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Podcast | Exploring the Principles Behind DEIAB

The world is changing, and it’s time for nonprofits to change too — including their boards. To better fulfill your mission, your stakeholders and leaders should reflect the communities you serve. That’s why, on this episode of Fundraising Today and the Go Beyond Fundraising podcast, we’re exploring the principles behind DEIAB.

Joining us are Christal Cherry and Dr. Renee Rubin Ross, who work with boards and lead inclusive workshops and conversations. They’ll define what diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and belonging mean for nonprofits and why these principles should begin with your board.

We cover how you can get started with hard conversations, including ways to engage people who may not initially recognize the value of DEIAB work. They also share advice for making sure your efforts become part of the fabric of your organization and are sustained for the long term.

Want to hear more? Listen to the full episode:

Connect with Christal Cherry

Connect with Dr. Renee Rubin Ross

Get more Go Beyond Fundraising Podcasts



Host: Welcome to another episode of Fundraising Today and the Go Beyond Fundraising podcast. Today we’re exploring the landscape of DEIAB, which stands for diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and belonging, and how these principles can be applied to nonprofit boards. We’re going to be unpacking this topic with Christal Cherry and Renee Rubin Ross. So, Christal and Renee, welcome to the show!


Renee Rubin Ross: Thanks so much!


Christal Cherry: Thank you for having me! Good morning.


Host: I’d love to get some more information about your background and what led you to focus on DEIAB work, particularly within board settings.


Christal Cherry: I’m Christal Cherry. Again, thank you for having me. So many things have happened in the last few years. So, I retired from my gig as a nonprofit fundraiser — I’d been working in the sector for about 23, 24 years in that capacity and decided right before the pandemic to hang up my shoes and work primarily with nonprofit boards. And of course, partnered with that was the pandemic and the social unrest that happened in 2020, lots of conversations about race equity. And since I was working with boards, that was the population and space I was playing in, I started having conversations with them about these topics and realized early on that there was a lot of work to be done.


And in the meantime, I ran into Renee in the Zoom spaces of that time and realized that we had some mutual interests, and we got together. We clicked, and we’ve been working together ever since. So, I’m going to stop and let Renee introduce herself and share a little bit about her journey.


Renee Rubin Ross: Thank you! Hello, I’m Dr. Renee Rubin Ross. My firm is The Ross Collective based in Northern California, and we work all over the country. We design and lead inclusive conversations, and I also run the Cal State-East Bay Nonprofit Management Certificate Program.


And as Christal was saying, we connected, and I think I had done a webinar on great board practices, and someone said, “You need to meet Christal.” And then, strangely enough, I saw one of her webinars and was like, “This is fabulous! I want to meet this person!” So, we started talking and just started collaborating and have collaborated on a number of projects and writing, consulting, and learning from each other.


Host: Let’s define diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and belonging. That way, whenever we’re talking about this acronym of DEIAB, we can all be on the same page about what these words mean, how we’re using them, and the context in which we’re using them, and then we can go from there.


Christal Cherry: Sounds good to me! I can start with diversity. Diversity is just about numbers, right? Making sure we have the spaces and the places, particularly as it relates to nonprofits, the faces of the people in the communities that our nonprofits are serving, whether it be on your staff or on your board or in your volunteer base or your donor base. Making sure that all voices from those communities are represented.


So, it’s just the numbers being when we talk about diversity. Renee, do you want to talk about equity and inclusion?


Renee Rubin Ross: Yeah, absolutely. So, the way that I define equity is that people who are impacted by challenges are weighing in on the solutions. People who are impacted by the challenges or closest to those challenges are weighing in on the solutions, and systems are shifted so that people who are outside of power move toward power. So, there’s really both a systemic dimension and also a representation dimension. It really is people who see a challenge, who could be the ones to come together and create the solution.


I think inclusion is a mindset, I would say, in terms of, we want to hear different perspectives. We understand that we’re going to need all kinds of voices to find solutions to the complicated challenges that our organizations and our society are encountering now.


And belonging — wow, Christal and I have talked a lot about belonging. It’s definitely one we can count on together. We see it as a circle, and there isn’t one person saying, “Come in.” But it’s really each person saying, “Hey, I’m part of this circle. I feel that all my different identities are affirmed, honored, loved, and seen.”


Christal Cherry: And it really can be subjective because belonging is different for everyone, but making sure that whoever you are, you can show up in those spaces with all your “selves” — your full, whole personhood can come into that meeting space and be accepted. Whether you’re a woman, or a person of color, or someone who is physically challenged or mentally challenged, or someone from the LGBTQ community. And that can be different for each one of those groups, each one of those individuals.


