Embodying Equity: Change Management Strategies for DEI in Environmental Nonprofits (Part I: Overview)

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

Brittany Jezouit
10 min readApr 8, 2023

Note: I completed the Masters in Nonprofit Studies program at the University of Richmond in 2021. Since then, I’ve left the nonprofit field (and now I work for Medium!) but I think about my capstone research work often. And when friends or coworkers ask to read my research paper, I wish I had a more easily shareable version than the 94-page PDF published in the UR Scholarship Repository.

I also think there’s an important place for academic writing and research on Medium, so this is a proof-of-concept version of one way to do it. I pulled some slides and graphics from my capstone defense into the story, and edited a few sections to remove some logistical details about my research process, plus broke it up into a three-part series. Other than that, this Medium version is mostly the same as the UR Scholarship Repository version.

This is part I; here’s part II and part III!

In this section:


Many environmental nonprofits are working to address racial equity within their organizations, but these initiatives often fail. Why?

Using data from interviews with local environmental nonprofit leaders, this study aims to combine insights from nonprofit leaders doing racial equity work with key theories of change from the ProSci ADKAR model, John Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change, and adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. The study also incorporates relevant literature and survey data about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work and the current state of diversity in the environmental sector.

Conclusions explore possible approaches to racial equity work, a proposed hybrid model of change theory for racial equity, and an analysis of common challenges and roadblocks for nonprofit leaders.

Keywords: racial equity, diversity, inclusion, environmental, sustainability, change theory, theory of change, change management, environmental justice


Part I: Overview

As a result of historical and systemic racism, environmental nonprofits are an overwhelmingly white-dominated sector. With racial equity issues at the forefront of conversation today, many environmental NGO leaders are recognizing — some for the first time — that diversity, equity, and inclusion is an issue at their organization.

But the path towards change is often unclear. Despite an overwhelming abundance of resources, training, tactics, and strategies available for nonprofits seeking to improve DEI, there is less guidance on the actual change-making process as it relates to this work. Should organizations hire a new “diversity manager”, or start an employee anti-racism book club, or hold a workshop on diversity training, or launch a new program to serve more diverse populations — or all, or none, of the above? This scattershot approach to DEI is rarely guided by organizational change theory, and often fails to make meaningful or lasting change.

Unsuccessful racial equity programs can be a poor or inefficient use of time and resources, counterproductive to stated goals, and harmful to marginalized communities. When DEI initiatives fail, people of color often bear the burden of that failure, while white leaders may feel that they have “checked the box” and done their part to show support of diversity — without making any real sacrifices. The systematic exclusion of BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) voices in the environmental sector has led to a crisis of environmental justice, whereby marginalized communities are most negatively impacted by climate change.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice (EJ) as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income.” Considering this definition, it is critical that environmental nonprofits learn how to effectively transform their organizations and choose paths towards DEI that lead to meaningful, sustainable change. If environmental nonprofits can succeed in moving from predominantly white teams and exclusionary culture to inclusive, diverse groups serving diverse populations, then they will be able to work towards their mission more effectively, or to tailor their mission to be more inclusive to the needs of marginalized communities.

This study is an exploration of common racial equity strategies and their effectiveness, analyzed using the framework of three change-making theories. Through detailed case studies on local environmental NGOs in the Richmond, VA area, the study seeks to understand the decision-making process and implementation of racial equity initiatives, and to retroactively apply theories of change to help understand the effectiveness of each approach.

The insights from this study will help environmental NGOs — and all nonprofits struggling with legacies of racism and exclusion — to better understand how to think about, plan for, and implement racial equity work within their organizations, and how theories of change may help inform this work.

Part II: Context and Problem Analysis

Context: Race and the Environmental Movement

The history of American environmentalism is “a history of middle-class white male environmental activism” (Taylor, 1997). The field of environmentalism and conservation has historically been built by and for white communities, despite the implicit idea that environmental issues affect everyone. The 1960s is sometimes perceived as the beginning of environmentalism as a social cause, when “evidence of humanity’s destruction of the natural habitat” served as a motivator for conservation (Davis, 2014, p. 141). But many scholars argue that the environmental movement was built on the same fundamental concepts that pre-date the 1960s: colonialism, extraction, and white-led conquest and subjugation of minorities.

Problematic practices and ideologies can be found throughout the history of the environmental movement, and the absence of critical analysis of race and ownership in the outdoors may be considered to be an erasure of the history of violence and colonialism, instead “reproducing and extending structures of whiteness” (McLean 2013).

Within just the last few years, there has been a racial reckoning occurring around the world — and throughout the field of environmental nonprofits. While environmental NGOs may have been able to sidestep the legacy of racism with a boilerplate message about how “the environment is for everyone,” it now seems impossible to ignore the ways that the environmental movement has perpetuated, ignored, or exacerbated issues of racial equity. The link between environmentalism and racial justice has made its way to the forefront of the conversation about climate change and conservation.

With this increased understanding of systemic racism comes an understanding of how communities of color have been most impacted by the issues of climate change. In July 2020, the executive director of the Sierra Club published an article, Pulling Down Our Monuments, in which he denounced some of the beliefs of the organization’s founder, John Muir, and acknowledged that the Sierra Club was created from a place of “whiteness and privilege”. A month earlier, the deputy director of the National Park Service (NPS) published a statement committing to “lead change and work against racism” to engage communities that “have been missing from the discussions for far too long,” signalling that the NPS was not just committed to racial equity, but are also reevaluating how they can do this work better and more effectively (Vela, 2020).

