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  • Writer's pictureNonprofit Learning Lab

From Familiarity to Proficiency: How to Create a Comprehensive DEI Learning & Development Plan

This is a guest blog by The Acacia Company.

brown background with white text: Intentional listening and fostering a shared language are crucial steps toward a more impactful DEI L&D plan that doesn’t cause harm and works to support organization-wide goals.

On May 29th, 2018, Starbucks made headlines as over 175,000 employees participated in a mandatory racial bias education program across 8,000 U.S.-based locations. This initiative stemmed from a controversial incident where two black men were arrested for sitting in a store without making a purchase. While some employees felt the program fostered an understanding of the challenges faced by people of color in their daily lives, others voiced concerns about its effectiveness. Feedback ranged from a desire for more interactive elements to the need for inclusive spaces for discussion among colleagues. 

This case sheds light on common pitfalls in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) learning and development (L&D) programs. Issues like overly-standardized content, lack of dynamic material, and one-time events hinder effectiveness. These shortcomings can result in a lack of attendance from staff, frustration with the program, or employees feeling left out, unheard, and unsafe.

Intentional listening and fostering a shared language are crucial steps toward a more impactful DEI L&D plan that doesn’t cause harm and works to support organization-wide goals. 

Keep reading if you find yourself asking the following questions.

  1. Which topics should I start with?

  2. How do I get people on board and excited to attend trainings?

  3. Who should deliver our DEI trainings?

  4. What is an appropriate budget for DEI training?

  5. How do I ensure the program doesn’t fall flat and leave people feeling frustrated?

3 Steps to Create an Intentional DEI L&D Plan

The purpose of a DEI Learning & Development program is to increase awareness amongst employees and build their competencies and skills related to equity, diversity, and inclusion. By empowering and instilling confidence in employees, they are more well-equipped to affect positive change within their sphere of influence. Ultimately, the goal is to cultivate a more successful business and to create a better workplace environment for all employees. Creating a strategic and intentional learning and development plan for DEI involves three foundational steps:

  1. Identify the core concepts and competencies to measure and include in your plan.

  2. Assess the current knowledge and skill levels within your organization regarding DEI concepts.

  3. Establish a shared language around DEI and create a strategic learning and development plan.

Let’s dive deeper into each step.

Step 1: Identify Learning Competencies

Identify the core concepts and competencies to measure and include in your plan.

An intentional approach to creating a DEI L&D plan starts with identifying the core concepts and competencies to measure and train on. We suggest selecting concepts that connect to the individual on a personal level as well as competencies that can build their capacity for operationalizing DEI in the workplace and creating systemic change.

We’ve included below the 36 DEI concepts we use at the Acacia Company as part of our DEI Training Needs Assessment. If it's your first time doing any training for DEI, we recommend first focusing on the foundational competencies.


Core concepts focused on establishing a base for DEI knowledge.

  • Diversity and representation

  • Inclusion and belonging

  • Equity

  • The benefits, opportunities, and relevance of DEI in the workplace


Topics that create deeper self-awareness and the impact they have.

  • Your personal connection and why for DEI

  • Social identity dimensions and intersectionality

  • Bias and judgment

  • Privilege, power, and positionality

  • Advocating for your needs and boundaries

  • The unique way you can contribute to advancing DEI


Concepts and skills for navigating interactions with others.

  • Cultural awareness and understanding

  • Practicing empathy at work

  • Inclusive language and communication

  • Giving and receiving constructive feedback

  • Microaggressions and subtle acts of exclusion

  • Conflict management and resolution

  • Recognizing and eliminating tokenism

  • Building psychological safety, trust, and belonging

  • Being a supportive bystander

  • Allyship


Topics for operationalizing DEI in the workplace and creating systemic change.

  • Identifying and removing bias in systems

  • The impact you can have toward DEI within your role at your organization

  • Equitable process and policy design

  • DEI strategy and long-term planning

  • Setting goals for DEI

  • Tracking metrics for DEI progress

  • Building transparency into organizational culture

  • Building accountability structures into organizational and team culture

  • Allocating responsibilities and setting job expectations in a way that is fair

  • Recognizing, rewarding, and compensating contributions in a way that is fair

  • Recruiting and building a diverse team

  • Creating an inclusive team culture

  • Change management in organizations


Context for understanding the dynamic landscape and reality of DEI. 

  • Historical context of DEI at various levels (global, national, regional, local)

  • Present day context of DEI at various levels (global, national, regional, local)

  • Systemic oppression and its impact on our society

Step 2: Assess Knowledge Levels

Gauge people’s familiarity with and excitement about key DEI concepts.

