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While people of color in the United States account for nearly half – 48 percent – of the total student population, leadership in nonprofit education organizations doesn't mirror this demographic fact. In a recent survey, From Intention to Action: Building Diverse Leadership Teams in Education to Deepen Impact, Koya Leadership Partners and Education Pioneers found that at the director level within education nonprofits, only 39 percent of leaders are people of color. At the vice president level, the number dips to 18 percent. At the CEO level, 25 percent of leaders are people of color.
Through our collective research, we concluded that while most nonprofits have the right intentions when it comes to diversity and inclusion, many don't have practices in place to build and retain diverse leadership teams.
The absence of tools for ensuring "fit," a lack of retention initiatives that support employee and career growth, and not enough time spent building strategic partnerships that help attract candidates of color are leading to a less diverse workforce and to poor hiring decisions across the board.
Among other things, our survey found that nonprofits often put too much focus on recruiting, rather than investing in, diversity at the leadership level. While recruiting is necessary to bring talent into an organization, a healthy organizational culture depends on leadership development from within. Without it, nonprofits – including education nonprofits – can expect to continue to experience high turnover.
While few organizations track turnover rates by race, ethnicity, or gender, our survey found that the annual employee turnover rate for nonprofits averaged 20 percent – about 5 percent higher than the national average and 12 percent higher than in most for-profit companies. That turnover rate costs nonprofit organizations dearly in terms of both productivity and dollars. According to Kim Ruyle, who sits on the Society of Human Resources Management's HR Disciplines Special Expertise Panel, the average cost of turnover is 150 percent of a departing employee's annual salary. For a sector with scarce resources, the budget implications of staff turnover – not to mention the cost in terms of morale and disruption – can be dramatic.
At Koya, we know that staff development is key to retention. Team members who feel they have an opportunity to grow professionally as well as a clear path to the acquisition of new skills and responsibilities are far more likely to stay with an organization.
So what does that look like? Research shows that on-the-job tasks which challenge employees to "stretch" beyond their comfort zones, formal and informal training opportunities, and targeted mentoring and coaching initiatives are the most powerful forms of professional development. Bridgespan, a nonprofit consulting group, recommends that on-the-job challenges and targeted mentoring/coaching should account for 80 percent to 90 percent of an organization's professional development strategy, with continued education (seminars, trainings, workshops) comprising the other 10 percent.
Our survey found that organizations looking to strengthen their diversity and inclusion practices typically start by building strategic partnerships with universities, minority associations, and other sources of diverse talent to identify promising diversity candidates and then invest in training to ensure that the interview process for all candidates is fair and impartial. On the retention side of things, organizations that are successful in developing and retaining leaders of color tend to provide them with ample support through formal professional development programs and/or coaching/mentoring.
For organizations that may not be there, a full complement of recruitment and staff development practices — some free or low-cost — are readily available. Here are a few suggestions:
1. The report from Koya Leadership Partners and Education Pioneers includes an Organizational Audit Checklist designed to help organizations create a baseline with respect to their diversity and inclusion practices. The checklist is organized into four categories — leadership, talent management, culture, and performance — and organizations that complete it can begin to see where they are strong and where improvement is needed.
2. Invest in a range of formal and informal professional development tools/techniques such as mentoring, coaching, and education opportunities.
3. Develop and implement a process for identifying and evaluating high-potential employees of color to ensure that your organization's leadership development pipeline includes such candidates.
4. Track promotions and staff development. Hiring and retention stats are nice and can be useful in advancing the conversation around diversity, but tracking actual staff development milestones, while frequently overlooked, often is more important.
5. Take advantage of external resources and help. Find an organization that is already where you hope to be in terms of its diversity/inclusion practices and ask the human capital people there to walk your organization through the steps the organization took to improve its leadership development practices and build a truly diverse leadership team.
One such organization, The New Teacher Project (TNTP), works with school districts and state departments of education nationwide to ensure that poor and minority students get outstanding teachers. Recognizing that it needed to do more to practice what it preached, TNTP created a Diversity Recruitment Committee and tasked it with increasing the number of African American and Latino employees on staff. To that end, members of the committee attended conferences and networking events likely to attract talented candidates of color, mined their own networks for referrals, and conducted cultivation calls with potential candidates. They also worked alongside TNTP’s Staff of Color Affinity Group to create opportunities for professional development and advancement for employees of color.
Building a truly diverse leadership team is not easy work, nor does it happen overnight. It requires dedication, commitment, and perseverance in the face of inevitable setbacks. But the work is well worth the effort. The people served by nonprofits nationwide deserve innovative, effective solutions that can only be developed by high-performing, diverse teams of dedicated professionals who reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the communities whose needs those organizations are striving to meet. For other tips on building diverse, inclusive teams read our full report, From Intention to Action.
Miecha Forbes is the senior director of human capital consulting for Koya Leadership Partners, a national executive search firm that works with nonprofits to achieve lasting social change.