How to Think Differently about Diversity in Nonprofit Leadership: Get Comfortable with Discomfort


Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

It would be an understatement to say that the past few months have been uncomfortable. The national election was downright ugly, and it exposed just how naïve those pundits were who “dared ask whether the United States had finally begun to heal its divisions over race” after President Obama was elected. The resistance that has sprung up in response to the new administration has also been fraught—apparent, most notably, in the tensions over race and feminism that were sparked in the lead-up to the Women’s March on Washington, in January. The critiques and dissent may have hurt some feelings but the march was an undeniable success, drawing historic crowds to the nation’s capital and highlighting the leadership of the four cochairwomen—one Black, one Latina, one Muslim and Arab American, and one white. Nonprofit leaders should get ready for additional uncomfortable conversations over the next years and accept that conflict will be necessary for progress.

The diverse leadership of the Women’s March was so notable because studies and surveys repeatedly show that people of color are underrepresented in CEO[1] and board[2] roles in the nonprofit sector. In preparation to launch our own national survey on nonprofits, leadership, and race last year, my codirector, Frances Kunreuther, and I conducted more than thirty interviews with other experts in the nonprofit sector about what we’re calling the “nonprofit racial leadership gap.” The basic question we asked is, “Why haven’t we moved the dial on diversity?” The answers to that question varied widely and are far from conclusive, but without fail the most interesting conversations were with people who had personal experiences to get off their chests. Similarly, among the more than four thousand survey responses from nonprofit staff across the country, some of the richest data came from the hundreds of individuals who answered an open-ended question about how their race/ethnicity had negatively impacted their career advancement. Knowing that discrimination still exists is one thing, but listening to and reading personal stories reveals that racial dynamics are as tense in our organizations as they are in our national politics.

Read the whole article to learn more!

This article comes from the spring 2017 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, which addresses ways of thinking differently about a variety of issues affecting the sector. It is part of the ongoing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Project.



[1] For instance, the “Daring to Lead” surveys found that in both 2006 and 2011 (the most recent years of survey data), 82 percent of EDs in their sample were white. See Jeanne Bell, Richard Moyers, and Timothy Wolfred, Daring to Lead 2006: A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership (San Francisco: CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation, 2006), 28; and Marla Cornelius, Rick Moyers, and Jeanne Bell, Daring to Lead 2011: A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership (San Francisco: CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation, 2011). Detailed “Demographics & Salary” charts for the 2011 study are available at

[2] Francie Ostrower, Nonprofit Governance in the United States: Findings on Performance and Accountability from the First National Representative Study (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2007), 18.

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