Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.
Illustration by Yuxin Qin
Having a welcoming culture is vital for a nonprofit organization to be a part of a strong and healthy community. This culture can bring about the desired outcomes of staff, volunteers, and members who reflect the community, having a team possessing strong problem-solving skills, and leadership that embraces innovation. Ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is a focus and priority for any organization takes intentional effort, hard work and practice.
Appreciating diversity and creating a team that reflects the community in appearance and thoughts are only the first steps. Truly appreciating diversity, however, can be challenging. To recognize the values of differences, we must be willing to learn, accept and strive to eliminate the biases that exist in all of us. This takes time. It also takes training.
Significant resources have been invested in diversity training. There is a concern, however, as to whether these trainings are effective in reducing biases and changing behavior. In "5 ways to improve diversity training," according to a new study, it is important to be realistic about what training can accomplish, what should accompany it and to set clear goals. Be aware that discovering biases and discussing them can cause discomfort and anxiety. Consider using a trained facilitator for this kind of training to address these concerns.
There are many tools available to help people become aware of their biases. One easy read for quick awareness is Peggy McIntosh’s "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." Written in 1988 and still relevant 33 years later, it shows how very little progress has been made in eliminating discrimination and inequality. The awareness we have regarding our own biases can lead to reducing inequities and allows us to put DEI to work effectively in our organizations.
Nonprofits are known for their expertise in effective group work. By making our teams more diverse, the outcomes from group work will become even greater. Based on research conducted by Phillips, Liljenquist, and Neale, heterogeneity can boost group performance. In general, people feel more comfortable working with others like themselves. Homogeneous groups tend to be confident in the work they produce. However, this familiarity tends to put a damper on new ideas and differences of opinion. More diversity in a group brings new ideas and the opportunity to exchange more information. It is more work to have disagreements and potentially vigorous debate. Yet, this is what can bring out better results when problem solving and making sound decisions.
In describing how diversity works, Phillips states, “being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working.” Research on organizations deemed innovative have found repeatedly that diversity improves these outcomes. For example, in the banking industry, they found greater financial gains when women were part of top leadership. The same was true for racial diversity: innovation-focused banks with greater racial diversity saw a relationship to better performance financially.
Further studies with small groups, who value innovation, shows that diversity helps. In one experiment, Phillips and colleagues formed three-person groups made up of all white members or 2 white members and 1 non-white member. They were all given common information as well as important clues to each member that only that individual knew. In this murder mystery scenario, the groups would need to share all the information they had to determine who committed the murder. The result revealed the groups with racial diversity outperformed the groups with no racial diversity. This demonstrated when similar people are together, there is a belief that the same information is held by all and the same perspective is shared. That perspective stopped the all-white groups from discovering all the information. This is what impedes innovation.
Prioritizing DEI along with a willingness to put in the effort, and the understanding that it will take time, will assist our organizations in truly reflecting our communities, increasing problem-solving skills and embracing innovation. This results in a welcoming culture where DEI-dedicated nonprofits will carry on and contribute to resilient, healthy communities.
Laura Taylor is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. She is the executive director of the Phoenix Union Foundation for Education. The Foundation’s mission is to strengthen our community by investing in student success.