Why Nonprofit Organizations Need Chief Diversity Officers

The Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) at the Urban Institute explains why it is important to re-confirm and re-establish the need to keep making progress on the important work of equity and inclusion in nonprofit organizations to affect real change.

Why Nonprofit Organizations Need Chief Diversity Officers
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Why it is important to re-confirm and re-establish efforts to keep making progress on the important work of equity and inclusion.

A few months after I joined the Urban Institute in May 2022 as Urban’s inaugural Chief Equity Officer, Blue Avocado asked me to write about the role of the chief diversity officer (“CDO”) and why nonprofit organizations need such a role. Once I accepted the request, I immediately felt a heightened sense of responsibility to answer this question as clearly and convincingly as I could — because we are living in a moment in which the resistance to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in general and racial equity in particular seems to be growing in our country.

I offer these facts to support my assertion:

Given these facts, among others, it feels especially important to establish why nonprofit organizations, with the possible exception of those with very small staffs, need chief diversity officers to keep making progress on this important work within organizations.

To illustrate why nonprofits need chief diversity officers I’d like to share something I experienced at a DEI-focused workshop about three years ago. A white female executive director of a nonprofit shared with the audience the story of her board’s and organization’s DEI journey — a  journey that had included a few missteps but had ultimately resulted in considerable progress after three years of concentrated DEI efforts, with plans for continued  initiatives as the organization moved forward. Most of the audience appreciated the story that this leader shared, as well as the fireside chat in which I interviewed the executive director after her presentation. But during the break that took place afterwards, I was approached by another executive director of a nonprofit that focuses on environmental initiatives. She said to me, “Jim, that was a really interesting presentation and discussion. But I’ve got to ask you: does this DEI work apply to my board and organization?  You see, we’re just a nonprofit that focuses on the environment; we’re not involved in the hard core [emphasis added] work of affordable housing, community development, poverty, education, or health. So does this really apply to us?”

The answer I gave her is the answer that I’ll also share here: yes, it does apply to you.  I reminded her of the various ways in which environmental inequity and injustice plagues people of color. R.D. Bullard’s 1993 “Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots” is often cited as a seminal work in the field of environmental justice and provides a historical overview of the ways in which minority communities have been disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards.

Examples of environmental inequity and injustice include the water contamination crises in Flint, Michigan and now in Jackson, Mississippi, and higher exposure to air pollution and greater proximity to landfills and hazardous waste sites for communities of colors.

On a broader scale, all of us in the nonprofit sector should be dedicated to creating equitable conditions that lead to a just society. I would argue that this is core to the mission and purpose of the nonprofit sector.  And that means a focus on DEI and racial equity applies to you and me. We shouldn’t look for ways to opt out of DEI and racial equity work — we should be looking for ways to opt in.

Which brings us back to the rationale for why nonprofits need a chief diversity officer. Here’s my answer:

Nonprofits need a chief diversity officer because the chief diversity officer can keep the organization accountable. The chief diversity officer should assess the organization’s current status on DEI and racial equity as a whole; listen to the perspectives of staff members; amplify their concerns to senior leadership colleagues; and then participate in the organization’s decision-making processes to ensure that DEI and racial equity are always considered before any important decision is finalized.  In this way, the chief diversity officer can serve as the consistent conscience of the organization and help to ensure that  others do not lose sight of DEI and racial equity objectives over time or become distracted by other emerging objectives that may feel more urgent to them.

That’s not to say that organizations should get complacent and think to themselves: well, now that we’ve hired a CDO, the CDO will handle everything related to DEI and the rest of us can do what we’ve always done in the ways we’ve always done it. On the contrary, the chief diversity officer’s role is inextricably connected to driving change at all levels of the organization through these four stages (thanks to The Government Alliance on Race and Equity for inspiring this framing

Exploring Stage

The CDO can help the organization visualize what a diverse, inclusive, equity-focused organization would look like.

After the murder of George Floyd, many nonprofits contacted me and asked what they should do to “get off the sidelines,” as they put it, regarding DEI and racial equity work.  My response to them was to recommend that they ask themselves an exploring and visioning question: If we were to make a real commitment to DEI and racial equity at our organization, what would that mean for our mission, our work, and the people that we serve?

The CDO can use this question as a lead-in to a bigger picture conversation to assess the organization’s current level of commitment to DEI and racial equity status in its  operations. These areas may include HR policies and procedures; budgeting; procurement and supplier diversity; programming;  organizational culture;  its external connection to the community it serves through community engagement, research methodology and topics, marketing and communications; and its physical spaces.

Normalizing Stage

The CDO can facilitate the organization’s ability to build its capabilities regarding its understanding of DEI/racial equity concepts and its capacity to have conversations about DEI and racial equity. 

I believe that nonprofit organizations have to build their internal DEI and racial equity capacity before they can be successful in their external DEI and racial equity work.  The CDO can implement internal training on these concepts for staff members and also recommend other resources including articles, podcasts, TED talks and other videos that complement the DEI training so that the training will not feel like a “one and done” for staff members, but rather like a coordinated, sustained approach to centering equity into the culture of the organization.

Executing Stage

The CDO can develop the execution strategy for becoming a DEI and racial equity-focused organization.  

This stage ties back to the work that takes place in the exploring stage; the CDO can develop, in collaboration with other internal leaders and key internal and external stakeholders, an execution strategy that centers on the issues and opportunities for improvement that were identified in the exploring stage.

This strategy should encompass multiple years, since DEI and racial equity work requires sustained commitment. The CDO must obtain annual organizational buy-in to ensure that the organization’s budget is a reflection of its commitment to DEI and racial equity because, as the saying goes, a budget is a “statement of values.”

Institutionalizing Stage

The CDO can help the organization institutionalize its DEI and racial equity work. 

This is an extremely important step to ensure that the organization’s DEI and racial equity work will endure after CDO and/or other key leaders and stakeholders have departed the organization. The Government Alliance on Race and Equity has produced an excellent Racial Equity Toolkit that is designed for government and community-based organizations that want to engage deeply in the institutionalizing stage as well as the other stages that I have highlighted.

In Summary

Nonprofit organizations must play a key role in addressing the societal challenges regarding DEI and racial equity that we currently face. Chief diversity officers can lead the way on these issues and help us transform our organizations, and by extension our society, for good.

About the Author

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Jim Taylor is the inaugural chief equity officer at the Urban Institute. In this role, he provides vision and leadership across all aspects of Urban’s strategies and efforts to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion. Taylor comes to Urban from BoardSource, where for over three years he led BoardSource’s efforts to support nonprofit boards’ leadership on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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