Best practices for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility at nonprofit organizations
At a Federal Communicators Network event this month, members of the Technology Transformation Services Diversity Guild at the General Services Administration shared their recommendations for building successful diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility initiatives. Our DEIA work at the Partnership has benefited from taking many of the actions they advise—such as defining success early on and using insights from employees to identify meaningful and realistic opportunities for change in an organization’s culture and policies.
But once the foundation for a DEIA initiative is in place, how do you ensure its success? Changing an organization requires a big-time commitment of time and resources. Far from being a quick exercise in checking boxes, a good DEIA initiative will spend years both developing procedural changes and monitoring if these changes are making a positive impact—for instance, in hiring statistics or staff retention rates—after they have been put in place.
Here are lessons we have learned from our internal DEIA transformation work.
Educate new staff on DEIA projects
After joining the Partnership, new employees meet with the Partnership’s DEI Council at an onboarding session within their first six months. In addition to asking new staff members to talk about their own experiences with DEIA at prior workplaces, the council also presents the history of DEIA initiatives at the Partnership. Sharing context in both directions helps educate new employees about DEIA work that’s already underway at the Partnership while helping the council understand new opportunities that new staff members bring with them, and areas for Partnership improvement.
Adapt to personnel changes
One of the biggest challenges these long timelines pose is the inevitability of workforce changes. New employees might join the organization in the middle of the work; others might leave before it is finished, taking valuable institutional knowledge about the organization’s DEIA efforts with them. It’s important to have plans in place to be ready for each of these scenarios.
Don’t wait until critical stakeholders on a DEIA project leave the company to ask them to share what they’ve learned. Have a succession plan in place that will outline next steps for filling vacant roles. Be sure to ask key staff members to document their work. And, if possible, schedule handoff meetings for departing staff members to share with their successors project status updates and lessons learned.
Invest in staff and continuous learning
Staffing an internal DEIA initiative wisely is key to long-term success. Rather that treat DEIA projects as “extracurriculars,” organizations should invest in their staff’s continuous learning by budgeting for DEIA events, activities and training opportunities. This kind of investment also ensures employees can be compensated for time spent on these projects. When staff members assume greater responsibilities for DEIA projects in their portfolios, it’s important to define their roles clearly so both those employees and leadership have realistic, shared expectations for the duration of the work.
Get help from outside
Sometimes, it helps to seek outside support. Through a grant from the Hewlett Foundation, the Partnership hired consultants from local firm Brighter Strategies to conduct an independent review of our culture and policies and to produce a pay equity report, all of which have helped us, since 2020, to determine our priorities for DEIA transformation.
For federal agencies, the combined resources of the human capital, equal employment and DEIA offices may be insufficient to meet the needs of the envisioned initiative or change. In these cases, support from external consultants is necessary—but don’t overlook opportunities for current employees in these offices to take on some of the work. Agencies should strive to build internal capacity for small course corrections without having to make significant financial investments every year, especially since DEIA initiatives often have an iterative implementation approach.
Communicate DEIA initiatives effectively
Above all else, effective DEIA initiatives require constant communication and a willingness to adapt on the fly. Have a consistent way to update staff on the progress of the work, hear staff feedback and respond to that feedback in your next communication. If staff members express confusion about the status or purpose of any part of a DEIA initiative, don’t assume they haven’t been paying attention to your messaging: it’s possible you haven’t been communicating effectively and need to try out new ways of keeping them informed.