On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
Headshot photos of guest commentators Wendy Sealey and Erin Dodd
Unpacking DEI and identity in the development profession

By Erin Dodd (she/her) and Wendy Sealey (she/her)

A strong development department is essential for any nonprofit to thrive—but navigating donors, DEI, and a turbulent job market is no easy task. Learn how Wendy Sealey, Vice President for Development at the Guttmacher Institute, and Erin Dodd, Vice Dean for Development and Alumni Relations at Columbia Business School, do it.

Diversity means everyone has a seat at the table

The spirit of diversity is ensuring that everyone feels included without having to neglect any part of themselves. Too often, people look at diversity transactionally—a way to list off people’s identities and make sure they’ve checked the right boxes. Meaningful diversity means space for our coworkers' unique identities and creates a sense of community. 

When we’re intentional about working with diverse groups of people in an equitable and inclusive manner, we can become more aware of our own identities and appreciate the viewpoint that others have, a critical aspect of delivering the best possible processes, strategies, and outcomes.  

Team leaders can try to bring an element of fun through prioritizing team-building activities. Talk to employees about food, culture, and family, and invite employees to do the same as a way to give each other a window into your lives without detracting from the actual work.

On an organizational level, it’s crucial to invest time and energy into a comprehensive strategic plan that includes concrete goals for hiring, retention, and employee engagement, as well as measurable indicators to track the organization’s progress towards those goals. Without clearly defined goals and indicators, the success of diversity initiatives can become very subjective and overly focused on looking at diversity through one particular lens. Taking the time to craft a strategic plan will help ensure that DEI initiatives are prioritized and achievable, while reflecting the full gamut of identities.

Diversity creates the opportunity to reflect on who we are and the multiple identities we each hold. When we’re intentional about working with diverse groups of people in an equitable and inclusive manner, we can become more aware of our own identities and appreciate others’ viewpoints and gifts.  

Diversity starts with recruitment

Diverse teams are crucial to our success as fundraisers. Building one starts with recruitment and hiring. Before you begin the hiring process, you first need to make sure that both your organization’s hiring panel and the talent pool you’re drawing from are diverse across identities. You need to lay that groundwork in order to conduct an equitable search. 

One way to expand and diversify the talent pool is to look at candidates who may not have worked in development before but who have similar skills. Focus less on finding someone who has done the exact role and instead look for someone who can really bring a lot to the organization. Once folks are hired, emphasize professional development and coaching to help them grow and move up in the organization. As a result of the Great Resignation, the rise of hybrid work environments, and other pandemic related changes to how we work and live, hiring has become increasingly challenging, so it's more important than ever to cultivate talent and promote from within.

Mentorship is key to supporting all employees

Having women in leadership positions is crucial. From the beginning of her career, Erin has been fortunate to work in development departments and at organizations led by women—an empowering experience that allowed her to feel that she was only limited by her own skills. Yet her strongest allies haven’t always been other women. When she became a mother, there weren’t many moms of young children in the office. Dads of young children served as invaluable mentors.  

As a Black woman, however, Wendy’s experience had been different. Although most development positions in New York City are held by women, very few have been traditionally held by women of color. As a result, Wendy has had to work harder than her white peers to establish herself in the field. Over her twenty-year career, she had to learn to navigate white-dominated spaces in which she was often underestimated by supervisors and colleagues.

It’s our job to build diverse networks and listen to our teams, so that we’re not missing issues our employees are facing—whether it's balancing parenthood and work or combatting racial biases in the development field. As leaders, we need to recognize when our identities limit our worldview, and as a result, our ability to mentor our team members. 

It’s also important that we take steps to ensure that all employees have access to mentorship as soon as they become part of the organization. Studies show that traditionally within higher education, informal mentoring is received by white men, with women and underrepresented minorities receiving less informal mentoring. Creating a formal mentorship program in your department or at your organization can ensure that top performers receive mentorship regardless of their gender or race.    

Leverage empathy with donors

In fundraising, we’re constantly dealing with gender, race, class, and power dynamics. Through empathy, education, and deeper connections, we can help donors develop a stronger understanding of these dynamics within our institutions. 

During the pandemic, Erin spoke with an alumnus who was upset that colleges had canceled campus tours for prospective students because his child, a prospective student, wouldn’t be able to take a tour. She noticed an opportunity and told the donor that many low-income students never have the opportunity to participate in campus tours, instead committing to a school without ever visiting it in person. The alumnus had not been aware of this part of the lived experience of his fellow students and alumni.

Similarly, in her work with social justice nonprofits, Wendy’s identity as a Black woman has allowed her to have generative conversations with white donors (and, at times, colleagues) about race, pushing them to examine how their biases may influence their giving patterns and broader world view. 

Build a strong network

Having a  team of advisors, mentors, and friends outside of our jobs to have candid conversations with has been essential to our success, especially early in our careers when we didn’t have experience navigating the workplace. Today, with the added dynamics of hybrid and remote work environments, it’s even more important to have that network.

Building networks and relationships internally is also critical. But, our networks aren’t limited to our own departments. We’ve built relationships with the people on our teams and with people who work in finance, communications, and IT. These diverse relationships provide us with insights into new strategies and perspectives that help us improve our own work and have helped us stand out throughout our careers.

Joining Women in Development has been an invaluable way to find mentorship and friends that have helped us navigate all types of development situations. It’s been a fantastic resource for finding vendors and consultants we want to work with, and has ensured that we maintain a strong network even when we’ve transitioned to new organizations. 



Want to learn more about the future of the development sector? 

Join Women in Development and On-Ramps on January 19 at 4 PM EST for a virtual panel discussion. 




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