Closing the Oakland Museum of California back when Covid-19 started to spread meant a sudden — and severe — drop in ticket sales and new memberships. With no plans to open its doors anytime soon, the museum expects a budget hole of potentially 25 percent in the coming year.
Many museums and performing-arts groups have laid off staff in roles that interact with the public, like events, ticketing, and security, as well as entry-level or part-time staff in positions that could no longer be done. Nationally, these frontline workers are often the first to be let go, and they’re much more likely to be people of color, compared with people in other positions in the museum world.
But the Oakland Museum took a different approach. It created a financial plan grounded in its commitment to equity and inclusion and supporting its community — including its staff.
Everyone is still on the payroll, but full-time employees had their hours reduced to three- or four-day workweeks. The executive team took pay cuts. A loan from the Payroll Protection Program forestalled the cuts for a while, but the plan went into effect on June 10. Lori Fogarty, the museum’s executive director, describes the decision as “shared and collective sacrifice.”
“The financial crisis that this has caused, and the reaction that institutions may take, could really, really set back their commitments to equity and inclusion, could result in a reduction of the diversity of the staff, and could cause real harm to their missions and their values,” Fogarty says. “We're trying to mitigate that as much as possible.”
As the Oakland Museum continues to navigate financial uncertainty, it's using the crisis to develop a process in which leaders give up some of their power and employees at all levels contribute to a new vision for the organization’s staffing structure. Instead of a small group of leaders or board members deciding on a restructuring plan and announcing it to the staff, the museum plans to take the next few months to work with outside facilitators to ensure a transparent and inclusive process.
“We can’t have one process that addresses our economic challenges and a separate process that addresses how we further advance our commitment to diversity and equity,” Fogarty says. “Those are part of the same conversation.”
Modest Gains at Risk
The nonprofit world has talked about diversity and equity for decades. But for all the earnestness and consciousness raising and sensitivity workshops, most organizations have made little progress hiring and keeping employees of color — especially in the management ranks. Now, those modest gains are at risk.
Some nonprofits say the health and economic disparities laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic and the spotlight on racism and police brutality have reaffirmed their commitment to bolstering diversity and inclusion at their organizations. For other charities, the past month has been a wake-up call. They realize for the first time that they need to take a hard look at how they operate, recruit and retain employees, and treat the people they serve. While advocates acknowledge that the nonprofit world — like society at large — has a long way to go, some are hopeful that this is a moment of reckoning. They believe nonprofits have a critical role to play in creating a more equitable future.
“The country has gone through too much and has experienced too much stress and chaos to just go back to the old way of doing things,” says Lisa Brown Alexander, CEO of Nonprofit HR. “I think we’re looking at a next normal, and that next normal is going to be more informed and more deliberate about trying to level the playing field and address inequities, even if it’s just within their respective organizations.”
Not everyone shares Alexander’s optimism. They worry that the nonprofit world is moving backward. Experts say that people of color in the nonprofit world are being laid off and furloughed at much higher rates than their white counterparts. Losing staff diversity could very well mean that the people who were advocating for organizations to become more diverse and equitable are no longer a part of the conversation.
“With more people gone, how is the conversation around DEI going to be pushed when no one is there to actually hold people accountable?” asks Andrew Plumley, director of inclusion at the American Alliance of Museums.
In the wake of the economic downturn, some organizations have asked how they can continue to invest in training and outside help to advance racial equity when so much of their revenue is drying up, says Kerrien Suarez, executive director of Equity in the Center, a foundation-supported effort to promote race equity at foundations and nonprofits.
Most organizations are in the early stages of working on diversity, equity, and inclusion, Suarez says. For the most part, they're trying to find people who are not white to work for them and calling that equity.
As a rule, people see “DEI work” as something that you do in addition to your regular work, she says. “There was an instinctual urge to say that we could no longer invest in DEI during the pandemic because there wouldn't be any money. That was a fairly average response that I heard from your average nonprofit, both large and small, that is in the early stages of work on diversity.”
But that started to change as protests swept across the nation. People who lead DEI trainings have been inundated with calls, Suarez says. “I have some colleagues who have been completely overwhelmed with requests for support.” She believes the sector may be at an inflection point, where people will really begin to do the work.
