THE BLOG

America's 'Melting Pot' Is Boiling Over

03/13/2013 04:00 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2013

America has changed.

As Congress debates revisions to our nation's immigration laws, it does not take a political scientist or sociologist to recognize this. Readers of The Huffington Post just need to look around:

  • The cashier at mini-market where you buy gas was born in India.
  • The cab driver you hailed emigrated from Ethiopia.
  • The checker at the local grocery store is a third-generation American whose great-grandparents entered the U.S. from Mexico, long before barbed-wire fences sought to keep them out.

America, the so-called "melting pot of the world," is changing at an accelerated pace and, over the next 20 years, its population will become even more diverse. The U.S. Census last year confirmed that white births are no longer a majority. The New York Times noted, "the fact that a younger generation is being born in which minorities are the majority has broad implications for the country's economy, its political life and its identity."

Indeed, this is a tipping point for the philanthropic sector, especially local non-profit organizations.

There are nearly 80 ancestry groups -- from Afghan to Yugoslavian -- represented in the United States and nearly 50 different languages are spoken in American homes. As one might expect, California has most diverse population, with 43 percent of the state's residents speaking a primary language other than English. Among cities, however, it is not Los Angeles, but rather New York that tops this category, with nearly 48 percent non-English speakers.

Are local non-profit agencies seeking to adapt to this change in demographics? Or, are they leading the change, and ensuring their services are relevant to their clients, as well as demonstrating excellence in managing diversity and raising resources?

The answers are, quite simply, "no," and "not quickly enough."

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a leading publication in the non-profit sector, reported in 2009 that, among the 400 largest charitable organizations in the U.S., only 14 leaders -- CEOs, executive directors and others -- less than 4 percent -- were black. Moreover, only 25 overall were non-white.

While more recent statistics are scarce, a 2011 report, "The Voice of Non-Profit Talent: The Perceptions of Diversity in the Workplace," by Commongood careers and the Level Playing Field Institute, found that membership of staff, leadership and board members fall far short of American demographics. While about 30 percent of Americans are people of color, more than 80 percent nonprofit employees and board members are Caucasian.

Interestingly, a recent study of non-profit employment trends totaling 18 pages devoted only seven lines to race and ethnicity, stating something that I, as an individual of Indian descent, have long observed: "It is also important to note that the percentage of non-white staff decreased as the position level increased."

A few key trends and statistics provide some clues to the challenges non-profit leaders are facing as they align and adapt their organizations to meet rapidly changing ethnic and racial demographics:

  • In 2010, more than 1 million people became new, legal, permanent residents in the United States, with Mexico, China, India, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic, being the top five nations represented. (SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau)

  • Racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to receive preventive care, more likely to suffer from serious illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease, and lack access to quality health care; (SOURCE: Office of Minority Health, press release on "HHS Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities," April 8, 2011)
  • The dropout rates for 2009 among high school students and those age 24 and under who do not have a GED certificate include: American Indians at 13.2 percent, Blacks at 9.3 percent and Hispanics at 17.6 percent. (SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, an office of the US Department of Education)
  • As a result, the need to expand and develop resources and professional practices to match the demands of minority beneficiaries is growing rapidly. This need, in turn, will have to be met by knowledgeable and trained social sector workers with cultural and linguistic skills to relate to minorities effectively.

    "Growing diversity in the U.S. has prioritized social work's ethical obligation to develop specialized knowledge and understanding of culture and its function in human behavior and society," according to Kelly F. Jackson, an assistant professor at Arizona State University in her 2010 paper, "Ethical Considerations in Social Work Research with Multiracial Individuals. "

    In a compelling example of the impact of cultural competence, the National Association of Social Workers, in a paper entitled, "Diversity & Culture Competence," states:

    "It is no exaggeration to say that a culturally competent provider can mean the difference between a person 'making it' or 'falling through the cracks.' Here is an extreme example. Latina social worker Josie has a brother with schizophrenia who speaks only Spanish. When her brother failed to receive culturally competent care over a 20-year-period, he was hospitalized 162 times. When he finally did receive culturally competent care, he was hospitalized only once in 15 years."

    The conclusion is obvious: Leaders of local non-profit agencies must be more intentional and more effective in recruiting people of color at all levels of their organizations and more savvy in their program delivery and fundraising efforts so their agencies can meet the increasing demands for services.

    In addition to diversity in the workforce, non-profits must also more intentional about diversity among their donor bases. In a 2012 study based on Internal Revenue Service records, the Chronicle of Philanthropy noted that giving among Hispanics, African Americans and Asians combined was over 36 percent of all charitable donations for 2008, which totaled $214 billion.

    Gone is the belief that "one size fits all" is the foundation for creating programs and services for non-profit clients.

    The American demographic reality has changed. No one can deny that the United States is an ethnically diverse nation. Non-profits need to catch up to this reality -- in their leadership and staffing, as well as in their programs and funding.

    The stakes are high. Community, caring for each other, volunteerism and charity have defined American society since the Mayflower anchored nearly 400 years ago in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Do we continue with our tradition, or risk redefining what it is to American?

    Atul Tandon, a former executive at two of America's largest non-profits, is the founder and CEO of Tandon Institute, a Seattle-based firm that advises social sector organizations. Contact him at atandon@tandoninstitute.com.