Charitable nonprofit organizations highlight what’s possible when people come together for the greater good.

These noble efforts must include consideration of diversity – in every facet – to be successful. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within the nonprofit sector is so important. Without DEI as part of the framework of the nonprofit structure, achieving the organization’s goals may seem disingenuous to the communities they serve.

As the National Council of Nonprofits explains, just standing up for equity and justice is insufficient. Nonprofits must model those values within the organization, starting by “acknowledging the implicit/unconscious bias that may exist.”

The National Council of Nonprofits also states that the goal is to “start with honest internal dialogue that encourages your staff and board members to reflect, listen to each other and learn from one another’s experiences.” The council adds that by embracing diversity, equity and inclusion as organizational values, organizations can intentionally “make space for positive outcomes to flourish, whether in direct services or the nonprofit capacity building or public policy spheres.”

To better understand the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in nonprofits, let’s first put some definitions around the terms and then take a closer look at the impact of DEI in the nonprofit sector.

Defining Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

The San Diego Foundation (SDF) Strategic Plan serves as a compass for the organization and ensures all stakeholders understand the goals. As part of that plan, definitions of DEI include:

  • Diversity: The psychological, physical and social differences that occur among any and all individuals, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language, age, gender, sexual orientation, mental or physical ability, and/or learning styles.1
  • Equity: The guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity and advancement while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. The principle of equity acknowledges that there are historically underserved and underrepresented populations, and that fairness regarding these unbalanced conditions is needed to assist equality in the provision of effective opportunities to all groups.1
  • Inclusion: The act of creating environments in which any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported and valued to fully participate and bring their full, authentic selves to work. An inclusive and welcoming climate embraces differences and offers respect in the words/actions/thoughts of all people.1

Just as other nonprofits build their commitment to DEI, these definitions help create a strong foundation of shared understanding.

Internal vs. External DEI

The definitions that guide SDF represent the process of internal DEI. For a truly comprehensive DEI strategy, however, it’s also critical to understand and implement outward DEI. For example:

  • Inward DEI – refers to diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. This means nonprofit organizations utilize these values in their hiring practices and general workplace policies, and create opportunities for education among employees. Taken together, these build a culture of DEI.
  • Outward DEI – refers to how a nonprofit organization interacts with its stakeholders, from volunteers to donors to external partners. This can mean supporting inclusive access to services, acknowledging inequitable outcomes and/or supporting partners who serve diverse populations. Incorporating DEI outwardly prioritizes the organization’s goals and outreach within the communities it supports.

A nonprofit’s DEI strategy should consider inward and outward initiatives to achieve the greatest impact in their communities and build a strong DEI culture. Think of it as “walking” the DEI “talk.”

Benefits of DEI for Nonprofits

Elevating diversity, equity and inclusion processes is a step all nonprofits should take. Nonprofits can set the model for DEI in organizational structures and be a shining beacon for other business sectors looking to improve their DEI policies.

Here are three compelling reasons why diversity, equity and inclusion processes are so important for nonprofits both internally and for reaching systemically marginalized communities.

  • Extending outreach – As a nonprofit, the main goal is to reach as many people as possible. By having a diverse team, equitable practices and inclusive messaging, nonprofits can significantly broaden their reach and increase their chances of success.
  • Healthier workplace – Team members want to feel heard, understood and appreciated. Creating a more comfortable work environment for everyone results in stronger team relationships, less conflict in the workplace and higher levels of productivity.
  • More qualified staff – Encouraging diversity, equity and inclusion amongst staff increases successful recruitment and retention of the most qualified person for the job. By widening the pool of applicants, organizations can diversify their staff to reflect better those they serve.

Commitment in Action

Diversity, equity and inclusion is inherent in The San Diego Foundation’s strategic plan, as well as its mission, vision and values. Learn more about our commitment to DEI by reading our Strategic Plan.

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  1. American Psychological Association. (2019, October 31). Discrimination: What it is, and how to cope. Retrieved from