The world of philanthropy is having its reckoning when it comes to equity, and the time couldn’t have come soon enough. Across the country, organizations are seeking to be more thoughtful about how they approach the communities they serve and take steps to embed equity into their work. But it takes more than talking a good game to bring good intentions to life. To make legitimate progress, we must move beyond words and into actions.
And that starts with how and who we hire.
It’s no secret that philanthropic organizations continue to be dominated by leaders who are largely white and male (although that is slowly changing). They are also predominantly led by individuals who have attended the right schools, followed similar career paths, and are developed and hired using the same criteria that were followed for their predecessors.
To create an equitable culture in philanthropy, we must do much more than consider gender and skin color when we make hiring decisions. Instead, we should also be working to ensure that we identify smart, committed people regardless of where they grew up or went to school—or who they know.
As a result, no matter how much we talk about making philanthropy more equitable, our efforts to recruit and train new leaders continue to reinforce a hegemony that is inconsistent with the values and backgrounds of a majority of our population.
When I work with organizations to identify and place diverse talent in leadership positions, I’m struck by just how often organizations have blind spots embedded into their processes that subconsciously prevent them from being truly equitable in their hiring. Because of the criteria many boards and leaders follow when they make hiring decisions, they automatically rule out qualified, diverse candidates. In turn, they end up hiring new leaders who look and sound a lot like the people who came before them.
Often, these blind spots aren’t deliberate. Board members and search committees might truly want to find qualified candidates of color, but because of their own notions of what makes a good hire, they come back to prioritizing candidates who “check all the right boxes” on their résumés.
How do we change that? It begins with rethinking where we look, what we prioritize, and how we screen our hires. Here are some established practices that are likely holding back your organization’s recruitment and leadership development practices.
Pitfall #1: Ignoring the Elephant in the Room
Candidates notice when they are being considered for a role at an organization where there is little diversity among its current ranks. We’ve led enough searches over the years to know that people are wary of joining an organizational culture in which they are clearly in the minority—and that walking into an interview room where they look different than the people across the table can add additional anxiety to a naturally stressful situation.
This is true for a woman who is being considered for a leadership role in an organization that has a largely-male executive team, a candidate of color who is meeting solely with white executives and board members, or an LGBTQ candidate who senses there are few, if any, allies in the room.
If your organization lacks diversity but is actively working to change that, it’s important to be up front about your deficiencies rather than ignoring the obvious truth. One way to do that is to address the issue head on by making a simple, direct statement: “We’ve put together a slate of people for you to interview. We know it’s not diverse. We’re not diverse. But part of the reason we’re talking to you is that we’re looking to involve you in improving that dynamic. If you join us, you can help us.”
When possible, recruit diverse members of your staff beyond your executive team to meet with the candidate—not as a show, but rather to provide the candidate with an opportunity to get a more informed read on what they can expect.
Pitfall #2: Not Casting Your Net Wide Enough
Diversity is about more than just checking the boxes when it comes to gender or race. It’s also about making sure organizations have diversity of perspective and experience. That means looking outside of a specific geographic region and ensuring we’re not inadvertently ruling out candidates because of their age or length of experience working in the field.
At a time when our ideologies are often framed by where we live, it’s important to look beyond our networks when we look to bring in new talent. If your organization uses the same hometown search consultant for all of its hires, consider hiring a firm from a different market to help tap into new pools of talent. Likewise, for organizations that operate on one of the two coasts, it’s helpful to consider candidates who hail from or who are currently working in middle America or the South. The reverse is also true.
Similarly, many organizations frame their searches through a generational lens. Many baby boomer board members are loath to embrace recruiting younger workers to play prominent roles in their organizations—or else they’re swinging too far in the other direction and passing over more seasoned candidates for important roles.
In doing so, they’re overlooking the fact that diversity of experience is critical.
They’re also ignoring an important group of professionals who have not only paid their dues, but can serve as an important bridge between boomers and millennials: Generation X. This generation, which refers to those born between 1965 and 1980, is entering its prime leadership years and carries a perspective that’s often quite different than the generations that sandwich it.
