Opinion

The real reasons many organizations are still unable to diversify their board, staff, fundraising committees, etc.

Hi everyone, sorry this post is a day late (my laptop updated at the most inconvenient time last night and took hours). Before we get to this week’s topic, quick announcement. BEER, which stands for Beverage to Enhance Equity in Relationships, took a break last year, but is now back on this year. It is a time for foundation staff and trustees and nonprofit staff and board members to get together in their cities and just hang out and see one another as human beings. It usually happens around the Summer Solstice, so this year it’ll be around June 17th or 18th. Of course, grabbing some fries or ice cream together preferably outdoor or virtually is by no means a substitute for meaningful change in philanthropy, but it’s a start.

However, we’re changing the name to be more thoughtful to colleagues who are in recovery or who don’t drink for religious or other reasons. The finalists so far are “Party to Enhance Equity in Philanthropy (PEEP),” “Beverage to Enhance Equity in Philanthropy (BEEP),” “Party to Enhance Equity in Relationships (PEER),” or “Power-Equalizing and Equity in Relationships (PEER).” Please go here to vote on it. I’m serious! It’ll take you literally 20 seconds. Feel free to suggest other names. I’ll announce the new name next week!

One of the questions I get asked most often when I give presentations is “Vu, have you tried tea-tree oil for your acne?” But also just as frequently asked is “What advice do you have for my organization as we try to diversify our board, staff, etc.?” For years people have been asking how to diversify their orgs. This is discouraging. We’ve had endless DEI workshops, various “white papers” and articles, and at least one puppet show. What the heck is going on? Why do we suck so much at diversifying?

Maybe we’ve been going about it all wrong. Whenever people ask me the above question, they tend to want some action-oriented answers such as “publicize job postings in ethnic media,” “provide childcare and transportation for board meetings,” “have a clear equity and diversity statement,” “provide more than just hummus, baby carrots, and a few cans of La Croix at meetings, especially if it’s around dinner time!” etc. These technical things are necessary but they’re not sufficient. Diversity is complex, and making a few technical changes is not going to cut it. If you’ve been having trouble diversifying your board, staff, fundraising committee, conference planning team, or whatever, here are a few things to reflect on, based on conversations I’ve had with colleagues from various diverse backgrounds:

1.Are you still operating in a very white moderate way? A lot of people are tired of the same old white moderate way that most nonprofits and foundations continue to operate in. A quick scan of your website and social media will reveal whether your organization is still grounded in “civility” and “getting along” rather than radical change. If you’re not publicly condemning white supremacist violence, for example, or even engaging with this or other topics at all because it’s “too political” or “too controversial,” we will know. If your fundraising is still based on the comfort of white donors, we will know. A lot of people are tired of not just having to fight injustice outside the organization, but also within it. If you’re not ready to make some courageous decisions and major changes, most of us can sense it, and we’ll be staying far away.

2.What indications exist that you’re serious about equity? People of color can tell when we’re being tokenized, as well as when you’re just talking a good game. For instance, you have a DEI committee, but the ED/CEO is not an active member of it. Or you talk about being committed to DEI, but your senior staff are mostly white while frontline and lower-paid staff are mostly people of color. Be ready to answer questions like “What steps have you taken to close the racial and gender wage gaps at your organization” or “How have you made things more accessible for disabled people?” with a list of tangible steps, or at least some self-awareness of shortcomings and an openness to change, if you want people to take you seriously.

3.What barriers are you putting into place that you may not even be aware of? As I wrote about earlier, our default board model with its archaic philosophies such as “100% board giving” is deeply problematic and unconsciously discourages people of color and others who are not rich white donors from joining. The problem is that many of these barriers are unconscious, meaning you may not even realize they are barriers. For example, solutions privilege is a pervasive but often very subtle barrier to diversity. It’s really hard to ferret these things out, but you’ll need to spend some time doing it because it’s often not the visible, obvious reasons that people from diverse backgrounds are not joining you.

4.How transparent and authentic are you in your approach? A challenge that many white-led organizations face is the Diversity Chicken And Egg Paradox: People of color don’t want to work in a place that’s mostly white, but if they won’t work there, then how will this place be less white? How do we break out of this Catch-22? You can start by being honest about the challenges you’re having and the goals you’re trying to accomplish. We’ve been trained as a sector to only position our organizations in the best light, but if you’re not willing to say publicly, “We are really white and we know this is a problem. We’re trying to better reflect our community. Here’s what we’re doing about it, so please give us a chance,” then a lot of candidates will scroll past pictures of your board and staff while scenes from Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” run through their minds.

5.Are you open to reimagination and experimentation? Exciting things are on the horizon: Flatter leadership structures, decentralized power and decision-making, unions, movements instead of organizations, and possibly even paid internships! If you want diversity, be aware that many of us from marginalized communities are tired of the same old philosophies and practices we’ve all inherited from rich white people hundreds of years ago. If your organization, especially its leadership, is not open to imagining and trying new stuff we’ll be pushing, you may have trouble diversifying.

6.Who do you have currently who needs to go or be removed? We tend to focus on who we should add to diversify our teams, when the reality is that more time needs to be spent figuring out who needs to go. It’s less fun to do this, and our sector in general is conflict-avoidant and doesn’t like to hurt people’s feelings. But bringing in hopeful new people and forcing them to work with entrenched parties who have to be dragged kicking and screaming onto the path of progress often ends badly. Think of it like gardening. Before planting new seeds for a vibrant, colorful garden, you may need to identify the weeds and give them a plaque and send them on their way.

7.Are the “diverse” people you currently have aligned with equity? Black, Indigenous, AAPI, Latinx, disabled, LGBTQIA+ people are not monolithic. We have a right to hold differing opinions and perspectives. What that means though is that just because you have some “diversity,” does not mean folks are aligned in values and approach. There are many racialized and marginalized people who uphold white supremacy, white moderation, and the status quo, and it is often soul-crushing to work with them. Some of them may have to go before other people you want on your team will consider joining.  

I know that’s a lot to think about, but this is a serious issue in our sector, and we need to think about it more. Let me know your thoughts. And while we work on the above—when it’s safe to have in-person meetings again, let’s all make sure the food is better. That’s still very important.

About the author

Vu Le