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  • Writer's pictureNonprofit Learning Lab

How to Create a Sustainable DEI Strategy

This is a guest blog by The Acacia Company.

We need to debunk the false choice between driving individual behavioral change and system-level change. These are not conflicting frameworks but rather two sides of the same coin.

A sustainable DEI structure is one that lasts over time and whose success does not hinge on a single executive leader or the efforts of a single team, but rather is upheld by the company’s culture and operations. When diversity, equity, and inclusion are woven into the DNA of a company, it becomes the standard for how people make decisions, approach business, and treat other people. 

We’ve seen many organizations invest in DEI, so why is it that so many have the motivation to start but then fast-forward 1 or 2 years later and those intentions do not manifest into real change? How can workplaces advance DEI sustainably so that the change sticks? 


First, we need to debunk the false choice between driving individual behavioral change and system-level change. These are not conflicting frameworks but rather two sides of the same coin. The truth is, cultural shifts happen when a group of individuals organize and give voice to a compelling issue. Those stories disseminate across our society and institutions, who then embrace change and transform structures; those structures generate new societal norms.

The Acacia Company is working to help organizations create sustainable DEI strategies that consider the realistic limitations of businesses, the structural changes that make equitable outcomes possible, and the fine line between being overly responsible for “changing” people and fostering a workplace environment where individual behavioral change is possible.

Structural transformation and sustainable growth does not happen overnight. It requires commitment and thoughtfulness to center marginalized employees, reduce and repair harm, and tackle root issues, all while being realistic about your resources and aligning new DEI efforts to the organization's mission, vision, and values. These are non-negotiable aspects of a sustainable DEI strategy. 

That is why we’ve created a framework to help organizations craft sustainable growth paths for their DEI efforts. This framework can serve as a guide to shape overall DEI strategy and help your organization prioritize actions in an order that makes sense for your reality.

Why does having a DEI growth “path” matter?

If you’re learning how to play the piano, the first song you learn cannot be a classical Mozart piece. There are important steps to master first and foundations to solidify before jumping ahead. In fact, building a solid foundation is what will make success more possible in the future. Sustainable DEI initiatives transform an organization, while simultaneously considering the reality that it operates in. 

There are many possible DEI projects that a company could work on. This framework aims to help organizations decide which projects make sense as they navigate the stages of DEI integration growth for their business. There are 4 key stages of DEI development within this framework: Building Awareness, Gaining Momentum, Structural Transformation, Sustainable Growth. For each of these stages, there are different activities to focus on depending on if your organization is just starting out in that stage or about to transition into the next stage. 


Building Awareness

Organizations at this stage are building a general awareness for diversity, equity, and inclusion in their organization, teams, and interpersonal relationships. Interested employees are leading programming, events, and other DEI initiatives for others to connect and learn more about DEI and the experiences of others who experience exclusion, marginalization, and inequity. You may notice at this stage that leadership commitment is loose and the budget for DEI is quite informal, nonexistent, or only available upon request. DEI leaders might struggle with finding capacity for DEI projects and might not have the authority to make major changes. 

Focus on closing gaps in your staff’s skills and knowledge (especially of leaders) so that your workforce is able to better notice and name instances of exclusion and systemic inequity. An organization’s goals at this stage should be centered around building engagement from more employees, starting first with a core group of passionate folks. Internal communication should be focused on establishing a shared language around DEI. 

Growth is possible in the early days of this stage by having a variety of touchpoints about DEI. The way to evolve to the next stage is by demonstrating success in DEI programs, initiatives, and events. 

How to Center Equity at this Stage:

  • Draw awareness to the different experiences employees are having across the business and inequities in structures and systems in the business

  • Utilize outside resources to learn and build knowledge about the experiences of groups who experience marginalization to avoid burnout or tokenism of internal employees

  • Gather employees around one or more specific DEI project(s)

  • Start asking "Do all of our HR and people-related processes and systems have formal structure?"

  • Start asking "Are all of our HR and people-related processes and policies applied consistently for all employees?"

Gaining Momentum

Organizations at this stage have been able to successfully amplify the need for DEI strategy and create wider acceptance and acknowledgement. It is becoming clear that DEI programs need more structure and direction to kick-off. This is the stage where it is important to invest in resources and really give it all you’ve got. 

Your efforts from the Building Awareness stage are starting to pay off and while there is generally more openness towards DEI, employees might be looking for clear pathways to engage with DEI, more direction to align DEI existing efforts, and wondering how current DEI initiatives fold into a larger strategic plan. The activities at this stage are increasing in sophistication and frequency, as DEI is becoming a bigger topic in the organization. Be mindful of getting too caught up in the minutiae and forgetting to think about the goal of DEI work, which is to foster equity in the organization and drive positive experiences and outcomes for marginalized groups. Articulate how DEI fits into the overall company objectives and is not separate or conflicting with company mission. Challenges at this stage may stem from duplicative efforts (due to lack of centralized communication) or a lack of strategic direction, which can lead to confusion and burn-out. 

You may notice at this stage that the budget is available, but perhaps focused on supporting specific employee-led initiatives or events. Executive ownership is absolutely necessary at this stage in order to scale DEI initiatives across the organization. Organizational change researcher John Kotter estimates that organizations need at least 75% of leadership teams to be bought-in in order to enable sustainable shifts. Focus on growing the number of executive leaders who are committed to addressing systemic oppression in the company. 

