Diversity And Inclusion: Essential To All Non-Profits

Anika Rahman
5 min readAug 7, 2017

This is the first in a series focused on building diversity in the non-profit sector. Despite the internal consensus about the importance of diversity, the facts within our sector paint a different picture — one of greater homogeneity than expected and recurring instances of structural bias. This series will draw upon my experience as a non-profit practitioner and leader to consider these challenges and to provide suggestions to both non-profits and the individuals who seek to contribute their talents to this field.

Diversity and inclusion are facing unprecedented political attacks. The Trump Era represents a backlash against both our first African-American president and the prospect of a female president. Indeed, many progressives view fear of the “other”people of color, women, immigrants, Muslim and LGBTQI individualsas the primary unifying principle of Trump’s supporters. Economic concerns and vague notions of limited government alone cannot account for our election results. Yet the reality is that there will be no racial or ethnic majority in the U.S. by 2050. We also know that there will be increasing recognition of the fluidity of gender and sexual identity. Fortunately, our multifaceted resistance is aware of these future trends. Our nation has turned to non-profits as essential leaders in this struggle to defend cherished values, particularly diversity.

Given this renewed political momentum to supporting diversity, what are non-profits themselves actually doing? As an immigrant woman of color who is also a Muslim, I have found my professional journey as a leader in this sector to be a complex one. I have often been in the position of being a “first”first brown woman, first immigrant, first Muslimin several different contexts. Even though I now take these experiences for granted, I understand that this is not what our community seeks.

Universal Agreement on the Centrality of Diversity and Inclusion

Let’s begin by understanding what we mean by diversity, a topic with a range of conceptual views. Diversity focuses on underrepresented groups with regard to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and other visible and nonvisible characteristics. Diversity is also often used interchangeably with representation, i.e., the extent to which participants in the organization reflect its constituents. Almost all liberal non-profits view diversity as encompassing at least race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability and socioeconomic background. Their reasons for this unanimity are numerous and well known.

First and foremost, there’s a moral and social justice imperative for equity. In the nonprofit sector, social movements related to the equality and rights of different “identity groups” play an important role. As organizations whose goal is to make the world a better place, there is no question about the justness of the cause for inclusion.

Second, diversity enables many non-profits to deliver on their missions. Although much of the current research on the benefits of diversity is focused on the private sector, the same outcomes would also hold true for non-profits. Studies indicate that diversity can boost the quality of decision-making and that a diverse workplace encourages people to be “more creative, more diligent, and harder-working.” Studies have also shown that a more diverse staff can foster enhanced innovation. Companies that are more gender diverse are 15% more likely to outperform others; those which are ethnically diverse, 35%.

In a non-profit context, when board members, employees, and others who inform the values of a non-profit come from a wide array of backgrounds, each brings a unique perspective that shapes how the mission is advanced, problems are solved, and innovation is achieved. In addition, many non-profits focus on marginalized communities, or at least want such communities represented within their ranks. In all these situations, diversity is known to increase a non-profit’s ability to listen to, and empower, its beneficiaries.

Finally, given the increasingly multicultural nature of our future society, promoting inclusion today also builds a future corps of leaders who will learn to thrive in a more complex terrainan essential ingredient for our collective success.

A Reality: The Diversity “Deficit”

While there is strong commitment to diversity in the progressive world, there lies a significant gap between ideals and reality. This is evident both in the data about people of color and women as well as the lack of information about others who work in the non-profit sector. Here are three key diversity gap “headlines.”

#1: The overwhelming and best documented diversity deficit in non-profits relates to race.

Research indicates that while people of color represent 30% of the American workforce, only 18% of non-profit staff and 22% of foundation staff comprise people of color. Of course, these are average numbers for a broad-ranging sector. Racial diversity will vary by issue area. For example, while one can anticipate greater racial diversity in non-profits focused on civil rights, a recent survey indicates that environmental nonprofits lack such diversity.

A 2015 study found that only 8% of non-profit executive directors were racially diverse and a 2013 study found that 92% of foundation executive directors were white. In addition, while 64% of the country is white according to the US Census, 89% of CEOs and 80% of board members of non-profits are white.

#2: Another critical diversity deficit relates to women’s leadership.

Leadership roles for women are also a challenge. As a non-profit professional, I know I work in a sector where the vast majority of workers and volunteers are women — 75 percent as of 2011. But only 45% of women hold top non-profit positions.

#3: The diversity deficit is not fully documented.

Information on dimensions of diversitysuch as LGBTQI, ethnicity, religious affiliation (including atheism), socio-economic background, disability and agebeyond race and gender is not generally readily available. However, we are making progress. For example, a 2017 survey indicates that 20% of non-profit employees who identified as LGBTQ said that their sexual orientation had at least a “slightly negative” impact on their careers. Although we can draw some conclusions from existing trends, data on “intersectionality,” or the multiple identities of a single individual, remains elusive.

How to Address This Diversity Deficit?

Non-profits face a diversity deficit. How do we overcome this gap to build and maintain diversity and inclusion? There are numerous responses to this question at the institutional and personal levelboth of which are familiar to me as a practitioner in the field.

No matter what our vantage point is, the stakes have never been higher. Non-profits are our conscience. More than ever, in the Trump Era, non-profits must “walk the walk” of diversity. We must have the courage to challenge assumptions and biases that are embedded within society as well as our charities so that we can unite further in our common vision for the future.

The next posts in this series will explore the different ways in which non-profits can further promote diversity and inclusion at all levels, particularly within their leadership ranks.



Anika Rahman

Empowering People for a Just Society. Champion for human rights, repro rights and health, gender justice, social justice, climate and DEIB. www.anikarahman.org