers are living and working to ensuring diversity in marketing, messaging and operations, Bindley said.

When asked about advice she would give to other nonprofits on embarking on DEI work, Bindley said that it is important to acknowledge that it is an ongoing process.

“Being intentional for us is being aware. Review your language,” she said. “Whether it’s job posts, or messages circulating on your website, make sure you’re mindful of what you’re putting out there. Do you have a commitment to DEI? A statement against racism and hate? We also realized our volunteer recruitment flyers needed to be in English and Spanish. If you don’t have a DEI program, that’s OK. Start with training: What is diversity? What is inclusion? What are microaggressions? Then analyze how you’re doing with all of that. Once we had the in-depth fast training, it brought so much awareness to our language and conversation.

“We’ve made strides, but there’s always more work to do,” she added. “It’s constantly evolving.”

Bindley also said she is a strong believer in hiring a consultant to help assess where the organization stands with incorporating DEI, as well as ensuring that she, as a leader, is fully engaged in the process. Although School on Wheels designated a person to undergo DEI training, Bindley said that she makes sure to personally engage in DEI initiatives.

“I want to have the most opportunities to grow and to impact change as a leader,” she said. “I have zero time, but I can’t say, ‘You’re in charge of this and let me know how it’s going,’” she said. “If you’re a leader of a nonprofit, this messaging starts at the top. If you don’t make it a priority, it’s obvious. I can’t say I’ve always done it right, but you have to be vulnerable as a leader and say this is what I know, what I don’t know, and this is what I need to learn.”

Guenevere Kalal, MSM, director of foster care services for Damar, said that DEI has been at the top of the nonprofit organization’s list of priorities for some time. The team members want to ensure that they are culturally aware of the clients they serve. 

“Our foster families are very diverse,” Kalal said. “Over the past couple years, we have seen more children from Hispanic, Burmese and other cultures coming into light for support in the child welfare system.” As a result, they have initiated discussions on how to gain a better understanding of the various cultures and ensuring that they are always culturally and racially sensitive, she said.

Open, candid conversations and acknowledging personal biases must be a priority, Kalal said.

“My approach to many things, not only with my staff, is to be as professionally transparent as possible. It can’t be the elephant in the room. We need to learn how to be comfortable with uncomfortable conversations,” she said.

That process also includes checking in with families for feedback on their interactions with staff, including asking if they have felt any disparities from staff members.

The team also committed to undergoing training, including a two-day workshop, Interrupting Racism for Children, offered by Child Advocates. “The Department of Child Services also did an excellent job of doing their research on what potential trainings are out there to help our providers navigate conversations about racism, including series on Netflix and PBS,” Kalal said.

“We need to understand where we came from as a country. I don’t want to dwell on the past, but it has a huge influence on where we are,” she added. “I need to understand that so I know how I can focus on becoming part of a positive change.”

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