By Julie Hayes

Organizations in the nonprofit sector have long been models of service to local and national communities, using fundraising, advocacy, public relations, and outreach to spread a message or promote a cause to specific target audiences. With communities in the United States growing more diverse, the types of audiences and the means by which they communicate have also expanded, giving the nonprofit sector room to increase their base of donors and volunteers. However, many employees and supporters of nonprofit organizations are expressing concern that the industry has not been keeping up with the greater need for a diverse workforce and is failing to translate the importance of diversity and inclusion into decisive action.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment projections, about 43 percent of new entrants to the workforce will be people of color in coming years. Most industries have been making changes to reflect this increasing figure, but the nonprofit sector has been slower to react. Currently, nonprofit employees are approximately 82 percent white, ten percent African American, five percent Hispanic/Latino, three percent other, and only one percent Asian/Pacific Islander. Employees of color make up about 14 percent of leadership or upper management roles, and less than six percent of specialized positions.

With diversity and inclusion figures this low, the nonprofit sector is challenged with uncovering the source of the problem, as well as finding which steps to take to make organizations’ diversity and inclusion goals a reality.

Employee Concerns

A study conducted by Commongood Careers and the Level Playing Field Institute reports that the majority of employees in the nonprofit sector acknowledge their organizations have expressed that diversity is an essential value to management. However, only 25 percent of the study participants agreed that diversity and inclusion practices are actively implemented by their organization. Most employees feel as if diversity has been placed as a low priority financially, and that the promotion of diversity as a value has replaced tangible action and increased staff diversity.

“Management values diversity in theory, but has not put in place the training and professional development to ensure that managers of color can be promoted to the director level,” said one survey participant. “We have not committed to diversity across all levels of the organization.”

The disconnect between nonprofit organizations’ missions and actual workplace environment has left many employees concerned that the sector has become closed to the diverse workforce, particularly in leadership and management positions. Diverse workers also struggle with feelings of alienation at the lack of commitment to the inclusion and advancement of people of color. Most report that diversity and inclusiveness is a significant factor to the retention of employees, indicating that many nonprofit organizations stand to lose what diversity they have if they do not change their workforce and organizational environment.

“The best way to create diversity of thought is through diversification of the workplace and then by creating a culture that truly values and rewards such differences,” said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Level Playing Field Institute. “Rather, what we find is that organizations blame a lack of ‘cultural fit’ which further codifies a homogeneous staff by creating insiders and outsiders. The outsiders will usually leave.”

Obstacles for the Nonprofit Sector

One of the major factors influencing the amount of diversity in the nonprofit sector is the recruitment process of employees. Around 71 percent of employees of color report that they evaluate prospective companies based on the interview process, and rely on their perceptions of workplace culture and environment in selecting a place of employment. Diverse workers look for verbal indications that the culture of an organization is open to diversity, and assess the current amount of diversity in the staff to get a feel for the organization’s commitment to diversity.
“The culture of the work environment needs a cultural competency that includes an awareness of how they present themselves to the ‘racially other’,” said Reverend Clarence Williams, a lecturer for the Institute for the Recovery from Racisms. “Leadership has to address the culture of their organization, as it brings in the people who might not fit the profiled culture of the workplace in terms of race, gender, and class.”

Applicants are also on high alert for racial profiling and tokenism during the recruitment process. Nonprofits rely on people of diverse backgrounds to communicate with a variety of target audiences, but employees do not like to feel they are being singled out in order to reach out to individuals of their ethnicity. If interviewers express an interest in having minorities be in charge of targeting groups such as low-income families or high school dropouts, diverse workers are likely to pull out of the interview process rather than join an organization which may have negative perceptions of their ethnicity.

Nonprofit organizations are also sensitive to the issue of retention and the burden turnover rates place on tight budgets. Twenty-seven percent of participants in the Commongood Careers and Level Playing Field Institute study report that they left a job due to lack of diversity and inclusiveness, with 64 percent of these respondents identifying as people of color. High turnover rates can mean a significant loss in funds for an organization, due to the long process of hiring and training a replacement. With the chance of losing minority employees so high, many organizations are wary of taking the initial risk of hiring them.

“The organizational missions of nonprofits are usually challenging enough,” said Schwartz. “When such organizations cannot attract and retain people of color, especially those whose experiences help them relate to the target population of the nonprofit, attainment of the mission becomes that much more difficult.”


All of these factors have contributed to several negative outcomes for the nonprofit sector at large. The lack of diversity has created an uncomfortable, alienated environment for diverse employees who feel they have been relegated to token roles from which they will be unable to advance. This has often led to the loss of top talent, as skilled workers of color are uninterested in remaining in positions where they cannot fully reach their potential.

However, the most problematic outcome is the nonprofit sector’s inability to attract employees of color to begin with. Word of mouth and online resources have alerted diverse workers to the issues existing in the industry, and many have responded by seeking out more diversity-friendly options. Without the engaged interest of the minority workforce, nonprofits are struggling to break the trend of low levels of diversity, even if they are willing to make it a greater financial priority. Without an industry-wide effort to make diversity a top concern, many organizations may find it challenging to draw from the market they want.

What Can Nonprofits Do?

The nonprofit sector has many opportunities to utilize various communication channels to spread a commitment to diversity. Large companies often utilize social media, intranets, and bulletins to promote and discuss diversity, and nonprofits have similar options available to them, even if their operations are on a smaller scale. Simply addressing the subject of diversity among employees will work to make the workplace less isolated, and will encourage staff to consider new perspectives and the benefits of diverse thought in achieving organizational goals.

“When increasing diversity is an active consideration in a search process, it can be important to discuss the different backgrounds and perspectives that some candidates bring to the organization,” said Katherine E. Jones, managing partner at the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group. “Giving candidates openings to discuss how they might bring important perspectives or unique opportunities to an organization also helps to open the discussion about potential challenges or unknowns a candidate might bring to the organization in a productive way.”

The recruitment and interviewing processes can also be altered to lessen bias and tokenism, instead focusing on how diverse backgrounds and viewpoints can aid the mission and communication efforts of the organization. Diversity can benefit all aspects of an organization, and not just in reaching one specific audience; embracing the qualifications rather than the ethnicity of an employee can serve toward making the interviewing process more comfortable for diverse applicants.

Most importantly, diversity cannot be expressed only as a value, but must be put into direct practice. If inclusiveness is only a word in a mission statement and not an actual commitment of the organization, employees will not want to devote their time and efforts to a workplace that is not open to them. Organizations who want to grow and retain top talent need to be willing to invest time and money, and most of all, be willing to advance those who best represent the various needs of the industry.