Pitfall #3: Relying on Psychological Testing
Many prominent executive search firms that lead searches for high-profile foundations and nonprofits rely on psychometric tests to measure a candidate’s mental capacities or behavioral style as part of their screening processes. In fact, such tests are often touted by these firms as a differentiating factor in why they should be chosen to lead a search. At first glance, such tests might appear to take bias out of the hiring process, for they are advertised as providing quantitative criteria to assess candidates. In truth, these tests too often screen out the very candidates we most need to attract.
That’s because such tests often carry built-in biases that fail to account for cultural differences in how certain questions are interpreted. Standardized tests—from basic IQ tests to college placement exams like the SAT and ACT—have a long and documented history of embedded bias. For diverse candidates who have been on the wrong end of these biases for much of their lives, these tests can also bring added anxiety to an already nerve-inducing process.
“Proponents of personality tests will argue that they’re using it to combat bias. After all, it’s just more data they can use to predict an individual’s performance, right?” notes Fast Company. “However…companies run the risk of bias when conducting personality tests for hiring.”
Academics are starting to take note of similar biases in psychometric tests designed for job placement. My firm, which focuses on assisting with nonprofit executive searches, has found it to be more effective to vet candidates based on what we learn from them through multiple in-person meetings and conversations and through their references rather than focusing on how they perform on a third-party test.
Pitfall #4: Resetting Compensation Levels When a Leader Leaves
Organizations cannot credibly work to advance equity in their communities if they’re not being fair and equitable with how they compensate their own talent. The 2019 GuideStar Nonprofit Compensation Report finds that the gender pay gap for CEOs at organizations with budgets of greater than $50 million is still 20 percent. And while the gap isn’t quite as wide at smaller organizations, it is further evidence of an issue that persists across our field: white men earn more.
How is this still happening? It often begins with how salaries are set when new leaders are hired.
When a longtime leader (often a white male) moves on to a new role or retires, his organization will often decide to compensate his replacement (often a woman or a person of color) at a lower salary. The rationale: the departing leader had more experience than his replacement, thus he deserved a higher salary.
So, they roll back the salary close to where it was when the previous leader was hired. In doing so, they are not fully accounting for inflation, market factors, or the fact that the new hire is being tasked to perform the same duties as his or her predecessor—even more often, enhanced or expanded ones. In turn, this action further perpetuates the gap between what white men earn compared to their peers.
The fixes are simple: use the predecessor’s salary as a baseline, hire a compensation consultant to benchmark that salary against others in the industry, or invest in reliable compensation data. Once you’ve determined an accurate and competitive salary for the demands of the role, stick to it, regardless of the color, gender, background, income history, or sexual orientation of the person you hire.
Pitfall #5: Concentrating Organizational Power at the Top
The philanthropic world has been far from immune to the issues that have emerged from the #MeToo movement, as a number of well-known foundations and nonprofits have been embroiled in scandals involving abusive or aggressive treatment of employees.
While the landscape is changing, it’s also clear that many organizations still have structures and personalities in place that are creating negative working environments for employees, donors, and even the people we serve.
It’s telling that the Silicon Valley Community Foundation—an institution that was at the center of one of the highest-profile #MeToo-related scandals in the sector—has rebuilt its leadership over the past year using a distributed power model rather than concentrating decision making and power in the hands of its top executive. By doing so, it is not only creating a more inclusive and safer atmosphere for employees, it is giving more people within the organization an opportunity to develop leadership experience and skills. Moving to a distributed power model requires making sure we’re providing ongoing training and support to people throughout our organizations. But it also helps ensure that we’re building gratifying—and equitable—work environments and that we’re preparing a larger, and more diverse, team of future leaders.
Our field is making some important early strides in cultivating and hiring leaders who carry diverse perspectives and life experiences. But the journey is still nascent. To make real progress, we must continue to commit to equity—and resolve to continue to update our practices and mindsets when it comes to hiring.
Shared Content, Nonprofit Quarterly
Author Vincent Robison is founder of The 360 Group, a San Francisco-based consulting firm. Robinson currently serves as a board member of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty and Law and sits of the Advisory Board of REDF.