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A movement for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has spread across the globe since the beginning of 2020. While the public focus has been on corporations, there’s less difference between corporations and nonprofits than people might think, according to Pavita Cooper, founder of More Difference

Cooper, a leading UK-based culture and diversity expert, spoke about how nonprofits can face DEI challenges during this year’s virtual On Board conference on nonprofit board service, hosted by the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.  

Both corporations and nonprofit organizations are feeling the pressure to examine the gender, ethnic, and racial makeup of their boards and employee base, Cooper said. A greater focus on DEI means facing a multi-pronged challenge: Who are the best candidates for jobs and board spots, how can organizations ensure those rising to the top are as diverse as possible, and how can they build a culture that retains that talent?

After talking to CEOs from across Europe and the US this year, Cooper said one theme is clear—just talking about diversity and inclusion isn’t good enough. “A lot of organizations talked about redoubling their efforts on the issue of race, but they’ve started to go beyond words to actually listening to individuals to understand the issue,” she said. 

Here are three takeaways from the session, moderated by Caroline Grossman, ’03, executive director of the Rustandy Center, Chicago Booth’s hub for social impact, and adjunct assistant professor of strategy.

Fight for a critical mass

A decade ago, Cooper joined the steering committee of the 30 Percent Club, a group with the mission of getting at least 30 percent women on corporate boards. At the time, less than 8 percent of women were on the boards of the world’s biggest companies.

Back then, Cooper said they were surprised by how much animosity they received. When asked to join their effort, many executives refused. But the 30 Percent Club kept pressing for change, eventually gaining supporters and media attention. Now, women make up 30 percent or more of boards in many parts of the world.

To foster change, Cooper said that they needed a critical mass of female board members. The 30 Percent Club pressed for this critical mass from the outside. For nonprofits, this critical mass will need to be built from the inside.

One way to build critical mass, Cooper said, is by looking at the data. Who is your organization hiring and voting onto board positions? This will create a necessary internal pressure, letting organizations see who they employ and who they aren’t. “The data is already in the organization,” Cooper said.

“This is about representation at every level. Data is a critical part of that.”

— Pavita Cooper

Find champions

The 30 Percent Club found success by reaching out to sympathetic executives. These executives called on people in their network to elect more female board members, helping to create that critical mass.

Likewise, nonprofits can think about who they’re trying to attract and network within those communities, asking for help and referrals.

Cooper advises that organizations think about who the company or nonprofit wants to draw, focus on the mission of the organization, and set realistic expectations. Nonprofits may not be able to attract the young, rising stars to jobs or their boards, but they can recruit and train talented people they may have otherwise overlooked.

Connect emotionally to foster inclusion

Executives who aren’t bought into DEI efforts won’t be able to foster an environment of inclusion, Cooper said. To get executives to buy in, they need to genuinely listen to employees, tapping into empathy to connect emotionally with their stories.

Executive directors and board members need to ask themselves what it’s like for employees to work there. An environment where people’s experiences are heard can completely change the atmosphere of an organization. Many employees have never been asked about their experiences, Cooper said, but asking and listening to their genuine responses can change the dynamics of leadership. 

“It’s managers’ everyday behaviors and actions with people at work that makes a difference,” Cooper said. “People don’t leave organizations, they leave bosses. And the same applies in a non-for-profit environment.”

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