top of page
  • Writer's pictureNonprofit Learning Lab

How to Navigate The Early Days of DEI Implementation

This is a Guest Blog by Natalie Rodgers from The Acacia Company.

Natalie will be presenting a workshop titled "From the Ground Up: How to Advance DEI in Any Organization" at the Nonprofit Lab in Philadelphia on March 21, 2024! Use our discount code friend25 for $25 off your registration!

“Maybe you didn’t intend to build or support an unfair reality, but you can change it now that you are learning how.” - JENNIFER BROWN

In the last year, US American companies pledged $50 billion toward racial equity, but since then only $250 million has actually materialized. (Fortune, 2021)

Of the 81% of companies that have pledged to combat gender disenfranchisement in the workplace, only 42% have a documented, multi-year strategy to implement Diversity & Inclusion goals. (Mercer, 2020)

Most organizations are more likely to disclose baseline Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) commitments and statements, rather than disclose actions that demonstrate accountability toward progress or that make an immediate impact. While many organizations set out to create ambitious diversity, equity, and inclusion plans, it’s rare to find well-meaning intentions actually manifest into real change. 

Why is it that companies and nonprofits alike are struggling to sustain DEI changes and fully utilize the levers that make organizational transformation possible? In this post, I’d like to talk about what makes DEI strategies sustainable, especially for organizations who are just starting their DEI journey. 

Envision your organization’s DEI goals and desired “end-point”. Surely, those goals are ambitious, lofty, and reflect your true values as an organization. You might even already have some DEI projects that you want to get started on. While it is tempting to jump into addressing big structural changes, DEI initiatives will be more sustainable if organizations build foundational skills and processes within the organization that will allow these changes to be sustained over time. The actions outlined below are important for successful DEI implementation and are universal for any organizational change process. 

1. Establish a shared language

In the early days of creating a concerted DEI effort across your organization, it is important to build awareness for DEI by establishing a shared language and understanding for foundational DEI topics. This gives everyone the skills to have more productive conversations about DEI and their employee experience. View DEI training not as a trendy side interest, but as a long-term, strategic investment into the development of your employees. Upskilling employees in DEI topics can also occur in informal spaces (like open discussions, lunch & learns, meet-ups, cultural events, etc.) as well as formal workshops and training. 

Example Projects: DEI Learning & Development plan, Leadership Coaching & Consulting

2. Listen to employees

Start your DEI efforts right by embracing a collaborative and inclusive process alongside your employees. Create channels to listen to employees about their workplace experiences and learn what they hope to see from organization-wide DEI efforts. This may be done through various surveys or focus groups to discuss the level of interest for DEI, the level of skills and familiarity with DEI topics, and other impressions about the challenges and areas for more justice, equity, and transparency in the workplace. 

Example Projects: DEI Interest Survey, Inclusion & Belonging Survey, DEI Training Needs Analysis, Internal Communication Plan

3. Demonstrate success

You will be able to advocate for more resources if your DEI programs, initiatives, and events are able to demonstrate success. Collecting measures of success will allow you to capture the attention of leadership and more employees alike. Measures of success might look very different in the early days of DEI formation. Some examples of metrics that you can track at this stage include event participation and attendance, event satisfaction, and survey response rates. While it is great to collect quantitative data, don’t discount the importance of stories and positive comments. This type of qualitative data demonstrates the positive impact of addressing DEI at work - which can show leadership and others around the company that this is a conversation that is important and here to stay. 

Example Projects: Employee Resource Group Formation, Cultural Awareness Events, DEI Discussions and Programming

4. Center equity from the start

A byproduct of equity is the measurable improvement in the lives of marginalized groups. For a workplace, this includes measuring outcomes such as pay equity, equity in performance reviews, equity in retention rates, equity in benefits, etc. Centering equity and driving equitable outcomes might seem unclear in the early days of an organization’s DEI strategy development because many might not have the structures in place to effectively track and measure any metrics in general, let alone DEI metrics. While you are building systems that allow you to track and measure progress, there are still ways to center equity in the early days of your organization’s DEI journey. For example, start to question if all processes have standardized structures and are applied consistently, and draw awareness to company processes or practices where there is inconsistency, intransparency, or an imbalance of power. This highlights a need for more transparency and accountability, which can be the start of greater conversations about building more equitable structures that lead to more equitable outcomes.

Example Projects: DEI Steering Team Committee Formation, DEI Reporting & Metrics

What is important in the early stages of DEI implementation, is that organizational leaders embrace a bottom-up, collaborative approach to their DEI strategy from the beginning. Listen to different perspectives, ground decisions in employee feedback and input, and center the needs and self-determination of marginalized communities in organizational decisions. 

Here are a few common pitfalls that leaders make when starting to implement DEI strategies:

  • Being "all talk and no walk," doing this work only for optics

  • Creating DEI initiatives without people from marginalized communities

  • Failing to center the self-determination, demands, and needs of people in marginalized communities

  • Poorly managed DEI events or setting an initial pace of events that organizers can't keep up with, resulting in a quick and fast burn that fails to keep up the momentum and excitement for DEI

  • Acting too quickly or without thoughtful intention

  • Tokenizing or singling out employees who are already overworked

  • Not giving enough resources or authority to employees who are working on DEI

  • Using excuses to halt or slow progress 

  • Failing to understand diversity, equity, and inclusion as different concepts that can progress at different points

It is easy to rush into this work and act without intention, so take the time for your own personal learning and upskilling. It may be the case that you’ve already started on some DEI initiatives but are now realizing that your organization needs to go back and establish a stronger foundation. If you need help, reach out to the team at The Acacia Company

Ponder this…

  • Where might we have rushed part of our approach to implementing DEI so far?

  • How could we center equity even more moving forward?

Keep exploring this concept with these resources...

1) How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive by Jennifer Brown

This book explores how organizational leaders can drive real change at work. Jennifer Brown provides a step-by-step guide for the personal and emotional journey we must undertake to create an inclusive workplace where everyone can thrive.

2) The Corporate Racial Equity Tracker - Just Capital

The Corporate Racial Equity Tracker is a tool to measure how the 100 largest employers in the US are following through on their diversity and equity commitments. The tracker gathers DEI data across six different dimensions including pay equity data, racial/ethnic diversity data, education and training programs, response to mass incarceration, community Investments, and anti-discrimination policies. JUST Capital, an independent research non-profit organization, calls for transparency and aims to uncover corporate actions beyond baseline DEI policies and showcase the actions that show accountability towards real progress. 

3) Stop Trying to be a Perfect Antiracist & Be a Decent Human Instead by Dr. Tiffany Jana

Dr. Tiffany Jana is a renowned writer and speaker in DEI, leadership, and antiracism work. Dr. Jana is a Pleasure Activist, B Corp Founder, TEDx, Top 100 Speaker, and the best-selling author of multiple books including, “Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions”, “Erasing Institutional Bias: How to Create Systemic Change for Organizational Inclusion”, and “Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships Across Differences”. This article highlights the importance of pushing past ego and fear, and elevating human kindness instead.


Be sure to follow us for more updates on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn!



bottom of page