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Name the Thing: How DEI Plays into Your Nonprofit Brand

Posted by on February 16th, 2022
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Branding, Nonprofit Messaging   

If your organization is looking to develop an honest and transparent brand, there is one component you may be overlooking: Your messaging about diversity, equity and inclusion. Beware: If you think this topic doesn’t apply to your organization you risk becoming irrelevant, and fast.

I asked Mission Minded’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Advisor, Tierney Yates, to share perspective on how nonprofit brands should be thinking, acting, communicating, and doing today, given the expectations of their constituents to address inequity of every kind.

Frida Silva: Everyone is talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI. How can nonprofits, schools, and foundations be sure their brand reflects a commitment to DEI?

Tierney Yates: Well first, followers of Mission Minded already know that a brand strategy that isn’t authentic won’t thrive. So you can’t just say you’re for diversity, equity and/or inclusion if you haven’t made a serious organizational commitment in these areas. Thinking about this solely through the lens of your reputation or what to say to make yourself look good won’t cut it.

Frida Silva: I hear you, but what if the only commitment an organization has made thus far is to try to learn more on these topics?

Tierney Yates: That’s great! An honest admission that there’s a lot to learn is the best first step. An organization doesn’t have to be perfect on DEI, or have a perfect track record, to be able to authentically tell their story in a way that will resonate with their stakeholders. In fact, I can’t think of a single organization that hasn’t made mistakes when it comes to equity at some time or another. 

The opportunity for all nonprofits today is what I like to call “Name the Thing.” When you name the inequities, and the mistakes and harm of your past–whether ill-intentioned or not–you own them and make it harder for others to criticize you. And criticize you they will. In today’s cancel-culture frenzy, your past mistakes will be brought out into the light, no matter how deeply you think they’re buried, or how much you’d prefer to avoid the scrutiny. 

When we’re reluctant to address a complicated past, we miss an opportunity to grow. We also miss an opportunity to share our story in a way that can be compelling to our stakeholders and inspiring to other organizations and our colleagues. And yes, when you hold your organization accountable for the times when you weren’t as equitable or inclusive as you now wish to be, you have a better chance of being embraced rather than criticized.

Frida Silva: Every organization has a past. There are many things readers can say their nonprofit may have done that were “okay at the time,” or socially acceptable but that just aren’t acceptable now. How can they talk about it without turning people off? Isn’t that risky?

Tierney Yates: Tell an honest story about where you’ve been, where you are now, and where you want to go. The more introspective and transparent you are about the work you’re doing in this area, the stronger you’ll be – both programmatically and in terms of your messaging and reputation, your brand. 

No organization is perfect. Every person and nonprofit is on a journey of learning how and committing to being more inclusive and equitable. That journey means you’ll make mistakes along the way, even after you’ve committed to doing better. Don’t try to hide it. Instead, name it. Call it what it is internally, and externally. Invite different voices, experiences, departments in to have thoughtful and difficult conversations. This is the work. We aren’t growing if it doesn’t shake things up and create healthy discomfort.

Frida Silva: Mission Minded has a great example of this. Our two co-founders Jennie and Zach named the thing when they realized their hiring practices were not as inclusive as they had thought. They now talk openly about how they initially failed in their quest to hire a more racially diverse team. They thought that was the right goal, and were trying to hire a more diverse range of staff for the right reasons. But there wasn’t significant change. Most of the people hired at Mission Minded fit the same demographic profile.

After several years of this they asked themselves an honest question: Is it possible there is something we’re doing in our hiring that is inadvertently working against our diversity goal? What are we not seeing?

They were keen to learn and worked with several DEI experts, including you, and found that they’d actually had the wrong goal. Hiring just to be diverse runs the risk of tokenizing people. So instead their goal became creating a more equitable and inclusive culture for everyone. Once they realized that, they could see many new practices to adopt, including how they recruit, train, welcome, and champion new employees. When inclusion and equity became the goals, diversity was the result.

Tierney Yates: That’s right, and my favorite part of this story is how Zach and Jennie are so open in talking about it. They name the thing: Our hiring practices were not as equitable and inclusive as we thought they were. That makes it safe for others, inside and outside Mission Minded, to see and name their own mistakes. 

This story, and the way Mission Minded acts and communicates now, actually becomes part of the Mission Minded brand story. And it’s as true for them as it is for all of our nonprofit, foundation and school clients: They likely have past practices that should be identified and named so they can move forward.

Frida Silva: Okay, so what can the nonprofit, foundation and school leaders reading this do to ensure their brand is appropriately and authentically addressing these issues?

Tierney Yates: I’ve got five recommendations:

  1. Start having inclusive conversations with your team, partners, and stakeholders to help you see what stories in your history should be talked about.
  2. Then ask yourself honestly whether or not you have made the serious and authentic commitment to make the needed change.
  3. Name the thing. If its sexism, racism, or inequity of any kind, say what it is or was. Bring it out into the light. Name the inequity.
  4. Then you can tell your story from an authentic and transparent place that does not allow outside people to control your narrative.
  5. If you’re not sure how to do this, use your organization’s values as a compass.

This work is a marathon with no finish line. Aspects of this will feel like a sprint and you’ll reach conclusions and changes quickly, while others will feel like your legs will give out, or you’re just running around in circles. 

This is the work of creating inclusive communications and cultures. It is continuous, and we are always learning. And your brand will get stronger and stronger the more you lean authentically into doing and naming your past mistakes and resolutions.

Reach out to learn how Mission Minded can help you strengthen your brand for greater appeal.

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