The Third Sector Report By Jeffrey Wilcox

Walking The Talk Of DiversityJeffrey Wilcox - The Third Sector Report

November 6th, 2012 – Next year will mark the 50th anniversary that Dr. Martin Luther King changed the world in only 17 minutes as he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declared, “I have a dream.”

In his infinite wisdom, Dr. King advocated that American society must have, as its destiny, the ability for people from all walks of life to lock arms to unlock the human potential that lies within all people. Most agree that nonprofit organizations hold the greatest promise to foster the dream in local communities.

But, how has the nonprofit sector faired in leading that transformation?

The answer is “not well” and the scorecard to prove it has been widely researched: The numbers of nonprofits that claim to value diversity is high, but the numbers that actually transform their values into measurable actions are low; and, the gap that exists between the demographics of society and the demographics of the nonprofit workforce and their boards of directors are, in reality, a chasm.

Cultivating diversity requires a heavy hand from the top and an admission that the way in which the nonprofit sector has chosen to assume its leadership responsibility in these matters has fallen short.

The first shortcoming is not connecting the dots between demographics and culturally competent leadership. It is astounding the numbers of community leaders who are unaware of how cultures, other than their own, make community decisions, raise their children, treat their elders, define gender roles, approach philanthropy, and celebrate success. What is it going to take for us to realize that reporting diverse demographics alone doesn’t prove an organization’s cultural competency to leverage a community’s diversity for the common good?

A second shortcoming is adding socio-economic barriers to community leadership rather than being on the front lines advocating for their removal. Where would the nonprofits of Dr. King’s era be today, for example, if each had mandated a “give or get fundraising policy” as the determining factor of a person’s candidacy to sit on the board of a great cause?

Another shortcoming is the belief that a person’s “friends” pave the pathway to an organization’s future. With 84 percent of the nonprofit board members in the U.S. being caucasian, when will we learn that most people’s friends demographically resemble themselves? Without some sort of change to this approach, aren’t we just encouraging more of the same?

Nonprofit organizations are the spawning grounds for the next generation of community leaders. The fourth shortcoming is that nonprofit leaders are grossly underestimating their legacies. Do the current sector leaders really want their current diversity scorecard perpetuated?

Walking the talk of diversity requires breaking bad habits, expressing tough love, and sometimes letting go of people whose difficulty with or discounting of the subject is holding people, communities and the entire nonprofit sector back.

Diversity training is no longer a consultant’s job. The nonprofit leader must be the teacher of his or her staff, board and volunteers to help each person understand cultural differences, welcome and embrace different ideas, and assure decisions are made that demonstrate cultural validation.

Adamantly defining a nonprofit’s “equity” is long overdue. The traditional business definition of the term can no longer fly when both a social profit and a financial profit are on the line. Today, the amount of time devoted to developing financial capital must be equaled or bettered by the same devotion to human capital.

The definition of “friends” has got to change. Nonprofit organizations have an obligation to forge new friendships in the community that should have been made across cultures years ago. And, as for teaching the next generation how to lead communities, “those who think they know” need to stand behind those who don’t and model how it’s done rather than stand in front of them and tell them.

Martin Luther King didn’t coin the phrase, “Get the Right People on the Bus” when it comes to organizations evolving from good to great. The expression’s intent is the right one: Go beyond counting colors and start measuring tangible evidence that an organization’s people are leveraging diversity. But, does the expression, alone, actually walk the talk of a culturally competent leader?

My guess is that Rosa Parks would say, “Absolutely not.”

(Jeffrey R. Wilcox, CFRE, is president and chief executive officer of The Third Sector Company, Inc. Join in on the conversation about this article on Facebook or drop us a line at jwilcox@thirdsectorcompany.com)