Embodying Equity: Change Management Strategies for DEI in Environmental Nonprofits (Part III: Research and Findings)

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

Brittany Jezouit
33 min readApr 8, 2023

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

In this section:

Research Findings: General Themes

The findings from the study of racial equity initiatives from six nonprofits in the Richmond, VA area are summarized in this section.

The main themes were struggles with a legacy of mostly-white leadership, uphill battles, historical tensions, burdening BIPOC staff, fear of change, and challenging of fundamental nonprofit concepts.

Majority-white decision-making

“We’re still a white-led organization, mostly made up of white people.”

Most of the interviewees discussed how their organization is lacking in diversity, some of them citing that they have an all-white or majority-white staff and board. In addition, much of the decision-making on racial equity initiatives is done by those leaders, not by people of color within the organization. Several interviewees expressed frustration with the hierarchy within their organization — specifically that entry-level and frontline workers were people of color, but the higher levels of leadership remained “whitecapped”. They stated that without growth opportunities within the organization for staff of color, this issue will be perpetuated over time, and that it’s difficult to disrupt the current status quo of leadership. Said one interviewee: “for people of color [and] people with lived experience to move up in the organization, ultimately, it means that some of our existing leadership needs to leave.”

An uphill task with no end

“There’s always work to be done.”

Almost every interviewee used the phrase, or some variation of it, and emphasized the ongoing and continuous nature of racial equity work. It was often (and perhaps accurately) portrayed by interviewees as an ongoing, uphill battle with no clear ending. Optimistically, this could be an example of a growth mindset and an understanding of the complexity of work, but it may also (as noted in the section on Kotter’s short-term wins) be inadvertently inhibiting the momentum of successful change initiatives.

Tensions regarding the history of the organization

“There’s very few gardens that originated from someone that was not white”.

Several interviewees acknowledged the complex history of exclusion from their organization, or contentious founding stories — being founded by someone with Confederate ties, for example, is not uncommon in Richmond. This was often presented as an opportunity to lean into and acknowledge, rather than to shy away from.

Burden of work for BIPOC staff

“I sometimes feel like all that people see is the color of my skin. And that people don’t feel like they can talk to me about anything other than diversity.”

Some interviewees of color expressed frustration with always being tagged in or asked to do diversity-related work, such as sitting on panels, boards, leading conversations, etc. — particularly if that was not necessarily the role they were seeking to do at their organization. One white interviewee discussed the importance of trying to avoid burdening her BIPOC staff or using their skin color as a “selling point”, saying that when they hire people of color, they take care to emphasize that “we’re a really white organization, we want to change. And we hope that you’ll be a part of that, not that we’re going to put all the responsibility on you. But this is a step for us and the direction to ensure that we resemble the communities that we serve.” This level of caution and care was not seen across all organizations. Interviewees of color who worked at organizations that did not express this concern named the burden of work as an issue. They shared that it impacted their time and ability to do their work, hindered their career mobility, and negatively impacted their emotional well-being.

Challenging traditional nonprofit concepts and language

“There’s a real danger of a savior complex… We try really hard to stay away from language around ‘communities that we serve.’”

Some organizations talked about challenging the traditional concepts and language used in the nonprofit industry; others did not. They discussed how “other service-providing nonprofits tend to lean into more of a paternalistic model” and that, eventually, they may re-examine their overall programs and process to focus more on the dignity and respect of the communities that they partner with.

Fear of change

“Some of this is fear of change — it’s as simple as being uncomfortable with changing the wording on a position description.”

When asked about barriers to becoming more diverse, one executive director responded quickly: “fear of change”. They discussed hesitancy within their organization to break habits or do work in different ways, especially staff that had been loyal to the organization for many years.

Common Racial Equity (RE) Practices, Approaches, and Strategies

The first research question focuses on identifying some of the most common tactics, strategies, and approaches for racial equity work. The study data identified several common themes, including workshops/training, committees/working groups, formation of new programs, and hiring diverse staff and/or staff for specific DEI-related roles.

Workshops and training

“All of our senior leadership took a special training.”

Most of the nonprofit leaders interviewed mentioned training, workshops, or shared resources for staff and board members. When asked about short-term future goals, many discussed planning workshops for their team. Otherwise, the interviewees did not talk extensively about the positive impacts or changes that occurred as a result of these workshops.

Committees and working groups

“We have a racial equity working group, there are two board members and the rest are staff.”

