Walking the Walk on Disability Diversity

Miriam Heyman

The recent CEP report Nonprofit Diversity Efforts provides critical insight into the current efforts of more than 200 nonprofit organizations, while also describing how foundation funders support these initiatives. As such, it provides a baseline from which we as a community of funders can strive to grow. When it comes to disability, we have a solid foundation and yet a long way to go.

Disability is central to diversity. People with disabilities comprise 20 percent of the population of our nation and the world. At the same time, people with disabilities face systematic exclusion from virtually every sector of society. Approximately 70 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed, and people with disabilities are disproportionately likely to lack access to quality healthcare and education. When exclusion is most extreme, they are incarcerated; people with disabilities are massively and tragically overrepresented in our criminal justice system.

The good news is that most nonprofit leaders recognize the salience of disability as part of diversity. According to the CEP report, 68 percent of leaders stated that the disability aspect of diversity is relevant to the goals of their organization. I would argue that it should be 100 percent. Regardless of the focus of the nonprofit, people with disabilities are a part of the story.  If the nonprofit focuses on art education, summer programming, public health, or anything else, people with disabilities should be able to access its services. Otherwise, the nonprofit is excluding 20 percent of the population. The fact that 68 percent of nonprofit leaders endorse disability as integral to their work is a good start. But as we all know, words are not impactful until they are translated into action.

The challenge is that nonprofits and funders alike are not doing enough to support efforts to address disability inclusion. Less than half of nonprofit leaders collect disability information about each of the following: the population the organization seeks to serve, the organization’s board of directors, the organization’s full staff, and the organization’s senior leadership. While 47 percent of nonprofit leaders collect disability demographic information about the population they serve, 95 percent of these leaders collect information about race and ethnicity. So it is not that they aren’t collecting demographic information at all — it is that many of them aren’t collecting disability demographic information.

There is a disconnect between the number of nonprofit leaders who report that disability is central to their work and the number of nonprofit leaders who measure themselves against this metric. 

At the same time, foundation funders aren’t demanding this change. Less than half of foundation funders request disability demographic information about any aspect of a nonprofit — including the population served and also its staff, board, and professional leadership. The vast majority of nonprofit CEOs (94 percent) report that foundation funders request demographic information pertaining to the race and ethnicity of the population that the nonprofit seeks to serve. In contrast, 38 percent of nonprofit CEOs report that foundations request disability demographic information. As with the nonprofits they support, it’s not that funders aren’t requesting demographic information at all — it’s that most of them aren’t requesting disability demographic information.

We as funders can push the issue. Let’s make sure that nonprofit organizations embody the belief that disability is part of diversity. The majority of nonprofit CEOs endorse this belief, but they aren’t measuring themselves against this metric because we aren’t asking them to. So they (and we) don’t know the extent to which their work is actually inclusive.

So what are the next steps? Revising data collection tools and procedures is time consuming and complex, especially given the fact that some people choose not to disclose their disability. We as foundation funders can start by communicating with our nonprofit partners that this is something we care about. We might not be able to require our partners to report disability demographic information in the current grant cycle, but we can include a question in our grant application asking whether or not the applicant currently collects this information. This sends the signal that they should.

We could take this a step further and say that they must collect this information by Year 2 of the grant, or in order to re-apply. This will get them started on the journey, and will also give them plenty of time to approach the work thoroughly and thoughtfully.

There are other strategies that funders can utilize to support their grantees whilst holding them accountable. A funder might hold a convening of its grantees so that nonprofit leaders who have engaged in this work can share best practices. Something as simple as an email introduction between two grantee partners can enable one partner to learn from another. From our positions, we have access to a vast amount of connections — and thus a vast amount of knowledge. It is up to us to disseminate it.

It is promising to learn that a diverse group of more than 200 nonprofit CEOs endorse disability as central to their work. It is time to translate this endorsement into action. Let’s do more than talk the talk — let’s walk the walk. We as foundation funders should get the ball rolling.

Miriam Heyman is a program officer at the Ruderman Family Foundation, where she is responsible for the oversight of programs related to disability inclusion. Follow the foundation on Twitter at @RudermanFdn.

Download Nonprofit Diversity Efforts: Current Practices and the Role of Foundations here.

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