Urban Wire Nonprofit Leadership Is Out of Step with America’s Changing Demographics
Faith Mitchell
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Despite extensive diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that have raised awareness of structural racism, the nonprofit sector has seen relatively little change, and its leadership still does not accurately represent the country’s racial and ethnic diversity. Recent findings document that although more nonprofits have board members of color than observed in previous national studies, progress lags at the leadership level.

Specifically, the study, which consisted of a nationally representative sample of 501(c)(3) public charities with $50,000 or more in annual expenses, found the following:

  • Seventy-nine percent of board chairs and executive directors are non-Latinx white. This share contrasts with the general population, which is 60 percent non-Latinx white, and with the overall nonprofit workforce, which was 68 percent non-Latinx white in 2020.
  • Fifty-eight percent of rural nonprofits have no board members who are people of color. Although rural America is less diverse than the nation as a whole, two-thirds of rural counties consisted of at least 10 percent people of color, one-third were over a quarter people of color, and 10 percent were majority people of color in 2020
  • All-white boards govern 16 percent of nonprofits that primarily focus on serving people of color and 38 percent of organizations that do not primarily focus on people of color.

In fact, there are troubling signs of increasing inequality in the nonprofit sector. When comparing results from a 2019 survey on nonprofit racial leadership with results from 2016, Race to Lead found there was an increase in the number of people of color who reported their race or ethnicity had negatively affected their career advancement. In contrast, more white respondents reported that their race had helped their career.

Why diversity in nonprofit leadership matters

The underrepresentation of people of color in leadership positions affects all organizations, not just those that serve communities of color. In my own experience as chief executive officer of Grantmakers In Health, a national philanthropy-serving organization, I saw firsthand how leaders of color can increase an organization’s effectiveness and social relevance by introducing fresh perspectives and lived experience that enrich programming, broaden the organization’s reach, and engage in new networks that reflect and inform its mission. As Vanessa Daniel, a nonprofit leader, wrote in a New York Times op-ed, leaders of color can also contribute organizing heft at the local level, a sense of urgency, an understanding of community dynamics, and a genuine commitment to social change.

At the board level, diversity of membership helps maintain the relevance and effectiveness of decisionmaking and programming. A board whose members are too similar risks ineffectiveness or worse—doing harm. As one study of nonprofit board practices observed, “A board that is homogeneous in any way risks having blind spots that negatively impact its ability to make the best decisions and plans for the organization. The blind spots created by a lack of racial and ethnic diversity are particularly concerning, as they may result in strategies and plans that ineffectively address societal challenges and inequities, or even reinforce them.”

When just 21 percent of executive directors and board chairs are people of color, the nonprofit sector’s effectiveness and relevance to the communities it purports to serve are unquestionably at risk. Evidence shows that chief executives, who are closest to the day-to-day work of organizations, have a clearer understanding than boards of how a lack of racial and ethnic diversity impairs an organization’s decisionmaking, programming, and impact. Chief executives are also more aware of philanthropy’s increasing attention to the demographics of the organizations they support. 

How nonprofits can increase leadership diversity

Without greater emphasis and focus on increasing the diversity of nonprofit leadership, little progress will be made, especially at the board level. Recruiting and retaining racially and ethnically diverse staff and board leaders is a long-term organizational commitment that should focus not only on people’s individual characteristics but also on overcoming systemic bias within the sector. To successfully recruit and retain racially and ethnically diverse leaders, nonprofits can pursue the following: 

  • Set a goal that the organization’s leadership will reflect the racial demographics of the population served.
  • Develop a long-term plan for the organization that includes recruiting diverse staff, providing them (and all rising staff members) with tools for professional development, and offering opportunities to build and demonstrate leadership skills in the external community and internally with other staff and members of the board.
  • Be willing to listen to the observations and recommendations of staff and board members of color and to change the organization’s policies and practices accordingly.
  • Look outside comfortable, established board networks to identify potential new board members.
  • Invest in board training and education to build solidarity, reinforce constructive governance styles, and increase understanding of the organization and its mission.

Each of these steps can lead to the leadership level in the nonprofit sector more accurately representing the country’s rich diversity and enable the sector to become more effective and relevant in its communities.

Research Areas Nonprofits and philanthropy
Tags Foundations and philanthropy Race and equity in grantmaking
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy
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