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Jun 10, 2020
Posted Under: President's letter

Talking about and even doing something about the very real challenges of diversity and equity in the nonprofit sector is not a new topic for us and for many others across the country. And yet, the challenges remain. When I became CEO five years ago, Foraker took an additional step to advance our work by making diversity and equity central tenants in our plans. While we have taken many steps, we are far from where we want to be and where our sector needs to be for lasting change. Still, we have endeavored to bring thoughtful leadership, compelling data, and a range of national experts on the topic to Alaska’s nonprofits to not only keep the conversation going but to incite true reflection and change.

Admittedly we have struggled because often when we talk about this work the first response we get is “just give me a tool.” As a capacity building organization this is not a surprising request because indeed for some of the challenges we face in our sector there are tools – good ones – that make the work easier. In this case, there are certainly a few tools and a few agreed upon components to any plan but the truth is that the best tool is to commit to knowing why diversity matters to your mission, and there is simply not one path or one tool to start or continue that work.

I offer Foraker’s path as an example: Foraker was forged by our understanding that in this state racism and inequity is a lived experience for Alaska’s first people. When defining our ideology, we could have said that our core value was “Alaska” but that would have missed the essence and the energy of our work. We wanted to forever acknowledge where we work – the land we are on, the history and current oppression that is present, the divide that too often still exists between rural and urban Alaska, and the conscious work it takes to effectively work on a mission both with and within communities across Alaska. So we call this value “Urban/Rural/Native/Non-Native.” It says we acknowledge and honor the difference as important. It also reminds us that in the non-Native work there is also an important difference to acknowledge. For this reason, we have and will continue to speak up and use our voice and our privilege like we did last week when we reaffirmed Black Lives Matter.

Importantly, our core values also include “sustainability,” “strategic,” and “collaborative.” Together our core values are the underpinning of every belief and the context to each decision. Our path also brought us to dig more deeply as a team to articulate what these values tell us about our beliefs in this work. These include an understanding that:

  • The nonprofit sector is essential to our democracy. Nonprofits bring people together to create change and are a voice for civil society.
  • Nonprofits are a part of everyday lives. Alaskans rely on nonprofits every day to support our health and well-being, stand up for causes that matter, bring people together, teach our young, care for our elderly, and so much more. Donors, volunteers, and staff of nonprofits improve our people, our pets, and our planet in both visible and invisible ways every day.
  • Successful leaders are supported leaders. We need support from one another to achieve our greatest goals.
  • No organization can achieve their mission on their own. It is only when we connect, convene, and collaborate to strengthen relationships that we achieve something greater than ourselves and any one institution.
  • Leaders make better decisions when they represent the communities they serve. Decisions made with and within a community have the most impact.
  • Local leaders make things happen. Community change is driven by local leaders. Collectively they know best the needs and solutions for their community.
  • Strong nonprofits build strong communities. When nonprofits work together within and across sectors, they solve complex problems, create opportunities for quality of life, and offer valuable networks and connections that strengthen our sense of place.
  • Vibrant economies need nonprofits. Nonprofits contribute to the wealth and resources of each region in our state by creating jobs, leveraging resources, promoting philanthropic investments and engaging people in using their voice for the greater good.

I am sharing Foraker’s journey with you today, not because we always get it right or that we don’t have work to do, but for the opposite reason. Every year and every day we have to commit to looking deeper, to asking more, to listening more, and to learning more. That is our path and this is the work – to commit to being on the journey, to holding goals that stretch us and achieving them, and then tackling the next set and the next. Before I came to Foraker, I worked for a remarkable organization that held a vision to end discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. I learned. I strived. I wrestled with myself. I learned some more. I didn’t wake up every day thinking “today is the day we get there.” But every day I knew we were taking steps toward that vision. I knew and the team knew we were on the journey together. We knew it mattered. It still matters. I knew then and I know now that to begin, to keep going, to make mistakes, and to learn from them is the work regardless of which mission we are serving.

At Foraker we acknowledge that as a capacity builder we must meet people and missions where they are. We talk internally about our work as both “upstream and downstream.” That means that we can do much upstream by engaging in public policy to change the systems and structures and inspire essential conversations on diversity and inequity among our board and staff. At the same time, we must continue to work downstream by providing a variety of services for those who are currently doing the work. An example is our program for new executive directors. In the downstream environment we are not picking who gets those jobs but instead we are present to support the people who have them now. And even in the downstream work we take opportunities to raise issues of racial diversity, gender pay, and many other forms of inequity to move the whole sector forward. Indeed, downstream work does not mean quiet acceptance and acquiescence, it means the work toward equity and change starts in a different place.

As we approach each of these conversations upstream and downstream it is hard to find a meaningful generality that defines our work. However, we consistently come back to at least two ideas. First, your board needs to represent and reflect the community and the mission you serve. And second, your staff, and especially your leadership team, should be not just diverse but welcoming for people of color to stay and thrive in these jobs. This is true even more as we consider the intersection of gender, sexual orientation, and ability.

These are not new ideas. Data tells us that nonprofit experts and nonprofit leaders themselves have been talking about it for years. But we are not making enough headway. In fact, a Boardsource study in 2017 called Leading with Intent, noted that of the 1,700 participants in the study, 27% of them stated they were on boards with an all-white composition. The same study reported that over 60% of nonprofit executives and over 40% of board chairs are dissatisfied with the racial/ethnic diversity of their board. However, fewer than 20% of executives report including demographics as part of their recruitment process. There is plenty of data not just from that study but from others that say the nonprofit sector as a whole has much work to do.

Equally, there are nonprofits focused on specific populations that have appropriate racial/ethnically diverse board and staff. I am thinking about membership organizations like black fraternities and sororities, Hispanic or Korean cultural centers, or the NAACP, etc. But there are thousands more who serve communities of color, or predominantly women, or people who experience a physical or developmental disability, or the LGBTQ communities to name a few that do not see intersectionality in their boards or staff. Again, this is not a check-box solution – this is about acknowledging that until our organizations consciously commit to intersectionality in our board and staff leadership, we are missing the space to do mission better.

While we will continue to acknowledge that no one way or one tool exists to keep us on the path toward diversity and equity as a sector, we understand that this will frustrate some and give others the option they were seeking to opt out. What we will say is that the journey begins with a question – one that invites a group to deeply explore why and how a mission is better served when the board and staff are diverse. To that end, I want to share some resources with you that point out the essential work in front of us. Each board and staff team is in a different place in this process. If you are interested in reading more about the work we need to do in our nonprofit systems and structure, I encourage you to dive into these resources. Many of them are from people we have brought to Alaska and some are new. This is just a start. There is so much more out there because the challenges are widely documented. We are committed to doing more. To bringing you more. To doing better ourselves both board and staff.  Join us.

Research on the nonprofit sector’s racial leadership gap:

Articles and tools: A way forward for your organization