Embodying Equity: Change Management Strategies for DEI in Environmental Nonprofits (Part II: Literature Review)

Capstone research paper for the Masters in Nonprofit Studies program at the University of Richmond, July 2021

Brittany Jezouit
16 min readApr 8, 2023

Note: This is part II of my capstone research paper; here’s part I and part III!

In this section:

Literature Review


To understand the obstacles facing nonprofits seeking to improve racial equity at their organizations, it’s helpful to understand the background and history of the nonprofit industry and the ways in which it was informed by — and continues to uphold — structures of racism and white supremacy. In How White People Conquered the Nonprofit Industry, writer Anastasia Reesa Tomkin points to white supremacy as a fundamental tenet of the nonprofit industry. One statistic to illustrate this point: nonprofits are over 80 percent white-led; zooming in to focus on the 315 largest nonprofits in the U.S., that number increases to 90 percent (Tomkin, 2020).

Edgar Villanueva, a leading scholar and author of Decolonizing Wealth, writes that philanthropy is “racism in institutionalized form” — the pageantry and formality, the requirements, the culture — and that foundations perpetuate a dominant worldview that is “highly racialized and often dictated by white European culture.” In the field of philanthropy, 92% of foundation CEOs and 89% of board members are white, but only 7–8% of foundation funding is specifically allocated to people of color (Villanueva, 2018).

In Winner Takes All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, author Anand Giridharadas argues that many nonprofits and social impact ventures are doing more harm than good. Giridharads refers to their approach as the “Trying-to-Solve-the-Problem- with-the-Tools-That-Caused-It” issue, in which a group of elites introducing market-based solutions and capitalist structures as the solution to all problems — without acknowledging the ways that these systems caused issues of inequality in the first place, or examining other systemic or social causes of poverty. By denying their own power and the hierarchy of the status quo, the people at the top can remain at the top, while feeling good about the “work” they’ve done at so-called inequality reduction.

Today’s emerging nonprofit leaders shouldn’t be able to spend decades in the nonprofit field without examining how current models perpetuate inequality, or perhaps looking at ways to make more significant social change outside the field of NGOs. But unfortunately, it’s easy to go through an entire career in nonprofits and not confront these issues. Writes author Morgan Simon in Real Impact, “it took me a decade of experience before… I came to realize that these ‘good works’ were actually part of the problem in legitimizing an inequitable economic system” (Simon, p. 12). Simon writes that “being the enemy of good — meaning, in this case, an advocate for something better and more transformative — is a tough role to play in an industry where everyone is truly motivated by the idea of doing good” (Simon, p. 80).

Simon makes the argument that most of the actual progress towards social justice happens outside of the nonprofit sector. Her book makes a case against many of the fundamental ideas of the nonprofit system, and puts into perspective just how small the scale of philanthropy is. For example, there is an average of $46 billion spent annually on philanthropy, which may seem like a lot of money — but perhaps not in comparison to the $196 trillion that circulates in the global economy every day (Simon, p. 31). Further, only 12 percent of foundation giving goes to social justice-related initiatives specifically — the rest contributing to arts and education — and U.S. foundations are only required to give 5 percent of their resources per year (Simon, p. 17).

Overview of Common DEI Strategies and Approaches

This section provides an overview of the literature and research on some of the more common approaches to DEI and racial equity work, using examples and research from nonprofit, government, and independent sectors.

Training, Workshops, and Education Programs. One of the first steps commonly taken towards DEI initiatives is the implementation of a training or staff education program, sometimes referred to as “diversity training”. It’s often seen as a “cornerstone of diversity initiatives’’ (Kulik et. al), and can be required or voluntary. This may take many forms, such as mandatory formal training, a workshop series led by outside experts, or peer-led learning groups. The existence of diversity training (or lack thereof) is often highlighted as an indicator of how committed a nonprofit is to DEI work. For example, Nonprofit HR’s 2019 Nonprofit Diversity Practices Report found that just 41% of nonprofit leaders went through diversity training, and 43% for staff; this number drops to 9% for board members.

Dobbin & Kalev (2018) traces the origins of anti-bias training to the 1960s-era civil rights movement, but many studies have shown that anti-bias training does not effectively change behavior or reduce bias in the workplace on its own. Noon (2017) calls this kind of diversity training “pointless” and based on unproven theories. One of the most controversial trainings is “unconscious bias training”, which is based on the idea of subliminal or unintentional snap judgments. Tate (2018) argues that this type of training has “become a performative act to move beyond racism through training to participate in a constructed ‘post-racial’ reality” and is an instrument for preserving white innocence. Studies also show that voluntary or optional diversity training can be particularly ineffective. Kulik et al. (2007) found that demographics did not correlate with willingness to participate in a voluntary DEI training program; instead, employees with a higher competence in diversity issues were more likely to attend training, and those with low diversity competence were less motivated to participate. The participants who needed the training most were uninterested, and so voluntary DEI training programs may be, as they say, preaching to the choir.

