Racialized Transitions and Glass Cliffs


Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld (Co-Director)

The Building Movement Project’s latest report – Making (Or Taking) Space sheds light on the added challenges involved in executive transitions where a person of color is taking over leadership from a white executive director. The report is based on interviews with EDs/CEOs of color, their white predecessors and board members, and documents how even when organizations were intentional about recruiting a new leader of color, the incoming BIPOC leaders inherited organizational dynamics that were trickier than they could have anticipated. This report, combined with data from our 2019 Race to Lead survey, shows how unprepared our sector is for the impending wave of executive transitions.

Of the more than 1,000 survey respondents who indicated that they were a nonprofit Executive Director or CEO in 2019, just under half of EDs/CEOs of color (48%) and white EDs/CEOs (44%) reported that they were thinking about transitioning, planning to transition, or were already in the process of leaving their ED/CEO jobs. The potential scale of executive transitions could be even bigger than our survey results suggest. Multiple funders have noted that cohorts of grantee organizations are experiencing executive transitions. In the interviews for the On the Frontlines report, we also heard that the COVID-19 pandemic has added to perpetual concerns about burnout among many organizational leaders.

The survey data and interviews confirm that the “glass cliff” effect is impacting leaders of color in the nonprofit sector. Too often, BIPOC leaders who take over from previous white EDs/CEOs inherit challenging management circumstances where the risk of failure is high. We know from the 2016 and 2019 surveys that the bulk of EDs/CEOs of color who were part of an executive transition took over their leadership role from a white predecessor. Awareness of racial equity in the sector is pushing nonprofit boards to recruit a leader of color. However, the transitions are too often happening before the organization is ready to be led by a person of color. As the Making (or Taking) Space report notes, “Most incoming leaders [of color] were expected to heal tensions that had overheated under previous [white] leadership.”

Instead of hiring DEI consultants, many organizations are hiring EDs/CEOs of color to both run the organization and fix the organization’s DEI problems. The added DEI job that incoming leaders are forced to take on makes it even more impossible for new BIPOC leaders to succeed. Adding to the pressure, many organizations engage in essentialist thinking that simply by virtue of the new ED being a person of color, they can magically and definitively fix long-standing internal dynamics that their white predecessor had not been able to resolve. One interviewee described how many of her peers inherited staff teams with “deep seated issues of race and gender,” so the new leader of color stepped into their role and people expected the issues “solved tomorrow.” She explained that “We don’t have the liberty as Black women leaders to say we’re going to set that aside and come back to it in a month. Our staff will revolt.”

I too often hear similar concerns about brewing “revolts” within the staff teams of newly BIPOC-led nonprofits. This impatience on the part of staff and boards for new leaders to turn around their organizations adds to the psychological burden and extra work that leaders of color often don’t factor into their salary negotiations. When considering what a “fair wage” would be for BIPOC leaders, incoming EDs/CEOs of color should be pushing for additional compensation based on the expectations that they will not only run the organization and help it achieve its mission, but also be the person who will address the racial equity concerns that made the board consider a leader of color in the first place. Let’s just be real about the second job that BIPOC leaders are inheriting and compensate them for taking all of it on.

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