But just making sure that space is made so that whoever is in the room feels like they’re a part of what’s going on — the larger picture — and that they can weigh in and that they’re accepted, and they’re valued and respected for who they are and what they bring to the conversation.


Renee Rubin Ross: I’ve also been thinking a lot about accessibility recently, especially in terms of a client that the Ross Collective has been working with. It’s Yerba Buena Gardens. This is a public garden in the middle of San Francisco. There are a couple of issues. One of them is that there are a lot of stairs, and so not everybody can physically access the gardens. There aren’t a lot of signs, some of the signs are only in one language, and so not everybody can access those and understand what’s in the gardens. So, it’s really thinking about what kind of barriers exist right now that prevent everybody from enjoying a space, an organization, a community, and what do we want to do about that?


Host: When it comes to encouraging more diversity, equity, inclusion, all these things when it comes to boards, what is the starting point for doing that work with a nonprofit?


Christal Cherry: Yeah so, when Renee and I work together, we of course meet with the executive director. We try to make sure we meet with the board chair to have a good sense of what’s going on with the organization many times. And when they bring us in, it’s usually because a problem has arisen. There are some fires that need to be put out, so they bring Renee and I in.


So, we try to do a good job of doing an assessment of the culture, and that can include interviewing people, looking through all their collateral and materials, sometimes doing surveys. Really just trying to get a full understanding of who this organization is, who the people at the organization are, and where they are right now in their journey of learning about other board members and including other board members. And many times, we’re starting from scratch because they’re clueless. They have no idea how to begin having conversations to bring people into their space.


So, that’s how we get started. And I’ll let Renee take it from there.


Renee Rubin Ross: Often, what we do is go back to the organization’s mission. I get it again. So, for example, not long ago, we worked with an organization that focuses on supporting people through a disease, and we talked about how everybody, no matter what racial background, is impacted by this disease. And yet there is much less access to good healthcare knowing everything that we know about health equity for people of color. And so, what do we want to do about that? And really helping all board members to start seeing how equity shows up in the mission of the organization and think about what changes they might need to make in order to build a more equitable organization.


We are certainly passionate about what we do, but … if somebody really believes that this has no value, we’re probably not going to talk them into it. We certainly share our own stories, we encourage all kinds of people to share their stories, but there needs to be an openness and readiness at the beginning of the process for this to be successful.


Christal Cherry: And some board members are not ready. A lot of times, we’ll get the green light from the board chair and the executive director who are ready, but some board members are resistant, and they don’t understand the relationship between, “We’re here to help fulfill this specific mission. We don’t understand why we’re talking about race. We don’t understand why we’re talking about diversity. This is not why I signed up to be on this board.”


So, we do get some resistance sometimes, and we have to bring them back to, “Who is it that your community is serving? What is your mission? How are you trying to impact the world? Who’s in your ecosystem?” So, we start bringing them back to those things, and we realize equity has to be embedded throughout, regardless of what the mission is.


Renee Rubin Ross: I just want to say that, sometimes there’s one person in the group who’s really going to jump in. I’m thinking about this group that we worked with a while back, and there was one white woman. We started talking about race and about equity and all those different ideas, and everybody’s very quiet, and then she said, “I just feel that we have so much work to do, and I really feel bad about the history of the organization and who we have served up to now. And I want to change things.” And she got the ball rolling in terms of the work. So, I think finding those people — and she had already done her own racial justice work over many years and so was ready to bring something from outside to this organization.


Host: Can you share any strategies that you have for engaging people who may not initially recognize the relevance of this work?


Christal Cherry: Yeah! I think we have a couple of examples, but I’m thinking about one in particular, where the board chair seemed to have been clueless about why there was a mass exodus on his board of people of color. And then when we tried to talk to him a little bit about it, he just totally rejected the idea that there was anything wrong with the culture that they had. And that he had not done anything wrong, they had not done anything wrong. He just could not seem to connect the dots. And I think, by the time we were finished with our training, which is several months, he came around, and he really understood why his fellow board members were so upset and so passionate about their reasons for leaving.


And so, sometimes it’s not right away, sometimes it’s just a matter of working with them and getting them to be open, hearing from their fellow board members. As Renee mentioned, Renee and I share our own vulnerability, which sometimes disarms people to make them feel comfortable enough to say, “I actually felt that way too.” Or “The whole thing is I’m scared.” Or “I’m just not sure, I’m uncertain.” “I don’t know how I’ll be received.” Or “I don’t know how to approach someone of a different race.” They’ll start being vulnerable and sharing some of the things that they’re actually feeling.


