Why Diverse Non-Profit Employees Leave: Retention Woes of Non-Inclusive Workplaces
You consider yourself a pretty good employer. You are doing everything you possibly can to retain productive, reliable, talented employees. You try and recruit candidates of diverse backgrounds and identities. You pay a reasonable wage for reasonable hours. You give your staff vacation time, and paid family leave, and generous sick time. Federal holidays? Off and paid. Health insurance, trainings, conferences for free. You accommodate employees with disabilities. You even allocate some money to the employee resource groups, and your staff really seemed to enjoy the mandatory staff yoga retreat last year. In fact, as the boss, you never really hear anyone grumbling or complaining about working for your company -- the feedback you get is always pretty good. Best of all, you head a non-profit. So you're a good employer, employing good people doing good work.
And yet, you are experiencing retention issues, particularly around your most diverse staff. What are you doing wrong?
As a non-profit employer, you have a hard and complicated job. It's a web interwoven with employee personalities, requests and demands, grants and funders and boards (and their requests and demands), with meetings and emails and success stories. Most of all, you serve a community that depends on you. You are trying to do right by a lot of people, including your employees.
But -- and I say this with true compassion and respect for your role -- if the people you have so thoughtfully hired are getting fed up with things you cannot or will not see, if you're taken aback because your most diverse staff have walked out or quit, then you're not doing enough.
So what are you missing?
Diversity Alone Does Not Guarantee Inclusion or Equity
In 2019, we watched as the staff of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) -- the nation's leading think tank for transgender policy issues -- walked out in protest of the treatment of employees of color and the failure of the organization to effectively improve working conditions. Soon after, the majority of staff resigned from the organization when management failed to meet their demands for more equitable workplace culture and leadership. According to its site, NCTE "advocates to change policies and society to increase understanding and acceptance of transgender people... NCTE works to replace disrespect, discrimination, and violence with empathy, opportunity, and justice." Without a doubt, NCTE is a group of good people doing good work -- and yet, unquestionably, something must have been terribly wrong for 2/3 of their staff to walk away at once.
Although few non-profits endure this kind of public fall-out, NCTE is certainly not alone in experiencing this type of internal turmoil. People of color are grossly under-represented in non-profit staff and leadership, despite receiving the majority of non-profit services. Of those who obtain positions of power and influence, many executives of color are leaving non-profits, not due to lack of qualification or passion, but because of chronic undermining, lack of support by board, staff and funders, and fatigue that results. Barriers to opportunity and leadership development in non-profits are exponentially compounded for LGBTQ+ people of color, who experience multiple intersecting forms of bias simultaneously. As a result, talented people of color (LGBTQ+ or not) just don't stay, and the real bottom-line cost to organizations like yours is staggering.
The reason this happens is simple: hiring a diverse team does not guarantee that you have an equitable and inclusive workplace worthy of their time and talent.
Diversity merely means representation of different backgrounds, characteristics, traits, and life experiences are present at the table.
In the U.S., every single law, regulation, policy, electoral remapping effort, housing development project, wealth distribution strategy, healthcare access initiative, etc. always maintain racist, classist, sexist, and ableist principles unless they are deliberately formulated to fight against them.
As Ibram X. Kendi argues in his incredible book How to Be an Antiracist:
"There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups."
Non-profits are not immune from replicating or sustaining oppressive systems. Without intentional efforts to combat them, non-profits will inevitably perpetuate these harmful systems within themselves -- despite their well-meaning missions and work.
However, because of those very same good intentions and good work, non-profits are especially prone to deep denial of the fact that they are complicity harming their diverse staff and the vulnerable communities they serve, and thus never take the steps necessary to create a truly inclusive organization.
Creating an inclusive workplace requires (1) a deep understanding of systemic oppression that works against the success of historically marginalized people, and (2) taking proactive steps to combat these systems through intentionally anti-racist and anti-oppression policies and practices that create authentic engagement.