Inclusion is a talent imperative. It’s crucial to drive employee engagement and retention, create a positive and productive working environment, and improve organizational performance. In fact, employees are seven times more likely to describe their organization as high performing when it’s inclusive.
Many nonprofits view inclusion as a core value and enable staff to shape an inclusive workplace through personal interactions and initiatives. However, nonprofits must commit to adopting a structured, organization-wide approach to ensure that inclusive practices sustain over time.
Our inclusion model highlights 17 practices that organizations and their employees can adopt to create inclusive workplaces. We asked staff in the nonprofit sector to consider these practices and identify the top three they see most and least frequently, along with those they believe are most important for their organization to improve.
We found that many nonprofits already foster inclusion through practices commonly driven by interpersonal relationships. Two “peer-led” practices, mutual respect1 and peer support2, are the most established (Exhibit 1). For example, staff may informally recognize each other’s accomplishments, offer advice and skills to help each other, or show appreciation for differences.
However, peer-led practices aren’t enough on their own to sustain an inclusive workplace long term. Nonprofits should build on these strengths by systematically embedding inclusion practices into ways of working at the organizational level.
Although nonprofits should strive to address all 17 practices, our research found four to prioritize to maintain a high-performance, inclusive organization—three that are key to improve and one that is seen frequently but should be reinforced (Exhibit 2).
The organization creates objective and consistent processes for personnel decisions and merit-based rewards.
In our research, meritocracy emerged as the highest-priority inclusion practice to improve on average according to nonprofit staff. Getting meritocracy right is important for any organization. In nonprofits, it can be particularly challenging for two reasons: It is difficult to objectively measure individual contributions that drive long-term impact, and resource constraints may limit the merit-based rewards nonprofits can offer.
Leaders should clearly present performance assessment frameworks and available rewards so staff understand how merit is defined and what they can achieve. Beyond traditional merit-based rewards like promotions and incentive pay, nonprofits can create opportunities for staff to lead special projects, develop new skills, or take on more senior responsibilities to demonstrate leadership. Nonprofits can also celebrate staff through formal recognition, like awards.
The organization creates opportunities for employees to get to know one another and develop interpersonal relationships across the organization (e.g., varying levels, functions, demographic backgrounds).
Nonprofit leaders should prioritize embedding staff connection opportunities into the organization, which are essential to form bonds, collaborate, and get things done. This is particularly important as nonprofits increasingly navigate hybrid work models, since forming relationships organically may be more difficult.
Leaders can get creative in structuring connection opportunities that are skills focused (e.g., onboarding, lunch and learns), innovation focused (e.g., hackathons), relationship focused (e.g., affinity networks, social events), or mission focused (e.g., mission moments, retreats). These enable staff to feel more connected and inspired to deliver the mission collectively.
Leaders support employees’ development and career growth (e.g., coaching, career advice, feedback).
Mentorship plays an essential role in personal and professional development, particularly within smaller nonprofits that may lack formal training programs. In the absence of mentorship structures, nonprofit staff may be less likely to see a future in their current organization. Our research found a strong relationship between insufficient mentorship and attrition risk. Staff who stated they were at risk of leaving their current organization within a year were 1.5 times more likely to cite mentorship as a top-priority practice for their organization to improve, compared to staff who plan to stay (25 percent vs. 17 percent).
Mentorship can be the organic product of a close-knit, supportive team environment—but it’s not enough to rely on staff to coach each other. Creating formal structures to promote mentorship at multiple levels (e.g., assigned mentors for new hires, reverse mentorship programs, peer mentorship programs, mentorship awards) enables staff to grow in their current organization and is an investment in developing talent for the broader sector.
Coworkers are open and receptive to other employees’ ideas and opinions, even if they are different from their own.
Beyond the top-priority practices that staff want to see improved, nonprofits should also reinforce the practice of idea integration to promote inclusion and retention. We found a clear link between idea integration and nonprofits’ overall effectiveness in delivering their missions. Our research finds that the “healthiest” (top-quartile) nonprofits outperform the “least healthy” (bottom quartile) across dimensions including perceptions of achieving impact, talent referrals, and staff’s intentions to continue working in their current organization.
While idea integration is seen frequently in many nonprofits, it is more pronounced in the healthiest ones and should be reinforced. On average, staff reported idea integration being one of the most frequently seen inclusion practices in the healthiest nonprofits at nearly twice the rate of peers in the least healthy (43 percent vs. 22 percent).
Nonprofits open to differing views can find and act on the best solutions to achieve impact, and this matters in nonprofits where the mission often holds deep personal meaning for staff. Leaders should look for ways to embed idea integration in their organization’s standard ways of working. This can include hosting ideation sessions and hackathons, visibly recognizing staff who contribute new perspectives to advance the mission, and methodically considering multiple views to make decisions.
The path forward
People choose nonprofit work to make an impact alongside others who share those values. It’s vital that nonprofits create structures supporting inclusion to attract and retain mission-driven staff and sustain impact for the communities they serve. By hardwiring these four inclusion practices into organizational ways of working, nonprofits can drive lasting, positive impact for their communities and the sector as a whole.
The authors wish to thank Anne-Marie Frassica, Sarah Gitlin, Manveer Grewal, Ruth Imose, Nasrin Nouri, and Andrea Olmos for their contributions.
1 Mutual respect: Coworkers show genuine concern for each other’s well-being and a commitment to treating each other fairly and respectfully.
2 Peer support: Coworkers help each other and inspire confidence in one another’s ability to meet work goals.