And I think once they realize that they don’t have to be defensive, and they don’t have to be resistant, and that we’re all in this space to learn, that no one’s trying to point fingers, and we’re all here to try to figure out how to make things better moving forward. I think people sometimes will start to relax — and sometimes not, but most times. And in this particular case, we had this person, who was the board chair, actually come around and realize that maybe he did play a role and they did play a role in how some of those board members felt.


Renee Rubin Ross: Yeah, so as Christal mentioned, we do have this several-month training that we do with boards or organizations that’s around diversity, equity, inclusion. And one of the components of what we do is sharing race stories. I will talk about what I learned growing up as a white person. Christal will talk about what she learned growing up as a Black person. And we don’t do this the first day, by the way. We really create a container, create some safety, let people get to know each other, let people let down their guard, as Christal mentioned. And once they feel like, “Okay, we have some trust together,” then we send them off. And we encourage the people on the board or as part of the organization to share some of their race stories too, to the degree that they feel comfortable.


In this, we had one of the Black women on the board say, “I just noticed that I’m very different from everybody on the board.” Even though she was a professional person, and the other people were professional, she just talked about how this was a kind of wealthy white club that she didn’t feel that she was a part of. And it was hard. Who wants to hear that you’re part of a club that’s excluding people? On the other hand, you need to grapple with this kind of information and just put it on the table. And then, what do you want to do about it?


Christal Cherry: As Renee mentioned, some people just have these closed minds and have decided they don’t want to be a part of this. And we have found in some of our training that people will drop off. We see that particularly in the case with white men — they’ll drop off, stop coming to our training. But if you actually stay around and do the work — because this is a personal journey for each of us. So, you have to figure out for yourself where you stand in all of this.


And so, in the training that Renee and I do, the experiences that we create, they’re interactive. Sometimes, we give them things to read. We have role plays, we watch videos, we have small group exercises. It’s work, and it’s interactive and engaging work. It’s not just she and I standing in front of a room lecturing people. This is work where we’re asking probing questions, we’re inviting people to think and to ponder and to share their own experiences about whatever. And so, if you’re willing to do all that work, I think after a while, as Renee mentioned, your guard comes down and you’re more willing and open to maybe say, “I’ve been complicit. I never thought about it that way.” And so, that is the whole point of this.


After our training, you’re not going to be a totally changed person, and everything’s wonderful in the world, and now we’re all not racists. That’s just not the way it works. But if we can open a few eyes and get people moving further down their journey, I think we’ve done a good job.


Renee Rubin Ross: I think also there are certain foundational principles in this work, and one of them is that there is enough for everybody. That we can build a world where all people can thrive. And so, I hope that we say that directly in the training, but I know that is something that comes out in this work because it’s only when you feel like there isn’t enough, that my thriving means that you’re not going to thrive, or your thriving means that I’m not going to thrive. But if you feel like, wow, there is enough for everybody, then how do we build the future to get there?


Host: Let’s move a little bit into some more of the process of this work. How can organizations foster a culture where DEIAB is not just a checkbox but something that’s truly integrated into the fabric of the organization?


Christal Cherry: One of the things Renee and I encourage them to do is not just think about their boards, but the policies regarding staff and how they interact with donors and how they interact with volunteers, how they interact with one another. It has to permeate throughout the whole culture of the organization. It can’t be one stakeholder group or just one department that’s working on this. Sometimes we’ll find that the staff has done this DEI work, and the board has no idea or vice versa. Or a department has done it — only the finance department or the programs team or someone is doing the work, and the rest of the organization is not.


And basically, this whole idea that there’s a cog, Renee and I embrace the “Awake to Woke to Work” approach to centering equity, and their philosophy and their model has a cog. And in order for this cog to move, all the groups have to push the lever in order for the cog to keep moving around to get to this equity. And if one stakeholder group stops pushing their lever, then it stops. So, this is something that requires everybody in the organization to embrace and to work on in order for us to continue to have this cycle where we’re moving round and round toward race equity.


Renee, anything you want to add?


Renee Rubin Ross: I guess what I’ll add is with any kind of planning, there’s this phase of assessment, which we talked about before. Where are you? How are things going? How are things going with your board? How are things going with your staff? What’s happening with policies? In what ways is this working? Where does it need to go? Then, you get to a shared understanding — this is what’s successful so far, here are some other possibilities.


