October 13, 2021

What are Nonprofits Doing with Respect to DEI?  

In all likelihood, you feel tremendous pressure to align your nonprofit with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)* initiatives but are unsure how to proceed. To help you explore, plan, and continue your response, I interviewed eighteen nonprofit CEOs and leaders to discover other nonprofits activities.

The goal of these conversations? To help you gain practical insight into what others are thinking, doing, and accomplishing and apply the best to your work. This post shares leaders’ answers to “What is your nonprofit doing concerning DEI?”

Here are the edited answers divided into four categories and questions to guide your efforts.

From Temporary to Permanent Change

A frequent diversity, equity, and inclusion response leaders mentioned was establishing a group to tackle the challenge. Groups were composed of board members, staff, and often a mixture. While staff initiated most groups, board chars initiated two of the most robust. Groups often started as short-term teams, but when confronted with the size of the challenge, were transformed into permanent committees.


We started with a task force focused on racial diversity. This group moved to a board committee co-chaired by a staff and board member.

The executive director, board, and staff dig in monthly to look at organizational change.

We have a board committee to look at board DEI and social justice.

In 2015, we made DEI a shared value. The task force has now become a committee.

We hold a yearly staff retreat focused on our culture. This year we got more intentional and drove directly into DEI issues. In response, we created compensation, efficiency, and culture working groups.

We developed a diversity plan. It’s not a program or a one-off; it is core. We may not create a strategic plan, and we understand that we may fundamentally change, and we are open to it. 

Questions: How do your nonprofit view diversity, equity, and inclusion? Do you see the work as a temporary task or permanent work?


Education, Training, Programs, and Mentors

Given the sector’s solve-by-training focus, you won’t be surprised that another response was to participate in, fund, and dedicate resources to offer DEI education.

We started with intensive racial equity training. The executive director, board chair, and 25 percent of the board attended.

A local university offered a course, 60 percent of the board and all upper-level staff took it.

We are training our staff to get comfortable talking about race.

We’re making our DEI supportive culture more well known to staff, donors, and stakeholders. For example, this includes increasing staff’s understanding of their actions (i.e., “When I do this task this way, it  increases inclusion.”)

Before 2020, we offered training at our annual event. This year, we started a member’s DEI Assessment Program, including three facilitated conversations focused on implementation.

We offer customers peer-to-peer mentoring. Someone who likes you mentors you.

Questions: What role will education play in your diversity, equity, and inclusion work? How will you avoid the danger of “been there done that” that often results from stand-alone training?

Adjusting Spending Patterns and Expectations

Of course, any response to DEI involves an investment of time—often, as many participants mentioned,  more than anticipated. The response also included new spending.

We’ve applied for and received funding for DEI training.

We hired a great DEI consultant who focuses on our specialty to work with our members and board. 

We changed our grant investments and language to focus more on artistic merit and service to the local community.

We dropped our policy of requiring board members to donate. We also eliminated the requirement that our new CEO has a college degree.

We’re investing in a full-time staff member to work on internal and external social justice.

We hired a marketing firm that specializes in reaching the black community.

Questions: How are you investing in DEI? How are you balancing DEI needs with other time and budget demands? 

Venturing Out

Most nonprofit leaders in the study focused on internal work, aligning staff and boards. In some cases, the leaders actively shared their interior work with the community. Just a few ventured into actions beyond their doors.

We started a fellowship offering people of color coaching and resources to help them be more entrepreneurially successful. The three-year program allows nonprofit leaders to invest more time to create full-time executive director positions.

We’ve offered emerging artist grants for five years. These opportunities remove traditional entry barriers, i.e., college degrees, publications included in standard individual artist grants.

We co-created a community space with an indigenous group adjacent to our facility.

We moved into some BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) partnerships. One community meeting backfired; we discovered we didn’t have a clear enough goal. 

We had a well-thought-out community-wide program on the back-burner, and we moved it to the front.

Questions: Are your DEI efforts internal, external, or both? Are you sharing your work with your stakeholders? If not, what’s holding you back? How will you remove the barriers, if any? What is your plan to include your stakeholders in your efforts?


Moving Forward

DEI work is not quick, simple, or optional. It’s a profoundly complex issue that requires self-examination and hard work. The good news is that the benefits to nonprofits that do this work are immense. You’ll develop greater self-knowledge, more robust infrastructure, creative insights, and better solutions to deliver your mission.

Question: How will you use the insights you gained here about what other nonprofit leaders are thinking, doing, and accomplishing to further your DEI efforts?

Please don’t hesitate to reach out. While I’m not a DEI Consultant, as your trusted advisor, I can help get you to explore the place where you can effectively use one.


About the Participants

The interviewee’s budgets ranged from $120,000 to over a billion dollars a year. Subsectors included arts and culture, health, human services, and public, societal benefit from Florida, North Carolina, New York, Washington State, and Tennessee. This article focuses on potential best practices and represents a slice of the conversations.


*Like much around diversity, equity and inclusion, what to call social justice efforts is in flux and confusing. Some prefer IDEA, adding accessibility. Consultant Gwen Bridges teaches that inclusion is not always a goal for indigenous populations. In the interest of getting your information ASAP, I used DEI to describe efforts to create more just and inclusive communities.

More Resources

Increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are on your agenda, even if you didn’t place it there. You face pressure from funders, donors, staff, and board members to move forward on social justice. Not only that, many nonprofit leaders I speak to embrace that greater DEI is overdue–that it’s the right thing to do.
Few roadmaps to get there exists. And, given all you need to juggle, it can be daunting even to know where to begin.
This collection of resources invites you to get underway and continue your journey. Discover:
Do you have a specific issue you’d like to tackle? Please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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