Diversity is not About Finding Unicorns

For a long time, I considered diversity a "nice to have" element. I supported it in principle, but always with the caveat, "if we can find the right person." As I saw it, diversity was a goal to be pursued as long as it didn't compromise the strength and cohesion of the team. I considered myself fortunate when finding a candidate from another background who (as I saw it) was able to meet our high standards for performance – a unicorn.

Recently I came across two articles which have entirely changed my perspective. In the first Guess Who Doesn't Fit In at Work, Lauren Rivera from the Kellogg School of Management looks at the role of cultural fit in hiring practices. She points to a survey indicating that 80% of employers worldwide named cultural fit as a top priority. Yet what does that mean in practice? Research by Rivera and others indicates that "fit has become a catchall used to justify people who are similar to decision makers and rejecting people who are not." Not surprisingly, hiring people like ourselves will reduce demographic and cultural diversity; beyond that, it turns out to be a poor predictor of performance. Just as people are notoriously bad at spotting liars, it is easy for hiring managers to mistake rapport for skill. As I look back on my own hiring decisions, there is no question in my mind that I have fallen into this trap at times.

A second article How Diversity Makes Us Smarter, I found even more challenging to my assumptions. The authors point to several studies showing the impact of diverse teams on company performance. For example, Deszo and Ross studied the S&P 1500 and found that "female representation in top management leads to an increase of $42 million in firm value." In 2006, the author and a team set out to study "the impact of racial diversity on small decision-making groups...where sharing information was a requirement for success" (sounds a lot like today's workplace). Given the task to solve a murder mystery, they found that groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the racially homogeneous groups. These results have been supported by other studies and apply to other types of diversity such as disabilities and even political orientation.

Yet the authors have another surprise in store: the improved performance of diverse teams is consistent regardless of the skills and experience of the members. In other words, the improvement is not a function of finding diverse members who meet certain criteria, but rather comes through group dynamics. "When disagreement comes from a socially different person, we are prompted to work harder. Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity does not." Simply being in a diverse group makes the members drop their predefined assumptions, work harder, and maintain a more open-minded stance. This in turn leads to improved results.

Taken together, these articles make a powerful argument. First, that hiring managers are generally bad at assessing talent, and that their judgments will be heavily influenced by their social and cultural affinity for the candidate. Second, that a diverse team will outperform a homogeneous one across a wide range of collaborative activities, independent of their background and qualifications. In other words, pursuing diversity shifts from a demographic argument to one of enlightened self-interest.

Of course, one may reasonably ask what diversity means in a relatively homogeneous region like Eastern Washington. To attempt an answer, I looked at two data sets for the seven counties served by EHF: U.S. census estimates from 2014, and public school data from 2016. Here is a summary:

If indeed children are our future, then our region will undergo significant changes in the coming years. Note in particular the growth in the percentages of those identifying as Hispanic and two or more races.

Through a demographic lens, we may view this as a challenge for enterprises to reflect the future makeup of their community / customers. More powerfully, there is a rising wave of talent which, if engaged, will strengthen our teams and organizations. At EHF, we are in the process of integrating diversity into all aspects of our work; not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the smart thing.

-Mike Yeaton, Chief Strategy Officer for Empire Health Foundation


Potlatch Fund seeking candidates to fill 2 open board positions

Potlatch Fund is seeking two (2) new members to join its Board of Directors. 

Potlatch Fund is a Native-led organization that seeks to inspire and build upon the Native tradition of giving and to expand philanthropy within Tribal Nations and Native communities of the Northwest. The Fund operates in the four state regions of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. 

Specifically, they are recruiting for individuals who can offer knowledge and expertise in either one of these two areas: 

• Extensive knowledge of and current community connections within the philanthropic sector (including public, private, Tribal, and corporate). 

• Extensive knowledge of financial management and nonprofit accounting and a willingness to serve on our Finance Committee and potentially grow into serving as our Treasurer. 

If you are interested or know someone who fits this description, read the announcement here for more info on how to apply. 

From Sisters to Families: Rising Strong at Holy Names

"I see birdies!"

With that, two year old Lilly gave her approval for the future home of the Rising Strong program.

Rising Strong is a collaboration led by Catholic Charities and the Empire Health Foundation for families at risk of separation due to parental substance abuse. Based on proven models in Oregon and California, Rising Strong will provide housing, alcohol and substance abuse treatment, and a range of supportive services for the entire family for 12-18 months. By keeping kids safe and the family together, trauma is reduced for children and parents are much more likely to succeed in treatment. 

We are fortunate to have secured an amazing site to house the program: the convent and grounds which have long served as the home of the Sisters of the Holy Names. The convent is a well maintained 86 unit building with a flexible floor plan and expansive natural surroundings. The location is only three miles from downtown, and near Spokane Falls Community College and other important services. We hope to accept our first set of families in early 2017.

The convent served the needs of the Sisters for the past fifty years, but how will it work for the families who will arrive with a background of struggle and trauma? What kind of renovations will be needed to ensure the space is safe and promotes healthy family functioning?

To try and answer these questions, we invited a group of seven families and five observers to the site for what we called our "parent experience event." We created a daily schedule, assigned rooms, and asked the families to interact with the space as if they were the actual participants in the program.

The overall response from the families was encouraging, with parents sharing comments like:

"This place is an opportunity parents did not previously have."
"Very peaceful."
"This is an amazing space."
"I could see myself wanting to come and sit here every day, just to think and be."

Of course we also identified ways the space could be made safer and more effective for recovery. These included closing gaps in stairwells, making the bathrooms kid friendly, individual family food storage, flexible bed configurations, and brighter paint in the bedrooms. 

Showing the pluck of a future researcher, 9 year old Mercedes grabbed a pad and pencil and proceeded to produce three pages of observations including:

“Babies can choke on bark, put grass down instead.”
“Put fences around the pond, but also grates so you can still put your feet in.”
“Be able to cook for your own family together.”

All the feedback (Including Mercedes') will feed into our renovation plans.

Thank you to the Sisters of the Holy Names for making this dream possible; thank you to Providence Health Care’s Community Benefit program for their generous contribution; and finally thanks to all the families and observers who came out and participated. Your support and encouragement make all the difference.

Spokane Philanthropy Awards

Empire Health Foundation is proud to sponsor the Spokane Philanthropy Awards. Join us in celebrating the many acts of compassion occurring in our community by nominating a change maker or organization you think deserves recognition for their good work. 

Nominations are accepted for the following categories: 

  • Philanthropic Corporation of the Year (100+ employees)
  • Philanthropic Small Business of the Year (99 and under employees)
  • Philanthropic Organization of the Year (grant-making entities such as private foundations, organizations that raise private funds and grant those out, as well as organizations in service to the community)
  • Outstanding Philanthropist(s) (individual, couple or family)
  • Outstanding Young Philanthropist(s) (up to age 21)

To nominate outstanding feats of philanthropy, fill out the nomination form linked here.