Illustration of writing an article on a laptop

ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How do inclusive work cultures contribute to sustainable nonprofits?

Birds of different colors flying

Despite the growing attention paid to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), data show that nonprofits struggle to attract and recruit a diverse workforce that includes a range of ages, ethnicities, genders, religions and abilities. This crisis contributes to the many challenges that prevent the sector from achieving longer-term sustainability and greater innovation. As stewards of the public good, the nonprofit sector is called on to embrace and celebrate the inherent worth of all people by encouraging inclusive work cultures.

What is workplace inclusion? 

Workplace inclusion is the act of creating environments in which any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported and valued to fully participate. An inclusive work culture embraces differences and respects all ideas, perspectives and options, increasing workplace talent, innovation, creativity and contributions.

The power of inclusion

A workplace where individuals of different backgrounds carry duties within the organizational structure may be diverse but not inclusive. Inclusion in the workplace is one of the most critical factors to improving retention rates in the nonprofit sector. When employees do not feel that their ideas, presence or contributions are valued, they will inevitably leave. When employees implicitly feel they do not fully belong where they work, they will conceal who they are. It is more of an organizational structure issue than a human resources issue because an inclusive work culture enables a diverse nonprofit workplace to thrive.

Additional benefits of an inclusive work culture:

  • A diverse, inclusive workforce is more productive and innovative
  • Increased employee commitment to organization and mission 
  • Improved cooperation and collaboration between the co-workers
  • Increased retention rates  
  • Improved quality of programs/services delivery   
  • Greater community outreach and brand awareness 
  • Increased donor/fund acquisition/organizational sustainability

Inclusion also provides innovative ways to obtain revenue streams by harnessing vital human capacity. A positive work culture focused on inclusivity is no longer an option but a necessary step towards achieving sustainability in the nonprofit sector.

Leadership and management recommendations

The philanthropic sector agrees that inclusion is essential to any social mission. But what does it look like in practice? Here are some practical ways to begin promoting inclusion.

  1. It begins with addressing diversity: Organizations with no coherent strategy to achieve diversity goals will inevitably fail to make the workplace inclusive. The first step is creating a strategic plan to incorporate diversity into the organization's structure successfully. This can mean recognizing not knowing where or how to start for some nonprofit leaders.
  2. Change starts at the top: Inclusion starts with governance and fundamental system changes. Leadership has the most significant role to play. Utilizing the Inclusions Lens Worksheet fosters internal board reflections. Collectively going through the worksheet allows members to create a DEI dialog.
  3. Be strategic and intentional: A strategic DEI management plan can help an organization make the most of inclusion. Being intentional with approaches enables organizations to realize the benefits and potential of a work culture considerate of all stakeholders. Actively utilizing the Equity & Inclusion Lens allows for new perspectives to address the barriers affecting workplace inclusion.
  4. Make it collaborative: An inclusive workplace is cooperative and collaborative. When nonprofits value stakeholders’ opinions and acknowledge all walks of life, they are taking action in creating a welcoming workplace. Stakeholder input has tremendous potential to promote the feeling of inclusion.
  5. Create accountability: Inclusion, or exclusion, happens on a daily basis, from onboarding to an employee's last day on the job, and is only successful when all members of the organization are held accountable. Including board members, staff and volunteers, constituents and community members. Creating a channel for communication and accountability aids in sustaining an inclusive work culture.

Collectively acknowledging that the journey toward greater workplace inclusion has no fixed endpoint is essential step nonprofits need to take for the greater good of their constituents. The milestones required to achieve these efforts effectively involve resources and commitment. They are tangible. Whether the first act is to hire a DEI professional, reevaluate bylaws and the organizational structure, or launch a DEI Council, allow inclusive work cultures to lead the way to a more prosperous and sustainable nonprofit organization.

Maricela Gutierrez Rodriguez is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University and was recently inducted into Nu Lambda Mu, the International Honor Society for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy, and Social Entrepreneurship and Enterprise. She studied at the University of Nevada, Reno, and holds a bachelor’s degree in communication disorders. Maricela is the current executive director of a nonprofit organization based in Reno, Nevada, whose mission is to empower young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Maricela is a motivational leader who has over eight years of experience in the nonprofit sector, developing programs and advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion. In her free time, Maricela enjoys spending time outdoors with her two special needs dogs.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog