Everyday Diversity

by Danielle Holly
Apr 18, 2017 12:15 PM ET
Campaign: The Big Idea

Everyday Diversity

by Danielle Holly, Common Impact 

Earlier this month, I sat in a room alongside 400 nonprofit sector leaders at the Center on Effective Philanthropy’s annual conference – all of us still trying to find our footing in the wake of regressive and unjust social policy announcements from Washington, D.C., and the resulting fresh challenges facing our organizations and the communities we serve.  Grant Oliphant, CEP’s Board Chair, opened the conversation with sobering, resonant words.

“The arc of history that many of us may have felt was fitfully, but with some hope, bending towards justice in our lifetimes feels suddenly as though it has been ripped from the hands of progress by forces that want to bend it backward into some ugly reimagining of a past that never was.” [1]

Oliphant’s words did not convey hopelessness, but they did underscore how critical it is that we find our footing and march on in our work towards greater equality and justice.  And that includes not losing sight of the everyday inequities that we see and often ignore – in our conversations, in our work, in our personal and professional relationships. Over the past few months, the Common Impact team has been reflecting deeply – and at times, painfully – on our role in reaching these seemingly far off goals of true diversity, equity, and inclusion, looking at our sector, our partners, and our organization.    

Our Sector

Volunteering is white.  According to a telling report released in 2015 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals who are white and highly educated are most likely to have the opportunity to volunteer.  It makes sense.  White, highly educated individuals tend to have higher income and greater opportunities for advancement, which comes with the luxury of “disposable” time.  Americans working two or more jobs to make ends meet, who can’t afford expensive child care, or need to provide primary care for elderly parents or other family members, often don’t have the option to volunteer. 

And if volunteering is white, skills-based volunteering is even whiter.  Those highly educated individuals who are more likely to volunteer are also more likely to use their skills to do so (such as professional or management assistance, tutoring, etc.) versus those without a bachelor degree who are more likely to engage in traditional hands-on volunteering efforts, such as preparing and serving food.    

Beyond volunteerism, we know that the nonprofit sector overall isn’t representative of the communities we serve.  Indeed, 84% of nonprofit staff and 86% of nonprofit boards are white. [2]  Common Impact itself reflects all too well the nonprofit sector’s challenge with diversity. Our staff is 100% white and 85% female.  Our Board is 90% white and 73% male.  And, as is also reflective of the overall sector, while we’ve had intense conversation internally about how to shift this imbalance when it comes time to recruit new board and staff members, we’ve found that our networks perpetuate themselves and that we continue to attract candidates with similar backgrounds. 

Our team has been asking ourselves how we can break out of this harmful cycle: specifically, what strategies we can use to bring a broader perspective to bear so as to transform Common Impact into an organization that is more representative of the communities where we work. 

Our Partners

Common Impact enjoys the privilege of working with companies who recognize that they have a strong role to play in advancing social justice and equity.  Many of these companies have entire teams of people working to increase the diversity of their own employees and figuring out how to partner with nonprofits to improve neighborhoods across the cities where they are based.  Common Impact’s programs – customized, skills-based consulting engagements with nonprofits – tend to be offered as opportunities to “high performers” from our partner corporations.  And, while these teams are strong, they also tend to be homogenous, representing those within a company who were selected to move forward to the next level of leadership, those who had the time to “go the extra mile”, those with some level of privilege. 

It is our responsibility to question that homogeneity and to bring the importance of diversity – of thought, of background, of race, of gender – into each conversation we have with our corporate partners as they shape these programs.  We all know the business case for this approach is strong.  Companies with a more diverse employee base outperform those who don’t recruit and retain with diversity in mind. [3] But these metrics don’t matter if they’re not brought into strategy conversations, if they don’t have a role in shaping our programs, if they remain salient concepts instead of everyday practice.

Our Organization 

Common Impact is an organization that helps strengthen other nonprofits, so our team understands that our impact is mediated through the tremendous work of our partners.  We know that deploying skills-based volunteers to implement a database solution for a homeless shelter is ultimately going to result in a stronger and more consistent roof over the heads of those in need.  We know that working with a food bank to streamline its warehouse operations is going to get more food into the mouths of our hungry neighbors.  We don't get to see the people we’re supporting every day, but we nonetheless know that the work we’re doing is important and makes a difference.  Still, given this distance, we have to be careful not to lose sight of those we ultimately serve.  At Common Impact, we have committed ourselves to working with partners to actively expand beyond our existing networks – not just when it’s time to recruit a new team member, but every single day.  That means renewing our commitment to hearing directly from the clients of our partner organizations: what do they need out of the organizations that serve them, and how can we help build capacity to direct resources to those areas?  We have committed to prioritizing Common Impact budget dollars for professional development with a focus on increasing internal competencies and awareness of implicit bias and the day-to-day impact of discrimination.  We have started a rigorous assessment of our staff and board, including crafting measures to hold ourselves accountable for both breaking down barriers and breaking out of our own homogeneity.  We are just getting started, but the cultural shift is underway, and we are embracing it as a team, with openness and a desire to learn from those who have already made progress on this front.   

At Common Impact, we are grateful to the entire breadth of our community – for working with us, for learning with us, and for allowing us to share our story even as we continue to write it.  Here, as a starting point, I’ve laid out the challenge.  Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing our successes and our progress, the ways in which we’re getting proximate and the stories of our friends and partners who are working every day to improve the neighborhoods in which we live, work, and play.  We hope you’ll join us and share your own.  

 [1] Oliphant, Grant, Transcript from 2016 CEP Opening Reception

 [2] Schwartz, Robert, James Weinberg, Dana Hagenbuch, and Allison Scott, The Voice of Nonprofit Talent Common Good Careers and Level Playing Field Institute

 [3] Hunt, Vivian, Dennis Layton, and Sara Prince, Why Diversity Matters, McKinsey 2015