The Need for Diverse Leadership in the Social Sector

By Tracy Williams, 2014 ProInspire Fellow

This was originally posted on the Unsectored blog as part of the Does the Social Sector have a diversity problem?” series.

Tracy Williams photoDoes the social sector have a diversity problem? In short, yes. The good news is that the next generation of social sector leaders is working to change that outcome. I believe that the most critical challenge to diversity in the social sector is within organizational leadership. In order to solve our most complex societal problems, both ethnic and thought leadership must be diversified. While ethnic diversity has improved somewhat within organizations, there is still a distinct lack of diversity in the highest levels of leadership.

It is important for the leadership of organizations to appropriately reflect the demographics of the population it seeks to serve. Who better to run an afterschool program for Southeast DC youth than a person who attended the same schools and understands the culture, unique pressures and obstacles these students face first hand? Additionally, having leaders who look like and have had similar experiences to the people they serve fosters a sense of trust in the community that can lead to more lasting impacts.

There is also a need for diversity in thought leadership. When combating complex and interconnected social problems, there is no one size fits all approach. Leaders are needed from various backgrounds to attack the problem innovatively. The emergence of the social enterprise field is a primary example of business and social impact interests coming together in creative and exciting ways. The same can be said of leaders from science, technology, public policy, education and business backgrounds working together to transform how impact is made. Millennials understand this new reality and are blurring the lines that exist between the sectors.

How do we address this need for diversity?

  •  Invest in Talent

Often, non-profit organizations are focused outward on the populations they aim to serve. But how can you be the most effective without building the capacity of those doing the work? Resources in the social sector are limited, so maximizing the abilities of current employees is even more crucial.

One solution for investing in and maintaining a diverse talent pool is to encourage the formation of internal affinity groups. Affinity groups create safe spaces for diverse employees to receive professional development and networking opportunities. Creating larger affinity groups that span across similar-missioned organizations is also a potential solution.

  • Build a Leadership Pipeline

Identify young leaders with great potential and give them access to the resources, training, and mentorship needed to grow and succeed. Organizations such asProInspire recognize this need and are creating programs to help both young professionals and managers with career development.

  • Build Networks across the Sectors

Identify stakeholders in your mission from the public, private, non-profit sectors and make the cause the central rallying point. Collaboration across the sectors can increase effectiveness, creativity, and introduce new ways of tackling social challenges.

Diversifying leadership is the key to moving organizations forward. Investing in diverse talent is only the first step. Ensuring diversity at the highest levels of leadership is truly what is needed to move the needle. Collaborating across sectors and creating new solutions are the catalysts of change. As the social sector continues to grow and evolve in new ways, the importance of diversity in leadership must remain front and center.

Tracy Williams is a member of the 2014 ProInspire Fellowship, which recruits outstanding business professionals for analytical and strategic roles at non-profit organizations. She currently serves as the Manager of Finance and Human Resources for the Meals on Wheels Association of America in the Washington DC metro area. Tracy’s mission in life is to ensure dignity for all and to close the achievement gap through education, economic empowerment, and equal access to resources. She is an aspiring runner, avid foodie, and actively engaged in the DC community. She lives by the words of JFK, “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

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