Human Rights

Nonprofits Don’t Really Care About Diversity

Nonprofit staff isn’t very diverse. Nonprofit boards aren’t very diverse. Nonprofits need more diversity.

About a dozen people sent me the link to The Voice of Nonprofit Talent: Perceptions of Diversity in the Workplace, a new study produced by Commongood Careers and Level Playing Field Institute. I didn’t read it right away because honestly, most reports about diversity in the nonprofit sector pretty much say the same damn thing and are a total waste of funder’s money.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Nonprofit staff isn’t very diverse. Nonprofit boards aren’t very diverse. Nonprofits need more diversity. Nonprofits don’t know where to find people of color. Nonprofits can’t seem to attract young people. Or gay people. Blah blah blah. Whatevs.

But this study is a little different. Yes, the study focuses on ethnic and racial diversity in the nonprofit workplace, but it’s the first report I’ve seen that doesn’t focus on the fact that nonprofits are ruled by white people, but instead examines the repercussions of what happens when organizations do nothing to change this reality.

I’m Not Making This Up

The numbers don’t lie, people. The research says it better than I ever could. From the Commongood Careers report:

Today’s nonprofit employees are approximately 82 percent white, 10 percent African- American, five percent Hispanic/Latino, three percent other, and one percent Asian or Pacific Islander. The gap in representation is more pronounced in nonprofit governance, where only 14 percent of board members are people of color. Similarly, in specialized functions such as development, less than six percent of roles are filled by people of color. When examining organizational leadership, the gap persists. According to the 2006 report by the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance (formerly American Humanics), up to 84 percent of nonprofits are led by whites, and 9.5 out of 10 philanthropic organizations are led by whites.

Of course, there is much more anecdotal evidence from my peers which bear this out even further, but there’s a start for folks who don’t see why this is such a big deal.

Good Intentions Are Not Enough

The researchers asked 1,600 nonprofit professionals nationwide what they thought about this whole diversity thing and the response was clear: Nonprofit employees believe that good intentions are not enough when it comes to staff diversity.

More specifically, the study showed that most nonprofit employees perceive that their employers claim to value building diverse and inclusive organizations, but that they do little to back up that claim.

What?! Nonprofits are not walking that warm and fuzzy “everyone is welcome” talk? (Um, how about NO.)

Where it really gets interesting is that the report reveals perceptions of diversity and inclusiveness play a significant role in recruitment and retention of employees, particularly employees of color.

“Until the disconnect between value and action is addressed, there will continue to be negative implications for attracting and retaining diverse employees across the nonprofit sector,” said Level Playing Field Institute Executive Director Robert Schwartz, Ed.D. “Diversity commitments must move beyond a tagline on a website, and must be followed by specific and strategic actions implemented in order to ensure that diversity becomes a reality within organizations.”

This is why even if recruitment is successful, retention can be a challenge. Once people of color join the staff of a nonprofit, they need to feel included and supported within the organization – or else they feel like they’ve been duped. Hustled. Hoodwinked.

The Disconnect

  • Nearly 90 percent of employees believe that their organization values diversity. However, more than 70 percent believe that their employer does not do enough to create a diverse and inclusive work environment.
  • More than half of employees of all races—and 71 percent of employees of color—attempt to evaluate a prospective employer’s commitment to diversity during the interview process.
  • More than 35 percent of people of color who indicated that they examine diversity during the hiring process report having previously withdrawn candidacy or declined a job offer due to a perceived lack of diversity and inclusiveness.

The Repercussions

As the study points out, the disconnect between the value placed on diversity and the actions taken to diversify nonprofit organizations perpetuate a cycle with three key negative outcomes (taken directly from the report):

  1. Inability to attract employees of color
  2. In an attempt to create more diverse staffs and boards, many prospective employers seek to recruit diverse employees. As the survey highlights, the top indicator of an organization’s commitment to diversity is the presence of diverse staff at all levels of the organization. If an organization is unable to show diversity on its team, prospective candidates of color may be less likely to join that organization. This is manifested by candidates withdrawing during the interview process, or even choosing not to apply at all.
  3. Increased employee dissatisfaction
  4. If diversity is not represented on staff, employees of color may experience a sense of tokenism or alienation in the workplace. Even within organizations that have multicultural staff, many employees of color have reported perceiving bias in the form of lack of professional development or upward mobility opportunities. Employees that perceive even subtle forms of bias—such as feelings like they are treated differently than their colleagues —are more likely to feel demoralized which can have negative repercussions on employee productivity, output, and retention.
  5. Inability to retain top talent
  6. As the economy begins to improve, the sector will inevitably experience shifts in employee retention, as well as more competition between organizations to attract talent. For professionals of color who place a premium on the importance of diversity and inclusiveness in their career choices, this could mean higher attrition rates amongst previously dissatisfied employees who have been “sitting tight.” As employees leave, organizations experience the financial costs of attrition—up to 150 percent of an employee’s salary—as well as collateral damage to remaining employees’ morale and productivity.

