Best practices in equity and inclusion for the nonprofit sector

In the early 2000s, nonprofit sector research showed that newcomers, visible minorities and under-represented groups were not receiving equitable representation in the sector. As a result of this research, Pillar began several initiatives to support equity and inclusion in our own organization and the nonprofit sector. Along with the development of our own internal best practices, we began work to help bring diversity to volunteerism at leadership levels and to provide education to support nonprofits in bringing equity and inclusion practices to their workplaces. In our own organization, we began our equity and inclusion journey with a focus on racial equity using an anti-oppression framework. We have since expanded our work to ensure we are inclusive of Indigenous persons, persons living with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ2+ community, and women. Our efforts in this area are formalized in our current strategic plan with the objective to “Be Inclusive”, which outlines our commitment to provoking discussion and action around equity and emerging cross-sector community issues.

To move from where we are today towards developing truly equitable organizations, we need to build solid plans and be committed to their implementation. An effective plan to create equity balances several needs, it must include all of the steps necessary to achieve your vision and mandate enough focus to do your work well, while recognizing that building a diverse organization is a continually evolving process and you will need to adapt along the way. A good strategy should allow room for innovation and flexibility, and also have a focus on exploring power and privilege at an individual and organizational level. In this article, we will share the promising practices and tools we have used in our work with the community, with boards, and internally to help you as you embark or continue on your path to becoming an equitable and inclusive organization. We also explore some of our failures and learning moments to help you avoid or address these issues in your own work.

Nonprofit sector education and consulting practices

Establishing common language

One of the first steps in educating others about equity and inclusion best practices is to establish and share common language. Language is powerful and it’s important to ensure that it is being used appropriately and with common understanding. Pillar’s internal and external equity and inclusion training commonly begins with defining key terminology. Additionally, our Director, Diversity and Governance consulted on establishing London’s Community Diversity and Inclusion Strategy which includes a helpful glossary of terms.

While frank and open discussions that clearly name issues prove to be the best way to educate, there is often sensitivity and resistance around certain language which we have had to adapt to over the years. For example, to promote our early consulting and education on the topic, we started with establishing the moral imperative for diversity and over time started to build in the business case for diversity as that was more compelling and drew more organizations and board members in to participate. We have experienced the tension between wanting to use the language of anti-oppression that clearly names the issue and the need to use language like cultural competency to keep individuals open to the process and program. “Early on I wanted to encourage people to see embracing diversity as a good thing to do. I’m more radical now than I was then. The shift now is we’re being more authentic in calling it what it is,” shares Dharshi Lacey, Director Diversity & Governance.


Today, we have enough credibility in this field of work to use the appropriate language and now use equity and inclusion language more consistently than diversity. We have also broadened our scope since our early days when we were focused on increasing representation and are now intentional about both measuring and illuminating the need to have voices heard at leadership tables, and about naming racism, oppression, power and privilege. The language we use has evolved to include other forms of diversity and we balance the need to find common language and understanding while recognizing that language shifts over time.

Examining power and privilege

We have taken our equity and inclusion work deeper with sessions and discussions about power and privilege, and have also developed definitions of related terminology. We facilitate sessions that include reflections on our personal commitments to leveraging our power and privilege to challenge oppression and our professional commitments to leveraging our power and privilege within the systems that we have influence in. All people carry unconscious bias and acknowledging this along with how we fit into systems of power and privilege is critical to anti-oppression work.

In several of our workshops, we have used a power and privilege exercise adapted from Peggy McIntosh’s work on white privilege to demonstrate the power and privilege participants hold in their lives along the seven domains – sexuality, ability, gender/sex, race, religion, class and nationality. As they answer each question, they add a fruit loop (you can use pretzels too) on the string. At the end, each person has a necklace that visually reveals their power and privilege to themselves and other participants.

Power and privilege work can be challenging and uncomfortable for many. We once hosted power and privilege workshops with Louise Pitre Consulting and Mojdeh Cox for nonprofit leaders where we started with more than 45 participants and by the fourth session had 15 participants left. The work in these sessions was very difficult and required leaders to identify their conscious and unconscious bias and sit in the discomfort. While we cannot know unequivocally why the shift in attendance occurred, the difference from beginning to end was significant to reflect on.

Understanding the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act (AODA) 

Since 2011, Pillar has offered both online and in-person workshops about demystifying AODA standards and supporting organizations to be compliant. Participants in these workshops also explored how to create meaningful opportunities for individuals with disabilities and consider the importance of fostering professional relationships with individuals living with disabilities.

Encouraging inclusivity through storytelling

In 2018 and 2019, we offered a “Be Inclusive Series” of sessions exploring the diversity that makes up our community and the stories that surround us. Our goal was to build connections in the pursuit of diminishing feelings of “otherness”. We wanted to create a brave space that would allow us to become a more unified and help us work together to build a more inclusive community. Sessions included a focus on the trans, black, and Indigenous communities, as well as important issues in the London community including temporary overdose prevention sites, anti-islamophobia, addictions, and AODA standards.

