Staff at a board room meeting. How can development organizations advance diversity and inclusion within their workforce? Photo by: WOCinTech Chat / CC BY

Grappling with how to strengthen their employees’ talent and broaden the diversity of their staff is something most leaders do, including U.S. President Barack Obama.

Obama, in a memorandum released Wednesday, addressed the reasons why diversity matters. Diverse groups are better problem-solvers, and a broad pool of talent means that an organization or a government will be better positioned to tackle some of the greatest challenges and “maximize employee engagement and innovation.”

The goal of the memorandum was to serve as a road map of sorts on how, in that case, different departments and government agencies can better recruit and engage a diverse group of talent. Which begs the question, what can development organizations — whether they are government agencies or small nongovernmental organizations — do to boost their diversity?

And that diversity should be about more than race or gender; it should include ideas, creativity, skills, thoughts, background and experiences, according to former U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Raj Shah, who spoke at an event on the subject at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Here are some of the key ways organizations can think about advancing diversity and inclusion within their workforce:

1. Create outside-the-box opportunities.

Recruitment systems, even reasonably good ones, don’t always bring in the diverse talents that companies want or need.

If that’s the case then organizations can explore other ways to recruit talent and individuals with different skills, ideas and backgrounds. One way to do that is through fellowship programs.

For example, USAID has a fellowship program which recruits fellows to spend a year or two in Washington, D.C., or in various missions around the world to work on key issues including global health and women’s rights. While the fellowships bring in people with more diverse experiences and a broader knowledge base to gain hands-on experiences it also helps other staff get to know and understand people from different cultures or backgrounds, Shah said.

For NGOs or social enterprises interested in fostering diversity and inclusion within their workforce, fellowships and internships are good ways to reduce the barriers to entry.

2. Encourage dialogue about diversity.

Organizations need to commit to diversity and make it a part of their mission if they want to attract a more diverse workforce.

Advancing diversity at the workplace is not something an organization should do in order to check off the box of federal requirement.

“It is something you do because it matters to your organization’s success,” Devex President Raj Kumar said. Organizations might not get it right all at once but there is more to gain by making their workforce more diverse and inclusive.

Recruiters and leaders within organizations also need to ensure that they do not allow the personal bias they have for people from different backgrounds to stand in the way of their recruitment and engagement.

“One of the biggest barriers to diversity and inclusion is unconscious bias,” said Beth F. Cobert, the acting director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, at the CSIS event. One way to combat that is for organizations and individuals to have everyday conversations at the workplace about these issues. A work culture that encourages open conversations can eliminate biases and break down the barriers hindering a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

3. Keep a focus on talent.

Hiring diverse candidates doesn’t mean hiring less-qualified or less-talented individuals. It is important for organizations not to compromise on quality and talent.  

“We don't have to sacrifice quality and talent to get diversity,” said Reuben Brigety, dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

It is important that managers don’t think of diverse candidates as less qualified and trust them to carry out their jobs responsibly. Brigety recounted how early in his career a manager told him he was the “second choice” and that he had won the job because of his background.

“Talented individuals get tired when they realize the system only includes them but does not accept them,” he said. To avoid those issues, organizations need to make an effort to fully include those employees in all aspects of work.

Thus, organizations interested in fostering diversity should provide training opportunities for managers and staff members to enable them understand the importance of having a diverse team.

4. Find sponsors and champions.

As with most institutional change, it is important to have a strong group of leaders within an organization who champion and push for greater diversity. They also must step forward to recommend and work with candidates who bring something different to the organization.  

“No one makes it alone,” Brigety said.

Even talented individuals need champions or sponsors to push them to the right positions or help them perform to the best of their abilities. This process helps recruiters become aware of talented individuals that may bring added diversity and also helps employees learn about new opportunities. That kind of awareness helps make diversity possible.  

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About the author

  • Ehidiamen jennifer

    Jennifer Ehidiamen

    Jennifer Ehidiamen is a Nigerian writer who is passionate about communications and journalism. She has worked as a reporter and communications consultant for different organizations in Nigeria and overseas. She has an undergraduate degree in mass communication from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, and M.A. in business and economics from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York. In 2014, she founded Rural Reporters ( with the goal of amplifying underreported news and issues affecting rural communities.