Several organizations had formed a working group or steering committee for racial equity work. These groups were formed by staff and stakeholders who expressed interest in participating, and/or participants were nominated to participate by organizational leadership. Many interviewees discussed the importance of diversity and representation within this group, and of the group having lived experience and backgrounds. In other organizations, however, it was unclear how the racial equity working group’s formation impacted the day-to-day work or policies of the organization, signaling perhaps a lack of meaningful integration of this initiative.

“Doing the work”

“I think it’s really important to gain the trust of the community through our work, and the things we’re trying to implement as an organization.”

A more complex conversation about racial equity initiatives can be found in this category of “doing the work” — creating programs, grants, or other allocation of resources specifically geared towards increasing racial equity and inclusion within their organization. Examples of this “doing the work” approach include creating an outdoor equity fund, building partnerships with diverse organizations, translating materials to Spanish, and creating programs that are specifically tailored to diverse populations. This approach is more inherent to the mission of some organizations than others; for example, it’s perhaps a more natural alignment for organizations focused on food justice than on gardens or trails. A more detailed analysis of this work, and how it follows (or diverges from) concepts of change theory, can be found in the next sections.

Many interviewees talked about the tension between talking about racial equity work and actually doing it. A common criticism of DEI initiatives is an “all talk, no action” approach. But paradoxically, some of the organizations that had the most thoughtful and comprehensive approaches to racial equity also suffered from the legacy of their reputation as a predominantly-white organization.

Leadership, DEI directors, and new hires

Another common question that emerged in the interviews was the debate over who was responsible for leading racial equity work within the organization, as well as for holding the organization accountable. Many interviewees expressed a desire to hire a diversity, equity, and inclusion director (or similar job title) and named it as a long-term goal. One organization said it was explicitly in their upcoming plans, while others expressed this more as a wish, but cited lack of resources and funding as a barrier. Others expressed disdain or confusion about the idea of a separate DEI role:

“So funny to see all those job postings? Like? Is that silly? I don’t mean to be rude. It’s just like, it’s like, where did this job come from? Where’s this job?”

“But to place the burden of all of that, to do the outreach into the community on one individual, especially for a city and region as diverse as Richmond is setting someone up and also the organization up for failure.”

The key differentiator in the interviewee’s attitude about a dedicated DEI role seemed to hinge on whether they perceived the role to be outward-facing or primarily internal. Those who conceptualized the role as doing the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion on behalf of the organization had generally less positive views about this approach, or shared stories about how they had tried and failed with that approach in the past. Those who viewed this role as more internal-facing — for example, to have a “director of diversity, equity inclusion, that helps keep that conversation live on a daily, weekly, monthly basis within the organization and facilitate training” — felt that this could be an important and valuable strategy.

In one case, an organization had recently pivoted their leadership structure and had gotten rid of their community engagement director role, opting for a more distributed approach across their organization. The absence of this role led to negative impacts on their brand, as the organization’s president explained:

“There’s a perception that because one individual is no longer at the organization that our community engagement has stopped, right? Um, that can’t be further from the truth…and we don’t talk about the good work that we’re doing. often enough. Some of our own team members think that we’ve abandoned the community.”

Analysis of Theories of Change

The three change theories being considered for this study are Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change, the Prosci ADKAR® Model, and adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. Note that these theories, and the steps or elements within each theory were not named or explicitly stated in the interview process, and this is a retroactive analysis of their change processes as described in the case study interviews.

Kotter’s 8-step process for leading change

Kotter’s model offers a linear, step-by-step approach to change within an organization. Below are examples and analysis of each step of the process, evidence from the interviews that matched these steps, and patterns/themes that emerged.

Step 1: Sense of urgency. Every nonprofit leader interviewed cited the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) and the racial uprisings of 2020 as a catalyst for change that created increased urgency around racial equity work. Some discussed how they were already engaging in conversations about this work, but that BLM “pushed [us] to the point of action”. Others who were not extensively engaging in racial equity work described it more as a “pressure to engage.”

Step 2: Build a guiding coalition. Many interviewees named this as a part of their process, as all-staff conversations and smaller groups. The committees and racial equity working groups may fall into this category, or in step #4.

Step 3: Form a strategic vision and initiatives. There was also strong evidence for this step. Some interviewees discussed strategic planning or revisions to their mission statement to more explicitly highlight racial equity and inclusion as core to their overall mission.

