Reflections on DEI progress in the workplace

When I reflect on the past year of RLF’s progress advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, I’d describe it as a year of questioning.

Our human resources (HR) team has been questioning our day to day work—why have we been doing things the way we do? What practices should we change to better align with our values and promote DEI? How can we attract qualified candidates of all backgrounds and support equity in hiring? We found opportunities to make changes at almost every step of the recruiting process and will continue to make improvements in the coming year.

As a team, we’ve also been questioning each other to help hold ourselves accountable and asking uncomfortable questions to assess our progress on our DEI plan. What do we think the demographics of our organization should look like? How do we measure organizational inclusivity and if each team values different perspectives? How can we provide more opportunities for growth and see more diversity at all levels of the organization? These questions don’t always have simple answers, but we’re trying new things, assessing progress, and continually seeking to improve.

There are a few things, however, that I don’t question: 1) We’re far from perfect and good intentions aren’t enough; 2) Our leadership is committed to advancing DEI internally at RLF and externally in our broader work with funders, grantees, and partners; 3) We need to increase our internal communication to support greater transparency and trust; and 4) We have an incredible team of talented and kind people who are genuinely eager to do and be better.

2021 Areas of Focus

After almost a year of thoughtful development, RLF completed a DEI plan last year with detailed strategies and activities focused on the near-term and the longer-term horizon. We just released our inaugural annual DEI progress report, which features updates across our four commitment areas, but I’d like to go into more detail on our DEI progress in the workplace. We have much work to do, but here are a few areas we focused on this past year to advance DEI within our organization:

  • Training: Offered trainings to staff on cultural humility, Indigenous history, inclusive hiring, and burnout prevention. The five-part series of Indigenous trainings, presented by members of the Mountain Maidu and Yurok Tribes, were incredibly powerful and thought provoking.
  • Recruiting: Updated our job announcements to list starting salary range and highlight our DEI commitments and organizational values. Posted job openings on a variety of new job boards to attract a diverse applicant pool. Tracked aggregate demographics of the candidate pool for each position. Developed recruiting rubrics for screening applicants and assessing interviews to help mitigate implicit bias. We believe these efforts are starting to pay off: of the 10 employees hired in 2021 (not including fiscally sponsored projects), 50 percent identified as a person of color, 38 percent identified as white, and 12 percent preferred not to answer.
  • Compensation: Engaged an external consultant to conduct a compensation market analysis and internal equity review to ensure we’re competitive with peer organizations and equitable in our compensation program. The internal equity review focused on both race/ethnicity and gender, with no concerning issues identified.
  • Professional development: Created new “senior” positions and promoted 12 staff members this year to recognize increased responsibilities and experience. Launched a Slack channel for sharing training and learning opportunities, encouraging staff to utilize their annual professional development budget.
  • Culture and inclusion: Conducted several surveys to invite staff to share ideas and perspectives about working at our organization, including how to reopen the office after the Covid-19 closure. We added a series of questions to our annual employee engagement survey to help assess perceptions about equity, inclusion, fairness, and belonging.

Recognizing and Working Through Challenges

The work to create a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace is exciting and important, but the path is not straightforward and often requires agility, patience, and course correction. Some of the challenges that we’ve encountered include:

  • Pace of progress is often slow – It can be discouraging if we don’t see the progress we want quickly enough or meet the high expectations we set for ourselves. At the same time, prioritizing DEI takes extra time—for example, reviewing one-way videos and completing and assessing rubrics increases workload and can cause delays in both the recruiting process and our day-to-day work.
  • Candidate pool sometimes lacks diversity – The broader environmental sector has historically fallen short in recruiting qualified people of color. Similarly, we have struggled to attract a diverse applicant pool for some recent recruitments. According to aggregate data we’ve begun collecting on the diversity of applicants, we found that about 20-35 percent of applicants for some positions requiring experience in philanthropy or the environment identified as a person of color; while a recent operations position had an applicant pool with approximately 63 percent identifying as a person of color. We’ll continue to seek new ways to attract a diverse candidate pool for every position. Several of our grantmaking programs support efforts to diversify, expand, and build capacity in the environmental field.
  • Collecting quality data requires trust and communication – Another challenge has been building confidence and trust so that our team members feel comfortable voluntarily providing their demographic information and understand why it is important. Collecting this data helps us to measure where we are and what progress we are making.
  • Unique relationship as a fiscal sponsor – Our fiscally sponsored projects have their own team culture, operational needs, and varying interests in the kind of DEI support they’d like from RLF. This unique relationship adds an extra layer of complexity as we champion changes to our processes and implement the DEI plan. We’ll continue to share and learn together, partnering with each team to support them as best we can.
  • It’s complicated – There’s not always a right or a wrong answer, and sometimes goals can feel at odds with one another. Even something that seems simple, like creating a demographics survey question about race/ethnicity, can be complicated by wanting to be inclusive of many different identities while also keeping in mind that a longer list of identities may make the data more difficult to use later.

Looking Ahead

We have a long list of projects planned for 2022 and beyond. The HR team is excited to be leading a number of important changes. Here are a few things we’re planning in the coming year:

  • Transparency: We are rolling out new compensation and promotions processes and procedures. Our goal is to be more transparent to build trust and contribute to overall job satisfaction and performance. We are also looking at new tools for staff to anonymously report ideas, questions, or concerns.
  • Ongoing learning and professional development: We are exploring new learning management systems (LMS) that have a DEI focus to support ongoing learning for all employees on topics such as implicit bias. We want to pair a new LMS with live, facilitated workshops to continue to support ongoing connections and conversations. At the same time, we are in the process of scheduling training on the topic of inclusive leadership. We want to continue promoting professional development opportunities and supporting growth and learning for all team members.
  • Recruitment: We are continuing to assess and refine our processes and looking at additional recruiting training to support hiring managers.
  • Performance management: We are evaluating and updating our performance management training, processes, and technology. Employee goal setting and performance reviews will reinforce the importance of DEI commitments and alignment with organizational values across the organization.

As we take this time to reflect on what we’ve learned and changes we’ve made, and the projects and tasks we have planned, I am mindful of keeping the big picture in focus. While discrete and measurable outputs are important, they don’t mean much if they aren’t building toward the true equity and justice outcomes we want to see in our workplace and more broadly in the world. I think we are moving in the right direction—asking challenging questions, welcoming new ideas, and being willing to make mistakes and learn from them. I am glad to be part of a team that is committed to those outcomes.