There is a large volume of research on the pitfalls and promises of diversity training. A few common themes emerge in what makes DEI training more likely to make an impact. A study by Roberson, Kulik, & Pepper (2003) identified five areas of controversy in the design of diversity training programs: a focus on awareness over skill-building, too-broad and diluted definitions of diversity, avoiding any confrontation, heterogeneous training groups, and confusion over the desired demographic of the trainer. The study suggests a needs assessment framework to resolve these controversies, and argues that tailoring the training to the specific needs and circumstances of each organization, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, is essential. Mosley (2017) also emphasizes the importance of emotion and connection, not a passive or non-confrontational approach, in training curricula and tactics.

In Beyond Diversity Training: A Social Infusion for Cultural Inclusion (2008), Chavez & Weisinger propose a new model of diversity training focused on three objectives: (1) establishing a relational culture that “celebrates the ‘me’ within the ‘we’”, (2) maintaining an inclusive culture whereby employees are self-motivated to learn, and (3) building an organizational strategy that values different perspectives and viewpoints. By using an integrative approach, with active learning and an encouragement of healthy, positive discussion that focuses on the stories of individuals, Chavez & Weisinger argue that DEI training can help organizations shift towards an attitude of “managing for diversity”, rather than “managing diversity.”

Diversifying Leadership and New Hires. According to a 2006 study from CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation, the majority (82%) of executive directors are white. 75% of those executive directors of nonprofits surveyed planned to leave their jobs (but not the sector) within the next five years. Nearly two decades later, the sector is in a moment of “seismic change” (Smith 2019); as white nonprofit leaders leave, leaders of color have not easily been able to step into leadership roles. In Nonprofit Leadership at a Crossroads, Smith outlines the challenges that diverse would-be-leaders face. While BIPOC staff are ready and trained to lead, the current leadership isn’t ready to pass the baton. “White supremacy can make it hard for them to see the competency of someone who isn’t white,” she writes, citing that a decade of “incomplete” DEI work has led to a painful and complicated moment in nonprofit leadership. This creates “snowcapped” organizations where staff of color are at the bottom of the hierarchy, and decision-making is done primarily by older white executive directors.

Race to Lead, an organization that works to address the nonprofit racial leadership gap, detailed the obstacles for leaders of color in nonprofits in their 2019 report. They found that while people of color indicate more interest in leadership positions at NGOs, there is a significant “white advantage” throughout the nonprofit sector, which they define as “the concrete ways that structure and power in nonprofit organizations reinforce the benefits of whiteness” (Race to Lead Revisited, p. 2, 2020). They attribute the lack of diversity to lack of opportunities and persistent racialized barriers for would-be leaders of color; despite similar levels of interest and education, people of color hold fewer positions of power, especially in organizations that are primarily white-run — which is defined by Race to Lead as organizations where at least 75% of leadership and board members are white (Race to Lead Revisited, p. 22, 2020). Wrote one Race to Lead survey respondent: “Diversity, equity, and inclusion work in all-white spaces feels exhausting and traumatic” (Race to Lead Revisited, 2020).

Green 2.0 is an independent advocacy organization that focuses on increasing the racial and ethnic diversity within the mainstream environmental movement. In their annual Transparency Report Card, they compile demographic data from 37 environmental NGOs. In 2020, they found “measurable increases” of people of color and women on staff — on average, organizations added six people of color and eight women to their full-time staff from 2017–20. They found that this increase is higher than it would have been by chance, demonstrating that NGOs are actively working to diversify their staff, but that this diversity data is only one factor in the environmental movement’s progress towards representing all communities. Increases in diversity numbers can be a sign of progress, but it can also backfire if it’s not coupled with changes in culture or action within the organization. The research shows that hiring diverse staff to “fix” a diversity issue can be damaging for the organization’s staff, morale, and reputation. Leadership transitions are complicated, especially when that transition reflects a shift in power and racial dynamics at the organization. The organization may be criticized as creating a “figurehead” DEI position for PR purposes, or, worse, may cause damage and harm to their partners, employees, and organizational culture.

Many scholars argue that the new generation of nonprofit leaders should be directly impacted by, or have direct experience being affected by, the issues that the nonprofit is addressing. The origins of this idea can perhaps be traced to scholar Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968). Freire asserted that the oppressed should have a “fundamental role in the change process”, and that community voice must be centered in the decision-making process.

