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Reflections on the White House Forum on Nonprofit Leadership

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How can we support, and sustain, more diverse and inclusive leadership in the nonprofit sector?

This is a core question of D5’s work, and for one day in November it was a key topic of conversation among 250 nonprofit leaders at the White House Forum on Nonprofit Leadership, held November 15 in Washington, DC. It was a packed day, one that allowed us to focus on issues important to building and sustaining nonprofit leaders.

Among other reasons for caring about nonprofit leadership, the White House is focused on the changing demographics of our nation, which require nonprofits to be attentive to a greater need for diverse and inclusive leadership.

In her opening remarks, the White House’s Melody Barnes spelled it out: high-quality leadership is a critical part of a high-performing nonprofit sector.

“This forum addresses a central concern within the sector,” said Barnes, the president’s domestic policy adviser. “Because we have historically undervalued and underinvested in nonprofit talent and leadership, these areas represent some of the greatest untapped potential for increasing the capacity of the sector. We can only succeed by ensuring that we have the right leaders in the right roles, and that those individuals are properly trained, managed, and supported.”

Mid-day, I served on a breakout session, “Advancing Diversity and Inclusion” with Paul Schmitz of Public Allies, Paula Gavin of National Urban Fellows, Marco David of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and J.D. Hokoyama of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc.

During a three-hour working lunch, about 35 of us talked in small groups about what diversity is, and why it’s important, and what audacious goals we should strive for. Some of those goals included:

– How do we institutionalize a commitment within the nonprofit and philanthropic sector to support emerging and diverse leadership? It’s especially important to engage young people early in their careers, so that we have a pipeline of future leaders.

– How do we support and build inclusive leadership: people who can help lead the kind of organizational change processes essential to inclusive organizations?

In reflecting on the day, my thoughts return to a few major themes:

– Across sectors, people continue to face challenges in nurturing diversity, equity and inclusion. Often, where diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are embraced, it is as part of an aspirational vision for a successful organization. Can we in philanthropy reinforce the message that we must be leaders in this effort because it’s right and because it’s smart?

– Promoting and sustaining diversity, equity and inclusion is hard work. Our tasks include making the challenges of advancing diversity, equity and inclusion doable, if not easier, and showcasing why it is worth the effort.

– Organizational dynamics remain a challenge. Throughout the day, people shared stories and experiences of trying to move beyond being the only one of a particular group in an organization, or of diversity, equity and inclusion being perceived as a numbers game. We continue to learn—and D5’s work will contribute to this knowledge—how to change organizational cultures so that progress is real and sustained. Our goal must be to move beyond sloganeering and build tools and strategies to make diversity, equity and inclusion last.

I’m looking forward to making sure that the work of the D5 Coalition remains connected to the ongoing work of this conference and is informed by its lessons and networks.

The event was hosted by the White House and organized by Independent Sector and several partners, including American Express, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Aspen Institute Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, Center for Creative Leadership, Commongood Careers, Corporation for National and Community Service, Public Allies, and Rudin Family Foundations. More information about the event is available here:


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