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Improving Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Nonprofits: The Impact of Leadership, Authenticity, and AI

DEI in Nonprofits
In November, Hunt Scanlon interviewed Lindauer CEO Deb Taft as part of its Executive Search Review newsletter on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Taft discussed a number of factors that can help or hinder organizations’ efforts to recruit, retain, and engage talented individuals of diverse lived experience. Topics included building buy-in and support across an organization, understanding candidates’ expectations, and harnessing the benefits—and mitigating the risks—of AI.

This interview originally appeared in Hunt Scanlon’s November 2023 Executive Search Review newsletter, which you can read here.

How important is top leadership at nonprofits in driving diversity and inclusion?

Top leaders are absolutely vital to driving diversity and inclusion at nonprofits. On an operational level, leaders establish policies and practices that frame and activate a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and embed it into the fibers of the organization. On a personal level, a leader’s own behavior sets the tone and creates accountability; by modeling equitable and inclusive principles, they signal to the rest of the organization that no one is exempt from upholding DEI values and outcomes.

From their position at the nexus of the various units of an organization, top leaders actively instill DEI across and through their institutions rather than passively waiting for their commitments to trickle down to staff.

Lindauer search consultants too often encounter scenarios in which a manager will say, “My boss is really committed to diversity and inclusion.” When I hear this, my inner alarm goes off, because it indicates a gap between leadership and the teams whose work on the ground is so critical to advancing equity and inclusion. If a DEI strategy is bolted onto an organization without continuous internal acculturation work, mid-level managers and their teams are less likely to buy in to the program and more likely to go through the motions.

To build support and buy-in, leaders must push into and through their organizations to train and develop their teams—especially managers who are hiring, doing performance management, and creating day-to-day context for employees. When this happens, team members are activated. They absorb core tenets, participate in shaping them for the organization, learn new competencies, and contribute to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in a meaningful, sustainable way.

What can nonprofits do to better retain women and people of color?

To better retain women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ leaders, nonprofits can start by understanding why so many of these professionals are leaving their organizations right now. In general, leadership transitions are on the rise for a number of reasons, as leaders reassess their priorities or retire after postponing their retirement plans at the height of the pandemic.

While some women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ leaders may be stepping down for these reasons, there are other factors at play as well.

Many Black professionals, for instance, are disillusioned, having been promised active and sustained support only to watch that support wane. Following long overdue renewed focus on systemic racism in the summer of 2020, organizations made commitments to change their policies and practices on everything from staffing to resources to organizational structure. Black professionals joined organizations or ascended to leadership positions with the understanding that implementing change would be a shared responsibility—that the institution was dedicated to the difficult work of reckoning with systemic inequities and reorienting itself around the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Over the past three years, these professionals have found that, with the passage of time, institutional promises have gone unfulfilled and original mandates under-resourced and unsupported.

Yet another factor that contributes to retention challenges is when staff from minoritized groups are expected to conform to the established culture of an organization without the necessary understanding and support. Lindauer Vice President and Managing Director Faith Montgomery points out that managers can sometimes struggle to lead through this dynamic of differences if they do not have the right guidance and resources to draw upon. Supporting diverse staff requires being attentive to what they need in order to feel belonging and making an intentional effort to understand the challenges faced and the opportunities presented.

Leading organizations understand the costs of not living up to their ideals relating to DEI. Self-assessment tools can enable organizations to discern where they have strengths and weaknesses and where they need to make systemic changes. Rather than shrink from the scale of the work to be done, these organizations lean into it, truly looking inward to address the processes, procedures, cultural dynamics, and ways of being that create difficulties and foreclose opportunities for people of diverse lived experience.

You’ll know organizations are making progress when you see tangible results—for example, in how professional development resources are allocated or who has opportunities to form relationships with key leaders, generous donors, and Board members.

In your experience, what are diverse candidates looking for from organizations that they are interviewing with? Are there red flags or positive signs in terms of diversity that they are on the look-out for?

At Lindauer, we advise organizations to be authentic and honest about where they are making progress and where they may be coming up short in their efforts to improve diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Candidates don’t necessarily expect perfection. They understand that the road to dismantling systemic barriers to equity and inclusion is long and arduous. Furthermore, they understand that, in certain parts of the world, local governments that are hostile to DEI are making it more challenging for organizations that value equity and inclusion. What candidates generally want to see, however, is a real roadmap and a genuine dedication to doing the work.

Candidates will do their homework to gauge an organization’s commitment to DEIB. They will reach out directly to women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ staff and stakeholders to gain insight into whether or not they experience belonging. They will ask questions in the interviews to discern alignment (or misalignment) across the organization—staff, leadership, and the Board.

If a candidate senses that an organization is misrepresenting its culture or exaggerating the progress it’s made in this area, they may take their talents elsewhere.

Will AI help or hurt DEI? Can it be used to improve diversity?

Generative AI can offer useful tools across the recruiting process, as long as organizations are careful to make sure bias hasn’t been baked into the technology they’re using. For instance, there are models that screen candidates for certain qualifications at the beginning of the hiring process. As well-intentioned as these models might be, they can discriminate against candidates from minoritized groups if the underlying data the models have been trained on isn’t representative enough.

As concern about bias in AI gains wider attention, new platforms are being designed specifically to be more inclusive. Chandra Montgomery, my Lindauer colleague and a leader in advancing equity in talent management, advises clients on tools and resources that can help mitigate bias in technology. One example is Latimer, a large language model trained on data reflective of the experiences of people of color.

It’s important to note that, in May, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declared that employers can be held liable if their use of AI results in the violation of non-discrimination laws—such as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. When considering AI vendors for parts of their recruiting or hiring process, organizations must look carefully at every aspect of the design of the technology. For example, ask for information about where the vendor sourced the data to build and train the program and who beta tested the tool’s performance. Then, try to audit for unintended consequences or side effects to determine whether the tool may be screening out some individuals you want to be sure are screened in. 

AI provides us with incredible capabilities, but we need to do careful work with it. Bias can enter into the hiring process at any stage, and we must continue training staff in how to detect it and mitigate it—whether or not AI is being used.

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