And then the last part, which Christal and I lead, is creating an action plan. That might mean revising the HR manual. That might mean shifting the board matrix. Might mean different kinds of ways — even the board meeting needs to be held at a different time so that more people can participate. That might be stipends for childcare so people can be on the board. Just thinking about all the different things, and then what does the organization want to do.


And we know this is lifelong work for people and for organizations. So usually, some of what comes out in terms of planning is (that) we’re going to keep learning and reflecting as a board and a staff, too.


Host: What are key indications that a board’s DEIAB efforts are leading to measurable, transformative change within the organization?


Christal Cherry: A willingness, first, to recognize that change needs to happen and that they’ve played a part in why they are where they are. And a willingness to revisit — I know, with the organization that we’re working with, the health organization, they had a DEI statement on their board, which had been up there for a couple of years. I think they probably read it when it first went up, but I don’t think they had really looked into it to see whether they were using the words that were in that statement in how they were treating one another and how they were treating their stakeholders. I know that prior to our leaving them, they decided that they would go and revisit that equity statement to see if it needed to be updated or if it was still relevant to the work that they were doing.


So, I think a willingness to go back and revisit something, to review it, to update or to add a policy, maybe adding a policy on composition — we’re going to make sure that, moving forward, we always have a composition on our board that represents the community we serve. We’re serving predominantly people of color or predominantly women or predominantly homeless people, so we make sure we have a good number of people in our community on our board as we do in our communities. We don’t want to have a board where we’re serving all Black women, and it’s all white men on the board or all white women on the board. Making sure that those same women from that community are on the board so their voices are heard.


Adding a policy like that is a way of showing that we get it. We get it, and so we’re going to put this policy in place so that even once we’re off the board, whoever comes in behind us, they know that this is a value that we’ve embraced, and we want to make sure that this continues to go on forever and ever.


So, that’s my take on it. But I’m going to invite my colleague to say what she thinks.


Renee Rubin Ross: Yeah, I’m thinking about one of the examples I have mentioned on my blog is the Pacific Crest Trail. So, this trail is open to people on the West Coast, and one of the issues is it’s a historically white organization, and they really spent some time doing some study and thinking. The why for them was, “Wow, the trails belong to everyone.” The trails don’t just belong to people of a certain racial background or anything like that, and we need to make sure that all people feel a sense of belonging and safety on these trails. So, that was their why.


And they said, “Okay, the next thing we need to do is we need to shift our board. We need board members” — again, going back to this idea of equity, people who are closest to the problems are weighing in on the solutions — “so, we need more diverse individuals on our board, and we need to think about how our board runs so that everybody comes on and feels a sense of belonging.” In the end, they did this process, it took about a year, and they invited a whole class of four or five new board members who are BIPOC to join their board. And they put a press release on their website and said, “This is part of our values. We realize that everybody needs to be represented on the trails. Everybody needs to be represented in our leadership.”


And I just thought it was so cool. And it wasn’t that all problems were solved, but I think that really being visible in making this kind of change is powerful.


Host: Let’s move on to sustainability and some final thoughts to wrap up today. How can boards ensure these DEIAB efforts are sustained over the long term rather than being seen as a temporary trend or initiative? Another way to phrase this question is how can we keep nonprofits and their boards from getting complacent? 


Renee Rubin Ross: Like so many things, I think there’s a piece of planning, which is, “How are we going to incorporate this into our daily, weekly, monthly, whatever it is, routine? And how are we going to keep this as part of the conversation?” So, I think formalizing that. That this is an area to talk about at every board meeting. And whether it’s learning or reporting back or thinking about how the organization’s doing and doing more planning. Just knowing that.


As Christal said, wow, we took somewhere between 200 to 400 years to get where we are right now, and this is an ongoing change process. And, yeah, again, I think the energy for that goes back to the why and to the mission. “We want to be an organization that serves all people.” Whether it’s health or art or culture, then it feels expansive.


We hear about organizations like, it’s been the same 10 white people who have been on the board for the last 20 years. It’s like, how’s that working for you? Maybe there needs to be some new people. With what we know about board practices overall, is that it’s a good idea to have term limits and to bring new energy and people on the board no matter what. And then, alright, how is their representation from the communities and from the changing people in the community?


Christal Cherry: Yeah, and I think normalizing this into your culture every day, so it’s not just a Black History Month thing, right? In terms of creating a DEI calendar where all cultures and traditions are considered when you’re thinking about planning events or planning a meeting. It’s not just Christmas and Hanukkah — the big ones that we know. But traditions from other ethnic groups that we sometimes forget like Diwali and Kwanzaa and whatever other holidays for these new, diverse people that you’re bringing in — Asian folks, LGBTQ folks. Just making sure that you’re acknowledging those dates so you’re not planning events or meetings or anything during those times where those people might need to be away. So, making sure that you’re recognizing their cultures.


