Indeed, the nonprofit sector in Minnesota has shown an increased interest in diversity — whether of executive leadership, staff, board members and volunteers, not to mention donors, clients and patrons (“Nonprofits put a new focus on issues of race,” front page, Oct. 19). These conversations represent a good step. A challenge, though, is whether nonprofits comprehend what diversity really means for decisionmaking and operations beyond documenting diversity statistics.

For years I’ve heard nonprofits in Minnesota fret about the lack of diversity among their staff and boards. Organizations would like their staff to better reflect the populations they serve in order to design and implement more effective programs. They want the governing boards of directors to be similarly diverse, whether in ethnicity, religion, ability, gender identity and/or personal experience with the issue.

The majority of organizations seem to be saying: We value diversity. Yet it’s unclear what the sector is willing to change in service to this stated value. Valuing the idea of diversity is important, but it isn’t sufficient.

Over the past 20-some years, I’ve lived or worked in more than a dozen postwar countries, served on the boards of directors of various culturally specific organizations and worked in two languages besides English. These experiences, among others, have taught me that working across forms of diversity is complex and not something that organizations can solve without introspection and a long-term commitment.

For some people diversity is an ideal that can and should be achieved easily. This is unrealistic unless it is done carelessly and superficially. People with different backgrounds don’t all think alike. We don’t immediately define problems in the same way. And we definitely don’t readily agree on what the solutions to those problems are. It takes a great deal of thoughtful engagement to do all of these things.

A nonprofit consultant in the Twin Cities once complained to me that an East African community organization he worked with wouldn’t schedule early morning board meetings. That was the only time to get good board members involved, he asserted. His assertion, it was clear to me, was built on the assumption that “good” board members would fit a certain demographic (hint: not that of the population served).

I’ve heard from any number of nonprofit staff or board members about feeling silenced when they have offered opinions based on a point of view distinct from others in the organization. They are met with a thinly veiled invitation to conform to the (often-dominant-culture) norms of the organization. Sometimes diverse perspectives challenge an organization’s core self-perception, causing an unwelcomed and jarring collective identity crisis, especially among those who have long been lauded for their selfless do-gooding (yours truly included). Unspoken, but clearly evident, some organizations are saying: We welcome and pursue diversity, as long as it’s not uncomfortable for the rest of us.

It reminds me of the fictional concept of the Law of Jante, created by Danish writer Sandemose in the early 20th century to describe the 10 unspoken rules of Scandinavian societies that I would summarize as, “Don’t think you’re special, because you’re not; don’t rock the boat; and for goodness’ sake don’t stand out.” There is humility in such a philosophy. There is also exclusion and intolerance.

I’ve always had a distaste for the use of the word “inclusion” in the “diversity, equity and inclusion” phrase used in the nonprofit sector. Saying inclusion presupposes that there is an authority who is deciding to include Others. In this case it suggests that white, heterosexual, able-bodied people who are not impacted by the causes they address are the ones to define and include the Others. However well-intentioned, this framing strikes me as part of the problem.

My point, if I have just one, is that we all need to work a little harder. It’s insincere to say that we should have more diversity while not changing much of anything at all. The nonprofit sector could benefit from taking a critical look at how it does business, the assumptions it makes, and the implicit messages it sends, in order to truly listen, hear and incorporate the perspectives it needs to improve. Continuing the status quo will leave us all behind.


Kristi Rendahl is an assistant professor and director of the Nonprofit Leadership Program at Minnesota State University, Mankato.