Revving the Engines and Kicking Up Some Dirt – Blog post by Melissa Huff

At the most recent Shine the Light Nonprofit Forum, we learned that diversity and inclusion are the fuel that accelerates your organizations’ mission. But we quickly realized that it often involves a willingness to get dirty when it comes to delving into our differences. Dealing with diversity and inclusion in our organizations requires honest introspection to admit our own blindspots and prejudices about our team members, stakeholders and those we serve. Inevitably it means being willing to deal with sensitive topics such as ethnicity, age, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, socioeconomics, religion, philosophy and beliefs just to name a few, which are at the heart of our very identity as human beings.

Anyone who has been in a relationship knows that people are complicated and unpredictable, and that being committed to truly understanding and learning to trust someone means working through conflict. When many different kinds of people come together in the context of work, it is bound to lead to tension, conflict and even polarity the more extreme the perspectives. So, “Why stir up the mess? Why kick up the dirt and risk further distancing people when emotions are running high?” Because your organization can’t truly thrive without the valuable combination of insights, talents, skills, experiences and perspectives that only a diverse team can bring.

Furthermore, the more individuals and groups can relate to your organization and see themselves represented, the more powerful your mission and the greater impact you will have in the community. The stark truth is that identity is tied to our sense of belonging, and when we don’t see ourselves represented in an organization or represented in a less than positive light, we believe that we don’t belong. This is most obvious with the aspects of diversity that we see and hear—race, sex, age, language, body—but it is also true of our intrinsic differences and how those translate into our actions and organizational culture.

The previous Shine the Light workshop was focused on culture—what makes up a collective culture and how it can have a profound impact on an organization’s success or failure. Diversity and inclusion go hand-in-hand with culture. I would argue that together diversity and inclusion (two sides of the same coin) influences culture more than anything else because it mirrors the organization’s greatest asset—it’s people.

People approach diversity and inclusion in various ways, but the insightful discussion group that I was part of at the workshop determined that they basically fall into three points of view: Diversity and inclusion as 1) Required or mandated from above, 2) Appreciated, but not valued, or 3) Valued and implemented. These days many companies, including nonprofits, have policies that require human resources to recruit a certain number of minorities in order to be more representative.

Although in many ways policies such as affirmative action may be necessary in order to ensure racial and ethnic diversity, it may not always lead to better cultural outcomes if it is not supported and embraced by the entire organization. Second, many people are appreciative of diversity when they notice it but have the attitude that when it happens it’s a good thing, but if it doesn’t there is not much that can or should be done about it. In other words, they may say that they value diversity and inclusion, but their actions tell another story. Lastly, the most effective and powerful organizations fully embrace diversity and inclusion by intentionally making it a high priority in every area, demonstrating by their actions that each member of the team is valued and committed to working together.

Diversity and inclusion is not just about who is hired or who gets promoted. It’s not about a values statement or even policies, though those are often helpful and necessary. It is about leaders and individuals being convinced that diversity is not just good for the team, but critical to a healthy, vibrant culture and a mission-driven team that pushes ahead of the pack. Pursuing diversity and inclusion is a messy and tedious process, but it is worth getting a little muddy in order to drive your organization further and faster toward positive social change that will make the journey better for everyone. So hold on tight, start your engines, and keep your eyes on the horizon!

Posted October 17, 2016 in: Blog by Debbie Nelson

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