How Nonprofits Can Best Support and Retain Diverse Employees

Key Takeaways from the Women of Color in Fundraising and Philanthropy Symposium

Posted November 27, 2023

In Development Guild DDI’s email newsletter from November 30, 2023, the Marketing Team erroneously named our colleague Shanzeh Faisal as one of the three contributors and attendees of the Women of Color in Fundraising and Philanthropy rather than our colleague Sajana Blank, whose contributions appear in the piece below.

We would like to acknowledge that error here and apologize to both Ms. Blank and Ms. Faisal. 

On November 14, three Development Guild DDI team members attended the Women of Color in Fundraising & Philanthropy (WOC) 2023 Symposium: Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Guirlaine Belizaire; Senior Executive Search Consultant Sajana Blank; and Senior Consultant Mary Plum. Below are their top takeaways from the symposium, which include useful insights for nonprofit professionals at all levels and key stakeholders like current and prospective donors and Board members.

What were your top takeaways from the symposium?

Belizaire: The importance of community – be it virtual or in-person. Following that, the importance of mentorship and representation of historically marginalized identities in the nonprofit sector cannot be overstated.

Emotional labor, self-care, and boundary-setting are important choices for women in general and women of color in particular.

Plum: Allies are members of this community, too. It’s important for allies to actively listen to people from underrepresented groups, to invite folks to the table or into the room who might not be there, and, when appropriate, to speak up in spaces they may not yet be in.

In recruitment, it is so important for organizations to be transparent and open with where they are on their DEI journey. Sometimes, it may be appropriate to pause and reflect on your internal efforts and how to position yourself in the marketplace before moving forward with a hire. This can lead to more effective recruitment and retention of staff of color.

Additionally, it’s important to know that candidates are considering more than just the particulars of a role – they are reflecting on the organization, on its values, on the communities served, and on the community as a whole if they would need to relocate.

Reflect the values of your organization within your recruitment materials, but also in the interview and hiring process so candidates can gather the information they need to decide.

Blank: Women of Color in Fundraising and Philanthropy (WOC)® is a great example of a professional network that offers a safe and uplifting environment for women in the field to champion and inspire one another in their personal and professional lives and serve as a resource for each other. These spaces are not common in the field of fundraising and development and can also be difficult to find in other industries, yet they are increasingly important as we work towards a more just and equal world.

Your organization has the opportunity to create a seat at the table for WOC and other underrepresented voices. An investment in diverse perspectives and talent can, in turn, help shift the field of fundraising and development and the nonprofit world to be more impactful.  

What could nonprofits and nonprofit boards in particular learn from this symposium?

Belizaire: As the closest partners to a nonprofit, the Board must fully support the Executive Director – especially EDs of color. Ensure that they (and, as a result, the organization) are truly set up for success. It is important to thoughtfully manage expectations the first few years and allow for successful onboarding, orientation, and integration of culture, missions, and values.

Plum: It is so important for boards to ‘back’ EDs and senior staff of color, as well as those who are driving changes. Change is not easy and the support of a Board is crucial in the process.

Blank: As the governing body of a nonprofit organization, the Board should reflect diversity across social identities like race, ethnicity, gender, age, ability, chosen identities, and lived experience. Most importantly, board members should also possess the skills and expertise that help legitimize the nonprofit so they are set up for success and can effectively advance the mission and vision of the organization. 

Belizaire: Additionally, major donors can play important roles in supporting EDs, especially EDs of color.

Plum: All donors can seek out and support organizations led by people of color and other underrepresented groups with their funds, especially those that have the lived experience of the constituency being served. Community foundations, giving circles, and managers of donor-advised funds can also support these efforts.

Blank: That being said, it is important not to simply assume that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) or donors who identify with other underrepresented communities are going to want to support a diversity fund. Fundraising professionals and other nonprofit leaders must take the time to build trusting relationships and, as with other donors, stewardship will help you learn the donor’s interests and wishes for philanthropic engagement. Meet them where they are and listen.

What role does mentorship play for women of color working in nonprofit development? How can organizations more effectively facilitate mentorship?

Belizaire: From this conference, observations of our Development Guild clients, and through personal experience, mentorship is indispensable at all levels of professional development. To have the privilege of trusted guidance, different perspectives, thought partnership, and a network of peers has a significant impact on professional trajectory – especially for groups (including women and people of color) who have been systematically and deliberately excluded from professional opportunities.

