Waiting for unicorns: The supply and demand of diversity and inclusion


unicorn memeThe question I am asked most frequently—after “Vu, have you tried using Proactiv?”—is “Vu, would you consider joining so-and-so board/committee? If not, can you connect me to other leaders of color who might be interested?” Apparently, everyone is having a hard time finding people of color for their board of directors and 80’s-karaoke-night planning team.

There are tons of reports and articles with depressing statistics about diversity in nonprofit leadership at all levels. Here’s an eye-opening article called “The Nonprofit Sector Has a Ferguson Problem,” which cites several stats that make me want to stay in bed streaming Netflix for the rest of the year:

  • only 8% of board members are people of color,
  • nearly a third of nonprofit boards don’t have a single board member of color
  • only 7% of CEO/EDs are people of color
  • only 18% of nonprofit staff are people of color
  • only 5% of philanthropic orgs are led by people of color

This is alarming when so many—probably the majority of—clients served by the nonprofit sector are from communities of color. To the sector’s credit, however, people are trying really hard to be more inclusive. According to this informative report from Board Source, in 2010 only 28% of surveyed nonprofit leaders were satisfied with the diversity of their current board, and 71% believed that more diversity would lead to increased effectiveness.

There is clearly a problem, and people are starting to recognize it. Finding people of color to join boards is like hunting for four-leafed clovers. Which is why there is a lot of advice for the sector, including on how to increase one’s chances:

  • Having organizations publicly disclose board composition on 990s
  • Funders requiring organizations that don’t have strong diversity to have a plan to diversify
  • Trying more culturally competent outreach strategies such as using ethnic media
  • Creating and formalizing organizational diversity policies
  • Bringing people on in groups of two or three to reduce isolation
  • Creating an organizational/board culture that is welcoming of people with diverse backgrounds, such as by having culturally-appropriate snacks like spring rolls.

These are all great and may work in the short term. But the huge problem with our sector’s diversity strategies is that they increase demand without increasing supply. Doing this just ups the burden that leaders of color have to bear. The focus on equity and cultural competencies have led to us being approached constantly to be involved or to give pro-bono guidance. Nonprofit leaders of color like me stretch ourselves thin, engaged in multiple efforts outside our organizations. We do it because we know well-meaning-but-actually-terrible decisions (aka, WMBAT decisions) often get made if we’re not there. (See “When wombats go wild: Cultural competency at the mezzo and macro levels.“)

Four-leaf_cloverBut there are not many of us, so we are tired. If the sector really wants to solve this diversity gap, we cannot just keep believing that there is magical land full of unicorns and people of color anxious to join the next advocacy or development committee, and that we just need to find it. Things need to change significantly, and systemically, on the supply side. Things that we haven’t even thought are relevant to this discussion. Here is what I recommend, to start, and if some of these suggestions sound familiar, it’s because they constantly need to be on the forefront of everyone’s mind:

Fund communities-of-color led nonprofits. If you’ve ever hunted for four-leafed clovers, you know that only 1 out of 10,000 clovers or so will be lucky. Well, imagine if there’s a special patch that’s miraculously 90% four-leaf clovers. Wouldn’t you want to pay special attention and give extra water to that patch to make sure it’s successful? You know how only 18% of nonprofit staff are people of color in the field? Well, here’s a fun fact: 95% of staff of nonprofits led by communities of color are people of color! If we grow these organizations to be successful, they become awesome and reliable and expanding sources of dedicated, qualified professionals of color. (See “Are you or your org guilty of Trickle-Down Community Engagement?”)

Support pipeline programs targeting bringing leaders of color into the field. If we want professionals of color in the field, we can’t just hope they’ll magically appear. We need to actively support and help them develop. That’s what my organization, Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), is doing: We are recruiting passionate emerging leaders of color, providing them with ongoing mentorship and training, and sending them to work full-time to develop the capacity of community-of-color-led nonprofits. The first cohort of twelve leaders will start this September, and a new cohort will be added each year. We need programs like RVC to succeed and to be replicated everywhere.