Looking at your normal everyday activities in terms of, like Renee said, when are you planning meetings? Are you planning early-morning meetings when single moms or moms with small children can’t get to them because they’re getting their kids off to school in the morning? Or they’re trying to get their elderly parents in place before they leave or get ready for the day? What is our reimbursement policy like when we travel? This is something Renee and I have talked about before. Is it such that everybody is supposed to use their own personal credit card and wait to be reimbursed in 30 to 60 days once your finance department can come through? Assuming that everybody has a credit card that has space on it for you to put a $2,000 work trip on there? And making people feel bad about that.


In our normal, everyday functioning, just looking at our policies, reviewing how we’re acting toward one another, reviewing how we’re structuring our meetings and how our policies interact and impact our staff. So, it’s not just the board meeting that we’re going to look at but all day, every day. This is long-term work. It’s not just coming in and we’re going to say, “For the month of February, it’s Black History Month, so we’re all going to talk about DEIAB!” And then March rolls around, and no one’s talking about it.


Host: If there’s one piece of advice that you’d offer to a nonprofit looking to deepen its commitment to DEIAB work and create lasting change within its boards, what is a first step that they can take?


Christal Cherry: Tomorrow, I’m facilitating a webinar conversation on how boards can embrace Black philanthropy. And one of the things that we keep saying is, “If you don’t see us as viable people who can make donations, then you’re not going to ask, you’re not going to understand.” So, I would encourage organizations to take a hard look around the community that they’re in. Who really is in your community? Stop ignoring people. You see the Asian people, you see the African Americans, you see the LGBTQ. These are people in your community. Stop just thinking that philanthropy and being involved in a nonprofit is monolithic — it’s not.


Take a hard look around at who’s in your community and don’t ignore them. Don’t overlook them because they’re different and because they’re not what you’re used to. (Stop) thinking that they can’t contribute because of whatever barriers that they may be experiencing. But realizing that all those rich voices will bring so much more of a rich culture to your organization, ideas that you never thought about, access to resources that you don’t even know might be available to you. So, by not seeing us and by continuing to ignore us, whether on your staff or on your board or in your database, you’re really hurting yourself.


So, I just ask organizations to take a hard look at the world. The world is changing. It is no longer old white men only making decisions. There are young people now who are stepping in, they’re voting, they’re making their voices known about things, they’re protesting. There are lots of things going on in the world now, and we have to stop thinking that this is our grandmama’s world. It’s not; it’s changed.


Renee Rubin Ross: I have written on my blog a lot about talking about race. Usually, when I introduce myself, I say I use she/her pronouns, I say I identify as a white person and consultant. And some of what Christal and I have talked about, what I’ve learned about is it is this kind of white privilege to not have to talk about race and not have to maybe think about it. It’s funny, I’m saying the same thing as Christal but in a different way, I think.


So, I would encourage organization and leaders to say, “How do we start talking about race in a way that is” — and by the way, there’s so much research that says if there’s a group of people from different backgrounds, and the white leadership is not comfortable talking about race, then people who have the experience of racism feel invisible. (They) feel like they’re not seen for their experience. So, I think, how do we start talking about race, and then, going out from there, who’s in the room?


You have to be able to open up those conversations. If you don’t feel comfortable, then you’ve got to go learn, you’ve got to go read, whatever you as a white person need to do to start saying, “We’re going to open this up.” And going back to that, “Why does it matter?” Why does it matter for your organization? Maybe you know, or maybe some other people on the board know.


Host: Renee and Christal, thank you so much for taking some time out of your day to sit down and have this conversation with our listeners and our viewers.

If folks would like to get in touch with either one of you, what’s the best way for them to do that? And Christal, I’ll ask you first.


Christal Cherry: Yeah, the name of my firm is The Board Pro. You can reach me at theboardpro.com. I’m also on LinkedIn and love to link up with new people, so please look me up. Christal M. Cherry.


Renee Rubin Ross: And my firm is The Ross Collective, and I have a newsletter that I send out twice a month on strategy, leadership, and racial equity. So, The Ross Collective, subscribe if you want to join the newsletter. And I’m on LinkedIn too.


And sometimes we even present together, all that kind of good stuff. And we each have something on our website about the board training and workshop that we offer together. But we have a lot of other things we do as well.