Why Diversity Matters and How to Get There


It comes up so often with clients that I can no longer ignore the elephant in the middle of the room. And it’s a white elephant. Not an elephant of color.

Discussions about diversity reveal a great deal about who people are – their view of the world.

Any hopes to move to a more diverse organization rest on your ability to be honest with yourself and to promote honesty, avoid blame and shame, and begin a generous process of educating your peers that the work of your organization is better, richer and more impactful with a choir of unique voices around your table.

But there can be an awful lot of slogging to do.

I have found there to be three distinct profiles of folks when it comes to what people believe about the importance of diversification.

Group 1: The “Obstacles”

These folks don’t get it at all. People have actually said the following. I kid you not.

OK, OK, I hear you. We have to do this but I’ll be damned in I’m going to sacrifice the quality of the work we do.”

“OK, if you are going to make me diversify our board, there goes any thought of a higher give/get.”

Group 2: The “Practicals”

These folks get it but for the wrong reason. They are not obstacles. They see if from the practical point of view.

OK, I get it. Funders need to see our diversity numbers.” 

Group 3: The “Champions”

It’s clear as a bell for this group. They are diversity champions and understand that for the work to be the best it can be, there must be diverse opinions, life experiences, and cultural experiences around the organizational table. These folks say things like this:

How can we serve communities of color? How will they feel welcomed and supported without a diverse staff?”

“Homogenous organizations create group think. Ideas are there very best when shaped with tough questions from people with differing points of view.”

So now that the elephant of color is in the middle of the room, let’s talk about how folks in an organization can shift the culture to a “Champions” culture.

But first, the big fat mistake that diversity champions make.


Ready? Wait for it. It’s very complicated.

They assume that being right is enough.

They believe that all they have to do with the two other groups is keep their feet firmly planted on the high road and be truth tellers.

Not only is that not enough, but also it’s a strategy that can backfire.


First off, don’t write them off. At least not without solid effort. What would that look like?

  1. Do not accuse them of being insensitive
    Setting up a confrontational relationship gets you nowhere. Come on strong with a firm stance and people are quite likely to dig in their heels. We call that a strategy that backfires.
  2. Show and then deconstruct
    This group will not be easily persuaded. Can you prove your point by illustrating the value of diversity in your organization? Or illustrate a specific missed opportunity in a discussion because there is a missing perspective at the table?
  3. Be prepared to abandon
    It is possible that some members of this group may be immovable. While you may have trouble respecting their position, at least they are not masking it. It may be better to focus your attention on the “Practicals”.


Advocacy groups might call this group “the moveable middle.” All through the 2016 election cycle, you will hear the term “swing voters.” These aren’t people who lindy to the voting booth. Rather, they see both sides and could go either way. You can influence them.

The “Practicals” are absolutely critical to creating a culture that values diversity. You have to reach a tipping point of “Champions” and most organizations don’t have enough of them.

Here’s how to approach your “Practicals.”

  1. Dig in a bit – are any of your “Practicals” really “Obstacles” at heart?
    Sometimes folks are astute enough to know that owning your “Obstacle” status is not at all kosher. And so they can mask their real feelings by talking a different game.
  2. Ask questions (non threatening)
    “Why do you think X funder cares about diversity?”“Do you think our board meetings would be different if the group was more diverse? How so?”

    “How do you think the diverse communities we serve feel when they see largely white staff? Does it diminish our credibility that our staff has not shared the same possible marginalization or life experience that our client has?“

    “How does an African American school kid feel looking at an all white faculty?”

    (Sometimes taking it out of your own arena can make the point more strongly.)

  3. Educate and work to move this group
    These are the folks worth the investment. They are movable. But as I mentioned, take the “fact” that you are “right” out of any discussion. Lead them to the conclusion with examples, by asking questions and by allowing them to shift without being pushed.


With both “Obstacles” and “Practicals”, one of the best strategies can be to take a look at other organizations. For example:

A Breast Cancer Research Organization

“Obstacles” and “Practicals” might think more narrowly and imagine that an organization in this space might be run largely by women. I hope not.

Why does diversity matter here? Where do I start?

  • How about men who have lost their sisters, wives, mothers to the disease?
  • How about racial diversity? Why? To check off boxes? Uh, no.
  • How about the large number of studies that show that black women are nearly 20% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. And oh by the way, that is not all genetics. There is also the disparity in access to health care, many women now take growth pills for breasts, specially if they have had cancer before

So if this organization had no black women on staff or did not have men or women on the board or as donors, the organization would not reflect the population they serve. In strategic discussions about the work, there would be key voices missing at the table.

An Organization Working for Equality Across Genders

Every man has at least woman in his life (his mother.) And that is just for starters.

Do men care about pay equity for women? My senior associate Seth Rosen sure does. He and his husband have an adopted daughter. Don’t tell me he doesn’t care about equity for Sarah.

Is he now working with the Ms. Foundation to engage more men in the work? You bet he is.

Conversations about other organizations can be enlightening and non-threatening. They can start a conversation where the leader can figure out where everyone stands and then develop strategies accordingly.

As a certified mediator, I know these conversations can cause people to swim in turbulent waters. But being open to hearing the dissenting opinion, using the technique of non-threatening inquiry, and taking the examples outside of the organization can make a big different in highly charged conversations.

Last and certainly not least, one of the core tenets of mediation is critical in really talking about why diversity matters.

Begin with a conversation in which you surface the common threads staff, board, volunteers, donors, etc. have with regard to the hopes and aspirations they share for the organization. The more you talk the more evident it becomes, especially to the “Practicals”, that a commitment to diversity is not just practical. It is also vital to the fulfillment of your mission.