The next step is to assess the depth of familiarity people have with the various DEI concepts you’re wanting to measure and train on. If this is your first time doing any training related to DEI, consider starting with an introductory survey. This survey can gauge people’s initial perspective on diversity, inclusion, belonging, and equity from a personal and organizational point of view. This can be a helpful baseline to understand where to begin. 

It is helpful to ask the following questions during this step:

  1. What level of familiarity do employees have with inclusion, equity, and diversity?

  2. How would employees describe the relevance and importance of these topics in their personal lives, the workplace, and society?

  3. Where are the commonalities in employees’ personal connections to these topics? The differences?

  4. How would employees describe your organization’s current strengths, challenges, and opportunities for these topics?

Step 3: Design Your Plan

Establish a shared language around DEI and create a strategic learning and development plan.

Language is influential, always evolving, and has different nuances and interpretations across cultures. Language has been used to erase, define, uplift, or liberate individuals. It is helpful to keep in mind that people attach different meanings to words like “power”, “privilege”, “oppression”, or “racism”, depending on their different levels of knowledge, assumptions, emotions, and experiences.

(For some of our commonly used definitions, check out our article: Breaking it Down: What is DEI?).

It is important to establish a shared language around DEI to ensure that everyone is aligned about key concepts. When we agree on terms, we enhance the effectiveness of our conversations. However, it is important for stewards of DEI to decide the extent to which a group must have consensus and where it is okay for people to disagree. As a prime example, “DEI” has been a buzzword of a term that is interpreted differently. It’s important for us to understand diversity, equity, and inclusion as separate concepts with nuance. 

Focus on creating a shared language around DEI, especially in the early stages of your plan. If you have already begun establishing a shared language, consider conducting a more detailed and focused assessment of all concepts under Step 1. Then aim to create a tailored plan that hits the “sweet spot” of what people are excited about, knowledge gaps, and organizational needs. As important as it is to understand where knowledge gaps exist, it is equally important to understand what people are excited and curious about.

If you want to dive deeper into creating a shared language around DEI, check out our article 4 Steps to Create a Shared Language Around DEI.

Tailored, Dynamic, Adaptable

Make sure your plan has these 3 critical elements: tailored, dynamic, and adaptable.

1. Is it tailored?

The most successful DEI L&D plans are catered to specific roles, levels, and teams. People are able to receive information more easily and effectively when it is especially relevant to their needs, interests, and experiences. For instance, consider which topics are most relevant for people managers versus senior leadership, or the unique knowledge gaps and interests of teams like marketing versus product design. Additionally, factors like geographic location, identities, and lived experience may warrant further customization.

2. Is it dynamic?

A dynamic DEI L&D plan offers various avenues for engagement with the content, catering to diverse learning styles. Dynamic content enhances inclusivity and can boost attendance and engagement levels. Aim for diversity both on a macro and micro level, or in other words, dynamic options within a session and across different sessions. On the macro level, offer a mix of self-learning options like webinars and articles, as well as peer-to-peer coaching and group discussions. Within the sessions themselves, employ varied formats and styles. For example, offer hands-on activities using visual guides, group breakout spaces for brainstorming, or individual reflection with video aids. Lastly, ensure there is a sufficient number of touchpoints for effective knowledge absorption and retention.

3. Is it adaptable?

An adaptable DEI L&D plan is designed for longevity, evolving alongside your organization's needs and goals. Remember, DEI work is not a one-off event; it is ongoing and requires change management strategies. Regular feedback loops are essential for gauging effectiveness and addressing evolving needs. Be sure to close the loop with employees as well, letting them know what is happening as a result of their feedback. Next, check in with folks about their learning journey and how they apply what they’ve learned to their roles, within their team, or in general. Benchmarking some key metrics like attendance, participation, survey response rates, and training effectiveness can help measure progress and uncover insights for improvement.

Proficiency takes time

Moving from familiarity to proficiency in DEI takes time. It's better to be consistent and intentional than to make bold moves that cannot be sustained. One way to build trust with employees is to ensure the people at the top are leading these efforts and are the first folks to receive training. Not only will this result in a more knowledgeable and capable leadership team, but also in leaders who are better able to answer questions that arise and support their employees through organizational change and growth.

Keep exploring learning and development planning with these 3 resources:

  1. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a hierarchical classification of the different levels of thinking and can be applied when creating training session objectives. 

  2. 4 Stages of Competence can support trainers to identify learning needs and develop learning objectives based on where their target audience is in the model.

  3. 4MAT Model is another tool to help trainers adapt content to different learning styles.


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