© Leise Jones Photography

If Massachusetts Nonprofit Network’s annual conference is any indication, the Commonwealth’s nonprofit sector is thriving. More than 650 people spent the day networking, gaining practical knowledge, and sharing ideas on how their organizations can make an even greater impact for the people and missions they serve. SM& attended the conference, which opened with a thoughtful keynote panel on equity, diversity, and inclusion in the Massachusetts nonprofit sector.

Panelists Carol Fulp, President and CEO of The Partnership, Inc.; Elaine Ng, CEO of TSNE MissionWorks; and Deborah Re, President and CEO of Big Sister Association of Greater Boston, shared personal experiences and answered questions from the audience. Michelle Neves Hantman, President and CEO of the United Way of Greater New Bedford, served as moderator.

Nonprofits large and small have been intentionally making great strides in diversifying board and staff leadership to better reflect the communities they serve. Some of this momentum is a direct result of nonprofit leaders welcoming engagement from community members and actively listening to their feedback. Millennials are also sparking change as they join organizations and help to shift the conversation away from thinking about diversity in terms of a quota to reach. Instead, organizations are emphasizing the importance of creating equitable and inclusive environments in the workplace, which can, in turn, help business. The panelists agreed that all experiences and backgrounds have value in pursuit of authentic messaging, program or product innovation and deeper stakeholder engagement.

The panelists offered candid remarks from their diverse viewpoints, sharing compelling real-world stories about how they have navigated issues of race and gender in the workplace, what advice they have most valued from mentors, and how they have advocated for traditionally underrepresented groups to have a seat at the table.

Leadership is another essential piece of the puzzle. “Equity is about changing leadership structures, and that’s the challenge,” said Ng. “The heavy lift is how you leverage different backgrounds and experiences.” Most important, said Ng, is to bring diverse viewpoints together and build a continuous learning culture.

Massachusetts Nonprofit Network

© Leise Jones Photography

The panel stressed the importance of studying the styles of other leaders – those you admire and want to emulate, and those whose actions make you take note of what not to do – and consciously listening and learning. It is no coincidence that all of the panelists are women now in leadership positions who had to learn to lift their voices in order to be heard, sometimes as part of predominantly male departments, companies and industries.

Fulp, for example, drew from her years in the corporate world to recount how her former boss rode in the front of the limo with the driver when all the other executives sat in the back. She observed how he alone among his peers knew the names of all the regular drivers and all the security guards in the building. He did this because he believed everyone mattered, she said. His leadership style had a significant impact on the development of her own approach. She embraced these lessons and knows they inspired her shift from financial services to her current role ensuring representation of people of color in C-suites and boardrooms.

A key lesson Re learned is that it is important to take risks and build trust so that if you make mistakes you have support already in place. She said it is important to make sure your values are aligned with your organization’s. “Live your values, do what you love,” she said.

There is still work to be done and it is essential that leaders, staff and community stakeholders continue to collaborate to advance the non-profit sector’s goal to become an even more diverse and inclusive field.