Even before the pandemic, recession, and racial-justice protests transformed the nonprofit landscape, people of color were growing increasingly concerned that organizations were declaring publicly their interest in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion but not matching their rhetoric with actions. A just-released 2019 study of 4,000 leaders by Building Movement, a nonprofit leadership group, found that 72 percent of people of color said they didn’t believe nonprofit leaders had the will to make changes that would advance diversity. Half of white nonprofit professionals shared that concern. (See more from the study’s authors, in an Opinion article.)
After George Floyd was killed, when thousands of nonprofits released statements saying Black Lives Matter and that they stand in solidarity with protesters, the shift in language was huge, Suarez says. But those are still just words.
“The question going forward from here is, what will they do in the days ahead to live into those values?” she says. “Because the overwhelming majority of organizations that released statements with those words in it do not have a culture where the Black people who work there feel that they are valued as equal to white people.”
Laying the Groundwork
Leaders of charities that do have DEI strategies in place say these have guided their decisions during the pandemic — especially when issues of race and inequity have come front and center.
That’s the case at the Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit that coordinates between the local public-school system and charter schools, trains school leaders, and provides support to schools.
About a year and a half ago, the group started evaluating its own systems, practices, and policies to ensure that it was living up to the core value of equity listed on its website, says CEO Brandon Brown, who is white. Staff at Mind Trust formed a committee to develop a DEI statement and an antiracism statement that outline the organization’s core beliefs and commitments. The committee worked to create a three-year sequence for how the organization would examine its internal biases and develop processes to help it adopt an antiracist lens in its work.
That effort proved invaluable after the pandemic struck. When everyone started working from home, Mind Trust rethought what a workday looks like. Leaders realized many parents were juggling their work, their kids' schooling and parenting full time. Brown wanted to make flexibility and results top priority. The group relaxed some expectations and trusted its employees to get their work done in whatever way worked best for them.
“I don't think that we would have done that effectively if we hadn’t done a year of DEI work beforehand,” he says. “Because that lens and that framework really made us lean into the equity piece of that, to make sure that we were creating an environment where everybody could succeed, regardless of circumstances.”
The group has also extended more time off for employees and let them cancel meetings with outside partners if they need to. It’s a recognition that some employees will need additional time to care for themselves right now.
“We can’t just move on with the work like nothing happened,” Brown says. “We have to acknowledge that a lot of harm has been caused by racism, and harm falls on the shoulders of our colleagues of color.”
The group has also created more time for staff conversations about race. Brown says the discussion have been honest and fruitful — something he says wouldn’t have been possible 18 months ago.
“If we wouldn’t have done that pre-work and if we wouldn’t have already been monitoring [our progress], it would have been much more challenging for us to adapt,” he says. “As the CEO of the organization, I wouldn’t have the tools — or the experience, either — to effectively manage through this.”
Some groups that had resisted doing an assessment of their approach to racial equity have become newly interested in doing the work over the past few weeks.
Last year, an organization that experienced negative instances of racial tension came to Carmen Marshall, director of the consulting group at Maryland Nonprofits. Marshall suggested the nonprofit do a top-to-bottom review of its systems — everything from human resources and hiring practices to the way that leadership and staff operate — to look for bias.
“They thought that was too much, just thought it was too overwhelming, too soon to commit to that,” Marshall recalls. Instead the organization’s leaders just wanted to do a few training sessions starting with the board.
That changed last month. After George Floyd was killed, the group contacted her to say it wanted to take the holistic approach she recommended in the first place.
“They said to me, ‘We want to talk about white supremacy. We want to talk about company systems.’ And that’s coming from the white leadership,” Marshall says. “Everything’s on the table.”
Organizations have been talking about this work, but now their employees are demanding action, she says. Marshall and her colleagues are encouraging their nonprofit clients to consider, “for every good intention, where is the action?”
She helps groups create “equity action plans” with both short- and longer-term strategies. Nonprofits, she says, have to be flexible and patient as they work to transform their organizations.
“It’s sort of like building a new house in a war-torn area,” she says. “You can’t just do that. You have to take care of the people. You have to put up with construction.”
(The Chronicle of Higher Education, the organization that publishes the Chronicle of Philanthropy, has received a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program.)