Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

The Power of “Duh”

Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

Nearly a year ago, I started traveling around the country to present to a variety of groups on the findings from BMP’s survey on nonprofits, leadership and race. I quickly noticed two contrasting responses to our data showing that the nonprofit racial leadership gap was not a result of any lack of aspiration or readiness on the part of people of color but was instead due to bias against people of color and systemic barriers to advancement in nonprofit organizations.

Some people were surprised by the data and peppered me with questions about things I’d already covered. They asked about the sample size (more than 4,000 people working in the nonprofit sector) and the methodology (an online survey and snowball sample). Or sometimes they were direct and bold enough to question whether the data was really valid or whether it was biased in some way.

The other reaction I got was “well, duh!” Sometimes this was expressed with a blasé attitude, but other times there was a strain of frustration that the data reiterated experiences and frustrations that people saw as commonplace and obvious. When this frustration was expressed most directly, people would ask me “why do we need data to prove what we’ve been saying for years?”

These two responses to the data surfaced another racial gap. Over and over again, one of the few white men in the audience would be the one to pepper me with technical questions about the survey sample, and it was often a woman of color who would question the need for quantitative data to validate lived experience of racism in nonprofit workplaces.

I interpreted both types of responses as criticism. So in an attempt to manage this push-back, I added a slide where I put the two contrasting reactions side-by-side – “Duh! What did you expect?” vs. “Really? Are you sure?” As a defense mechanism, the slide worked great for me because it effectively shut down questions from people who masqueraded their discomfort with the findings by asking seemingly objective, technical and race-neutral questions about sample size and methodology. But, I’ve also had to wonder if this slide has prevented real conversations about the undue power of whiteness in nonprofit organizations.

I was recently presenting at a nonprofit conference in the Seattle area, and when I showed this slide to a room where the majority of participants were white, everyone claimed that their reaction to the data was “duh.” Maybe that’s a sign that the conversation about the racial leadership gap in the nonprofit sector has changed dramatically in the past eleven months, but the researcher in me thinks it’s an example of “social desirability bias” – the tendency of people to self-report inaccurately on sensitive topics (like race) in order to present themselves in a positive light.

While I have a nagging worry about the questions that don’t surface in a 75- to 90-minute workshop because people now don’t want to be seen as doubting the data, I have to balance that concern with my commitment to center the voices that have been marginalized in organizations with a white dominant culture. If our findings provide some affirmation for people of color in the nonprofit sector who have experienced the barriers that the survey data is highlighting, I’ll consider that progress … for now.

Leadership leadership leadership development leadership structures and practices race race to lead