Nonprofits recognizing the value the diversity

By September 18, 2017Feature, Leadership

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

Historically, the United States has not always been inclusive, and workplaces have been no exception. But in today’s political, economic and global business environment, diversity has become increasingly important. It now impacts brand, corporate purpose and performance.

And while the business environment recognizes the value of inclusion, nonprofits seemingly have been slower to come to the table. Some state nonprofit associations, however, do collect data, and two years ago, GuideStar initiated an optional national survey, but all told, reliable statistics on the topic are difficult to find.

One fact appears to be clear: At the start of the decade, the vast majority of nonprofit non-executive positions were dominated by women. That’s according to the 2010 National Nonprofit Employment Trends Survey, a survey of over 500 nonprofits from around the country by Washington, D.C.-based Nonprofit HR Solutions and the Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research.

Women are less represented among senior executives, where, according to the Nonprofit Times list of Top 50 leaders in 2010, 66 percent of those named were men.

Locally, however, Jeremy York, a Synergy human resources field representative, and Nancy Ahlrichs, United Way of Central Indiana’s chief talent officer, have begun to see a change.

York said part of it is a broadening of diversity’s definition, and a recognition that there is significant value in having diverse perspectives.

“I think people are finally starting to understand the value of having different perspectives on their team. In the past, diversity has been focused mainly on physical traits, whether it’s been ethnicity or color of your skin,” said York.

“We understand that people’s experiences, their upbringing, where they worked, their backgrounds, education, different people they work with, all help shape their perspectives, and we can utilize those perspectives and experiences,” he said.

Ahlrichs believes that a cross section of perspectives makes a nonprofit more effective.

“It’s impossible for an organization to have group think because they’re automatically bringing different ideas to the table. There are just simply things that with my particular background I couldn’t have insight into. I need a variety of people in order to get things done because I don’t know what I don’t know,” she said.

But also important to this change is that the U.S. continues to be more of a melting pot, affecting nonprofits’ current and future pools of volunteers and donors. The younger population is more and more diverse.

“It’s also a need on our side. If we’re going to have sustainability, we have to be more diverse. We have to learn how to be more inclusive,” Ahlrichs said. “If you serve people, you’re always going to have to strive to make sure that you have a good representation.” United Way of Central Indiana emphasizes diversity as part of the agency evaluation process.

Add to this need, according to York, is that studies have shown that for-profit companies that have diverse work teams outperform other organizations by 25 percent. He said this same school of thought applies to a nonprofit’s services, quality of the delivery of those services, and ultimately its mission.

“Part of the reason that companies are outperforming is because they’re more in tune with each other and because they respect each other for their differences of opinion,” said York.

And while nonprofits recognize that they need to embrace diversity, Ahlrichs said sometimes they look for assistance to begin or how to incorporate such policies. She has been approached by other nonprofits seeking help, and she advises them to examine their methods of attracting people who would be an asset to the organization.

“There are things that they can do that are not costly, that will make a difference in the ability to attract job candidates. I mean you cannot hire people if they don’t apply. How can you reach out to say ‘All are welcome?’ How do you get someone to think about coming to work for you or to think about being a volunteer if basically, in the nonprofit sector, the majority of employees are white females. The diversity that you may be pursuing is men, in fact I’m sure it is, men, as well as racial, ethnic, sexual orientation and other diversity,” Ahlrichs said.

According to Ahlrichs, while there are some simple ways to start, the key is to develop a diversity-and-inclusion policy and a plan.

“You have to have a plan. Without a plan, you aren’t going to get anywhere,” she said.

While York sees boards being cognizant of reflecting the people that the organization serves, they don’t necessarily see the need for a written plan.

“Some of my nonprofit clients don’t have a diversity initiative that they are specifically working toward,” said York. “They may consider themselves to be an inclusive environment, but a lot of the smaller ones don’t have a plan. It’s not because they don’t think it’s important, it’s just from a resource standpoint.”

