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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Building trust in communities through DEI

diversity equity inclusion

Despite the growing attention to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) over the last several years, the nonprofit sector struggles to recruit and retain a diverse workforce. Contributing to this struggle for nonprofits is that true DEI in the sector does not only include a range of ages, ethnicities, genders, abilities, etc. but must also be inclusive of skills and backgrounds specific to the community served.  Public trust in nonprofit organizations is vital to their success and the overarching societal belief that nonprofits are the stewards of the public good and integral to the promise of social equity makes it vital for the sector to embrace and encourage DEI initiatives.

The many benefits that come from successful DEI initiatives include increased collaboration, creativity, innovation, and productivity; improved quality of programs/services, and decreased gap between nonprofits and the communities they serve. However, arguably the greatest benefits relate to an organization's ability to recruit and retain qualified, top talent.  

Start at the top

The board of directors and senior leadership need to be cohesively and adamantly supportive of the DEI plan. Demonstrating commitment, not just verbalizing it, will reinforce the importance. The board and leadership structure will need to be evaluated and adjusted to communicate that efforts are genuine and set the tone for the organization. The community and the staff will be looking to the board and leaders for direction and sincerity. Therefore, both the board and leadership structures need to reflect the communities served to be effective, retain the trust of the community, and be mission successful. 

Integrate DEI into strategic planning

Linking the strategic plan and DEI initiatives successfully improves sustainability and success of an organization by heightening organizational culture, having a greater impact on communities, increasing employee retention, and perpetuating the vision and mission into subsequent generations. Nonprofits need to create a platform for change at the core of daily operations by integrating DEI into all policies and procedures and future planning.

Become a more desirable place to work to attract and retain staff

As the next generation of leaders enter the sector, they will be looking for incentives that go beyond monetary. Millennials and Generation X specifically desire a culture and organizations that focus on their well-being. A greater work/life balance with opportunities for flexible schedules and remote work; training and development opportunities that lead to advancement; mental health support, initiatives, and benefits; frequent and useful feedback, a sense of belonging, and having more autonomy over their work will be significant factors for future generations when evaluating job opportunities and maintaining employment satisfaction. To achieve DEI, adjusting the culture and salary expectations to meet the demands of the workforce will be critical.

Partner with community organizations and leaders

The nonprofit sector is unique in that DEI also includes unique skill sets and “lived experience” specific to the community that is being served. Working within that community to not only identify individuals with the unique qualities and skills desired, but to raise levels of education and abilities will help reduce the gap between organization demand and available talent and generate a greater pool of diverse talent to recruit from. Developing talent early allows for hiring the right “fit” instead of just focusing primarily on education and skills requirements, which often eliminates candidates in marginalized communities. This will improve DEI efforts and better represent the community-giving staff and constituents the sense of belonging they crave. 
In addition, engaging with the community has been shown to increase board diversity and bring lived experience to the board dynamics as well.

Create accountability

DEI strategy and policies are only effective if they are adapted to each agency’s unique needs and when leadership stays engaged. Creating Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure progress, with realistic SMART goals and time frames, are effective engagement and accountability tools. However, without regular analysis and evaluation, small issues won’t be addressed in a timely manner, necessary adjustments cannot be made, and the usefulness of the tool is decreased. For this reason, KPIs should be reviewed at board meetings and should be integrated into performance reviews for leadership, HR, and management. 
Addressing inequalities and shifting perspectives can be difficult, but success is only achieved when all members of the organization embrace DEI initiatives and are held accountable. DEI becoming an integral part of an organization’s daily operations creates a competitive advantage, a sense of belonging for staff and the community, and leads to greater organizational mission success. 

Brea M Bennett is a 2023 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University and a member of the Nu Lambda Mu Nonprofit Honor Society, Omicron Delta Kappa National Leadership Honor Society, and Golden Key International Honor Society. She also has a BBA in Accounting and an MBA with a focus in Human Resources Management, both from Texas A&M University. She currently lives Phoenix, AZ and is the Chief Financial Officer of Treatment Assessment Screening Center, which is a nonprofit dedicated to alcohol and substance abuse prevention and counseling. She has worked in the nonprofit sector for 17 years, leading several international nonprofits, primarily in accounting, finance, and HR. In her free time, she enjoys reading, traveling – primarily exploring national parks, and attending sporting events – specifically baseball.

Image by Lillian Finley.

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The Optimizing Human Resource Strategies in Nonprofits Certificate is for individuals seeking knowledge and skills in nonprofit human resources, volunteer management, change management, and conflict resolution. Through this program you will learn how to recruit, manage, motivate, and reward both staff and volunteers in order to effectively utilize their strengths, effectively lead and champion change within an organization, and develop strategies to overcome internal and external conflict.

Brea Bennett


ASU Lodestar Center Blog