Plum: The conference also emphasized Sponsorship and Partnership in addition to Mentorship. For everyone, whether a peer or a senior colleague, it’s important to be an advocate and use your own social capital to help others advance in their careers.

Blank: No matter what stage of life or career you are in, mentorship – especially, for BIPOC, LGBTQIA, and other historically marginalized communities – is important. And representation in leadership as well.

I could have benefited from a network like WOC when I transitioned into fundraising a few years ago, especially during the pandemic. It is a gift that WOC exists. If you are a leader in your organization (or even if you aren’t), you can help provide resources and opportunities for your colleagues and staff.

Belizaire: Given the ongoing challenges with retention and the current competitive “candidate market,” it behooves nonprofits to encourage and build mentorship opportunities – whether it be colleague-to-colleague or the hiring of a coach. Still, it was noted at the Symposium that there are not enough mentors to meet the needs.

Blank: Mentorship and representation should begin when candidates are being recruited to an organization. Make sure that candidates of color have the chance to speak with staff, board members, and/or other key stakeholders of color early in the interview process and during onboarding. Once they are hired, make sure that they have the chance to be part of internal search committees and to have a valued seat at the table. It is also important to ask your staff what success looks like to them and equip them with the resources to get there.

Why do most nonprofit boards not currently reflect the national landscape?

Belizaire: According to the presenters at the Symposium, as I understood it, this is likely due to lackluster efforts (change is challenging and familiarity is comforting) and/or lack of information, strategies, and resources to implement the creation of Boards that not only reflect the national landscape, but also the populations served by the nonprofit.

Patience is key in diversifying a Board – one consultant engaged in this work shared that it takes her 6 months to a year to find 5 -6 prospects to help diversify a Board. Compassion and grace are also crucial as change is hard!

Further, ensuring that an organization is truly ready for diversity is key. One presenter shared the questions she asks nonprofits: “What do you mean by diversity? Are you ready for diversity on the Board? Are you going to make your organization a home for diverse voices and lived experiences so that they remain engaged?”

Plum: People of color have a long history of being philanthropists beyond the definition of a ‘major donor.’ If we expand how we define the responsibilities and expectations of a Board Member, we can help to diversify boards.

How does this affect nonprofit staffing and work, and what can be done to move forward in a more diverse and equitable way?

Belizaire: Lack of board diversity is resulting in the loss of donors – an already alarming and significant trend in the nonprofit sector.

Plum: If staff of color don’t have representation at the highest level, then there isn’t lived experience at the highest level and, thus, support may not be as strong as it could be. Diversifying at the highest levels communicates a commitment to embracing diversity throughout the organization to staff, donors, and potential staff – truly, all boats rise.

Belizaire: To move forward in a more diverse and equitable way, there are now ample resources and consultants to help those nonprofits committed to this work. The book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee was offered up as a valuable resource for Boards embarking on the diversity journey – examining patriarchy and power and why it is important to share it.

Engage the community that the organization serves and tap that constituency for board members that represent diversity.

How can nonprofits be more effective allies for their employees/volunteers/board members from underrepresented groups?

Belizaire: Tangible action steps for being a more effective ally in general include:

  • Listen before you speak.
  • Share the spotlight.
  • Recognize – and correct – exclusion.
  • Resist assuming what others need.
  • Don’t put people into boxes.
  • Recognize that privilege is power.
  • Don’t let fear of saying the wrong thing keep you from trying.
  • Mirror the language that someone uses to describe their own identity.
  • Get to know people and pay close attention to their words and ideas.

Plum: Listen and advocate using your own voice and your own social capital.

As executive recruiters, build an authentic relationship, establish a quality connection, and be an honest broker. This means being transparent, asking tough questions of your client, and bringing questions from candidates to your client.

Blank: Don’t let your DEI efforts stop after the recruitment process. Embed equitable and inclusive practices in everything your organization does internally and externally. Embed equitable practices across everything – policies and procedures, salary bands, and the like. Make sure to invest in your staff’s professional growth as well as ensure that their ideas, and talents are appreciated and honored. Recognize your own privilege and power to lift others up.


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