Which local nonprofits are walking the walk? YMCA, Big Brothers Big Sisters were mentioned York and Ahlrichs and Kim Donahue, United Way’s director of agency services, lists the Children’s Bureau as being proactive. It has an internal group of employees who meet regularly, and they have been very purposeful in recruiting for their board with diversity in mind, Donahue said.

“United Way of Central Indiana is made richer by the array of diversity that we have. We have absolutely top-notch employees, and they come from all different backgrounds. And it just wouldn’t be the same without them. I think that more agencies are going to find it’s a level of quality that they increase in terms of their ability to serve the community that they serve by having diversity,” said Ahlrichs.

Ways to get started

Ahlrichs offers several actions that United Way has implemented that can help nonprofits get started, specifically to attract talent.

Website awareness — “United Way posts its diversity statement on the website,” she said. “I think it’s important that anyone who goes to our website, especially someone interested in a new position, knows that we have a policy.”

She said a nonprofit’s website tells a story to potential employees, volunteers and donors and that it’s important to consider what the website looks like.

Who is in the pictures? Does the site show a range of diversity?

“I want someone who goes to our website to feel like they have a sense of our culture. Whether it’s age, race, gender, we wanted to show as much diversity as we could, and you get to hear their real words. You know what is it like to work here,” said Ahlrichs.

Job postings — Nonprofits need to think about where they post job openings and ask themselves a simple question: “Can we expand where we send the posts so there is an opportunity to have qualified diverse candidate even apply?”

“You really can’t be complacent. You cannot say, ‘We’re just going to post a job on our own website and that’s good enough’ and have anything change,” Ahlrichs said.

Networking — Ahlrichs suggests reaching out and creating mini-relationships with diverse organizations. Perhaps an introductory phone call, or a coffee meeting.

“It would be nice if they actually knew more about your agency and could speak in a positive way about what you’re trying to do,” she said.


After the release of the 2004 study by University of Chicago professors that found Lakishas and Jamals were far less likely to get job interviews than Emilys and Gregs, some organizations tried masking names on resumes. It didn’t catch on as a trend, but Ahlrichs said she personally knows someone who struggled with her job search, in spite of the fact that she had two master’s degrees in human resources.

Her name was difficult to pronounce and potential employers were embarrassed to try. After using initials for her first name, and dropping the part of her hyphenated surname that was difficult to pronounce, she got job interviews.

Below are resources that Ahlrichs and York suggested can provide insight to trends.

Diversity Inc.

“Diversity Inc.” magazine is in print as well as online. It compiles a tremendous amount of information and articles from around the country, things going on that have to do with diversity trends, as well as, strategy trends.


There is a competition annually in the magazine called the Diversity 50. This year, Eli Lilly and Company was included for “conducting extensive research this year on the career progression of its female employees. With this knowledge, Lilly plans to solidify its best practices around talent management for women. The company also plans to conduct similar studies for its Black, Hispanic and Latino employees. Lilly is also planning to roll out a conscious-inclusion training.

Society for Diversity

Indianapolis is home to the Society for Diversity, a virtual professional association for workplace diversity and inclusion efforts. Leah Smiley is the founder and CEO. It certifies diversity consultants and provides education and resources to help professionals and organizations.

International Center

The International Center is willing to work with nonprofits to learn more about incoming populations. They bring a cultural representative.

“We had Muslim woman who wears a hijab, who came to speak to us, and she made a deal with us in the beginning, she said, “I want to have you ask me any question. I don’t want you to go away, saying, ‘I wish I had asked or I didn’t courage enough to ask.’ She said, ‘I want you to know me as a person and to understand whatever it is that you’re wondering about when it comes to the Muslim religion.’

“We brought in someone who is from the country of Columbia and she was so educational. She said, ‘So tell me the first three things you think of when you think of Columbia?’ People said, ‘Killing, drugs.’ It was all the negatives. She said, ‘The things that I think about are an enormous flower industry, high fashion and coffee.’ And she said, ‘It just depends on where your information is coming from and what has your experience been,’ and so we talked about stereotypes.”

The Human Rights campaign

The HRC Diversity and Quality Index is about diversity inclusion.


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