Diversity and Nonprofits: How to Add a Little More Color to Your Volunteer Set

Photo by Seth Anderson

February is Black History Month, when we remember the legacy of significant African American figures. Individuals like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and Jo Ann Robinson all fought against matters of injustice and racism in their own ways.

However, although the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s has long passed, many nonprofits still lack diversity within their own staff members and volunteers.

In my experience working with and being served by nonprofits and other organizations, I have found frequently they are run by people of the same ethnicity and/or the same economic background, different from my own. I, as a person of color and someone who identifies on the LGBT spectrum, sometimes didn’t feel comfortable with white, middle and upper class people doing what they felt was best for me.

Though I did appreciate their dedication to a cause that would help better my position in society — a part of me still felt uneasy. I would have felt more comfortable if I had encountered a staff member or volunteer who looked like me and could relate to my experiences.

Yes, the civil rights victories of the 1960s have changed our society for the better. But systemic discrimination is still in place, leaving people of color and other marginalized minorities in positions of poverty, hunger, and unemployment. A 2009 study revealed that LGBT individuals are more likely to live in poverty compared to the general population, that women of color are more likely to become victims of sexual violence, and disabled individuals have a higher unemployment rate than their able-bodied counterparts.

In confronting these issues, it’s best for nonprofits to recruit volunteers who reflect the diversity of the people they serve. Look at your volunteers. Are they members of your target communities? Are they people of different physical abilities or economic backgrounds? Are they people of color? LGBT people? Or are they all from one ethnicity and economic standing different from the communities they are helping?

Recruiting individuals from minority and marginalized groups brings a unique set of skills and experiences that might not come with volunteers from one ethnic or economic background. For those who are being helped, encountering a volunteer of a similar identity is comforting, and may inspire those who are being served to volunteer themselves. Actively recruiting in the communities you serve—particularly poverty stricken, ethnically diverse populations — empowers them and may even motivate them to begin their own community building projects.

How can you recruit and keep a diverse set of volunteers?

  • Make sure your staff members include a diverse set of individuals that either belong to or identify with the needs of the community you are serving.
  • Actively recruit in places and use media that cater to minorities, such as community centers, churches, radio stations, and mobile phones.
  • Make sure the photographs in your advertisements and recruiting materials contain the diversity you seek.
  • Have materials available and use advertisements in languages other than English.
  • Be mindful of religious observances and arrange your volunteer schedule around these dates.
  • Don’t tell the people you serve what they need. Let them tell you.
  • Explicitly state in your campaign that you are seeking certain types of people (i.e. “People of color and LGBT individuals are strongly encouraged to volunteer.”)
  • When recruiting, include a non-discrimination statement and make it as visible as possible, both digitally and in print. Place it on the home page of your website and in a prominent position on all your recruitment materials.
  • Connect with other nonprofits that specifically target minorities and create partnerships with them.
  • If a volunteer opportunity requires bilingual skills, include it your recruitment advertising.

Some Resources to Help You Recruit and Maintain a Diverse Set of Volunteers

The Denver Foundation’s Inclusiveness Project – A project based in Denver aimed at helping nonprofits become more inclusive of people of color.

Reaching Out To Spanish-Speaking Volunteers: A Guide to More Inclusive Community Building (Points of Light Foundation)

A Guide to Involving Young Disabled People as Volunteers (Scope, a UK-based organization)

Working With Online Volunteers with Disabilities (ServiceLeader.org) –  Some suggestions about working with volunteers with disabilities.

Accommodations for Online Volunteers who have Learning Disabilities or Emotional and Anxiety Disorders (ServiceLeader.org) — how to work with volunteers with non-physical disabilities

Creating an LGBT-Friendly Workplace (Lambda Legal)

Cultural Strategies — A firm that focuses on marketing and communications that “resonate with multicultural America.” Armando Rayo offers training on diversity engagement in the nonprofit sector.

Cristopher Bautista is an intern for VolunteerMatch. Contact him at cbautista@volunteermatch.org.

5 thoughts on “Diversity and Nonprofits: How to Add a Little More Color to Your Volunteer Set

  1. Pingback: How Diverse is Your Board? |

  2. Thank you, Cris, for a timely, pertinent and practical posting. Hope you leverage your internship at VolunteerMatch into a great job at a nonprofit someday — we need you to stay in our field!

    One small comment about your advice to “have materials available and use advertisements in languages other than English.” If you are talking about content-related materials (such as medical treatment instructions or requests to parents), absolutely. But if you are using translated messages for volunteer recruitment or client outreach, please make sure there is someone available that speaks that language when someone responds! Otherwise, you are better off recruiting in English but saying one of the qualifications is to be bilingual in language X. You give this as your last bullet. I’m just saying do not imply in materials that the organization can speak with someone in their, non-English language, if no one actually can.

    Thanks again.

    • Susan,

      You’re right. It would be misleading to offer volunteer recruiting materials in a language other than English if no one on staff can speak that language. I hadn’t thought of specifically pointing out what materials would need a staff member who speaks a non-English language and which wouldn’t. Thanks for making that point.

      Also, thanks for reading and for your confidence in my abilities. Comments like these help me learn a bit more about the nonprofit world every day.


  3. Great piece, Cris – this is a really important reminder about the musts of cross-cultural engagement. Speaking of which, I’d love to add Mando Rayo to the list of resources. I’ve always found his trainings and thought leadership to be helpful for nonprofits that are exploring best practices in diversity-based engagement:


    Robert (@volmatchRobert)