The report also outlines five strategies for organizations to shift from just valuing diversity to actually building and sustaining diversity, which are interesting to think about, though things you’ve heard before: (1) open conversations about race that include executive leadership, (2) effective communications about diversity commitments that include measured results, (3) building partnerships and networks that facilitate effective recruiting, (4) a hiring process free from subtle bias, and (5) taking the time to develop, mentor and promote a diverse staff.

OK. The tools are out there, freely available. The solutions and strategies are not hidden treasure in the depths of the Atlantic. Which leads me to the conclusion that nonprofits aren’t challenged by the “how” of diversity. It’s just that they don’t really care.

Download the full report here:

I’d love to hear your comments on this issue. Should nonprofits just stop talking the diversity talk if they aren’t willing to walk the diversity walk? Why can’t organizations just be honest in saying they will never prioritize diversity, no matter how many reports get written? (Seems like it would sure free up a lot of HR’s time and make-believe attention being paid to this issue. And future employees wouldn’t be disappointed when they find out that all the warm and fuzzy language about diversity and inclusion they saw on the organization’s website was nothing but lip service.)

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  • Hi Rosetta - I have some comments that I would love to hear your perspective on. 

    I would reword the title into the following statement: “(Average-sized) Nonprofits (can’t) really care (enough) about diversity (to make it a priority).”  There isn’t enough time or money in the average nonprofit to do the hard work required to address diversity in a meaningful way.  I think many care but they don’t have the resources to learn about and then run what essentially is a diversity program.  Let me explain.

    Placing a job posting on a number of career sites is the fastest and easiest way to build a pool of candidates for an open position but it is not the best way to improve the diversity of candidates in the pool.  Organizations that want to attract and retain diverse staff must first build relationships with communities of color and organizations that reach them.  When positions open nonprofits must then reach out to and recruit specifically from those communities and organizations. 

    Put another way, hiring via online postings is something organizations can do as part of their day-to-day work.  Focusing on diversity is a program - an ongoing effort that takes time and money.  That time and money is generally funded out of general operating support which is incredibly hard to come by.

    There is also a challenge in the rate of hiring for many nonprofits.  Typically, nonprofits don’t have 3, 5, or 10 positions open at one time.  They have one position this year and maybe another next year.  Building a critical mass of diverse staff takes a long time and early diverse staff can become frustrated at what seems like a lack of progress.  That, of course, is compounded by the fact that most nonprofits don’t have the resources to address diversity in a meaningful way over a long period of time so they may do a push to get one or two diverse staff but then lose the resources they need to continue the effort over many years.

    The last challenge I will mention is that white people, who in the survey clearly dominate the field, need to be educated and trained properly to address diversity issues.  A two day anti-racism crash course is a good start but not the full solution.  Organizations need a host of services to truly focus on and achieve positive diversity outcomes.

    I am not suggesting that nonprofits are off the hook.  I think pushing for greater diversity is essential.  It would be awesome if it came with funding to support training, coaching, diversity audits, and all the other services that are essential to establishing and running a diversity program that achieves real results.

    Thank you for raising the question.  I think you are being a little hard on the average nonprofit but if that helps stir a conversation that leads to better results then more power to you.

  • BY Johannes Franke

    ON March 16, 2012 06:07 AM

    ...Talking about human rights, I got a little hint:
    There is an exciting documentary project:

    A film crew accompanies a human rights seminar for young adults from Belarus, Germany and Ukraine, where the participants get the necessary know-how to realize human rights campaigns.
    The documentary will show the progress of the project and portraits the generation, their living conditions in Central and Eastern Europe, and the limitations they have to face.

    The Project urgently needs financial support to finish the project. Here you can support it:

    I would be glad if you reblog this…

  • It would be great to see some work being done on diversity that is more diverse! By that I mean diversity that includes personality styles. For example, what do you do when most of your staff are extroverts but there is that one “outlier” who is an introvert? How can we create more inclusive environments where that one introvert is valued and not shunned for her/his introverted characteristics? I’d love to hear people’s comments on this.

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