Thanks to my colleagues Steve Lew, Senior Project Director, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and Maura Bairley, Interdependent Consultant for Social Change, for their contributions to this piece.
When I work with organizations around diversity and equity, I start with managers, because I believe that their buy-in and investment is essential for the work to succeed. Lately, I’ve been struck by a gap I see between what it takes to build diverse, equitable organizations and how prepared many non-profit managers are for this work. In this Lessons from the Field, I share my recent learning about this leadership gap.
Many times I have been inspired by managers who have stretched outside of their comfort zones to take risks, have difficult conversations, and make tangible changes in policy and practice. In these moments I am assured that real change is possible. Other times, I have been frustrated that managers seem less engaged and invested, leaving the work to a few brave and dedicated staff members. In these moments, my biggest worry is that the initiative will fail because managers won’t do what it takes to keep the work going. In frustration, the voice inside my head says, Don’t they know that this is their job?
A central task of a diversity and equity initiative is making it part of everyone’s job. For managers, those charged with responsibility for leading the organization, this may involve a substantial shift in how they see and experience their roles.
If I had my say, diversity and equity would be part of everyone’s job. But that is not the world we live in. This can be frustrating, infuriating, and depressing. After much thought, and a few great coaching sessions, I have reached a conclusion: A central task of a diversity and equity initiative is making it part of everyone’s job. For managers, those charged with responsibility for leading the organization, this may involve a substantial shift in how they see and experience their roles.
I now look forward to helping nonprofit leaders explore what it takes to build diverse, equitable, organizations. It is my hope that they will be inspired by the opportunity to redefine their roles because they have a glimpse of what is possible for themselves, their work, their organizations, and their communities. Leadership takes many forms – people in both formal positions and those who exercise leadership in other ways. The focus of this post is on managers, the people in formal leadership roles, although much of it applies to other leaders as well.
A national survey of nonprofit employees found that most employees believe their organizations value diversity. Yet less than 30% believe their employer is doing enough to create a diverse and inclusive work environment. Perhaps one reason for this is a lack of clear roles and responsibilities. Another may be that organizational leaders don’t know what it takes or how to approach the work. Below is an overview of what I see as some of the key components of diversity and equity work and the leadership required for this work to be successful. Diversity and equity work is:
Central to an organization’s ability to achieve its mission and integral to almost every domain of an organization’s functioning and work. Therefore, a task of managers is to develop culturally responsive, equitable practices on a day-to-day basis. In this way, managers can serve as examples for others and work with their colleagues to integrate principles of diversity and equity into all of the work they do.
An ongoing process, rather than a short-term project. This requires that managers have skills, commitment and resilience to keep people engaged and keep the work moving forward, especially when there are ups and downs.
Courageous conversations about topics that often remain undiscussed in organizations. Managers can play a pivotal role in creating a culture of learning and open communication. They can help set a tone that encourages openness and risk-taking by modeling this themselves. They may be called upon to engage in and/or facilitate dialogues related to race, gender, class, and many other social differences. This requires awareness, self-awareness, and knowledge around power and privilege as well as communication and facilitation skills for dialogue about difference.
Complex and multi-leveled. It involves developing a shared understanding of culture, power, and differences and how they play out at different levels – personal, interpersonal, organizational and systemic. A crucial management responsibility is to cultivate self-awareness of one’s own strengths, limitations, biases and privileges. This gives leaders a foundation for authentic work with others, including the humility to learn from others, to explore and implement strategies for diversity and equity at these different levels.
Reviewing and Revising Job Descriptions
Revising job descriptions can help people understand their roles, set goals for growth, and provide a foundation for accountability.
One exercise that I recommend is the review of management job descriptions in relation to the responsibilities described above. If job descriptions don’t outline roles related to diversity and equity, this work may feel like an added burden, rather than an integral part of the job. I did a quick scan of some sample and real job descriptions for nonprofit managers and found little or nothing related to diversity and equity. Revising job descriptions can help people understand their roles, set goals for growth, and provide a foundation for accountability.
Below are are some examples of responsibilities and qualifications that can be integrated into job descriptions. Some apply to all management roles, and others need to be tailored to specific jobs.
- Work to ensure that systems, organizational culture, and practices are aligned with agency mission, values and commitments related to cultural competence and multiculturalism.
- Develop and refine programs and activities to ensure equitable practices and support the development of a diverse and effective team.
- Ensure client and staff-friendly working environments that support quality program delivery for diverse populations.
- Supervise staff from diverse backgrounds and support them in navigating dynamics of difference.
- Commitment to striving for social justice and equity on the personal, interpersonal, organization, and systemic levels.
- Ability to communicate effectively with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Ability to receive and give supportive feedback to foster equity and inclusion in working relationships and service delivery.
- Ability to recognize, nurture and learn from strengths in co-workers and clients.
- Ability to recognize and address biases related to culture, power and privilege at personal, interpersonal, organization, and systemic levels.
Building Leadership for Diversity and Equity
Filling the gap requires letting go of the expectation that managers be all-knowing, so that there can be honest dialogue about areas of growth. Both organizational support and individual initiative are crucial to develop learning goals and find ways to support that learning.
Once roles are clarified, the challenge becomes building a team of multicultural leaders who are empowered and able to fulfill those roles. This may include both new hires and existing staff members and is both a collective and individual responsibility.
For many managers, there will likely be a gap between what is expected of them and their existing capacities. This gap cannot be closed instantly by providing a workshop or two. Filling the gap requires letting go of the expectation that managers be all-knowing, so that there can be honest dialogue about areas of growth. Both organizational support and individual initiative are crucial to develop learning goals and find ways to support that learning. The success of the diversity and equity work depends on both supporting leadership growth and holding leaders accountable to this work – seeing it as equal in importance to any other job duty. The organization can also benefit greatly by learning from staff members, both managers and non-managers, who have understanding of and commitment to issues of diversity and equity.
When I have seen leaders fully engage and take ownership of these processes, I have seen transformation. I have seen them become stronger as leaders and more fulfilled as human beings. I have seen them more empowered as they become more authentic and effective in their relationships with their co-workers. I have also seen them have greater impact and satisfaction in their work as they explore ways to address the inequities that impact their communities.
 There are many terms and frameworks that organization’s use to be more effective with diverse populations. The term diversity and equity will be used in this post.