New Grants, Programs, and “Doing the Work”. A common criticism of DEI initiatives is that they are often focused on conversation, learning, and training — but not always on action. Writes Tomkin (2020): “That’s one of the key pillars of modern polite white supremacy, isn’t it? The uncanny ability to talk in circles about an issue… the conversation is glorified as though it were the action itself.” Passive strategies, such as training, conversations, and anti-white racism book clubs are often the first tactics implemented by organizations. But one potential tactic that emerged from the literature is to talk about it less, and just focus on doing the work. What does it look like to implement a strategy that’s more action-oriented — to change the grant-making process to be more equitable, or implement new programs focused on DEI work? When DEI work is done through a shift in resource allocation and work-based changes in focus, does it lead to more meaningful or lasting change?

As Slocum (2006) writes: “Whites should not imagine that they can simply learn enough anti-racist practices to do it well or shed responsibility.” In a case study of an organization called Nuestra Raices, they cite that their approach is rooted in community leadership and input, and that, rather than focusing on crafting diversity policies and memos, they are addressing systemic racism “quietly and organically” (341). Anti-racism work is executed through the questions the organization asks itself, and through their response to community interests and needs.

Foundation giving patterns are a helpful case study in how minority communities are underrepresented and underserved. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) conducted a study in 2020 of 25 community foundations across the United States. They found a consistent pattern of lack of explicit support for Black communities. According to their results, “only 1% of grant-making from the 25 foundations that we looked at was specifically designed for Black communities, even though a combined 15% of these 25 cities’ populations are Black.” They estimate that allocating funding on a more balanced per-capita basis would have led to $2 billion in additional funds to Black communities. The study notes that the Black investment rate for community foundations is much worse than other measures of inequality, and that this disparity demonstrates how community foundations are failing to serve their full communities, calling it “redlining by another name.”

Movements such as Community-Centric Fundraising are working to ground fundraising in racial equity and social justice. New practices and tools are emerging to challenge and change traditional fundraising practices, like the Equitable Grantmaking Continuum (Le, Funders: Here’s a tool to make your grantmaking more equitable, 2021). These more work-based approaches are fundamental to a comprehensive and authentic DEI strategy.

Theories of Change Management

Overview. John P. Kotter, a scholar on organizational change theory, describes a crisis of change management in his 2021 book, Change: How Organizations Achieve Hard-To-Imagine Results in Uncertain and Volatile Times. While the pace of global change has accelerated, organizational ability to adapt to that change has not. Kotter describes this as “a gap” that is “clearly growing between the amount of change happening around us and the change we are successfully, smartly implementing in most of our organizations and lives” (Kotter 2021).

According to a frequently-cited study by consulting group McKinsey & Company (2016), 70 percent of complex, large-scale change programs fail — due to lack of engagement, collaboration, support, or accountability. The McKinsey & Company study argues that leaders pay attention to the ideas or systems they’re working to change, but if they don’t know how to manage that process and lead their organization towards change, it may be a wasted effort.

In reviewing the literature on change management, two dominant theories emerged in traditional change management: Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change and the Prosci ADKAR model.

Organizational Change: Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change. Kotter’s 8-step process for leading change is a methodology that identifies the success factors for change (Kotter, 1996). The eight steps in the model are as follows: 1. Create a sense of urgency; 2. Build a guiding coalition; 3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives; 4. Communicate the vision 5. Enable action by removing barriers 6. Generate short-term wins; 7. Sustain acceleration, and; 8. Make it stick.

Individual Change: The Prosci ADKAR® Model. The Prosci ADKAR® model is used by leaders around the world. It was developed by Jeff Hiatt, who studied the change patterns of more than 700 organizations. Unlike Kotter’s theory, the ADKAR model is based on the theory that individual change must come before organizational change, and that organizational change fails when individuals do not fully understand the change. Another difference is that Kotter’s model focuses on the perspective of senior leaders, while ADKAR centers the organization more broadly (Galli 2019).

ADKAR is an acronym: Awareness of the need for change; Desire to support the change; Knowledge of how to change; Ability to demonstrate skills & behaviors; and Reinforcement to make the change stick. The ADKAR model posits that each of these components must be fully realized in order for change to occur (prosci.com/methodology/adkar). The ADKAR Model is a complementary model to the Prosci 3-Phase process, a framework for organizational change. Unlike Kotter’s 8-step change theory, ADKAR is not necessarily linear in nature.

The ADKAR model has been applied primarily to for-profit businesses and specific business practices, though some cross-sector studies can be found in the literature. For example, Karambelkar & Bhattacharya (2017) applied ADKAR to the onboarding process for HR professionals, suggesting the model as a systematic approach to the design and implementation of onboarding new hires. In Leading change with ADKAR, Wong et al. (2019) provided a case study of how an academic medical center used ADKAR to move more than 1,000 clinicians into a new facility; they found that although change is an ongoing process, ADKAR was a “useful tool that guided us through the complexities of a large-scale organizational change.”

