In Search of Diversity in the Non-Profit Sector


Often when I find myself the lone African-Canadian woman in overflowing meeting rooms I mumble to myself “All the Blacks are men, all the women are White, but some of us are brave… a take-off on the title of a book by African-American feminist writer Gloria T. Hull. It is my way of bringing some levity to a growing frustration of mine that leadership in spaces where I often find myself hasn't changed much over the past quarter of a century.

In spaces where race is the paramount discourse I'm surrounded by my brothers taking leadership roles as their due; where the primary occupation is gender or more specifically “women's issues”, then my White sisters hold down positions of expert or leader. And in all other spaces White men rule the day. But as I said, some of us are brave.

I wasn't too surprise then by the findings of the Mowat Centre's research on diversity in the not-for-profit sector (NFP), which is based on Ontario Non-profit Network's Looking Ahead Leadership Survey. The research found that there is a dearth of leadership of colour and that while White women were well represented, racialized women (and to a lesser extent racialized men) were few and far between. In an introduction of the research findings the authors write:

Diversity & Inclusion in the NFP Sector: New Sector Signal

The not-for-profit sector has long talked about the importance of making diversity and inclusion a priority. But the evidence for diversity as an embedded priority in the sector is not encouraging. Recent sector survey results tell the story of a sector that has not internalized diversity in its hiring policies.

Broadly, the researchers found that while the NFP sector all talked about the need for diversity in the workplace, very few had proactive practices to make this happen. Reasons varied but the end result is the same. Organizations have not made ‘diversity hiring' a priority. There continues to be an underlying discomfort or probably more accurately a distrust of a hiring process that is explicit about hiring workers from equity-seeking groups (except in the case of women- White women).

This has become clearer to me as I've engaged in ongoing debates at various times with different organizations in the NFP sector. Whether public institution or community-based agency, I continue to hear a questioning of employment equity (or in the language of the Mowat study, diversity and inclusion) as a political and practical response to historical exclusions of equity-seeking groups, particularly racialized individuals (including First Peoples).

Often the resistance to equity hiring is couched in concern for the employee. Would they be perceived as less than fully qualified? My response, why would they be? Equity hiring is not about hiring folks who are not qualified. And I must admit that I tend to look askance on those who raise this issue of merit as to their true objections to engaging equity as a Human Resources (H/R) strategy.

In response to their findings, the authors go on to ask the following questions:

What is the broader value proposition for diversity in the not-for-profit sector, beyond social justice and equity, and how can it be leveraged to contribute to organizational success? Going forward, how can diversity and inclusion be better supported and advanced across the sector?

Interesting questions yet red flags go up for me. Why isn't social justice and equity as the right and moral thing to do sufficient arguments to move this issue forward? When words like “broader value proposition” are used we know they really mean what is the economic value of social inclusion or equity; as if economics or the profit motive is the only legitimate measure of inclusion policies and practices.

In her 1984 report Equality in Employment: A Royal Commission Report, Justice Rosalie Abella stated:

The fact that the economy is anaemic does not justify a listless response to discrimination.  The members of the four designated groups represent about 60 per cent of Canada's total population.  They have a right, whatever the economic conditions, to compete equally for their fair share of employment opportunities.  As it is, the recession has only intensified their long penalization in the form of under training, underemployment, underpayment and outright exclusion from the labour force.

Enough said.

While moderating a panel a couple of weeks ago at the Diversity@Work conference - co-hosted by OCASI Toronto member agency Skills for Change and the Diversity Centre at Ryerson University - I asked the panel that very question about social justice vs. economic value, all of whom had some conditions attached to their support for employment equity. Why isn't social justice enough of an end result for the implementation of practices and policies that lead to social inclusion? I'm still waiting on an answer.