ON THE SCENE: Building a diverse staff in the North Country

Donathan Brown and Cindy Rodriguez, co-founders of Adirondack Diversity Solutions (Photo provided)

The National Council of Nonprofits is currently urging nonprofits to consider how they can apply their often-stated values of diversity, equity and inclusion in their daily operations, including board makeup, staff diversity and the services they provide. Doing so, they believe nonprofits will reap the benefits of increased outcomes in direct services, capacity building and in the public sphere.

The Council’s push for increasing diversity in nonprofit management and programming did not start with the public’s shock of witnessing George Floyd’s 8-minute slow death on social media and press on May 25, 2020. However, there is no question that it and other recent brutal assaults have heightened the urgency to expand opportunities within the nonprofit sector.

In 2016, the Independent Sector published an article by Monisha Kapila, Ericka Hines and Martha Searby: “Why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Matter.” Their research demonstrated that while many nonprofits articulate their support for DEI, it’s not translating into their boards and staff’s makeup, nor are their services reaching diverse audiences.

They highlight four core reasons why nonprofits should be more aggressive in achieving the ideals they articulate. The first is their core value that all people matter — that given the opportunity and means, often marginalized people could positively contribute to society resulting in an improved quality of life for all. Second is the economic benefit if all people can take advantage of their talents and potential. The third is that society’s becoming more diverse, and thus, nonprofit organizations and institutions should reflect that diversity. Fourth is that diverse leadership leads to better outcomes.

For nonprofits based in rural areas like the Adirondacks, diversifying their staff is not easy with a population base that’s 95% white. We’re not alone. According to the last census, 78% of rural America is white and aging and shrinking as young people move to urban areas. The good news is that nonprofits have a strong track record in attracting younger adults to their staff. According to Project Management Institute research, most are raised in diverse cultures and value inclusion; likely, their value-based missions will also be attractive to Millennials and Generation Z.

As a means of assisting regional nonprofits diversify their staff, on Thursday, Feb. 18, the Adirondack Foundation, host of the Adirondack Nonprofit Network, arranged a workshop on Recruiting a Diverse Workforce led by Cindy Rodriguez, co-founder of Adirondack Diversity Solutions. The goal was to provide a forum for discussing the challenges and opportunities through identifying strategies and tangible takeaways that local organizations can employ.

“In the early days of the foundation, we were not able to give out a lot of grants,” said Cali Brooks, president and CEO of the Adirondack Foundation. “So we saw technical assistance, capacity building, as something we could do and facilitate. As we grew, the technical assistance remained critical and vital as we began building a network of organizations that are stronger together than they could ever be independently.”

The workshop on building a diverse workforce is an example of the Foundation’s capacity-building sessions and, as is often the case, a broad mix of large and small nonprofits from across the Adirondack Park attended.

Rodriguez began by identifying various job-posting websites like Handshake and Indeed that Millennials and Generation Z from diverse backgrounds seek work. She then shifted into how to craft job postings which included what to say and what not to say. She noted that posting compensation is recommended and being clear about the scope of the job and expectations. As young people are value-driven, they will want to know the larger picture — what your agency is seeking to accomplish.

Rodriguez said that part of your task is to sell the community, which should be part of a follow-up call or discussion if they seem interested and you in them. She feels that it’s essential that you are straight with the applicant. She also stressed that if you want to attract diversity in your workforce, increase diversity within your board as applicants will often research your website.

“Having a diverse board is just as important as increasing diversity in all other sectors of our society,” said Rodriguez. “For students, it’s important to have faculty and administrators of color. People need mentors and advisers who can relate from shared lived experiences. There is no difference when it comes to a nonprofits board. We have to look at an organization holistically, not just from the staff or volunteer side.”

Rodriguez discussed the importance of retention; once you hire an employee, make them feel welcome and encourage various nonprofits to create social opportunities for new hires to meet each other. She recommended working with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative to make the region more welcoming, such as their educational efforts with local police and other agencies.

“A lot of organizations are going into unconscious bias training, diversity training, and that’s certainly important, but the question is what are we doing beyond our cubicle, beyond our computer, beyond our workspace to ensure we have a welcoming and equitable community,” said Rodriguez. “Before we were selling the workplace, now we’re selling the community as well.”

Kathy Woughter of the Adirondack Land Trust had four takeaways, the first being that they are not alone; other nonprofits in the region are struggling to diversify and lucky to have a network of nonprofits in the Adirondacks to call upon.

Second, she was pleased to know that the Foundation and the local nonprofit community were committed to creating a diverse and well-qualified workforce. As an outcome, the region will benefit.

Third, that it’s easy to become discouraged, but that working collaboratively, success can be achieved, and we have terrific assets to sell.

And fourth, the importance of working together to help strengthen the retention of employees.

Paula Michelsen, director of Eagle Island, said she learned the importance of using inclusive language and valuing life experience as part of considering an applicant’s skillset. She said the workshop helped her think differently and that she gained several valuable tidbits they will help them recruit staff for their upcoming summer season.

Donna Beal, director of Mercy Care of the Adirondacks, shared that one of the critical concerns of her lead sponsoring agency, the Sisters of Mercy, is anti-racism; thus, the workshop was very timely and helpful.

“We’re very interested in raising awareness within our organization and learning together with other nonprofit staff and leaders,” said Beal. “I think the Adirondack Foundation and Adirondack Nonprofit Network have done a stellar job of bringing these kinds of programs to the nonprofit community. This kind of programming is very beneficial because we nonprofits relate to the whole community through our different missions, causes, and advocacy.”

Nonprofits can review a recorded version of the workshop by joining ANN on the Foundation website. Adirondack Diversity Solutions offers similar seminars for for-profit, nonprofit, and government agencies.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)