Diversity and inclusion in nonprofit organizations

According to the National Council of Nonprofits, public charities or community foundations are nonprofit organizations that are tax exempt under the Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c) (3). Most charitable nonprofits include groups providing food, shelter, disaster assistance, services for children and the elderly, and many more services. Private foundations include arts organizations, education groups, nonprofits dedicated to health, community and civil rights groups, religion-related organizations, environmental, and animal protection groups and those focused on international development and human rights.1 Nonprofit organizations significantly impact millions of individuals and families daily by providing protection, food, healthcare, shelter, education, and nurturing our bodies and spirits.2 Nonprofits contribute significantly to the American economy. In the United States alone, the nonprofit sector contributed $878 billion to the economy. Nonprofits are also one of the greatest sources of employment throughout the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.4 million people are employed by nonprofit organizations, which is 10.2 percent of the American workforce.3

The mission of nonprofit organizations is to improve the world and to serve those less fortunate and those in marginalized communities. To best serve their constituents, nonprofit organizations must be able to understand and relate to people of diverse backgrounds including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and other characteristics. Due to the significant impact that these organizations have on the lives of millions, whether it’s because of the services they provide, as an employer, or as a leader in the fight for social justice, nonprofits must be forward thinking, innovative, and inclusive to maintain their viability. Acquiring a diverse employee pool is the only way to achieve this goal.

Diversity is the wide range of national, ethnic, racial and other backgrounds of U.S. residents and immigrants as social groupings, co-existing in American culture. Inclusion authentically brings traditionally excluded individuals and/or groups into processes, activities, and decision- and policy-making. 4

The National Council of Nonprofits, along with many charitable nonprofit organizations support the notion that embracing diversity and inclusion as organizational values, is a way to intentionally make space for positive outcomes to flourish.5 Studies suggests that diversity can boost the quality of decision-making and that a diverse workplace encourages people to be more creative, diligent and hard-working. Studies also show that a more diverse staff can foster enhanced innovations and outperform other companies by 35 percent.6

When board members and employees of nonprofit organizations whose values come from various backgrounds, each brings a unique perspective that shapes how their mission is advanced, problems are solved, and innovation is achieved.7 Organizations should mirror the constituents they serve. For those marginalized communities served by non-profits, diversity will increase the organization’s ability to listen to and empower the communities.8

Although the data supports the importance of diversity and inclusion, in the non-profit sector, there remains a significant gap in the quest for diversity and inclusion. A 2015 study discovered that only 8percent of nonprofit executive directors were racially diverse. A 2013 study found 92 percent of foundation executive directors were white. While 64 percent of the country is white, according to the U.S. Census, 89 percent of CEOs and 80 percent of board members of nonprofits are white.9

While the U.S. becomes progressively diverse, the number of people of color in executive director/CEO roles remains under 20 percent for the last 15 years. The leadership of nonprofit organizations does not denote the racial/ethnic diversity of the country.10 To address the lack of diversity in the nonprofit sector, organizations must be willing to redistribute power. Most charitable organizations exist to reshape social norms and values in ways that increase equity and social unity.11 So, why is it so difficult for these organizations to promote equity within?

Many larger organizations have diversity officers, yet they lack any power or authority to bring about real change. These officers are hired only to make the organizations appear to be forward-thinking and addressing diversity and inclusion issues. In some areas, there has been regression in the pursuit of diversity over the past few years.12 Research indicates that diverse board recruitment is not a priority for these organizations. There are few people in these organizations that want to make changes. Their excuse is other organizational priorities and more urgent needs.13 Nonprofit organizations are inclined to diminish issues rather than dealing with them directly. A clear example of this is the common use of the term “implicit bias” when dealing with racial issues in the workplace, rather than calling the situation what it really is -discrimination. 14 A leadership report, “Race to Lead: Confronting the Racial Leadership Gap,” released by Building Movement Projects, found that to increase the number of people of color leaders, the nonprofit sector must address the practices and biases of those governing nonprofit organizations.15

A survey conducted by BoardSource found people of color have the same or similar backgrounds or qualifications as their white counterparts. Thirty-one percent of people of color had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 33 percent of white respondents; 49 percent of respondents of color had a Master’s degree and 53 percent of whites; nine percent of people of color had a Ph.D., JD, MD or other degree to eight present of whites. This data eradicates the idea that there are no qualified people of color to hold top positions in nonprofit organizations.16

To overcome this disturbing state, nonprofit organizations must develop a collective will to share power, embrace diversity and hold themselves accountable for achieving these goals.17 Nonprofits must hire, retain and promote people of color throughout the entire organization, at every level, and avoid the appearance of tokenism. Nonprofits and foundations should prioritize diversity organization-wide, from staff, to vendors and suppliers, to the community organizations they partner with. It is imperative that organizations establish professional development and inclusive leadership training programs to help diverse employees see the organization as a place to grow, which in turn will increase retention of a diverse staff. Organizations must proactively prepare diverse staff for promotion and encourage diverse candidates to express an interest in moving up. To attract and retain a diverse staff, organizations need to create a culture of inclusiveness that truly embraces diverse opinions, perspectives, and lifestyles.18

Research shows that diverse boards are more likely to have effective governance practices, including policies and procedures that promote diversity and inclusion.19 Nonprofits can start by appointing diverse board members. Employing diversity officers and equipping them with the power and authority to create real positive change within the organization would be the next step. Subsequently, nonprofits should develop diversity committees with members from all levels of the organizational hierarchy and make diversity goals a transparent part of the organization’s strategic plan. The members of this committee must be dedicated to the goal of achieving diversity and inclusion. The committee should be involved in goal setting around hiring, retaining and advancing a diverse staff and addressing any employee engagement problems among underrepresented employee groups.20

Leaders must be accountable for results, by structuring meetings, allocating resources and using language that advocates for inclusion.21 Other methods to promote inclusiveness include: celebrating employee differences, celebrating different cultures, developing a newsletter to showcase the achievements of diverse members of the organization or members of the communities they serve, or creating a meditation room for prayer or reflection.22 Organizations must communicate specific, measurable and time-certain goals to achieve diversity and inclusion.23

Conclusively, nonprofit organizations significantly contribute to the country’s economy; nonprofits employ over 11 million people in the U. S. and impact the lives of millions of individuals and families they serve daily. Their role in America’s economic and social structure is invaluable. Thus, it is imperative that nonprofits continue to exist and flourish. The ability to continue to thrive, provide the best level of service to their growing diverse constituents, and influence social justice, mandates their willingness to promote diversity and inclusiveness in their nonprofit organizations.


1. https://www.councilofnonprofits.org.

2. Id.

3. Id.

6. Anika Rahman, Diversity and Inclusion: Essential to All Non-Profits, Huffington Post, available at https://www.huffpost.com/entry/diversity-and-inclusion-essential-to-all-non-profits_b_5988c06ce4b0f25bdfb31ecb.

7. Id.

8. Id.

9. Id.

12. Id.

13. Id.

14. Id.

15. See supra note 10.

16. Id.

17. See supra note 11.

19. See supra note 10.

21. Id.

22. Id.

23. Id.

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June 2019Volume 29Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)