Dear Nonprofits: If Diversity is All You Want, then Optics is All You’ll Get

Dear Nonprofits,

It sucks to be the only Black person in a room full of White people. It sucks to be the only person of color at a nonprofit organization’s leadership table. It also sucks to be the only Black person expected to represent the voice of all Black people. So two years ago, I began a journey to address my loneliness and feelings of tokenism as a Black man in nonprofit leadership.  After sifting through the existing research and speaking candidly with staff, leadership, and board members across the sector, I discovered that:

  1. There are systemic, institutional, and individual factors that prevent people of color from getting involved or staying engaged with nonprofits.  These factors subsequently lead to racial and ethnic disparities in nonprofit staff, management, leadership, and board membership.
  2. While many nonprofits claim to value diversity, there’s a significant lack of action to attract, develop, and retain professionals of color for leadership positions.
  3. Diversity in nonprofits is often posited as an organizational goal, but fails to evolve into a culturally competent quest for inclusion and equity.
  4. Philanthropists have both incentivized and pressured nonprofits to make optical diversity a priority; a move that is inadvertently a gift and a curse. The gift is that funders have forced nonprofits to be intentional about recruiting and engaging with people of color. The curse is that nonprofits seem to only care about the optics of diversity for funding purposes.

The 2014 Community Wealth Partners’ report, The State of Diversity in the Nonprofit Sector, revealed that while people of color represent 30% of the American workforce, we account for just 18% of nonprofit staff and leaders, and 17% of nonprofit board members. It’s alarming to me that to the chagrin of many well-intentioned, well-meaning White people in the sector, people of color account for such a small margin of staff and leaders working to solve complex social problems that disproportionately impact communities of color.

Many nonprofits beam with pride about the relatively dismal appearance of diversity in their staff, leadership, and board while failing to leverage that diversity to achieve inclusive excellence and authentic equity that strengthens the design and delivery of programs and services for the communities they serve. The conversation about diversity has to shift from superficial to substantive. Inclusive excellence must be one of the primary strategic goals of all nonprofit organizations, but specifically those that cater to communities of color. The University of Denver defines inclusive excellence as the recognition that a community or institution’s success depends on how well it values, engages and includes the rich diversity of its key stakeholders.

Inclusion, unlike optical diversity, is a functional agenda and an ongoing process.  It requires top-down leadership and commitment, holistic organizational assessment, an actionable long-term plan, and accountability measures and consequences. On the journey toward inclusive excellence, nonprofits will need to confront and resolve three systemic and institutional barriers:

The Need for Data

If nonprofits intend to be successful and sustainable, the demographic profile of staff, leadership, and the board needs to align with the served communities. Foundations have collected demographics for years: share this data. Nonprofits require a definitive ecosystem snapshot to purposefully compile the staff demographics that accurately reflect their clients, communities, and families. Through reflection on internal demographics, organizations can start the hard work of truly understanding served populations. If the “Us vs. Them” dynamic continues to exist – where “they” don’t get invited to design, develop, implement, and evaluate programs intended to assist “their” community, the social problems these organizations derive funding to solve will continue.

The data should also advance the conversation so that nonprofits understand that the value of diversity is good for the double bottom-line: it’s the right thing to do and has a positive effect on organizational and programmatic outcomes. In Why Diversity Matters, McKinsey & Company assert that ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform competitors.  In Philanthropic Paths by the D5 Coalition, interviewees reported that diverse foundations are more effective in executing their philanthropic missions. In Waiter Is that Inclusion In My Soup, Deloitte Australia found that organization specific data drives inclusion strategies, identifying those which have the biggest return on investment.

The Need for Capacity

I’ll say it again: inclusive excellence should be one of the primary strategic goals of all nonprofit organizations, but specifically those that serve communities of color. In Leading with Intent, BoardSource asserts that having board and staff leaders who reflect society and, more specifically, the organization’s constituents is important in order to understand constituent needs, cultivate community connections, and establish credibility. Many nonprofits lack the capacity – financial and human capital – needed to achieve inclusive excellence. While funders should pressure nonprofits to diversify leadership and boards, they should also provide the data, financial support, and technical assistance to help these organizations achieve those goals. For nonprofits, diversity statements without actionable blueprints for inclusive excellence and equity are meaningless. Building capacity to do the work of strategic demographic alignment, inclusive organizational excellence, and developing equitable internal and external practices is costly, but necessary.

The Need for Social Capital

Community Wealth Partners’ report also revealed that 75% of White Americans have social networks without any minority presence. Denver Foundation reports that barriers which prevent people of color from staying engaged with nonprofits include: 1) tokenism; 2) lack of cultural competency; 3) lack of trust; 4) lack of personal relationships beyond racial & ethnic lines; and 5) lack of communication, coordination, and collaboration between nonprofits and community groups.  Nonprofits must battle these issues by investing resources into building diverse social capital and bridging relationships with communities of color.  Simple networking at the local Chamber of Commerce does not bridge racial and ethnic divisions.  White leaders at the staff and board level should build relationships in spaces where they may compose the racial-ethnic minority.   The return on that investment is likely to be an increased access to diverse talent, increased trust equity in communities of color, and improved bottom line outcomes for the organization.  Mosaic Partnership Program, a social capital initiative designed to help communities overcome racial and ethnic differences, reports tangible outcomes which include: 1) the building of relationships; 2) informal social interactions; 3) increased levels of trust; 4) increased interconnectedness of personal and professional networks; and 5) expanded participation of organizations in community activities.

If diversity is all you want, then optics is all you’ll get. For nonprofits, the benefits of optical diversity are appealing as a response to pressure from funders and a way to build credibility in their communities. However, these organizations exist within a larger societal framework where racism is the standard both in and out of the workplace. Many nonprofits use charitable dollars to fight racial and social injustices that disproportionately impact people of color. However, as they boldly fight to change the world, nonprofits should assess their own institutions and recognize their flaws.

We cannot just buy-in to diversity because it looks good to funders. Rent-A-Minority is great satire, but ineffective social impact strategy. Actualizing and leveraging diversity on a strategic quest for inclusion and equity is the only authentic long-term method to bring new ideas to the leadership table, solve complex social issues, and create a racially and ethnically diverse staff, leadership, and board.


Jamal Jimerson  is the Founder/Executive Director of Minority Inclusion Project Inc. In addition, Jamal is the Founder/Principal of Thought Partners Consulting, a sole proprietorship that works for the public good by guiding nonprofits and agencies of all sizes in organizational development, resource building, board management, and support for diversity and strategic planning.


3 Replies to “Dear Nonprofits: If Diversity is All You Want, then Optics is All You’ll Get”

  1. Jamal Jimerson – Good post and the focus should be on outcomes (results) and path in getting there. To quote Nobel economist & political scientist, Milton Friedman – “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”.
    There’s another quote which is applicable:
    “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong. Know-it-alls in the school system do not lose one dime or one hour’s sleep if their bright ideas turn out to be all wrong, or even disastrous, for the child.”
    Being in health policy myself, I have seen how ineffective results are obtained without diversity and diligence.


  2. Thanks Jamal. This is both thoughtful and hard-hitting and most importantly inclusive of real strategies that can be undertaken to achieve the desired outcome of genuine inclusiveness.


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