Leadership in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: My Experience as a Case Study

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By Sharise Harrison

Entering the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) arena can be exciting, frustrating, stressful, rage-inducing — but also (hopefully) fulfilling.

DEI and I were not a natural fit at first. After an awful experience with DEI training and culture at a previous organization, I no longer wished to engage in the space. The platitudes with no actual interest in dealing with an overtly prejudiced culture and leadership led to my disengagement.

What changed my mind? In short, Apra!

I was asked to participate in a Prospect Development 2019 conference panel discussing marginalized identities with Steve Grimes, Lexi Hawley and Eli Mendelson. The work, care and research we put into that session introduced me to what DEI could be. It made me think more about intersectionality, sparked my curiosity and highlighted my desire to make a difference.  This experience inspired me to serve as the DEI task force chairperson in university relations at Santa Clara University (SCU).

After a summer of social justice movements and our on-campus incident that sparked calls for SCU to challenge the bias and discrimination many students, faculty and staff face, the vice president of university relations wanted to understand how we as a division could create change.

A DEI task force would be formed, and staff were encouraged to nominate colleagues or themselves. During a check-in, the vice president shared that he would like me to serve on the task force. I expressed my interest in being the chair — not because I was on a power trip. The preparation of the conference panel appealed to me, and I believed I could translate this experience to leadership on the task force.

I continued to advocate for the opportunity. I leveraged my identity as the only Black supervisor, recalled situations where I successfully brought together groups from across the division to achieve goals and highlighted my data background, which would be a huge asset. He took the time to create the task force and ultimately named me chair. 

The task force convened in November 2020, with 10 members from eight departments. Our charge was to create a series of recommendations for the vice president to advance DEI efforts in the division. It seemed straightforward.

 As chair, I removed my objective lens for one that was empathetic and understanding. I recognized that this position would be different than my prospect development role, in which I have to be completely impartial. I had to acknowledge and consider everyone's identities when determining how to achieve our goal.

I set the tone by sharing my own experiences and how I felt. I typically leave feelings out of my professional conversations, but this had to be different. How you feel is an important aspect of DEI. I wanted to create a safe space where we could be vulnerable without the fear of retribution to get at the real issues of our division. Surface-level conversations would not cut it.  I honored everyone as they were where they were. There was not a need to speak at every meeting or even share their issues. Trauma impacts us all differently. I respected and understood a work environment is not an adequate space to unpack everything. 

As a task force, we recognized that we are not DEI professionals, so we had to do our research and call in the experts. We studied, conducted a survey, did outreach and brought in SCU's director of diversity and inclusion, Ray Plaza. He was amazing, and explained the work he did with other divisions on campus, helping us understand what the university community was working on in relation to DEI.

Due to legal restrictions, the task force could not solicit identity data from the university relations staff. We created a survey to take the temperature of the division while Ray sent the survey, then generated an aggregated analysis of the results. The task force never saw the raw data.  As a prospect development professional, not being able to dig into the data myself was initially frustrating. I recognized that this was necessary to maintain anonymity

After the survey results, we decided to create our recommendations in four categories: diversity, inclusion, equity and training/policies. Upon reviewing the results, we recognized that division leadership needed to take the lead on DEI. There needed to be an accountability structure for understanding our process in achieving DEI goals. We also stated that there should be a dedicated budget and compensation for DEI work. We wanted investment at all levels! Additionally, we recognized that DEI professional development should be measured in our annual evaluations. 

We presented our official findings and recommendations to the university relations staff in November 2021, a year after the task force was formed. The recommendations were received well and spurred many conversations around how we as a unit can work toward a goal of a diverse, inclusive and equitable environment. Today, there is a permanent DEI committee and a member of university relations is the point of contact for the vice president of diversity and inclusion.

Lessons Learned

Leading the DEI task force was one of the highlights of my professional career. The most important lesson learned was that you must establish and maintain trust. DEI work is hollow without it. If your colleagues do not trust you, there are no series of recommendations or actions that can overcome it. Hold yourself accountable and lead your own change. Understand that there is only so much you can do, and lean into what you can make happen. Finally, look to DEI professionals. They are the experts; there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

Getting Started

If you’re interested in starting the DEI conversation at your organization, ask these questions:

  • Does your organization have senior leadership (vice president level or above) solely dedicated to DEI?
  • Is there a paid position in your fundraising operation dedicated to DEI?
  • Is there a committee or group tasked with DEI in your fundraising unit?
  • Does your organization encourage difficult conversations?
  • Does your organization have documented measurable DEI policies and procedures? How would you rate them?

View DEI from the prospect development perspective:

  • Do you control or influence your CRM?
  • Can you easily extract data and create your analysis?
  • Do you liaise directly with frontline fundraisers?
  • How does your CRM store demographic data? Are your systems inclusive?
  • Do you have a history of recording race/ethnicity/gender/disability data?
  • What is the composition of your portfolios and pipeline compared to the constituent population?
  • Are your capacity ratings biased?
  • Do you understand the history of your organization with diverse constituents?
  • What communications resonate with diverse audiences?

Do your research. Here are a few resources that aided in the DEI Taskforce and my personal DEI journey:

Get connected! 

  • Reach out to the DEI professionals at your organization. Think about collaboration. DEI professionals understand the importance of data; we have a lot in common.
  • Take advantage of internal and external DEI professional development and training.
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