These sessions provided many rich learning opportunities that we outlined in a report on the series. One important lesson learned was that the individuals with lived experiences who are sharing their stories of struggle must be consulted and highly involved in the implementation and execution of programming, including the set-up of the physical space. Providing an avenue for those with lived experience to share their stories and struggles is critical to establishing empathy and understanding and dismantling assumptions.

Board diversity practices

Board diversity toolkit

We created a diversity toolkit for boards of directors, executive directors and senior managers who are responsible for decision-making in an organization. This toolkit can also be beneficial for diversity managers, leaders and inclusivity champions. The goal of the resource was to provide organizations with the necessary information to set and reach their diversity goals. This board governance-focused resource mapped out how to move from acknowledging and respecting diversity to developing real action-based strategies. This process includes developing an organizational diversity goal, a board recruitment process, and tailoring your documents and statements (i.e., vision, mission, values, policies, constitutions and by-laws) to be more inclusive.

Creating workplaces and a community that embraces and celebrates differences, acknowledges bias, power and privilege is essential to creating an inclusive and equitable community. We need to go beyond the surface level of diversity.

Board diversity matrix

One of the promising practices we have created that has been shared far and wide is our board diversity matrix. The matrix should be used when recruiting board members to assess diversity, skills and backgrounds.The intent of the grid is to strive to ensure that the makeup of the board reflects the spectrum of diversity identified in the matrix. Annually, the matrix should be vetted against the diversity of the board and gaps should be identified. Identified gaps should be prioritized, ranked and weighted and become the basis of candidate ranking. 

Organizational diversity practices 

Diversity training and action plan

Bi-annually, the Pillar board and staff attend diversity and equity training to review current demographic data, explore equity and inclusion in the context of our organization and the sectors we serve, and create board and staff action plans. Pillar’s board and staff are consistently trying to find new ways of becoming more accessible. We all understand that inclusivity within the workplace is a process that requires an organization to make continual changes to ensure it is meeting the needs of the population it serves. With changes in board and staff, careful attention and oversight to the continuity of this process is critical.

Recruitment of staff and volunteers

Pillar has been intentional about reaching out to diverse communities through networks and media focused on inclusive communities. In all interviews we ask, “What does diversity, equity and inclusion mean to you?” to better understand the candidate’s depth of understanding and commitment. Our own staff team has become more diverse over time and their contributions on interview panels has been essential. For our board, committees and volunteers we recruit with diversity in mind. We have open conversations about whether we are bringing any conscious and unconscious bias to our hiring and recruitment process.

Our board nomination process includes an open call and we shared it widely. We have had some missteps with one year identifying we only needed one candidate and did not post it and circumstances shifted and we required additional board members. With having access to our board diversity program, we were able to recruit board members who represented to the diversity and skills we had identified. However, we will post the call for nominations going forward to ensure we are accessible and inclusive in our process.

Inclusion champion

When we established the strategic priority “Be Inclusive,” we wanted to ensure that our diversity and equity work was integrated across the whole organization with the philosophy that it’s everyone’s responsibility, and did not just sit with our Director of Diversity and Governance. We established a Diversity and Inclusion Champion role for a staff member for a one year commitment to embed an inclusion lens when developing projects, planning events, hiring, and assessing our work. 

Equity and inclusion baseline survey

With our new strategic theme “Be Inclusive,” we recognized the need to establish a baseline of understanding of equity and inclusion among our staff and board. We developed and equity and inclusion baseline survey to identify if there is a measurable change and impact over time from our efforts.

Equity and inclusion conversations

Our staff have been meeting informally on a monthly basis over lunch to discuss various topics related to equity and inclusion. Employees have the opportunity to bring up issues related to their work or topics of interest that they have encountered. Topics have included equal access versus accommodation, best practices for including land acknowledgements at events, and discussion surrounding accessibility in our space among others. 

Indigeous inclusion practices

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports were released in 2015, we took the time as an organization to read, reflect and better understand how we could learn our country’s history and advance truth and reconciliation both as an organization and network. Just a few of the practices we have adopted to be more inclusive of the Indigenous community have included: incorporating a land welcome and acknowledgement at our events, participating in various learning opportunities such as the Indigneous Cultural Safety program from Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre, instating a smudging policy at Innovation Works, and evaluating our board practices to be more inclusive. We continually look for ways to honor, celebrate and support the Indigenous members of our community with their input and guidance. Equity and inclusion work is not a checklist and this short summary is not representative of the scope of our work in this area. While we have developed many practices we are proud of, we have made mistakes along the way and we do not claim to be experts. We are always looking for ways to learn and do more and continually engage Indigenous people in our community to help develop and evolve our policies and programs. To read more about our equity and inclusion work with Indigenous peoples read more here

Creating workplaces and a community that embraces and celebrates differences, acknowledges bias, power and privilege is essential to creating an inclusive and equitable community. We need to go beyond the surface level of diversity. We are all at different places and this is life work not a check box, it is continuous and ever evolving.