Empowering Diversity at Nonprofits

Mari-Anne Kehler

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Mari-Anne Kehler, Partner, Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer, Green Hasson Janks

Many nonprofits serve diverse communities, and it makes sense for their staff to be a reflection of community they serve.  However, in a study that interviewed over 200 nonprofit CEOs conducted by The Center for Effective Philanthropy, 70 percent of CEOs stated that it was important to have staff diversity, but just 36 percent said their staff was actually diverse.  In another report from BoardSource “Leading with Intent” 2017 report, 65 percent of nonprofit executives have acknowledged the need for higher diversity but know that they have not prioritized it.

Diversity leads to better thinking, informed decisions, innovative ideas and high performing organizations, so this revelation begs the questions: how and why should organizations bridge the gap between the disparities of leadership and staff diversity?

Diversity’s positive outcomes

Before we get into how nonprofits can tackle diversity, it’s important to better understand the importance. A study discussed in Kellogg Insight found that different perspectives allow for strategic problem solving which fosters innovative thoughts and better business results, stating: “socially different group members do more than simply introduce new viewpoints or approaches. Diverse groups outperform more homogeneous groups because diversity triggered more careful information processing that is absent in homogeneous groups.”  

A Scientific American article also suggests diversity helps people be more creative, more diligent and harder working. “Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.”  It challenges the status quo and allows people to take a new perspective and divert from the traditional path of thinking.

A more diverse staff also improves innovation, and a Harvard Business Review article describes research that found “Leaders who give diverse voices equal airtime are nearly twice as likely as others to unleash value-driving insights.” This explains how innovation is a multiplier of growth.  Even with positive outcomes being visible and transparent, the next step is to implement a process to increase diversity empowerment.

The process of combatting diversity inequities

An organization must fully commit to a diversity initiative for it to be successful. This may not be a linear process, so everyone in the organization needs to understand the process, the potential benefits and outcomes. As with all growing pains, this process is uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but growth can come from it.

To establish a baseline and assess where they are in the diversity and inclusion process, nonprofits should consider doing an employee survey to get a baseline for existing attitudes on diversity. They should also analyze the historical hiring, recruitment and retention of diverse candidates.

Accountability must be built into the process, and regular checkpoints should be established and rigorously followed. The executive director/CEO, the board of directors and a designated diversity coordinator should lead the process. A diversity committee should also be established, with members that represent the diversity within the organization, along with representatives of the groups served by the nonprofit, if possible.

Organizations should also make their diversity successes a part of their brand. They can publish it on their website and other public forums, using inclusive language in all media, and using pictures of diversity in action.

A short list of best practices for a successful diversity initiative includes:

  • Reduce isolation by hiring two or more of a population
  • Make the board active and visible participants in furthering diversity
  • Ask diverse stakeholders for suggestions on improving the initiative
  • Support local leadership programs that mentor and teach diverse professionals – you may find excellent candidates who bring fresh perspectives
  • Redesign your hiring practices – for example, consider changing the educational requirements and cast a wider net to expand your search pool
  • Consider hiring or designating a diversity leader and measure outcomes
  • Partner with other nonprofits who are undergoing similar processes and seek advice from those who are succeeding
  • Innovate in finding ways to attract underrepresented populations – consider flexible schedules for working parents or late career professionals
  • Leverage technology to embrace inclusion for those who are unable to always be in person, such as disabled professionals or those whose commute makes for a challenging schedule

Diversity of thought helps nonprofits succeed

Diversity of thought is a clear business driver. It comes from intentionally bringing different skills, experiences, talents and backgrounds together to supercharge ideation. Different perspectives lead to better abilities to solve problems, which can advance product development, which in turn leads to better revenue and profits.

Newer entrants in the job market, millennials, Gen Zs and centennials, are often considered critical to the innovation process. To hire and retain those employees requires a strategy that includes diversity because those generations have a basic expectation of living and working among diverse populations and will seek those places out. Here are three things best-in-class companies do to implement diversity in your workforce:

  1. Persistently pursue diversity. Start now. Implement sustainable programs.
  2. Support starts at the top. CEO commitment and management engagement are imperative.
  3. Embed diversity throughout the organization’s culture and values.

Moving forward

A nonprofit’s commitment to diversity should never waver. Employees must hold management accountable, and the community should hold the organization accountable. A diversity initiative is not a simple process, and there will be challenges along the path, but the outcomes are undeniable – better thinking, informed decisions, innovative ideas and high performing organizations, plus more revenue and happier employees. Embrace diversity and create a culture of empowerment.  


Mari-Anne Kehler is a Partner and Chief Marketing Officer at Green Hasson Janks, a Los Angeles-based accounting and consulting firm, leading strategy, business development and marketing for the firm. Kehler has more than 30 years of experience as a high-impact leader who successfully expands business through action by using core skills of teaming, coaching, strategy development, program execution, measurement and innovation. She can be reached at makehler@greenhassonjanks.com.

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