Five Ways to Build Diverse, Inclusive Leadership Teams

| Stanford Social Innovation Review | Molly Brennan

There is an increasing body of evidence that diverse teams of varying racial and ethnic makeup produce better results. They perform better financially, gain a competitive edge when recruiting top talent, experience less employee turnover, and offer greater benefits for those they serve. This is true in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, but is particularly important for nonprofits that serve communities of color, which is overwhelmingly the case in the education sector. Nearly half of the students in the United States are students of color, and that percentage is larger in urban communities struggling with socio-economic inequalities. Without leaders who reflect the diversity of these communities, education organizations are not operating at optimal performance, and they may not be developing solutions that effectively address the needs of the populations they’re working to serve.

Last year, we at Koya Leadership Partners partnered with the nonprofit Education Pioneers on a comprehensive survey of education organizations to determine the state of diversity today and provide a set of recommendations for advancing diversity. Our findings culminated in a recent report titled “From Intention to Action: Building Diverse, Inclusive Teams in Education to Deepen Impact.”

The survey focused on racial and ethnic diversity at the leadership level in nonprofit organizations that support education. The findings showed that 98 percent of participating organizations supported diversity—but only 33 percent described diversity as a core value, 31 percent had an official definition of diversity, and 26 percent had a budget for diversity-related initiatives. Most significantly, the number of team members of color dropped off dramatically above the director level, resulting in leadership teams that are not as diverse as they could or should be.

These findings indicate that while most education organizations believe in the importance of diversity, there is a major gap between good intentions and measurable action. The majority of the organizations we surveyed not only didn’t have significant numbers of senior leaders of color, but also lacked substantive, measurable practices to improve racial and ethnic diversity.

The report makes it clear that education nonprofits need to move from collective good intentions to action. And they’re not alone—a 2010 diversity study by Commongood Careers found that many nonprofits have room for improvement when it comes to increasing diversity within their organizations. To create inclusive teams, organizations need to do more than just say diversity is important. They need to make diversity a strategic priority and then align resources behind that priority.

A number of education nonprofits are leading the way. One example is Relay Graduate School of Education (GSE), a nonprofit school with an innovative master’s degree program for teachers and school leaders. GSE developed a Diversity Steering Committee in 2012, which resulted in a diversity directive, institution-wide training in cultural competence, organized discussion groups about identity, and research and planning on ways to increase staff diversity. Two years later, the percentage of full-time staff at GSE who identified themselves as a minority had increased from 11 percent to 19 percent, and the percentage of women in senior leadership positions increased from 30 percent to 66 percent.

We took the findings from GSE and other best-practice organizations, as well as our own experiences, and developed five steps any organization can take, starting today, to begin building more diverse teams:

1. Customize your vision and strategy. 

Customize your organization’s diversity vision, definition, and rationale to fit the organization’s unique culture. Ensure that the message that diversity matters comes from the top.

United Way is a good example: More than 125 years ago, the diverse community of leaders who founded the organization realized that the acceptance of cultural, religious, and economic differences was essential to its core mission of strengthening local communities. The founding leaders implemented a diversity vision, definition, and rational that continues to successfully foster diversity from the top down.

2. Focus on impact and metrics.

Set a baseline. Audit diversity at your organization to assess your current practices. Identify a set of metrics based on your customized vision and strategy, and ensure that your metrics are measuring both inputs and outputs. Review your key performance indicators annually at board of directors level and at least quarterly at executive level.

3. Focus on recruiting and selection practices.

Provide training for unbiased interviewing and selection processes, and establish strategic partnerships that connect your organization with diverse talent pipelines

College Track, a national college completion program that empowers students from underserved communities, has been successful in this endeavor. It worked with employees to launch new recruiting tactics after learning that there was a perceived lack of diversity in the hiring process. New tactics included expanded posting and recruiting sources, and asking a broader range of staff—including team members at different levels and sites—to participate in the interview process. As a result, College Track has become more inclusive and collaborative. The move also supports greater awareness and stronger internal culture related to diversity.

4. Invest in leadership development to retain high performers.

Employ a range of formal and informal professional development tools, such as mentoring, coaching, and education opportunities. Regularly evaluate internal talent to ensure that employees of color are in the leadership development pipeline.

The New Teacher Project (TNTP), which works with school districts and state departments of education nationwide to ensure that poor and minority students get outstanding teachers, recognized the importance of investing in leadership development. It created a Diversity Recruitment Committee—a group of staff from across the organization that works to increase the number of employees who reflect communities TNTP serves, such as African American and Latino. Members of this team assist with TNTP’s hiring practices by attending conferences and networking events, mining their own networks for referrals, and conducting cultivation calls with potential candidates. They also work alongside TNTP’s Staff of Color Affinity Group to create connections and opportunities for growth and advancement for employees of color. As a result, TNTP’s hiring team has succeeded in building a deeper pool of diverse applicants.

5. Prompt ongoing discussion.

Regularly engage in open, honest, and multidirectional dialogue at different levels, and work on developing a shared understanding that achieving diversity takes commitment and hard work from every member of the team.

One nonprofit, for example, developed fundraising materials that featured students of color. During a local diversity dialogue, a staff member reported that some team members considered the profiles of students disrespectful, because they used language that reinforced negative stereotypes. When the national office heard this feedback, it decided to revise the materials and change how it developed similar materials so that team members working locally—closest to the services—could give feedback during the development stage.

Building diverse and inclusive teams is not easy. It takes dedication and perseverance. We hope that this report provides a road map for organizations in the nonprofit space to move beyond discussion and good intentions to real, measurable action when it comes to diversity and inclusion. The students and families they serve deserve no less.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

Learn More About TNTP