Similarly, in an op-ed in June 2020, Hop Hopkins, the Director of Organizational Transformation at the Sierra Club, argued that a “long-overdue realization” of the connection between climate change and white supremacy is growing. This realization is driven by people of color in the climate justice movement, as well as a growing awareness of systemic inequity. Hopkins’ argument is that if we valued the lives of all people equally, then the climate crisis would not exist; and until all lives are valued equally, the climate crisis will continue.

Problem Analysis

Defining DEI and Racial Equity. For the purpose of this study, “diversity, equity, and inclusion” and “racial equity” are terms that are used somewhat interchangeably and are broadly defined. Because this study looks at change-making effectiveness, and because each organization will be at varying points of progress, the focus is on change and difference over time, rather than the “achievement” of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization. Therefore, a comprehensive or operational definition of DEI may vary based on the organization’s goals and programs.

Diversity Statistics at Environmental NGOS. There is still a pervasive lack of diversity in conservation, and environmental policies and institutions continue to exclude BIPOC communities (Kashwan 2020). This exclusion is seen both in the makeup of staff at environmental NGOs and the communities that these organizations serve. According to a 2018 report in The George Wright Forum, Black Americans make up less than two percent of national park visitors. In 2017, only about three percent of recipients of the nation’s environmental science degrees were Black (Data USA), and a survey found that 88 percent of staff and 95 percent of board members of environmental NGOs were white (Taylor, 2014).

In a report entitled The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations (2014), researchers surveyed nearly 300 conservation NGOs, governmental environmental agencies, and environmental grantmaking foundations, as well as 21 environmental professionals. Their research found that there has been significant progress on gender diversity within these organizations, but that the gains have mostly gone to white women (and that men are still more likely to hold higher positions of leadership). The report calls the state of racial diversity in environmental organizations “troubling” and states that minority groups are severely underrepresented in the environmental workforce. While many organizations state a desire to be more diverse or inclusive, few have taken more formal steps, such as forming a diversity committee or hiring a diversity manager. The report also found that the recruitment and advertising for environmental NGO roles introduced unconscious bias and replication of the current hiring pipeline. Writes Taylor, “dominant culture of the organizations is alienating to ethnic minorities, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and others outside the mainstream.”

Race to Lead’s 2019 survey, which focuses on the nonprofit industry more broadly, found that while 74% of surveyed individuals reported DEI initiatives within their organization — with trainings as the most frequent type of initiative — BIPOC nonprofit workers reported “few shifts towards equity in the workplace” (Rave to Lead Revisited, p. 3, 2019). The Center for Effective Philanthropy compiled a report, Nonprofit Diversity Efforts: Current Practices and the Role of Foundations (2018), which surveyed 205 leaders of nonprofit organizations. The survey found that while 83% said race/ethnic diversity was relevant to the organization’s goals, it was not often discussed as a priority. In 2014, a report found that only 18% of nonprofit staff are people of color, and 92% of board members were white (Nonprofit Quarterly). According to Nonprofit HR, 68% of organizations lack a true diversity strategy. The 2019 Nonprofit Diversity Practices Report found that slightly more than half of survey respondents had a formal diversity statement, and they cited racial/ethnic diversity as their greatest diversity challenge.

Connections to Change-making Theory. The study will apply three well-established theories of organizational change: the Prosci ADKAR® model, Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change, and adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. These theories are more commonly used in the private sector, and this cross-sector analysis offers a unique framework.

Comparing these models of change to real experiences and attempts at DEI work within nonprofits will lead to a greater understanding of the components and steps needed for DEI work to succeed. These models have some shortcomings, and as such, we will also identify ways that organizations are managing change in new or innovative ways, or by using strategies that are counter to these more traditional models, and whether the unique characteristics of the nonprofit field affect the relevance or application of these models.

An understanding of change management theories can help nonprofits leaders navigate change and to identify specific opportunities to improve. For example, in Change Management in Environmental Nonprofits (Boreyko, 2010), the researchers found that by referencing Kurt Lewin’s 3-Step Model of change, a gap was revealed in the practices of D.C-area nonprofits: they were unable to move to the third step, “moving”. Factors such as effective communication and participatory decision-making were often overlooked as priorities in a change/transition process. While there are differences in the skills, motivations, and challenges of workers in for-profit and non-profit organizations (Chapman 1998; Buelens & Van den Broeck 2007), nonprofits may benefit from borrowing more from the established, tested change theories in the for-profit world.

Part III: Research Questions and Study Outline

The study asks the following research questions:

  1. What are the different practices, strategies, and approaches being used in environment-related nonprofits to address racial equity and systemic racism?
  2. What theories of change can nonprofits consider to help inform the decision-making and implementation process when working to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive?

By drawing from the literature and the study data, we have identified and categorized common “buckets” or types of DEI tactics used by nonprofits. Naming the common strategies implemented also serves to provide a blueprint to NGOs of tactics they could consider implementing in their own organizations.

By studying these tactics and whether they align with the ADKAR, Kotter, and brown’s change theories, the study will uncover patterns or insights that may predict the success (or failure) of these common DEI tactics. Ultimately, the goal of this study is to help historically white environmental nonprofits (and/or any nonprofit that is seeking to improve the diversity and equity within their organization) to 1) better understand some of the options and paths they could take, and 2) provide frameworks of organizational change-making theories to inform their work.