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Devin D. Thorpe
Devin Thorpe

Five Steps to Increasing Diversity in Nonprofits

This is a guest post from Steve Scheier who is the CEO and Founder of Scheier+Group and author of Do More Good. Better. Using the Power of Decision Clarity™ to Mobilize the Power of Your Nonprofit Team.

In the aggregate, nonprofit organizations are staffed by people from diverse backgrounds. But if we take a closer look at who runs and makes the key decisions in these nonprofits we see patterns that are reflective of the larger society: the leaders of many nonprofits are white and the people implementing the decisions of these leaders are diverse.

This realization caused the respected NPQ to assert in its December, 2014 edition that “The Nonprofit Sector Has a Ferguson Problem.”

Why did the NPQ come to this conclusion? Because a number of studies have shown that whites lead 9.5 out of 10 philanthropic organizations. Only 7 percent of nonprofit chief executives and 18 percent of nonprofit employees are people of color.

So even though most nonprofit advocacy is targeted at diverse communities the people leading these efforts are usually white. They are likely very committed and well intentioned and committed to advancing the social needs they’ve vowed to take on but the preponderance of white leaders means that there is comparatively little opportunity for more diverse leaders to emerge.


Steve Scheier

That’s because whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not, we are all affected at some level by inherent biases that impact our choices. This extends to our choices of colleagues, and to our choice of who among us has the potential to lead and who among us will be allowed to make substantive decisions.  

At every step of the way, people’s ability or inability to make the decisions that affect their job will drive their job performance and their ability to advance.  But in most nonprofits it’s often unclear which decisions it’s acceptable – or not – for a particular individual to make, and which decisions he or she is unable to make.  The result?  Reticence, a reluctance to make even small decisions, a tendency to defer to existing leaders and therefore a general lack of decision-making skills at all but the highest echelons of power.  

If we don’t take steps to actively build a more diverse base of talent prepared to move into leadership positions, nothing will change.  The nonprofit world’s so-called  “Ferguson problem” will perpetuate and we’ll not only let opportunities to tap valuable talent slip by, but we’ll also miss out on the potential for a badly-needed diversification of the sector’s leadership.


Over time, organizations will find it harder than ever to live up to their full potential and create the social impact they envision.

There is a way forward, though. Quite simply, organizations need to start at the bottom and give individuals of all backgrounds the tools to become decision-makers within their jobs.  

There are five steps that can make this a reality:

  • Make a commitment to drive decision-making down in your organization so it can produce better and more focused decision-making.  There are people on your team who can make decisions if you’ll only trust them to do so. If you let them make decisions and hold them accountable, your organization will benefit and you’ll have greater focus on the decisions that matter.
  • Examine your biases about who should be making which decisions in your organizations and think about how these biases affect the way decisions currently get made. Do you only give decision-making to those that went to elite schools? Do you want to give decision-making to those that act, look and sound like you or can you broaden your viewpoint?
  • Next, examine who has power and who doesn’t in your organization, and why.
  • Encourage people to speak up and advocate for the decisions they want to make.  
  • Finally, support and reinforce a culture that makes it a priority to proactively resolve conflict and confusion surrounding how decisions are made. 

By taking these steps you’ll build an organization with increased leadership and decision-making capabilities and you’ll be far better off.

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