Why your environmental or conservation organization isn’t more diverse . . . yet.

July 14, 2020

July 14, 2020

Author: Joy Jackson,  ICL Senior Associate

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” – James Baldwin


In the weeks following the senseless and shocking murder of George Floyd, the nation turned its eyes towards the persistent problem of systemic racism.  We have all, individually and in our communities, reflected on what we can do to make a change. This includes conservation and environmental organizations who have long struggled with questions of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice.  The problem of systemic racism can loom so large that it’s easy to doubt that a group or individual can make a change.  But the environmental and conservation community is well equipped to tackle large, systemic, inter-related problems — we do it every day.

The conservation and environmental sector has a sophisticated understanding of networks and systems. We understand how a farmer’s attempt to raise crops may result in fertilizer run off that causes harmful algal blooms in lakes miles and miles away. We are able to create sophisticated metrics to evaluate the impact of conservation projects on water quality. And we understand that any effort to solve large, seemingly intractable problems requires us to work together at many levels (individual, organization, network, etc.) to make a difference. So how can it be that this field, with its experience tackling systemic ills, is so stymied by questions of diversity, equity and inclusion?

To make progress, we must stop searching for others to solve our problems, identify our own stumbling blocks and then work to overcome them. So what are the stumbling blocks? What is keeping this field so consistently and predictably homogeneous?  Why aren’t our organizations, collaborations and/or networks more diverse . . . yet?  Below are some possible reasons and steps we can take to address these common challenges.

1. You don’t really think it matters

Maybe it’s nice to have.  Maybe it’s the right thing to do.  Maybe it looks better for organizations to have some bona fides related diversity, equity, and inclusion.  But fundamentally, you don’t see how expending time and energy on the matter will increase your ability to get work done.

This is a hard reality to face, but without facing it there is little hope for progress. Diversity is integral to nonprofits fulfilling their mission of serving the public interest There are many arguments to disprove those who feel otherwise, including this excerpt from a journal article that speaks to this fallacy.

Just like ecological diversity is associated with a range of favorable environmental and economic consequences (Pimentel et al., 1997), there are measurable benefits of diversity in the workforce and in science endeavors. Østergaard et al. (2011) found a positive association between the likelihood of innovation within an organization and employee diversity in gender and education.”  You can access the full journal article here.

2. You don’t know where to start

Diversity issues can feel too big and too hard to tackle. So where and how do you begin?  It’s important to realize it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  This work is challenging and can be exhausting.  But the only way for it to get easier is to engage in this work and these conversations more often, not less.

  • As a starting point, orient yourself/team/organization around a common understanding of issues related to race, racism, prejudice, bias, etc. ICL likes using Heather Berthoud and Bob Greene’s Diversity Diamond model to frame conversations and create a common point of understanding about the range of work needed to support change.
  • If you are an individual contributor, push yourself beyond raising questions about diversity. Attempt to offer possible actions your organization can take and consider offering to lead the charge in a way that centers the people of color.  Do not assume that this work is the sole or predominant responsibility of the people of color on your staff.  It’s the organization’s responsibility and should be approached as such.
  • Reexamine your processes and procedures to determine where you can incorporate diversity and eliminate bias to make your organization more equitable. Many ostensible neutral policies can have a disparate impact on workers who do not belong to the majority culture. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has created a toolkit to help organizations wishing to address bias in their policies and procedures.

3. You aren’t held accountable

In conservation, we have long been aware that a severe lack of diversity is a consistent and enduring problem.  It is often mentioned but rarely do organizations make a consistent effort to address it. Tangible, measurable, transparent activities with metrics signal a commitment to diversity and give organizations data to measure the impact of their efforts.  Consider the following possible ways to build accountability into your diversity, equity and inclusion work.

  • Conduct a yearly census of diversity among your staff, board members, and volunteers. When deciding what data to collect and track, incorporate an approach that captures the level of authority people of color have within your organization.  This Forbes article offers suggestions like measuring “each person’s title and level within a company, to show how much relative power they have” and measuring “how often they attend pivotal meetings, or how much they’re involved in key decision making processes, such as documenting the makeup of your core hiring team.”
  • Invest in your training budget to allow your staff and board members to gain exposure to complementary industries and new networks of professionals.
  • Collect and utilize demographic information for the communities impacted by your work. This information can be used to identify and reach out to new community partners as you design projects.

4. You’re too insular

As mentioned above, the lack of diversity among conservation and environment organizations is well documented.  In order to break the cycle of working within a homogeneous pool of organizations, professionals, and communities, it’s important to make an effort to expand the network of partners and potential new hires.

  • Avoid the temptation to hire carbon copies of current staff members. When recruiting for open positions and board members, emphasize the skills needed by your organization and hire to expand the capacity of your organization.
  • Recruitment and hiring processes are places where unconscious bias and formal and informal practices and approaches can result in the status quo. As a result, it may be a good place to invest money in resources, including consultants, who can help you design and implement practices that address bias.
  • When forming collaborations or building networks, consider partners who are also affected by issues in your region and who’s work complements your own. Community groups, economic development organizations, housing providers may all have overlapping interests and bring new perspectives and diversity to your work.  Invite them at the beginning of the planning process, not after to fill what may be perceived as a token diversity seat at the table.  The names of the organizations may be different from yours, but if your interests align and both parties benefit, you created new opportunities and expanded your reach and your impact.

5. You think you’ve done enough

Perhaps you’ve hosted or attended diversity training. Maybe you’ve implemented some changes, and you may have even hired a person of color.  And now time has passed, and you are comfortable that you and your organization have signaled its commitment to being inclusive and well positioned on issues of diversity.

However, diversity isn’t a finite problem to be solved but an integral part of the ongoing operations of your organizations that needs to be prioritized. As a result, it is important to understand that this will be a sustained ongoing effort, not a one-time sprint.

This list, created to help you dig into racial and other dimensions of diversity, is far from complete.  We hope it will serve as a jumping off point for conversations and action within our sector.   ICL, like many organizations, continues to wrestle with many of these stumbling blocks despite our efforts and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.  While the process may be uncomfortable in the short run, your commitment will benefit your organization, and our sector at large, over time.


2 thoughts on “Why your environmental or conservation organization isn’t more diverse . . . yet.”

  1. I read this article with great interest. It is a good read; well organized, well presented, with many examples how groups can use it as a blue print to initiate positive actions.

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