Step 4: Enlist a volunteer army. Evidence of this may be seen in the racial equity working groups, committees, etc., depending on the structure and purpose of the group.

Step 5: Enable action by removing barriers. There is less evidence of this step in the case studies. In fact, many interviewees discussed barriers to this work — such as staff being too “bogged down” in day-to-day work to be able to focus enough time and energy on moving the work of the racial equity committee forward — but did not (in that case) offer ways that the organization was working to remove those barriers, such as decreasing the workload of those staff members to make room for this new work.

6. Generate short-term wins. Many interviewees cited achievements in their racial equity work, such as translating all of their signs to Spanish, holding a successful event for Juneteenth, or strengthening a community partnership. However, there was some hesitancy to name these as “wins”. Instead, there was a lot of conversation about how there is “more work to be done”, or “a long way to go”, and focus on the continued work ahead.

7–8 Sustain acceleration and institute change. This is perhaps where the more business-oriented nature of Kotter’s steps falls short for the purpose of analyzing more complex and ongoing changes.

The Prosci ADKAR® Model

The ADKAR model is a change model that focuses on a bottom-up method and individual change. Unlike Kotter’s 8-step change theory, it is non-linear and is not intended as a sequential model.

One nonprofit leader described their process for the formation of their racial equity group, and their description had each of the components of the ADKAR model. This organization was notably advanced in their work towards racial equity, as evidenced by their strong community partnerships, public perception, and the complex discussion of their frameworks and mindset towards racial equity. It’s interesting to see how, unprompted and (presumably) without previous exposure to the ADKAR model, this one narrative maps so closely to the ADKAR change model. The interview excerpts that follow were all compiled from one answer from the program manager of that organization.

A1 — Awareness of the need for change. “I think it was finally pushed to the point of action by uprisings from last summer… And I think that it was work that [our ED] had probably wanted to do for a while. We had, you know, several, all staff conversations about wanting to put together a smaller group of staff and board members to actually drive the initiative forward. It started with us doing a survey of staff and board… We wrote a lot of our own questions, but we also leaned pretty heavily on this staff survey that’s been used by this organization called Living Cities, which is doing some interesting work. And they actually use this survey on an annual basis to track progress within their organization.”

The interviewee articulates a catalyst for action here — namey, the Black Lives Matter movement and internal conversations. They then shift into information-finding and assessment mode by surveying their staff, which helps to focus awareness not just on the broader issues, but on the current state of and perceptions within their organization.

A2 — Desire to support the change. “There was a survey that asked people what their interest level and commitment level to doing that to do it to lead in that work was…. [the survey was] essentially asking staff and board, how committed are you? How familiar are you with these terms?”

In this explanation, we see evidence of assessing the motivation of employees, shifting from awareness to desire for action. As mentioned in the themes, this assessment of commitment is a key part of the process.

A3 — Knowledge of how to change. “How are you able to recognize, you know, systemic, institutionalized, and personal language and violence and microaggressions? And how able are you to identify them and recognize them when they’re happening? And how well equipped do you feel, to combat it, when you do see it? I’m trying to think we asked people to really identify like, specific things that they had seen, both in places where maybe something happened, that wasn’t responded to well, or, you know, essentially, like, examples of racism that people are experiencing, or, you know, or seeing in their work life. And then asking people to identify places where they had felt supported or didn’t feel supported. And then ask for really specific guidance.”

Here, the narrative focuses on the “how” of the work. By asking about knowledge and ability to recognize violence and microaggressions, the interviewee is assessing their team’s knowledge in a more practical context; by asking how well equipped they are to combat it, they’re identifying whether their team knows what to do, and how they can support their team.

A4 — Ability to demonstrate skills and behaviors. “We were getting some information from that survey back about how there were pretty good levels of ability to recognize instances of racism on various levels, but less confidence in the feeling like people had the tools that they needed to actually combat it.”

The interviewee identifies a gap here in their team’s ability to demonstrate skills and behaviors. This signals where they are in the process and, according to ADKAR’s theory, where they may need to place more resources.

A5 — Reinforcement to make the change stick. “Our first or next milestone will be actually hiring a consultant to help guide the process. Recognizing that [the consultant] should be someone who’s well versed and has a lot of experience in working like to, to help institutionalize and operationalize this work… Creating better internal and external communication to really make sure that we all can consistently and clearly articulate the connection between this place where I started out with, of recognizing and being able to articulate both internally and externally the connection between racial inequity and the environment in which our work exists.”

