Beyond Diversity: One Funder’s Commitment to Building an Inclusive Nonprofit Sector

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the value and importance of inclusiveness and diversity in the nonprofit sector, including how funders can play a role in the conversation. The Denver Foundation has put its money where its mouth is in developing the Inclusiveness Project. Born out of an effort to better understanding shifting demographics in the Denver community, this initiative is a collaboration between the foundation’s staff, Board trustees, grantees, nonprofit leaders, and community members to create pathways and increase funding for building a sector that embraces inclusiveness.*

The groundwork for the project was first laid in 2001, when The Denver Foundation partnered with the Ford Foundation and Kellogg Foundation to dive into the connections between diverse leadership teams and program effectiveness. Today, the Inclusiveness Project is a funded program of the Denver Foundation which focuses on providing research, toolkits, consulting services, workshops, and grants to nonprofits in support of building more inclusive organizations.

We had a chance to speak with Adrienne Mansanares, Director of Community Leadership at The Denver Foundation, who oversees the Inclusiveness Project. We wanted to learn about the successes of the initiative to date and get ideas about how other organizations can implement some of the best practices learned through the project’s work.

* Note: While The Denver Foundation values all forms of inclusiveness, the primary focus of this project is on helping nonprofits become more inclusive of people of color.

Why Inclusiveness?

While in the nonprofit sector, diversity and inclusion are often talked about in the same breath, Adrienne pointed out an important difference between the two concepts and why inclusion should come first.

“Diversity and inclusiveness are not the same thing. Where diversity addresses WHO is represented in a group, inclusiveness is HOW all members’ values are incorporated into the policies and practices of the larger group. There may be a racially diverse staff but if employees from traditionally dominant cultures control decision-making, that’s not inclusive. Our goal is to help recognize the value of all of a group’s members in order to ensure that everyone has voice and influence.”

Another reason to focus on inclusiveness is related to organizational outcomes. Adrienne described a goal of the project’s work to connect inclusiveness efforts to an increase in racial equity and reduction in racial disparities in the community. In short, solutions that come from organizations that are more inclusive may be more effective at addressing the same issues within the communities they serve.

Six Steps to Inclusiveness

The Inclusiveness Project describes six steps that organizations can take in order to make a concerted, organized, and long-term effort to become more inclusive, including:

  • Step 1: Create a structure that will ensure that opportunities exist for everyone in the organization to participate in inclusiveness efforts. This step includes defining roles and responsibilities for the Executive Director/CEO, Board of Directors, management staff, and support staff, as well as identifying participants for an inclusion committee.
  • Step 2: Scope out the need for if, when, and how to engage outside consultants. Consider hiring a consultant or trainer to facilitate meetings or processes, conduct trainings, gather data, and measure the efficacy of trainings and inclusiveness initiatives.
  • Step 3: Define inclusiveness and diversity and create the case for inclusiveness in your organization. Specifically, define how inclusiveness will advance the mission, allow staff to engage more effectively with community members, lead to better decision-making, reduce costs (e.g. employee dissatisfaction, turnover), and bring other benefits to the organization.
  • Step 4: Gather information and conduct research. Look at available facts (e.g. demographics about staff and community served) and collect qualitative stakeholder perspectives. The Inclusiveness Project’s website offers a number of helpful information-gathering tools and worksheets to create a strong research plan.
  • Step 5: Create an inclusiveness blueprint. Informed by the data collected in the previous step, a strong blueprint will reflect internal agreement about key priorities, projected goals and outcomes, action items, methods for communicating progress and results, resource allocation, and milestones. Typically, blueprints define anywhere from an 18-month to 4- year scope of work.
  • Step 6: Implement the inclusiveness blueprint. Implementation will look different for every organization, depending on specific goals, resources, and timelines. The Foundation offers a few examples, such as plans to improve communications with communities of color or increase recruitment and retention of staff members of color.

A Starting Place

As not every organization will be able to invest the time and resources to invest in the above steps, Adrienne suggested a few ideas that can be implemented without a lot of pre-planning or resource allocation:

  • Take an organizational scan to identify what’s working and what needs work. An employee survey is a great way to collect this feedback. Look for trends and outliers from employee feedback to learn what the organization is doing well, as well as areas for improvement.
  • Create a welcoming environment. Take a close look at everything from an organization’s website to communications channels to office space. Learn what does not support inclusion and address it!
  • Hold broad conversations about diversity and inclusion topics. A discussion about a movie or book can be a way to start conversations that tend to create spaces where employees can begin to have honest conversations about perceptions of racial equity and inclusiveness.
  • Access free tools and resources. The Denver Foundation provides free access to research, case studies, worksheets, and trainings on its website. Foundations such as the Ford Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the Mott Foundation also offer resources related to organizational diversity and inclusiveness.
  • Get funders involved – and not just with funding. In addition to traditional funding, institutional funders can play an important role in information-sharing and cross-organizational learning.  The Denver Foundation hosts discussions with its grantees’ Board members and staff a few times every year for this purpose. These types of gatherings can help to build the case for support of organization-specific initiatives as well as elevate the topic to a sector-wide level.

Increasing inclusiveness isn’t easy, but through initiatives like the Inclusiveness Project, organizations can take steps to make meaningful change. In helping more than 300 nonprofits access inclusiveness planning and trainings during her tenure, Adrienne observed, “We’ve seen the vast majority of [these organizations] be able to reduce staff attrition, diversify Board recruitment, increase fundraising, and improve perceptions held by constituent groups. Inclusiveness is more than a ‘nice to have;’ it really makes a difference on an organization’s ability to sustain itself and effectively serve its community.”