Leading from Experience: Why Diversity Is Critical for Nonprofits
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When I stepped into the leadership role at Chicago Scholars more than a year ago, I began searching for other nonprofit leaders of color so we could share and learn from our common experiences in navigating the nonprofit landscape. I knew I'd have to look far and wide for these peers, as it's common knowledge in our world that diversity is lagging at the highest levels — even among organizations serving diverse communities. But I didn't realize just how challenging it would be to find a nonprofit CEO who looks like me.
It turns out nearly 80% of nonprofit board chairs, executive directors or CEOs are non-Latinx white, according to a recent Urban Institute study. I initially only found one person of color who is a Chicago nonprofit CEO — Jonathan Swain of Link Unlimited Scholars — and he's stepping down to run for Congress, so the field has narrowed even further.
When I recently read stories about Brian Flores, the former Miami Dolphins head coach who is suing the NFL for hiring discrimination, I immediately drew a parallel to the lack of diversity among nonprofit leaders. While the NFL is a wealthy sports league and quite different from my own Chicago Scholars, I feel a connection to Flores and the isolation he must experience as a person of color trying to obtain a coveted top coaching job.
Since the Flores story broke, the Pittsburgh Steelers have hired the coach as a defensive assistant. Some sports writers say he's overqualified for that and question why he was let go after two consecutive winning seasons in the first place. You don't have to be a football fan, like I am, to see there's a problem when a successful Black coach is unexpectedly fired in a league where only two of 32 head coaches are Black. Flores still hopes for a promising future with the NFL, but, to his credit, he's continuing with his lawsuit. We'll see if the resolution and publicity bring some needed change.
So what does the NFL situation have to do with the similar lack of diversity in nonprofit leadership? Consider this: Many former players who are people of color are collegiate coaches or assistants in the NFL. With this readily accessible talent pool, why isn't there more diversity at the top? The same could be asked about nonprofits. Most have diverse middle and even upper ranks, but that's not translating to the CEO level.
A major reason in both industries is that we don't effectively create defined pathways to leadership where much of the talent resides — in our own organizations. Moving toward the top job can be a real challenge. In addition, leaders tend to pull from their familiar networks when filling critical roles, rather than reaching beyond that close circle. This can lead to a leadership tree where every branch is devoid of racial diversity.
Chicago Scholars, which helps academically ambitious students from under-resourced communities become college graduates, is trying to fix this. We are influencing our values of READI (Racial Justice, Equity, Accessibility, Diversity and Inclusion) into every aspect of our organization to ensure people of color, first-generation college students and individuals from low-income backgrounds have seats at the table and are fully seen. We work with many organizations to teach the concepts of READI and promote fair treatment and access for those who historically have been excluded from opportunities to gain influence.
Many people of color who have overcome great challenges have exceptional leadership potential. They can increase an organization's reach and social relevance by introducing fresh perspectives and lived experiences. We've certainly seen this at Chicago Scholars with our program graduates whom we have hired. This currently includes 12 interns and seven full-time staff, plus four board members. I believe our scholars, and other young people like them, are the future of C-suites throughout the country.
That's because organizations are learning — or will soon learn — they are less effective when they lack diverse leadership. Their mission loses relevance, even fundraising suffers. The COVID-19 and racial injustice pandemics have taught us that diverse thought and identities are necessary for solving problems, particularly for nonprofits that address poverty. Solutions created in single-perspective silos likely won't adequately address community dynamics. It's like building a mobile app without testing it among target customers.
So yes, diverse leadership matters — whether in the NFL, a nonprofit or a corporation. My experience at Chicago Scholars is a good example. I'm a first-generation college student who grew up in a lower-income part of Chicago, just like most of our students. I can authentically connect with them — I understand what they've gone through and the unique obstacles they face.
I want to stress that I'm not saying it's impossible for people to deeply understand a reality they haven't lived. There are a lot of white nonprofit leaders who are doing an extraordinary job. The important thing is to surround yourself with diverse perspectives on your executive team and board, and empower people to speak their truths.
So what can you do if you see a lack of diversity and diverse thought in your internal leadership team and among those who have potential to move into higher positions? These ideas can help you make some progress and, eventually, a lasting impact.
Look at your board. In addition to providing direction, a diverse board can be a valuable pipeline of talent as high-level staffing needs arise (Swain, the CEO I referenced earlier, previously served on his organization's board — just one of many examples). Have a candid conversation with your members about the importance of diversifying their ranks, then encourage and support them in a recruitment drive.
Identify and communicate your goals. We developed qualitative and quantitative goals for staff and board demographics, then backed them up with a work plan. This is part of our strategic plan, so we're held accountable and continuously tracking progress.
Listen and change. Have courageous conversations and be ready to hear tough things from staff, partners and others. Be open to what they have to say and willing to change direction when necessary. It's essential to occasionally move outside your comfort zone.
Make an investment. At Chicago Scholars, we've invested money and time in executive team and board training with diversity, equity and inclusion leaders. This started with an assessment of current practices, followed by learning and planning that led to organizational changes. The process has been rewarding and worth the investment. We now deliver similar training to organizations to help them reap the same benefits.
I believe even the NFL can chart a new course if its leaders implement some of these ideas. Who knows, maybe they already are moving toward a better future, especially with Flores bringing attention to hiring practices.
But most of us can't influence professional football. We can, however, ensure that our own organizations are doing all they can to find diverse leaders of tomorrow. It could take a little more effort — your next CEO might not be the most obvious person or the one standing in front of you. But it's work worth doing — both for the people you employ and the people you serve.