The Scale of the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap


Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

I started my career working for organizations led by people of color. I never thought this was a remarkable thing, but lately I’ve become more aware of how rare people of color are at the top levels of leadership in the nonprofit sector.

This spring, a few members of our project team raised concerns about seeing a decrease in the number of organizations led by people of color in their areas. They talked about how organizations that had been founded or led by people of color from the community had merged with larger organizations that were more often white-led. More recently, I found myself in a room full of consultants and capacity builders (all of us people of color) and heard more stories about the challenges faced by their client organizations led by people of color, particularly around competing in a funding environment driven by metrics and data.

I know that two anecdotes don’t make a crisis, but they confirmed things that had been hinted at in our Visions for Change report, where we interviewed younger leaders of social change groups. In that study, the issue of race emerged without any prompting; and we found that people of color faced leadership challenges that were distinct from their white colleagues. Whether extra demands on their time (sometimes being tokenized is just a time-suck) or difficulty gaining legitimacy (especially with funders), it was clear from the interviews that younger leaders of color were simply asked to do more because of their race.

It may be hard to figure out if leaders of color are having a harder time across the board, but we can be pretty sure that, as a sector, we aren’t moving the dial towards having more diversity in the top ranks of the sector. In the last two Daring to Lead national studies of the leadership of nonprofits, the share of executives who were people of color stayed flat at only 18% (in 2006 and 2011). Some people will probably see this as a “pipeline” problem and explain that we need more people of color entering – and moving up the ranks – of nonprofit organizations, or that older leaders should be doing succession planning with an eye towards passing the reins on to people of color. But in addition to those more technical solutions, I think we have to also consider the impact of implicit biases about what leaders are expected to look like and do, and how our organizations are expected to grow.

When a leader’s markers of success are their ability to go to scale, expand their programs and grow their organizations, there are certainly some subtle ways that the deck may be stacked against leaders of color. Since a leader’s ability to raise money is directly related to their prospects for hiring new staff and making other investments that lead to growth, access to funding can be a special challenge for people of color. But in the nonprofit sector, I think there’s more to the equation than the usual race/class dynamics of who goes to elite schools and has family connections that can be leveraged to bring in donors. The other element that intersects with issues of race and class and social capital is the bias against organizations that are small and grassroots – organizations that are often led by people of color who come from the same community they are serving, organizing and advocating for.

As a sector, the ideal of letting a thousand flowers bloom is being abandoned, and instead we seem to be following a corporate model of mergers and acquisitions. When everything is about scale and scope and reach, small grassroots organizations end up marginalized. I think we need a rich organizational infrastructure. I’m all for people of color leading the big national and statewide groups that are flourishing right now. But I also worry that part of what is contributing to the racial leadership gap in our sector is the lack of investment in the beautifully small groups that are closest to the communities with the greatest need.

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