Initiatives newsletter

What We Are Learning About the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap – Sector Leadership Spot

February 24, 2020

By Frances Kunreuther, Building Movement Project

The Building Movement Project (BMP) is a national research, resource, and training organization that pushes and challenges nonprofit organizations to integrate social justice principles into their work. We do this by working on various projects across our three focus areas: movement building, service and social change, and leadership. Last summer, as part of our leadership work, we collected information from over 5,000 nonprofit staff members who filled out the 2019 Race to Lead Survey.

First launched in 2016, the Race to Lead survey asked those working in nonprofits about jobs, leadership, training and support, as well as their views related to issues facing people of color in the sector. The subsequent reports, based on the 2016 data, revealed that employees of color aspire to leadership at a higher rate than their white colleagues and that they are equally qualified. In addition to survey data, we collected hundreds of write-in responses that catalogued real-life examples of everyday bias experienced by employees of color who feel frustrated, stressed, and exhausted. Despite similar levels of education, similar number of years of experience, and higher rates of leadership aspirations, people of color report they are still regularly passed over for promotions in favor of their white counterparts. Among other findings, the reports conclude that the sector not only needs to address barriers to leadership for people of color, but to also remove the burden of solving the problem from those who are most affected by it.

In 2019, BMP released two new reports: the ED/CEO Race to Lead Brief and the Women of Color Race to Lead Report. Together, these reports focused specifically on racial inequity in leadership positions as well as the effects of experiencing intersecting biases. For example, women of color with the same qualifications as men of color, white women, and white men are the most likely to be in administrative roles and the least likely to be in leadership positions. Despite the dominant narrative that higher education, plus experience, plus training eventually equals career advancement, the data reveals that this equation does not hold true for people of color, specifically women of color, aspiring to leadership.

So, what can be done to address this issue?

First, organizations can immediately remove the responsibility of bridging the racial leadership gap from the shoulders of those who are affected by it: employees of color. They can start by 1) challenging biases present in the organization and society, 2) educating staff and board members on race equity, 3) implementing transparent Human Resources-related practices, and 4) investing in POC-led organizations and employees of color aspiring to leadership.

These recommendations were made in the 2016-2019 Race to Lead Reports, as the need to move towards equity became increasingly prevalent. Now, nearly four years later, we’re eager to see changes in the data and to ponder what kind of challenges and opportunities it might reveal for the sector. We look forward to sharing insights and findings on the nonprofit racial leadership gap in forthcoming 2020 reports.

Frances Kunreuther is Co-Director of the Building Movement Project and serves as a member of the National Human Services Assembly Board of Directors.