By: Steve Zimmerman

Systemic racism is a lingering evil in our country. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are only the latest examples of racist and structural violence, just as the disparity in health outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic is only a starker example of the larger inequity people of color endure in health outcomes every day.  We can also see the same gaps in economic progress, engagement with the criminal justice system and educational achievement, to name a few.  As all of these make obvious, the vision of a just and equitable society is far from reality.

The protests over the past month have shown a public committed and anxious for change.  Nearly 3 in 4 Americans now consider racial and ethnic discrimination a “big problem” in the United States, up significantly over the last 5 years. The nonprofit sector, in many ways, is poised to lead this change centuries in the making.  Or is it?

Comprised of people with shared interests and hopes coming together to collectively solve problems and build the communities in which we all want to live, nonprofit organizations are the embodiment of democracy.  They have advanced justice for all on issues such as voting rights and marriage equality.  At the local level, nonprofit organizations provide direct services to the most vulnerable, educate our youth and assist all of us in times of disaster.

But to take on the challenge of addressing systemic racism the sector, as a whole, needs a fundamental shift to build organizations that are more inclusive, equitable and reflective of our communities.

Action Over Words

Despite years of focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, not much has changed in the nonprofit sector. BoardSource’s Leading with Intent survey shows nonprofit boards are predominantly white.  The latest study from Building Movement Project’s Race to Lead initiative shows barriers leaders of color face in the sector.  Even worse, both studies show that despite a proliferation of initiatives, little has changed over the past several years.

The tools and processes for building diverse nonprofit organizations are widely available, but the work of implementation requires intentionality and commitment.  Too often these efforts are seen as tangential to an organization’s mission instead of as a fundamental shift necessary to achieve impact and long-term sustainability. Nonprofit leadership needs to be as aware of systemic racism within our internal systems as we are today of its presence in societal systems.  We all have a role to play.

Our Steps

At Spectrum, our work has always been focused on empowering a broader group of individuals to understand, contribute and co-create a nonprofit’s strategy.  Our adaptive strategy model and corresponding tools—including the impact strategy, market analysis and matrix map—were designed to make impact and financial data transparent and readily accessible.  We utilize these tools to move diversity and equity away from tokenism by enabling voices at all levels in an organization to meaningfully be part of the discussion. Presenting information in new ways and removing jargon allows organizations to lift up the unique strengths and perspectives each of us brings, making way for new ideas to more effectively achieve impact.

Again, however, these are mere tools.  Strategy processes must be purposefully designed to reflect a diversity of voices.  While we’ve always incorporated this value, we can and will do better.  We will utilize these tools in partnership with leadership to ensure diverse voices are part of all our processes and to continue to build and empower diverse teams in making strategic decisions for greater impact.  We will also work with nonprofits to set and implement strategies to review their systems and processes and build equity within their organizations.  We have work to do to integrate these practices in our model, but it is work we welcome.

This isn’t just about this moment. It is about helping our partner organizations reach their potential and, in turn, collectively helping our sector transform our society over the long run.  Great ideas know no boundaries, and research studies continually show the power of diverse teams in surfacing more innovative and creative ideas. In the midst of continuing and evolving economic disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, such ideas are essential for organizational survival.

In the early 1800’s Alexander De Tocqueville wrote about the unique role nonprofits (or “associations”) played in our American democracy.  Beyond their direct contributions to our society he viewed their impact as something more profound, “drawing individuals out of their private concerns…and enabling them to be part of something larger than the circumstances of their own existence.”  It is time to realize this vision.  To accomplish this we need diverse voice and ideas.  “The only way opinions and ideas can be renewed, hearts enlarged, and human minds developed,” Tocqueville observed, “is through the reciprocal influence [of people] upon each other.” Almost 200 years later this idea still has merit.  If, however, we are going to realize that promise, we must continue to evolve and be better.  At Spectrum, we’re committed to efforts to combat racism as well as our efforts to build a more just and equitable society through nonprofit organizations that are led by and reflect the people they serve.