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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How Can Nonprofits Increase Leadership and Staff Diversity?

Within the nonprofit sector, there is a lack of leadership and staff diversity. According to a study conducted in 2011, 86 percent of nonprofit board members are Caucasian (Schwartz, Weinberg, Hagenbuch, & Scott, 2011). The same study reports that the nonprofit workforce is made up of around 82 percent Caucasian, 10 percent African-American, five percent Latino, three percent classified as other, and one percent Asian individuals (Schwartz, Weinberg, Hagenbuch, & Scott, 2011). Katherine Cecala (2016), the current President of Junior Achievement of Arizona, shared research revealing that the human service subsector tends to have more women as a whole, yet Caucasian men tend to hold the majority of the higher-level positions. A lack of leadership and staff diversity poses problems - particularly for human service organizations - because it affects their ability to fulfill their mission. 

Many nonprofits whose missions have a human welfare component are addressing issues that occur as a result of a lack of inclusion and respect for the rights of people who are not part of the dominant culture in America. However, these same nonprofits rarely have leadership and workforces reflective of their mission and the communities the organizations serve. Author Jeanne Bell states, “while the nonprofit sector regularly discusses and addresses programmatically issues of race and class, recent studies reveal a sharp disconnect between our values and our leadership’s demographics” (Ostrower, 2007). In America, there is mistrust between some ethnic groups, language barriers, and general fear of outsiders among certain communities due to safety issues such as deportation. It is essential to many organizational missions to have a staff that is reflective of the community being served. The article “Learning from Diversity: a Theoretical Exploration” notes, “research has demonstrated that individuals are more comfortable when they are surrounded by people they perceive as more like them” (Foldy, 2004). There is a direct link between mission fulfillment and the diversity of leadership and staff for nonprofits within the human services subsector. If members of the community in which a nonprofit serves do not feel comfortable working with the staff, they will not get the most out of what an organization has to offer. Additionally, if there is distrust between community and staff, the organization will not fully understand the needs of the community. When organizational leadership and staff are viewed as outsiders to the community being served, this is an indicator that the organization is incapable of understanding the entirety of the social issues it aims to improve or eradicate.

It is important for organizations to have a connection with the community in which they serve. Organizations that are out of touch with the community don’t have the same effectiveness as those that have a close working relationship with their community and stakeholders. For example, according to US Census Bureau (2014) 30.2% of households in Phoenix, Arizona speak Spanish. If a nonprofit in Phoenix that has a human welfare mission does not have Spanish-speaking individuals on staff, they will be unable to support that population of potential clients. Being able to communicate with the target community is key and the language barrier is the main reason that individuals hesitate to seek assistance. Clients often feel more comfortable with people who share similarities, as Cecala (2016) notes from her experience. Potential clients must see that the organization understands them in order to feel safe seeking assistance. If a nonprofit does not have a diverse organization, they will not be able to gain the trust of the community being served. 

Through an exploration of research and applying inclusive methodology it is possible to build an organizational foundation that can house a genuinely diverse workforce. First, however, the board, management, and human resource teams need to reach an agreement on how the organization will proceed to create their version of such a workplace. A starting point is to create a dialog with leadership, management teams, and the human resources team. During these preliminary meetings the organization should develop its definition of diversity, taking into consideration organizational context and standard diversity categories. After establishing a definition, stakeholders may be included in the process to assist with developing a strategic plan. Each organization will have an organization-centric strategic plan based on the needs and scope of their individual mission. 

Collaborating with other organizations that have diversity-related missions is an effective way to develop and run staff educational programs. Leadership and management teams must look at the whole picture, critically analyzing and addressing benefits and challenges of enacting diversity polices. An organization needs to have a foundation of policies and procedures that will house diverse personnel. Organizations can accomplish this by obtaining certifications, training staff, providing mediation services, team building, an explanation of new policies and procedures, and staff surveys to be used as a check and balance system. 

The recruitment process must be steered toward the goals of the organization by adopting the practice of looking for diverse perspectives in qualified candidates. Keep in mind that in order to recruit diverse staff, human resources must scout in diverse places. Mission fulfillment guides the hiring process and looking for personnel that will make clients feel comfortable and safe seeking assistance is key. 

It is important to always remember that a nonprofit that does not reflect the community it serves will not be able to gain complete trust. Trust between staff and clients is necessary to allow for open communication about how the organization is fulfilling the mission based on the client’s feedback. When drafting a strategic plan to increase organizational diversity an organization must not forget about the board, because the board and leadership are the most publicly visible organizational members who interact with donors, press, and other nonprofits and reflect the mission and the community being represented. A genuinely diverse organization is reflective of the organization’s commitment to diversity. Organizations must also remember that it may take time to properly develop the necessary practices to achieve diversity.



Cecala, K. (2016, October 3). Capstone CEO Interview [In-person interview]

Foldy, E. G. (2004). Learning from diversity: A theoretical exploration. Public Administration Review, 64(5), 529-538. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6210.2004.00401.x

Ostrower, F. (2007). NOT a Spin – Free Zone: Reflections on the Utility and Price of Nonprofit Spin. Retrieved September 15, 2016, from a Spin -Free Zone: Reflections on the Utility and Price of Nonprofit Spin

Schwartz, R., Weinberg, J., Hagenbuch, D., & Scott, A. (2011). Diversity in Non-Profit Organizations Research Study. Retrieved from

United States Census Bureau (2014). Languages in Central City, Phoenix, Arizona. Retrieved October 21, 2016, from 


Carissa Oberlin is a change-maker in her soul and is an active member in her communities through her volunteerism. Upon the completion of her graduate degree this past December, she is in the process of relocating to Los Angeles. She is looking for an organization where she can make the most difference in the lives of underserved populations in our nation.


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