The interviewee identifies next steps. ADKAR names examples of reinforcements in this step as celebrations, rewards/recognition, feedback, corrective actions, and accountability mechanisms. This step focuses on long-term, lasting change. The interviewee’s response here — particularly the point about institutionalizing and operationalizing the work — indicates a systematic approach to integrating this work throughout their organization.

adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy

Unlike the Kotter and ADKAR models, the concepts of emergent strategy do not clearly fit into steps or checklists. In fact, brown prefaces her book, Emergent Strategy, as “a cluster of thoughts in development, observations of existing patterns, and questions of how we apply the brilliance of the world around us to our efforts to coexist in and with this world as humans,” referring to her writing style and process as “more ‘ooh ah wow how??’ than ‘Empirical data proves that…’”. (brown, p. 3). However, she does identify six core concepts of emergent strategy which helped her to transition her environmental nonprofit into a radically diverse organization. Below is an analysis of how those six concepts emerged throughout the case studies.

E1 — Respecting local and long-term relationships. Many organizations talked about their role within the ecosystem of the work being done in Richmond, rather than emphasizing a claim in ownership of this work. Overlap in mission was often welcomed and embraced, not seen as competitive. One interviewee expressed frustration for a “theology of scarcity” mindset, “which is, if they go after money, it’s money we lose”; their organization has a very small staff and relies heavily on community partnerships and collaboration to achieve their goals.

E2 — Not inserting themselves into community work. Said one interviewee: “We want to make sure that we are not stepping on the toes of an organization that’s already doing amazing community outreach and wellness in that community.” One organization reflected on their process for not stepping into communities and “thinking they have the right answer”, and instead working with communities to listen and allow them to lead and guide the work based on what they actually need.

E3 — Avoiding any work that is not deeply rooted in systemic change. Of all the concepts in emergent strategy, this one is perhaps more at odds with the traditional mindset of nonprofit thinking, which often position the nonprofit as a savior and their community as helpless beneficiaries. Focusing on systemic change is one thing; avoiding work that doesn’t address systemic change is much more complex. A strong example of this is one organization who talked about their transition in their approach to partnerships, saying that “just giving tickets for a community to come is not a true partnership” and that they had pivoted to work towards more meaningful, systems-level change — despite the short-term benefits and positive press that free tickets may cause.

E4 — Build space for a strong community vision. Organizations that seemed to be engaged in more complex racial equity work emphasized the importance of community ownership and vision. For example, one organization talked about their plan to step out from their work when the time is right: “so when they are, for instance, growing their own kale, we’ll stop sending them kale… we’ll step out when the time is right for us to do so.” Rather than creating a long-term dependency on their services, the nonprofit leader was focused on helping the community to become self-sufficient and have gradual ownership over that work.

E5 — Impacted leadership, privileged support. The idea of impacted leadership — that is, leaders who are impacted by the issues they’re addressing, such as an executive director of a homeless services organization who has themselves experienced homelessness — is arguably still uncommon in the nonprofit sector. Evidence of this was also not seen in these case studies, and the majority of interviewees discussed their mostly-white staff as a barrier to success in racial equity work. The change process for this is complicated, as explained by one interviewee: “making sure that there are growth opportunities, specifically for people of color, specifically for people with lived experience to move up in the organization, ultimately, means that some of our existing leadership needs to leave.”

E6 — Women in leadership roles. Over three-fourths of the case study participants interviewed were women. Some of this can be explained by the history of the organizations more broadly, especially in the case of public gardens, which has traditionally been a female-dominated field. The female leaders expressed pride in being a women-led organization, and some talked about their history as female-founded. Others expressed frustration about the lack of gender diversity, particularly for their board members, and discussed short-term goals for placing more females in leadership positions.

Putting It All Together: A Potential Hybrid Framework

The emerging patterns and common themes from the findings can be rearranged and combined to create a new conceptual change theory. This framework is a hybrid model, drawing from components of the Prosci ADKAR® Model, Kotter’s 8-Step Theory of Change, and adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy, as well incorporating major themes from the interviews. In taking this approach, seven phrases were identified: Seeing, Feeling, Listening, Stretching, Moving, Speaking, and Embodying. The key motivators, primary activities, goals, alignments to change theories, and common challenges were identified for each theme. A summary of this data can be found in the chart below.