Growth is possible in the early parts of this stage by securing executive ownership to drive DEI progress across the organization. The way to evolve to the next stage is by having a comprehensive understanding of the inequities and root causes behind systemic issues.

How to Center Equity at this Stage:

  • Build capacity and remove barriers that would inhibit employees from engaging in DEI initiatives 

  • Design all activities, initiatives, and goals with the groups you're trying to center

  • Make sure any structural changes address root causes (not only symptoms) and are informed by an understanding of historical and contemporary systems of oppression

  • Respect and value employee input and involvement with DEI and keep them in the loop about how their input is being utilized to affect change

  • Acknowledge your power and privilege and learn how to extend and shift power

  • Communicate and create a plan for how you are going to examine and address inequity in the organization

Structural Transformation

Organizations at this stage consider DEI strategy in their operations and processes and have made bold changes to ensure accountability across the company. At this stage, we’re tackling the structural issues that allow inequity to exist. 

Especially at this stage, it becomes abundantly clear how important the role of middle managers are to scaling and implementing your DEI strategy. Upskill mid-level leaders and managers on DEI concepts, so that they are able to host productive conversations about DEI in their teams. Team leaders are your organization’s front-line to implementing DEI strategy and should be able to notice, name, and address inequity within their departments and/or teams. Focus on increasing the personal ownership of DEI for this group.

At this stage, you may notice that the budget is more formal, and specifically allocated to support and drive DEI structural projects. There is also more formal personnel responsible for DEI and steps taken to incorporate DEI responsibilities in individual job descriptions and career ladders. 

Growth is possible in the early parts of this stage by having a strategy, plan, and accountability measures to address systemic issues. The way to evolve to the next stage is by ensuring DEI is integrated across all organizational operations.

How to Center Equity at this Stage:

  • Leave no stone unturned and examine all the factors in your organization that affect equity/inequity

  • Consider how systemic, structural, and historical oppression influences your organization and the reality of your employees 

  • Consider not only operations and systems, but also the concerns and needs of employees in your examination and planning

  • Include a representative group of employees in the roadmap and strategy creation process, as well as tracking and reporting

  • Be thoughtful in how performance is measured at the individual, team, and department levels, considering specific needs and challenges

Sustainable Growth

Organizations at this stage may have experienced some turbulence with making bold changes, but have established systems that keep their vision and progress towards DEI goals intact. There are regular touchpoints to gather employee perception, analyze data, evaluate progress, and thoughtfully act. Inclusive behaviors are baked into company culture and practiced by employees on all levels. Processes are designed for employees to openly recognize, name, and address inequity and/or discrimination. There are structures to measure for equitable outcomes and to consistently interrogate biases. Transparency and two-way communication is standard practice between leadership and staff. At this stage, DEI is an integral part of decisions and is essential to how the organization operates.

It’s important to note here that the organization’s individuals and systems are aligned and working together to further DEI. People shape the systems and ideally, continually expand equity. And existing systems act as a “fail-safe” and continue to uphold the organization’s aspirations for inclusion in moments when individuals inevitably make mistakes or fall short. 

It’s important to know that while many strive to reach this stage and have made great progress with DEI, very few organizations are actually here yet. Growth is possible in the early parts of this stage by expanding justice both inside and outside the organization. The way to continue evolving is by embracing continuous learning, awareness, and innovation. Ask yourself: “what more is possible?”

How to Center Equity at this Stage:

  • Continue creating initiatives for specific employee groups to address inequities

  • Continue to remind and reiterate the vision, the why, and the context behind DEI and DEI-related decisions

  • Stay plugged-in to current events and proactively communicate what that means for the organization

  • Continually involve new voices in DEI conversations and decision making, for the purpose of expanding diversity and representation as well as preventing complacency and groupthink

This framework is not a prescriptive model, but rather a reference tool to help orient you along a path and guide you to actions that make sense for your reality. It’s important to remember that the “ideal end goal” is a constant moving target. What was acceptable 20-40 years ago is now outdated. And that is a good thing. It means we are growing and adapting to meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow's workforce. Sustainable DEI strategies require organizations to embrace a journey of continuous growth. The future of work starts now.

Ponder this...

  • How sustainable is your DEI strategy? Is it addressing surface-level symptoms or getting to the heart of the root causes of inequity in your organization?

  • What might be missing in your DEI approach? What could you change to ensure that it’s centering marginalized employees, reducing and repairing harm, tackling root issues, being realistic about your resources and aligning new DEI efforts to the organization's mission, vision, and values?

Keep exploring by learning which stage of DEI development your organization is at today...

This article is based on The Acacia Company’s framework for sustainable DEI strategy integration. The resources highlighted here are ones that are focused on helping you orient where your organization is at in terms of DEI strategy development and formulate an impactful and sustainable DEI plan. 

DEI Strategy Assessment & Report

Take our free assessment to better understand your organization’s stage of DEI integration and maturity of your DEI plans. You will receive a report that is designed to help you identify what actions will be the most effective, depending on the stage your organization is at. Click below to take the ~15min assessment for the report.


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