The Data We Need to Drive Nonprofit Equity

Woman looking at a wall of small photos of people
By Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

After a keynote addressing equity in nonprofit organizations, an attendee asked for data to demonstrate the ROI of equity. She wanted to know if nonprofit equity investments work.

The answer: there isn’t much data on what works.

Maybe that is not the right question though. Perhaps we are looking for the wrong data to justify our equity efforts.

There are data, for example, that tell us that the people running, governing, and funding the nonprofit sector are predominantly white and do not necessarily reflect the communities they serve. In addition, nonprofits run by leaders of color face many challenges. These nonprofits tend to be smaller, have lower cash reserves, and fewer funder relationships than those run by their white counterparts. (For more on these challenges, see this study and this article.) What’s more, there are abundant data points showing that communities of color have poorer health, education, economic, and quality-of-life outcomes than white communities. Fallout from COVID-19 further reveals these disparities. In other words, we have plenty of data that the nonprofit sector and U.S. society are not equitable across race.

We also know that the purpose of a nonprofit’s governing board is to safeguard mission and represent the constituency served. It is much harder to represent a constituency that we do not interact with or reflect.

So maybe we do not need data to prove nonprofit equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) efforts work. Maybe we need to acknowledge the many data points that demonstrate there is an EDI need. Too often, searching for data substitutes for listening to the experts facilitating this work or taking actions that start to close the gaps. Too often, the pressure to be driven by outcome data overshadows the value of the other ways data (and purpose) can guide us. Indeed, the data show that not undertaking EDI work ensures that the status quo remains firmly in place.

In the absence of data about what works, let’s trust the data about what is needed. Those data, paired with the purpose of nonprofit boards, provide the compelling argument needed for investing in EDI.

The team at Seattle Works took the data regarding the need for EDI in nonprofits to heart. Thanks to executive Ben Reuler for sharing his reflections on their multi-year process.

Thanks to Bina Patel for her keynote at the University of San Diego’s Governance Symposium. She planted the seed for this post and reminded participants that waiting to take action regarding equity is a privilege.

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