Phase 1: Seeing

Summary. The first phase, Seeing, focuses on education and understanding of racial equity issues. In this stage, awareness of equity and inclusion as an issue is established. This may also come from stakeholders or constituents; for example, some organizations in the case study noted that some donors refused to donate until the organization hired more BIPOC staff, signaling a need for change or action. This phase connects to ADKAR’s step 1, “Awareness of the need for change”, and is by conversations around racial equity and learning more about diversity issues more broadly.

Challenges and Considerations. This step is a crucial first step for racial equity work and precedes any sense of urgency or move towards action. However, some organizations, both in the case studies and literature reviews, fell into thinking that simply being aware of the issues was an accomplishment.

Depending on the current state of knowledge within the organization, this phase may be a big or small undertaking; within some organizations, there is a more inherent understanding of how historical and systemic racism has informed today’s structures and systems. For others, this may be a difficult or new concept, and there may be some resistance to acknowledging the validity of these ideas.

Phase 2: Feeling

Summary. After establishing a baseline of understanding on racial equity and systemic racism, the next step that emerged was to define the issues in a more personal context. In this phase, a sense of urgency (Kotter’s Step 1) and personal desire to support the change (ADKAR) should be the primary motivators and guiding emotions. The organization may begin to understand their role and responsibility, and how their mission does (or does not) connect to racial equity work.

Challenges and Considerations. Two of the organizations struggled with being motivated by pressure or obligation to make changes, rather than to lead from a true place of desire and responsibility. If organizations are acting due to pressure from external stakeholders, but are not personally motivated to create change, this may lead to a lack of accountability or follow-through.

Phase 3: Imagining

Summary. This phase integrates Kotter’s step 2 (build a guiding coalition), ADKAR’s step 3 (knowledge of how to change), as well as key ideas from emergent strategy, such as respecting local and long-term relationships and relying on impacted leadership to inform decisions. In this phase, the organization maps a plan for action. Some organizations with internal expertise relied on their guidance, while others hired an external consultant or DEI expert, or discussed plans for doing so.

In this phase, the common tactics and strategies for racial equity work should be reviewed. Organizations should consider what approach is best for them at this point in their journey, based on needs, goals, and feasibility/resources, as well as an honest assessment of the organization’s current understanding of racial equity issues.

Challenges and Considerations. When asked about the biggest barrier to change, one executive director in the case studies replied immediately: “Fear of change!”. This phase signals the transition from passive learning to preparing for action and change. Leaders who do not acknowledge or consider the fears of their employees — either based on their personal values or simply a desire to do things the way they’ve always been done — may face resistance or subpar follow-through later in the process. All stakeholders must be on board with and invested in the vision for change.

Relying on white-led decision making and privileged leadership was a common reflection heard throughout the data. If the organization is already a mostly-white organization, this can be a difficult barrier, and may ultimately mean that existing leadership may need to leave or step down in order to make space for more diverse perspectives.

Phrase 4: Listening

Summary. In this phase, specific goals and desired outcomes are established. The leaders for the actual work to be done are established in this step, who may (or may not) be different from the strategic leaders in phase 3. This phase is about operationalizing the plan, with timelines, goals, and written desired outcomes. This connects to Kotter’s step 3 (form a strategic vision and initiatives) and emergent strategy (build a space for strong community vision).

Challenges and Considerations. A crucial component of this phase that is perhaps overlooked is to enable action by removing barriers (Kotter’s step 5). This may mean re-allocating resources for this work, securing new resources, or shifting priorities. Not clearing space and capacity in anticipation of work was named as a struggle for many interviewees.

Additionally, placing the burden of this work (planning or execution) on BIPOC staff was a common frustration expressed by nonprofit leaders in the study. This suggests that teing mindful of assigning this work only to those who fit the job description and have expressed interest in this work, and who have the capacity to take on extra work, is key to avoiding burnout or frustration on BIPOC staff or board members.

Phase 5: Moving

Summary. This is the action-oriented phase where the plan is executed. The specifics of this step vary depending on the course of action chosen.

Challenges and Considerations. In this phase, integrating the DEI or racial equity work into the day-to-day operations was a common challenge identified by case study participants.

