Bridging the gap: the role of race in nonprofit leadership

June 29, 2017

Bridging the gap: the role of race in nonprofit leadership

The following post is from CNM's Opportunity NOW intern Soteria Reid:


Even though the modern concept of nonprofits has only existed since the 1970s, charitable organizations have been around for centuries. With missions of service and community-building, the nonprofit sector has boasted the goal of making the world a better place for all who live in it. With this sector growing faster than any other, and with the United States itself diversifying at the fastest rate in history, it would be expected that the nonprofit sector would also reflect that diversity and be increasingly representative of the population it serves. But it is not.

In fact, in 2011 a poll of 3,000 nonprofit leaders found that 82% of them were white. The same poll was taken in 2015, and it found that percentage had increased to 89%. This means that while the population of people of color in the United States steadily increases, the percentage of people of color in nonprofit leadership positions has declined. It is still continuing to show a downward trend that can be attributed to the approach that the sector has taken to try and correct the problem.

This post examining what those approaches are, why they are incorrect, and how they can be corrected is majorly based on the report released by the Building Movement Project (BMP).

The report clearly outlines a number of preconceptions held by the current leadership and those who hire them that turn out to be entirely incorrect. These preconceptions manifest themselves as the current approach that the sector has taken to try to correct them. The study definitively disproves these biases as follows:

FALSE People of color do not have the skills necessary to be competitive in the running for leadership positions.

TRUE The study found that the difference in education levels between people of color and their white counterparts is nominal. With those having a bachelor degree being 31 to 33%, respectively, 49 to 53% with a masters, and 9 to 8% with a PhD, JD, MD, or other degree, it is not a matter of education. Additionally, with a significantly insignificant difference in roles, salary levels, and number of years in the sector, it is safe to say that neither experience, value, nor dedication are contributing factors to the discrepancy.

FALSE – The people of color who are experienced leave the nonprofit sector.

TRUE – This assumption sounds like the sector is scapegoating people of color with the equivalent of a shrug and a, “There is no way we can hire people that aren’t here.” By spreading the narrative that the system can only do so much to keep people of color in the sector and are not responsible for them leaving does not correlate with the fact that, even at entry level jobs, they are not being hired as only 18% of overall staff is comprised of people of color while that is doubled in the general population of the U.S.

FALSE – People of color are less interested in leadership positions than their white counterparts.

TRUE – 50% of people of color responded to the survey as being “definitely” interested in taking top leadership positions compared to 40% of white respondents. Not only are they interested, they are the most interested. There is no question of ambition or aspiration in these situations.

In summary, in the nonprofit sector, people of color are just as educated, committed, and interested in leadership positions. The fault lies not with the people but in the principles perpetuated by those who choose whether or not to hire them. To this, the report adds that “[r]espondents across race squarely identify the lack of people of color in top leadership roles as a structural problem for the nonprofit sector.”

In terms of solutions, the report makes it clear that the top priority has to be changing the narrative to which the leaders of the nonprofit community have committed. As commanded by the report, “[s]top presuming that there are not enough qualified people of color candidates; instead, place responsibility on the assumptions and structures that guide decision-makers.” The implicit biases that exist have to be addressed and resolved to reach the desired effect of increased cross-racial involvement in nonprofit leadership.

It is especially pertinent that the nonprofit sector address this discrepancy as a vast majority of the organizations serve people of color. Perspective is invaluable, and while it is not always the most comfortable thing to address racial bias, change happens in the absence of comfort. No one who is okay with how things are going will be willing to change. As it stands, the gap exists in the minds of the governing bodies of non-profit organizations, not in the workforce.


Interested in learning more? Our human resources consultants can help your organization create new hiring policies. Reach out to Consulting Coordinator Anna Stergas at with inquiries.

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