Stop Sign: Diversity as the Nonprofit Bar Joke

A Nigerian, a Guatemalan, and a Korean walk into a bar.
A Catholic, a Buddhist, and a Jew walk into a bar.
Two Latino women walk into a bar.

It has gotten to the point where the issue of diversity in this sector sounds like the start of just another bad joke. We need to recruit more “diversity” has become “We need 2 of these and 1 of those” – tokenism, plain and simple.

I have written a lot about the red herring of diversity. And every time the issue becomes big news, I become more concerned that this sector still does’t see the “diversity” issue for what it really is.

Until the Community Benefit Sector realizes that diversity is a symptom, and not the real issue – that it is the finger pointing at the moon, and not the moon itself – we will continue to hear the CEO of the Council on Foundations expounding on the issue at CoF’s national conference, and we will continue to see articles like Gwen Walden’s recent (and very good) Chronicle of Philanthropy piece – and we will STILL see no more diversity and inclusion in our work.

And that makes the “Diversity Issue” a major STOP sign on the road to creating a better future for our world. (To see other Stop Signs in this series, just click here.)

STOP Sign: Diversity and Community Engagement
As I note in detail in the article at our website, Board Diversity: A Bigger Issue Than You Think, the issue at the heart of “Board Diversity” is usually a lack of meaningful Community Engagement, not just on the board, but in the very core of how the organization does its work.

A Community Engagement mindset is different from the typical nonprofit mindset in one critical way: Working “for” vs. working “with.” From foundations to providers to nonprofit resource centers to academic institutions to consultants, this whole sector works for a whole lot better than we work with.

This is not a semantic difference, but the difference that goes to the very heart of the change we are trying to create in our communities.

Here is what it might look like to work with the community:

The organization acts as the facilitator of community members, developing the program from the knowledge and wisdom of those individuals, and from the experience of the community as a whole. A program may be implemented by the organization, but it is created through the participation of the community that will use the program, all aimed at making that program as effective as possible for their population(s).

So what does this mean for diversity? Everything. Because whether your organization is a foundation or a hospital or a 3-person tutoring program, if the community targeted by your services is deeply involved in making your programs the most effective they can be, and is further involved in aiming those programs at the future you all want for your community, it would be unlikely “diversity” would still be an issue. It would be far more likely those individuals would already be visible throughout every aspect of your organization – as volunteers, as staff, and yes, as board members – not because they are Latino or gay or Muslim or elderly, but because they care and are already involved.

The article at our site goes into detail on how to move towards a more engaged model, and our Community Engagement Action Kit provides a step-by-step workplan for those efforts. But here’s my favorite example, and it is indeed from the foundation world.

Every Voice in Action is a small foundation in Tucson, Arizona. Its mission is “to ignite and support youth voice, infusing the community with the unique perspectives of young people.”

Every Voice in Action deeply engages the population it serves through its Youth Crew. You can read about their Youth Crew here, but the gist is that this is not just a “Youth Advisory Council.” This is a group of young people with full responsibility for granting $50,000 every year – determining areas of focus, writing and issuing the RFP, reviewing the proposals and making the final funding decisions.

How many organizations lament an inability to engage young people? How many are willing to do what Every Voice in Action has done, inviting those young people into the core of what it takes to run the show?

How many foundations are engaging the low income individuals they want their grant funding to impact? How many providers are doing so?

If we want to finally stop talking about diversity, we need to – well – stop talking about diversity. We need to stop the tokenism that has that priest, rabbi and nun walking into the bar – the tokenism of finding a low income elderly man, a young professional Chinese woman, a gay Latino. We need to stop aiming at the symptom, and start engaging folks in the core of our missions.

Do that, and the “diversity” issue will simply go away.

If anyone has any other examples of groups that really and truly engage the populations they work with, and can share how that has impacted the “diversity” issue, please let me know. These are the stories I love to collect and share!

One Response to Stop Sign: Diversity as the Nonprofit Bar Joke

  1. The problem with DIVERSITY is the fact that this college does not have a diversity program and the staff deny even knowing what an “affirmative action” program is. The problem with DIVERSITY is the fact that it only applies when white men are going to be the victims of it.

    When I was in the army this guy, a Korean, was shooting up morphin into his own body out of our stock. He was basically reprimanded and sent on his way. I will link him at the bottom of this page. DIVERSITY is a joke.

    Keep in mind that the economy is bad, white men are ANGRY and hungry and NOT ONE politician cares for the sake of DIVERSITY. Revolution is coming one way or the other.