Research Report Catalyzing Leadership for Equity
Results and Recommendations from a Mixed Methods Analysis of Equity-Focused Leaders and Leadership Development Programs
LesLeigh D. Ford, Shauna M. Cooper, Claire Cusella, James Ladi Williams, Kimberlyn Leary
Display Date
Download Report
(634.86 KB)

Beginning in the summer of 2020, many public and private organizations and institutions made new internal and external commitments to racial equity. A core component of these commitments are pledges to create or expand diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and to develop comprehensive approaches to advance racial equity within these organizations.

Over the last two and a half years, these organizations and institutions have paid increased attention to the need to recruit, engage, learn from, and invest in equity-focused leaders of color. Many of these leaders have stepped into newly created leadership positions and are working to design, implement, and drive new equity initiatives and investments. While leaders of color have long championed racial equity in government, nonprofit, philanthropic, and corporate sectors, there have also long been leaders at the community level who have advanced racial equity through organizing, advocacy, movement building, and other local efforts.

However, it has been well-documented that the supports, training, and resources available to equity-focused leaders of color, especially community-focused leaders, have not adequately met the needs of these leaders and the communities they serve. In order to better understand this challenge and to develop recommendations for the development, implementation, and investment in equity-focused leadership development programs, the Urban Institute conducted a comprehensive study with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We focused on understanding leadership development programs for equity focused leaders of color and the layered social, emotional, financial, and other supports that these leaders need.


The study’s research design included: 1) a hybrid literature review and environmental scan; 2) one-on-one interviews with leaders in various organizational settings and contexts; 3) focus groups with equity-focused leaders of color; and 4) a convening with a particular focus on grassroots and community-based leaders of color. The research team collected data between November 2021 and October 2022, then analyzed data and prepared this report in November and December 2022. We placed particular emphasis on tailoring recommendations to the needs of equity focused leaders of color, the organizations and institutions they work in, and the funders who invest in leadership development programs.

Key Findings

Challenges of Equity Focused Leadership

Equity focused leaders of color face several challenges carrying out their equity work. Leaders are often tasked with the following:

  • addressing complex issues, often without clear directives
  • solving deeply entrenched racial and structural equities
  • transforming organizational cultures to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive

Leaders are often embedded in organizations where organizational systems are incompatible with equity goals. They often face difficulty navigating the double burden of liberating communities from the same racialized harms that they themselves may have experienced.

Key Findings on Leadership Development Programs

Our landscape scan identified 28 equity-focused and driven leadership development programs. Among these 28 programs, there were several common or shared themes including the following:

  • 25 out of 28 identified programs (approximately 89 percent) were targeted to leaders in professional settings (e.g., nonprofit, community, public and private sector).
  • 86 percent were individual- versus cohort-based leadership development programs.
  • 22 out of 28 programs integrated collective leadership frameworks and components into their training model.

Key Findings on Institutional Shifts

Our analysis identified three shifts organizations working to achieve their equity goals can make to unequivocally support equity-focused leaders:

  1. Infuse equity throughout the organization.
  2. Build capacity to support equity leaders and their transformative work.
  3. Think strategically, implement, and assess.


Recommendations for Leadership Development Programs

  1. Center equity in practice.
  2. Leverage collective leadership models to support visionary grassroots and community leadership teams.
  3. Look beyond elite roles, spaces, and traditional leadership pipelines.
  4. Align training with the key needs of equity-focused leaders, recognizing their lived experiences and community ties.
  5. Apply team-based and cohort approaches to equity-focused leadership development.
  6. Extend support beyond program participation.

Recommendations for Funders and Funding Organizations

  1. Recognize where power lies and how it is organized in communities. 
  2. Listen to the needs of the community rather than applying a one-size-fits-all model.
  3. Fund differently and boldly.
  4. To exponentially increase the number of leaders, increase funding to existing leadership development programs that already have a collective model in place.
  5. Fund innovators of leadership development programs.
  6. Sustain funding commitment to advancing equity.
Research Areas Race and equity Nonprofits and philanthropy
Tags Community engagement Foundations and philanthropy Job training Nonprofit sector trends Race and equity in grantmaking Race, gender, class, and ethnicity Leadership development
Policy Centers Office of Race and Equity Research
Research Methods Community Engagement Resource Center Qualitative data analysis Data collection