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A Toolkit for Equitable Talent Development: Setting the foundation and tackling barriers

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Qualls Head ShotSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

By Tera Qualls

In this two-part article, we will explore how your organization can take your values around equity from your service into systems.

A large majority of nonprofit organizations have had value conversations that include the terms diversity, inclusion, cultural competency, and social justice. Leaders post them up on the wall during strategy discussions and staff members agree they are important. The values are then solidified in strategic plans and organizational websites. On the surface this practice is great, organizations have to start with stating the values and putting them out there, but it’s not enough. Organizations must take a deeper dive to ensure they put the values into practice. Values must be intentionally integrated into all external and internal systems of the organization.

Momentum_LOGOS-NEWNicola M. Pless and Thomas Maak argue in their article “Building an Inclusive Diversity Culture: Principles, Processes and Practice” in the Journal of Business Ethics, “that in order to unleash the potential of workforce diversity, a culture of inclusion needs to be established; a culture that fosters enhanced workforce integration and brings to life latent diversity potentials; a culture that is built on clarified normative grounds and honors the differences as well as the similarities of the individual self and others. Every self is a human being but as a unique person she is always also different from others. Diversity is about balancing this natural tension in different organizational and cultural settings.” (2004)

Therefore, the values organizations post on their walls and list on their websites need to be intentionally integrated into organizational culture to reach their full potential. Culture is a riding factor for ensuring restrictive (inequitable) managerial systems are broken down and ALL individuals, no matter their attributes feel safe and included in your work. Sustainability depends on this culture shift, as communities continue to diversify and individuals more often seek out organizations that lead with these values.

Tim King, founder of Urban Prep in Chicago, has built an organization with these values at the forefront of all that he does and the organization has been successful in retaining staff and building strong programs. King says “Lead with your values of service for your staff. Culture has to become all that you do.”

Essentially King is saying that for your team to truly lead with these values externally they have to feel them directly themselves. Organizations have to be intentional about fully integrating values into talent development systems. This article will give you a foundation for the integration of your values into your work and building an Equitable Talent Development System that disintegrates managerial structures that exclude individuals because of any of their attributes.

With an Equitable Talent Development System your organization will flourish into the future, keep staff longer, and build out programs with teams that reflect your communities.

What does an Equitable Talent Development System look like?

Equitable Talent Development Systems integrate the values of diversity, inclusion, cultural competency, and equity into policies and practices related to salary and benefits, recruitment, professional development, and performance assessment, among others. In a strong system, these values aren’t just stated, but intentionally modeled by all leadership and used to develop policies and practices that are equitable for everyone, no matter their race or ethnicity, gender identity, physical ability, skills, or economic status.

What are some common barriers organization’s face?

The most common barrier organization’s face when building out Equitable Talent Development Systems is holding all individuals in their organization accountable for including values of inclusion and equity in their work. Leadership and staff (at all levels) are often allowed to interpret these values on their own. The problem is everyone has a different interpretation and level of intention for integrating these values into their work. Having high expectations for your staff is essential, but you have to be sure everyone has a full understanding of what these values mean to their work, tools for integrating them into their department’s systems, and processes for holding them accountable for upholding the values.

Another common barrier organizations face is a misunderstanding at the board level of the importance of equitable and inclusive talent management practices. Similar to the experience at the staff level described above, boards often commit to strong values, but don’t intentionally make the shift from committing to integrating. Executive directors and board members have a responsibility for ensuring boards are integrating equity into all policies they develop.

Finally, another common barrier to equitable talent development systems, is the following statement: “Our staff is so passionate about the work that they will work for little pay and no benefits.” This phrase is often the worst culprit to equitable systems. There’s a disconnect between the values and culture we use in our service and the same values and culture we uphold for our employees and volunteers. This disconnect creates a large gap between those that are privileged enough to serve (ie. they have a full time working partner or other family members that might be able to support them working for less) and those that want to be involved in their community, but need to get paid a living wage.

In order for organizations to keep talent long term and attract the talent needed to run effective programs paying a living wage and offering staff members the opportunity to be healthy physically and mentally is essential. According to Nonprofit HR’s “2016 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey Results” the top challenge for organizations is “Hiring qualified staff within limited budget constraints” and 47% of staff who leave organizations are going to other nonprofit organizations. The survey indicates further in findings that organizations are losing staff and losing out on talent because their talent development systems are lacking. If you want to decrease the strain of turnover and enhance your programs with a staff that is diverse in race and ethnicity, gender identity, physical ability, skills, and economic status then more equitable talent development systems are necessary.

Tackling these barriers and setting a strong foundation for an Equitable Talent Development System is the first step. Get your leadership on board and have staff champions ready to lead the efforts. In the second part of this article I will explore how you can move from a strong foundation into active equitable systems.


Tera Wozniak Qualls, M.P.A., is founder of Momentum, a nonprofit consulting firm focused on community engagement and talent development for nonprofits. Tera is also author of The Talent Development Platform: Putting people first in social change organizations.

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