The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations

New Findings: The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations

In environmental organizations, diversity has flat-lined.

Dorceta E. Taylor, PhD, Professor at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, recently published a comprehensive, authoritative study on the state of diversity in environmental organizations. The report surveys 293 environmental organizations on gender, racial, and class diversity.


Here, Professor Taylor speaks with SNRE about her research and what comes next.

Tell us about the impetus for this report and how the partnership with Green 2.0 came about.

Diversity is a critical dimension of the environmental field.  Diverse voices, viewpoints, disciplinary training, and cultural perspectives, etc. enhances effectiveness in identifying environmental problems and developing solutions.  Moreover, it is important to have a broad base of public support to promote environmental policies and initiatives effectively.  Hence, it is incumbent on us to include a broad spectrum of people into environmental activities and decision making.

My scholarly interests intersected with the interests of other organizations, which led to this report. I had completed national studies on diversity in environmental organizations in 2005 and 2006. After several years, I wanted to follow up on those studies with new data collection.

 At the same time, the C.S. Mott Foundation and the Joyce Foundation expressed interest in studying diversity in environmental organizations in the Great Lakes region. Finally, Green 2.0 – a newly formed activist group that includes environmentalists, policy makers, environmental organization staff, and board members – approached me to collect the data and compile this report.


In your view, what are the most surprising findings?

The percentage of people of color working in environmental organizations has been increasing steadily – albeit slowly – since the 1990s. Therefore, I expected to find a slight increase from my last data collection in 2005.

In fact, the numbers are flat. That was surprising to me.

Looking more closely at the data, you’ll find two glass ceilings. The first applies to white females.

White women have made significant inroads into leadership roles in environmental organizations. However, the most powerful and visible roles in these organizations – president, CEO, board chair – remain dominated by white men.

The other, far lower, glass ceiling applies to men and women of color. There are very few people of color in the most powerful and visible leadership positions in the organizations that participated in the study.



What findings need most urgently to be addressed? How do you suggest addressing them?

We must turn urgent attention to recruitment and mentoring in order to increase diversity in environmental organizations.

Regarding recruitment, organizations in the study cited lack of applicants as the greatest barrier to hiring minority employees. However when asked how they recruit, the same organizations cited word-of-mouth and informal networks as the two most powerful channels.

In other words, when a job opens at an environmental organization, leadership looks to the ranks, either for promotion from within or for referrals. Since people tend to refer others who are like themselves, these recruitment channels tend to replicate the existing structure.

In addition, although environmental organizations know where to find minority talent, they don’t seek it out when recruiting. They claim they are not getting applicants, but they are not doing enough to get applicants. There is a disconnect between what candidates these organizations say they are looking for and what they do to find those candidates.

For example, few organizations recruit online beyond their own websites. Few recruit from similar organizations that serve minorities. Few recruit at minority conferences, although the talent pool is deep and includes students ready to enter the job market. Organizations must recognize and put to use the existing channels and pipelines for minority recruitment.

The second urgent need is to develop effective mentorship programs. When environmental organizations do hire diverse staff, the study shows that those employees tend to feel excluded – even alienated – from the dominant organizational culture.

In all organizations, culture is unique. It is not written down or codified, and yet understanding the culture is crucial to experiencing success within the organization.

For new talent coming in, culture can be extremely difficult to decipher and navigate. That’s why it’s imperative to provide mentoring to minority employees. If organizations want to see returns on their investment in diverse talent, they must nurture that talent.  A critical part of the mentoring process is recognizing the skills and vision that new employees bring to the organization and help the benefit and grow from these.


What action will follow from your report?

Green 2.0 commissioned the report in order to collect data for a national campaign they plan to launch. Via this campaign, they will encourage environmental organizations to take several important steps to increase diversity.

  • Track diversity closely and robustly. In addition to gender, race, and class diversity, include diversities like cultural, sexual orientation, intergenerational, and rural-urban.
  • Build diversity equity and inclusion into their agendas. Embed it in the mission and in operations.
  • Make diversity training an ongoing endeavor. Provide employees with tools to help understand and promote diversity on a daily basis.
  • Increase minority hiring, particularly organizations’ highest levels.
  • Work with Congress to bring pressure to bear on environmental organizations to carry out the steps above.

In addition, a new group called Board Members of Color has formed. Its members currently serve or have served on the boards of environmental organizations. They convened for the first time this year.

This group speaks and acts from the position of volunteers. Having given of their own time and resources to environmental organizations, they work to get issues that are most pressing in communities of color on those agendas. In addition, they’re working to build community engagement and true partnerships, so that environmental organizations aren’t simply parachuting into these communities to work in isolation on a given project.


How might SNRE act on your findings?

As a leader in environmental education, we must be vigilant about letting environmental organizations know who we are, what we do, how well we train our students, and just how talented our students are.

Many environmental organizations don’t even do active recruiting at SNRE. They don’t participate in Career Week (September 29 – October 3, 2014), so they don’t see firsthand the great gifts and talents of our students.

It makes no sense that while we are putting some of the most talented students in the country – if not the world – into the field, some still have trouble finding work. SNRE could help broker a conversation at a higher level: What is the problem? Why aren’t these students being hired?

We can also play a leadership role in promoting diversity because our community is more diverse than other environmental schools and programs in the country. We have diversity in our faculty, our staff, and our student body. Our dean is a woman of color. We can use ourselves as a model, both for other environmental schools and for environmental organizations.

SNRE has and continues to increase diversity. The sky has not fallen in. Let us continue to lead and let others learn from our model.

Download Professor Taylor’s report