Critiques of Traditional Change Management Theories. The change management industry is booming. According to the Organization And Change Management Consulting Market Report, it was valued at $1,108.3 million in 2018 and is projected to grow over the next decade. Consulting companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton, Deloitte, McKinsey & Company, and The Boston Consulting group profit from positioning themselves as change management experts, and an increasing number of MBA programs offer a Change Management specialization or certificate.

But some scholars argue that these more traditional models of change management are not as timeless as the change management companies would like you to believe, and that the rapidly-changing environment today is a “new normal” (Worley & Mohrman, 2014). The “old normal” was characterized by a pattern of slow change, followed by a burst of “radical advancement”; stability and implementation of change was the focus. Worley & Mohrman attribute Lewin’s Change Model as a key theory in defining change management, and note that both Kotter’s eight-step process and the Prosci ADKAR model can be mapped onto Lewin’s framework. The “new normal”, by contrast, exists in an environment of near-constant disruption. Worley & Mohrman argue that the dominant change management frameworks have (ironically) not adapted to this change in the cadence of disruption and calm, and that a new model would take into account the history of the organization, the importance of design, the ability to make rapid iterative adjustments, and creating more targeted, high-impact interventions that disrupt current systems. The new model they propose has less arrows and more flow; less “managing” change through hierarchy, more grassroots ownership and “engage-and-learn” processes.

This more nuanced approach feels appropriate for the nonprofit sector, and may partly explain why the sector has traditionally shied away from utilizing private-sector change theories; while profit is usually the primary motivator for the private sector, nonprofits have more complicated motivators and metrics of success. With these limitations in mind, this study assesses how on-the-ground change implementation in the case studies is aligned with the Kotter and/or ADKAR models, but also looks for patterns of divergence and difference, and assesses whether the traditional models are useful in a nonprofit setting.

Emergent Strategy. It is difficult to study theories of change, environmentalism, and social justice without recognizing the work of adrienne maree brown, and in particular, her book Emergent Strategy (2017). brown’s work is heavily cited in popular contemporary literature and analysis about the nonprofit industry, including Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth and Incite!’s The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex.

Brown is an activist and writer, and her work is largely inspired by science fiction writer Octavia Butler, who pioneered the genre of speculative social justice science fiction. And according to Walidah Imarisha, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood (2015), science fiction has “everything” to do with social justice. Writes Imarisha: “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organizing is science fiction.” In many ways, this represents a new way of approaching change: by imagining it into existence. Butler also wrote about change theory in her books, including Parable of the Sower, a 1993 novel set in dystopian 2025 America. A repeated mantra of the book is: “All that you touch you change / all that you change, changes you.” This is a key component of emergent strategy: the idea that “what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system.”

Emergent strategy also draws how humans can learn from complex patterns in nature, inspired by principles of biomimicry and permaculture. The way birds flock together on instinct, or how trees join at their roots to become stronger as a collective group — these are all examples of emergence. And while emergent strategy is a unique, eloquent, and perhaps the most on-trend theory of change in social justice circles, it may lack the simplicity of the more traditional change management theories. It is straightforward to assess whether your plan checks all five letters of the ADKAR model or to identify your place on Kotter’s 8-step process; borrowing strategies from nature and science fiction to guide a change management process is, arguably, much more complex.

brown does articulate a process for change when describing her work as executive director for Ruckus, where she describes successfully managing a transition “from a kickass, majority white, male-led environmental-issue-centered network into a kickass, female-led, multicultural, justice- AND environment-centered network”. She describes six core principles that, in practice, led them to a successful transition. These include respecting local and long-term relationships, not inserting themselves into community work, supporting action led by communities impacted by injustice, and avoiding any work that is not deeply rooted in systemic change. As brown explains, “such a fundamental shift requires many small steps”.


Nonprofit organizations and foundations testing new ways to create change. For example, in a blog post on the popular website nonprofitaf.com, It’s time we fundraise in a way that doesn’t uphold white moderation and white supremacy, Vu Le (2020) writes about specific ways that nonprofit fundraisers can work against the established norms of white saviorism, inequity, and poverty tourism in fundraising: “One organization sent Ijeoma Iluo’s book ‘So You Want to Talk About Race’ to their major donors and engaged them in a book discussion… another organization for Give Big, a one-day giving campaign, sent out an email blast to their donor base encouraging people to donate to other organizations.” Le notes that these tactics are a “small but significant” step towards emphasizing the community and challenging the dynamics of the current system.

Regardless of their current state or starting point, most environmental NGOs are focusing resources, thought, and energy towards becoming more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. But the “what next” of this — the tactical strategies and ideas — are overwhelming, and the effectiveness varied or unproven. And to approach such complex and values-oriented changes, the solution has to be as systematic as the problem.