Phase 6: Speaking

Summary. This phase includes articulation and celebration of the work done. This may be oriented towards strategic or identity alignment, such as revising the company website to highlight the work, or updating the mission statement in public-facing communications. This phase aligns with Kotter’s step 6 (generate short-term wins) and ADKAR’s last component (reinforcement to make the change stick).

Challenges and Considerations. Many organizations in the study struggled with doing this step too much or not enough. Several interviewees expressed concern that the over-articulation of accomplishments may seem like falsely claiming success. However, more organizations seemed to do too little in this step. Instead, they emphasized that there was “more work to be done” and that the work would never be complete. While this may be true, they could be depriving their team of a key step in change theory, which is to celebrate small wins. Additionally, some organizations were doing more work in racial equity, but because they were not highlighting it publicly, their reputation in the community did not reflect this work.

Phase 7: Growing

Summary. In this final phase of the cycle, organizations can assess changes and prepare to seek out next steps for future growth, with the goal of re-starting the process with more complex goals for racial equity work. Over time, the organization may see less distinction between racial equity initiatives and their main work, instead viewing it as a core component of their mission and operations. This step aligns with Kotter’s step 7 (sustain acceleration) and emergent strategy (avoid any work that is not deeply rooted in systemic change).

Challenges and Considerations. The biggest challenge faced by organizations is viewing this as a linear model, instead of a cyclical one. Most interviewees expressed that they planned to continue their work towards racial equity as it evolved to more complex and integrated work.

“Diversity without inclusion is tokenism. Diversity without equity is segregation. Diversity without accountability does not promote justice.”

From Green 2.0’s 2020 NGO & Foundation Transparency Report Card

Discussion and Implications

Introduction and summary of key findings

For generations, communities of color have been excluded from the environmental nonprofit sector. This is often not caused by a lack of understanding of historical/systemic racism, but a lack of fluency in the change-making process. Further, there are specific challenges and roadblocks that organizations face while trying to manage a change that is so values-oriented, emotionally charged, and complex.

The purpose of this research was to better understand the processes and decision-making of environmental nonprofit leaders who are managing racial equity-related initiatives and transformations within their organization, and to create a helpful roadmap. In the existing literature, many change theories have been applied to the for-profit sector, but these have not been widely applied to DEI work in the nonprofit sector. This work aims to contribute knowledge by combining insights with nonprofit leaders and analysis of their processes and considerations through the lens of several established change theories.

The study relied on data from qualitative interviews with six environmental nonprofits in the Richmond, VA area. This allowed for both an organizational-level and individual-level focus from a diverse subset of organizations. Throughout the interviews, common challenges, themes, and thought processes emerged. Many of the organizational change stories closely mapped onto the steps of established change theories, but the areas where there was mismatch — for example, where there was no data found in the interviews that aligned with a step in ADKAR or Kotter’s change management processes — revealed insights and opportunities for organizations to improve their processes. The resulting model is a hybrid theory of change that takes into account common concerns and challenges of nonprofit organizations working towards racial equity. While this new model is by no means comprehensive or generalizable to all organizations, it can help guide decision-making and problem-solving. At points where DEI efforts stall, this hybrid model can be used as a resource. For nonprofit organizations that are new to racial equity work, this hybrid change model provides a big-picture overview of the potential journey, as well as a summary of insights from a subset of environmental nonprofits that have been through and learned from this process.

Interpretation of Findings

The insights from the study can be combined to create a hybrid model of change theory for environmental nonprofits embarking in racial equity work. However, this process is iterative and cyclical, rather than the traditionally more linear shape of change theory. The implementation of the action plan is not the end of the process, but a mid-way point. A visual model of the process could be presented as follows:

Potential challenges for nonprofit organizations

The study uncovered several specific challenges that the nonprofit leaders faced. Below, the identified roadblocks are identified for each stage of the process, as well as suggestions for overcoming these roadblocks — based on insights from interviewees and from the change theory literature. These considerations may be useful for nonprofit leaders to learn from and work to avoid or navigate around.

Intellectualizing or depersonalizing issues of racial equity. In the initial “seeing” phase, individuals are forming an understanding of the issues around racial equity, both broadly and within their industry. It’s important here to make the connection between the wider landscape and the specific/personal implications. Not making these connections may result in a lack of personal accountability or understanding of how future work may make an impact.