Fund leadership programs specifically targeting leaders of color. There are tons of leadership programs out there, and the mainstream ones are always better funded. And then they have trouble recruiting people of color to enroll. Meanwhile, there are great leadership programs exclusive to leaders of color, and they always struggle for funding. Fund them! Being a leader of color is exhausting, as I talked about earlier in “The Game of nonprofit and how it leaves some communities behind.” If we do not have programs teaching us how to navigate both the mainstream nonprofit system, as well as our own sometimes-crazy cultural dynamics, how are we supposed to be effective? One program, of which I am an alum, is United Way of King County’s Project LEAD. I went through that nearly a decade ago, and still use stuff I learned there.

Support up-and-coming leaders of color. Since I started writing this blog, I frequently get emails from professionals of color who are very frustrated about and hurt by the dynamics at their organizations. They often get paid less and are more likely passed up for promotions. And often they are pressured to tackle disproportionately burdensome responsibilities that come with being people of color, such as leading cultural events and educational workshops, interpreting, translating, and representing their orgs at diversity discussions. Check in with your staff of color. Review your org’s compensation to make sure it’s fair and equitable. Check your workload distribution to make sure professionals of color are not unfairly burdened. And support them to develop professionally, including joining other organizations’ boards and committees. If we all do that, we will increase the number of professionals of color who have the time and energy and skills to do stuff, and the field will be better for it.

Change hiring policies and practices. Our hiring practices suck for many people, especially those from marginalized communities. I’ll write more about this later, but basically, so many people of color get passed up because they don’t have the best resume or cover, so they don’t make it to interviews. Or they don’t say exactly the right things on interviews. But isn’t it hypocritical to say we value diversity, and then penalize people because they have diverse experiences and ways of presenting themselves? I recommend, unless it’s absolutely critical, to not make college degrees a requirement on job listings. And hire for passion and dedication; you can teach everything else. 18 percent of professionals being people of color is unacceptable, and mainstream hiring practices are a significant part of the problem.

Change inequitable nonprofit dynamics, especially funding dynamics: As I mentioned repeatedly in the past, the current nonprofit structure, especially the funding structure, is deeply inhospitable to communities of color. The relationship-based funding model is inequitable, since communities of color don’t have the same strength of relationships. Restrictive one-year grants are crappy and disproportionately affecting marginalized communities. And relying on the best-written grant, based on mainstream definitions of “capacity” and “readiness” are also leaving people behind. These dynamics inequitably affect people and nonprofits of color. If POC-led nonprofits are barely surviving, how are their leaders supposed to be focusing time and energy to be involved with mainstream efforts such as collective impact and 80’s karaoke night? And then we wonder why there are not enough people of color to go around.

All of us are pretty much in agreement that diversity is awesome and leads to increased spring rollseffectiveness. The data overwhelmingly supports this. (It’s midnight. Please don’t make me cite studies. Just Google it). This is why everyone is scrambling to find talented people of color to add to their team. But being more inclusive and just waiting and hoping to get lucky is not enough. The sector needs to be proactive. This increase in the demand, if it does not come with an equal increase in the supply, is exhausting the current leaders of color in the field. We are tired, you guys. We cannot keep getting asked to do stuff. Please, send reinforcement. And tell them to bring spring rolls.


In an effort to generate discussion, I am asking for your thoughts in the comments below. You can write what you like, or, if you’re very busy, just choose one or more of the pre-written comments below:

A. Vu, I completely agree with you. We can’t just increase demand without working on supply.
B. Supply and demand? I got into this sector to avoid talking all them fancy words.
C. I completely disagree with you. There are plenty of people of color in the field. We just need to find them.
D. Can you talk more about House of Cards?
E. You really should try Proactiv. It worked for my cousin.

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