Aspiring Nonprofit Leaders of Color Face Structural Bias, Study Finds

To address the racial leadership gap in the nonprofit sector, organizations and their boards must go beyond recruitment, training, and retention and work to dismantle systemic bias, a report from the Building Movement Project and the Annie E. Casey Foundation argues.

According to previous studies, over the last fifteen years the share of people of color in nonprofit CEO and executive director positions has remained flat at under 20 percent. Based on a survey of nearly forty-four hundred people working in nonprofits, the new report, Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap (26 pages, PDF), found that white respondents and respondents of color had similar educational backgrounds, qualifications, experience, salary, training, and leadership skills. The report also found that people of color were more likely than white respondents to see themselves as visionary and as able to relate to their organization's target population and to say they "definitely" or "probably" were interested in becoming a nonprofit CEO or ED (50 percent vs. 40 percent). Among those who did not aspire to a leadership role, people of color were about as likely as white respondents (33 percent vs. 34 percent) to cite the need for work/life balance, more likely to say they were pursuing opportunities outside the nonprofit sector (21 percent vs. 10 percent), and less likely to say their skills and interests were not well suited to an executive director role (19 percent vs. 28 percent).

Given that nonprofit employees of color have backgrounds and qualifications similar to those of their white colleagues and are more likely to aspire to leadership positions, the report suggests that the diversity leadership gap is due in part to people of color facing unique challenges and being held to different standards. Of the survey respondents of color who reported that their career advancement was negatively affected by their race, many cited a perception that they lacked the ability to lead, inadequate human resources support, and/or exclusion from important social networks. In addition, 36 percent of respondents of color cited as a challenge the stress of being called upon to "represent" their community. When asked why there were so few nonprofit executives of color, respondents of color were more likely than whites to say people of color are less likely to want to work in white-dominant organizations, that they need more skills and training to be considered for top-level positions, that it is harder for people to advance because their networks are smaller, and that organizations led by people of color have difficulty fundraising.

To address these structural barriers, the report calls on the nonprofit sector to implement race-conscious organizational practices, institute trainings and hiring standards for board members, integrate race and race equity into leadership development, create systems of support for aspiring leaders of color, and examine foundation practices with an eye to improving access to leadership ranks for people of color.

"The lack of people of color in leadership positions within nonprofits cannot be explained by differences in background, skills, or ambition," said Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, co-director of the Building Movement Project. "Our data instead shows that unconscious biases and racialized practices prevent people of color who are already qualified to lead from rising to the top. These findings should provide a much-needed jolt to the system, and we hope they will encourage the nonprofit sector to dismantle the barriers to equity and opportunity."

"Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap." Building Movement Project Report 06/06/2017. "Building Movement Project Releases Report on Racial Leadership Gap in Nonprofits." Building Movement Project Press Release 06/06/2017.