Being motivated by pressure instead of desire. The pressure to change may come from donors, board members, employees, or other external sources. This can be an effective catalyst for organizations to begin conversations or work around racial equity. However, leaders of this work should also be driven by internal motivators. If external pressure is the sole or primary motivator of change, the organization may be more likely to lose motivation or stall in their progress. This differentiator — motivation by pressure vs. desire — may foreshadow the success of the organization’s initiatives.

Decision paralysis. No two organizations took the same approach to racial equity at their organization. While there were many similarities, different tactics were utilized based on the desires, concerns, and specific goals. Nonprofit leaders should be wary of decision paralysis, and to be mindful that they may not find the “perfect” approach. Instead, they should be open to iteration and adapting over time. As one interviewee advised, “start where you are” — and rely on the insights and experiences of others. Relying on an external expert, such as a DEI consultant, can be a helpful tactic to overcome this hurdle.

Not acknowledging fear of change. As discussed in the findings, fear of change was cited as a barrier for many organizations, especially those with a longer history and more long-term employees. When beginning new racial equity initiatives, leaders should assess the level of fear or resistance to change within their organization. If the fear of change is high, it may be beneficial to spend more time in the initial phases of learning and understanding.

Not removing barriers for work. The emphasis on the burden of work, especially for staff of color, was a universal experience throughout the case studies. In some ways, this is a universal step for any change process: if a new task is added to a team member’s responsibilities, then something must be removed to balance and allocate resources and time for that work. However, the emotional burden of DEI work should also be considered. Without these shifts and space-making, staff may feel frustrated, overworked, or undervalued.

Under-communicating responsibility and accountability for racial equity work. In the case studies, one organization pivoted from having a dedicated “community engagement director” role to distributing the responsibility of this work across the organization. Although this was a well-intentioned shift towards a more holistic and distributed approach to racial equity work, it was not as successful a transition as they’d hoped. Unfortunately, they recounted how some of their employees perceived that the organization had abandoned their community engagement work because the role no longer existed — the opposite of the desired outcome. There are many different ways to approach this, and this study does not attempt to make conclusions about the most effective leadership structure for DEI work. Regardless of how responsibility is assigned, it’s essential to communicate the intentions and responsibilities to all stakeholders.

Not acknowledging small wins. In racial equity work, there can be a fear of celebrating success. However, this approach leads to skipping a key step of celebrating small wins. While organizations can and should take caution not to overstate their successes, taking time to celebrate wins and acknowledge the progress being made can help with motivation and reinforcement of changes made. It’s possible that skipping this step of celebrating short-term wins and accomplishments — and instead focusing on the magnitude of future work — may be detrimental to the overall progress and momentum of these initiatives.

Thinking of the process as linear and finite. As a somewhat contradictory caution to the previous point, organizations should think of this process as interactive and ongoing. The organizations who seemed to be succeeding most in their racial equity work articulated more complex ideas, such as challenging basic notions of their work and restructuring existing programs to center racial equity. This advice diverges from the shape of more traditional change theory — for example, Kotter’s Step 8, “initiate change”, has a finality to it that is inherently hard to achieve. DEI and racial equity work is more complex than, for example, transitioning to a new sales management system. A more nuanced version of this for racial equity work may focus instead on transitioning to more complex and integrative versions of racial equity work; for example, to “graduate” from workshops and committees to more complicated and long-term initiatives, such as community partnerships, new programs, or a re-evaluation of HR practices.

Recommendations and Future Research

This study focuses on environmental nonprofits. This sub-sector was chosen because of the relative shared history of the organizations, and the awareness and focus on racial equity issues within the environmental movement. Future research may focus on other sub-sectors within the nonprofit industry and compare how, and if, the findings from this study may differ based on the sectors.

Additionally, the findings from this study draw the experience of a small number of nonprofit leaders. Future research could expand to survey more interviewees. The current study focuses on the decision-making process and experiences/perceptions of leaders, but notably excludes other voices, such as entry-level staff, volunteers, or donors. Interviewing various stakeholders from the same organization could provide a more nuanced and less biased assessment of the efficacy of the organization’s efforts and public perception.

Future research could also focus on the tools and tactics for success by stage, and/or strategies for organizations to approach this work. For example, the “seeing” phase may include specific suggestions or organizations that have been strong partners in this stage. The “imagining” phase might include tools to help employees envision a more racially equitable future for their organization, drawing perhaps on concepts from speculative science fiction and/or design thinking to help stakeholders understand goals and possibilities for change.


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