At DRG, we’re vocal about our commitment to fostering diverse environments, promoting equitable and inclusive practices, and creating a sense of belonging for all. We often hear from many of you who are committed to the same in your own organizations as well. We also hear regularly how difficult it is to make progress toward what was touted as a shared commitment in the not-so-distant past. This lack of forward momentum is not only disheartening to experience, but also runs the risk of damaging your organization’s potential future—a future with an increasingly diverse donor base that is looking for more than empty promises from the nonprofits they support.
So, how can we keep these crucial Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) initiatives on the path to success? In my experience, one significant and often overlooked element is much closer than it may appear. The key to meaningful change lies not in outcomes from the DEIB committee’s bimonthly meetings, but within each of us – and only by developing a deeper understanding of ourselves can we begin to make a lasting impact on the people, policies, and practices that make up our organizational culture.
For decades, effective DEIB educators have endorsed the concept of “doing your own work,” underscoring the importance of exploring not only one’s identities and experiences, but also one’s own biases, stereotypes, and privilege. While the work itself is not always simple or easy, the reason for doing it is powerfully straightforward: self-awareness leads to empathy. And empathy is essential to understanding the experiences, perspectives, and challenges of others.
Through reflection of our own thoughts, behaviors, and attitudes, we can identify areas where we may hold unconscious biases or exhibit microaggressions. This self-awareness enables us to approach DEIB conversations with more empathy and understanding, creating a more inclusive environment where all voices are heard and respected. What we see all too often in our organizations is that leadership is eager to endorse a public commitment to DEIB initiatives but unwilling to make the personal sacrifice of the time, energy, and self-reflection required to ensure it leads to consequential improvement.
The reason this reluctance often stalls our collective efforts is that transformative DEIB initiatives involve addressing systemic inequalities. To be effective with DEIB initiatives, it's essential to recognize one's own privilege and the power dynamics at play. Developing greater self-awareness helps individuals acknowledge their advantages and reveal opportunities to use their privilege for positive change.
This is admittedly an uncomfortable proposition for many leaders, but it’s impossible to make real progress without taking this step. When individuals understand their own positions of power, they can actively work to amplify marginalized voices and promote equity.
Developing self-awareness also helps overcome another obstacle in DEIB, which is our ability to acknowledge and address biases and stereotypes. Unaddressed bias, whether implicit or explicit, can easily derail the best laid DEIB plans, yet it’s nearly impossible to confront misinformed preconceptions in others without first acknowledging it within ourselves. Bias training and education are valuable tools that can help address this, and are most effective when individuals are open to recognizing them and committed to change. We highly recommend a facilitated training to help you, your team and leaders explore this further, but this online test can be a great starting place for awareness that leads to self-reflection and growth.
One last and fundamental motivation for “doing the work” on oneself is that it encourages authentic allyship. The Center for Creative Leadership defines allyship as the actions, behaviors, and practices that leaders take to support, amplify, and advocate others, most especially with individuals who don’t belong to the same social identities as themselves.
True allyship is built on authenticity, and it includes a deep personal commitment to DEIB principles. Understanding oneself allows individuals to engage in authentic allyship by aligning their actions with their values—and importantly, when individuals possess greater self-awareness, they can engage with DEIB initiatives without careening into tokenism or performative actions. Authentic allies understand the importance of listening to and learning from marginalized communities, advocating for change, and standing up against discrimination. Our ability to do this successfully lies in a self-awareness that stems from exploration of our own identities, biases, privilege, and actions – an exploration that doesn’t start and stop with our organization’s DEIB committee meeting or group training, but rather is as steadfast and ongoing as our commitment to see these ideals in action.
Now, more than ever, it’s imperative that we remain committed to creating more inclusive and equitable environments for our teams, our donors, and our communities. Without a doubt, doing so will require meaningful change in our organization’s practices and policies. Getting there also merits a moment in the mirror for each of us to ask: have we done the self-work first?
by Matthew S. Helmer [he/him]
Matthew S. Helmer, resident DRG Unicorn, is a lifelong learner in the ongoing pursuit of a more just and inclusive world for all. He believes a commitment to be a little bit better each day goes a long way in discovering what positive contributions he can make toward that goal.