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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How nonprofits can successfully develop a diverse workforce

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Workforce diversity is a significant concern for nonprofits with the recent growth of diverse populations in the U.S. In 2017, 87% of the U.S. nonprofit workforce and executive leadership identified as white.

Nonprofit board members in the U.S. also lack demographic, racial and ethnic diversity with less than 20% identifying as people of color. Nearly 30% of nonprofits report they have no board members who identify as a person of color. Consequently, nonprofits continue to have difficulties applying diversity initiatives which affect marginalized, underrepresented individuals’ outcomes, access to needed services, and trust. When nonprofit employees, leaders and their boards are not reflective of the communities they serve, they jeopardize mission attainment and the implementation of ineffective strategies to address social issues.

The importance of workforce diversity

Research indicates workforce diversity is the cultural or demographic characteristics that makes employees unique, which is needed to effectively confront social issues and achieve social good. According to Nonprofit HR's 2019 Nonprofit Diversity Practices Survey results, workforce diversity is the purposeful “recruiting, hiring, developing, and retaining” of employees who have divergent “backgrounds, educations, and experiences”. This ensures that employees and leadership are reflective of the communities the nonprofits serve. Nonprofits that focus on being diverse and inclusive recruit exceptional employees, improve their knowledge of customer needs, develop innovative strategies to address social issues, have enhanced decision making, and improve employee satisfaction.

According to Race to Lead's report on addressing the nonprofit racial leadership gap, although nonprofits are aware of how workforce diversity benefits organizations and communities, the awareness is not converting to measurable change. According to the 2019 Nonprofit Practices Survey, over half (57%) of nonprofits surveyed indicated that the employees are reflective of the community the organization serves, and they have incorporated formal diversity statements. A small number of nonprofits indicated that staff was involved in implementing the organization’s diversity efforts, and fewer than half of nonprofits indicated having a “formal diversity statement, providing diversity training for staff, or having formal policies to promote diversity in their organizations.”

Potential barriers to achieving workforce diversity

Nonprofit organizations have barriers with increasing staff diversity for a few reasons. Research indicates progress on diversity is dependent on nonprofit boards, which impact nonprofit performance and policies. When nonprofit boards do not support diversity management principles and initiatives, organization employee composition may not reflect the nonprofit’s constituency, and become less innovative and effective. According to BoardSource, “as the decision-making body at the highest level of organizational leadership, boards play a critical role in creating an organization that prioritizes, supports, and invests in diversity, inclusion, and equity.” Another notable barrier is the capabilities of nonprofit human resource departments. Not all nonprofits have proficient HR departments that can formalize effective diversity management policies and practices, making nonprofits susceptible to the implementation of hiring practices that perpetuate bias. Moreover, the lack of staff diversity can also be attributed to nonprofits failure to prioritize workforce diversity management due to shortage of dedicated financial and staffing resources.

Strategies to increasing workforce diversity

Leaders can help nonprofits achieve their mission by incorporating the following strategies:

  • Obtain the board of director support to establish diversity initiatives throughout the organization
  • Build capacity within HR departments through the recruitment of diversity experts and/or the training of current staff to effectively implement diversity initiatives
  • Implement effective and research-based diversity management practices
  • Develop and publish an aspiration diversity statement
  • Establish organization-wide diversity training to increase awareness of cultural differences and prevent discrimination
  • Support employee efforts to improve diversity initiatives by encouraging the development of diversity, equity, and inclusion focused committees

Making nonprofit workforce diversity a reality

Strategies to improve the diversity of the nonprofit workforce have the potential to accelerate social change. Nonprofit leaders need to assess what strategies will work for the organization and aim to improve current work environments, become innovative and increase community impact.

Cecilia Gutierrez is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. A native of Phoenix, Cecilia has 20 years of experience working in the nonprofit sector and is a current employee of Chicanos Por La Causa (CPLC). In her role at CPLC, Cecilia provides grant writing and research expertise, securing almost $40 million in funding for programs, operations and capital projects.

Cecilia Gutierrez


ASU Lodestar Center Blog