Illustration by Yuxin Qin
The lack of diversity in our country’s leadership has become a topic of scrutiny in recent years, and the nonprofit sector is not exempt from the problem. Despite the growing use of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the nonprofit sector, there are pervasive disparities among who is leading these organizations. According to the Race to Lead Revisited report, only 20% of organizations have been led by Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) CEOs or executive directors over the last 15 years. Even though higher rates of BIPOC staff report aspirations of being in leadership positions while also having similar qualifications as their white peers, there is still a racial gap in board and staff leadership.
Survey responses suggest that systemic racial barriers may be the cause of these inconsistencies.
Respondents of color report greater workplace challenges than white respondents, including:
- Lack of role models
- Disparities in access to mentorship programs
- Lack of social capital
- Stress and trauma of leading DEI initiatives
- Racial biases in employers’ recruitment practices
- Lack of representation
If these challenges are not addressed, and racial disparities in leadership positions continue to be prevalent, nonprofits are likely to remain homogenous and stagnant. Studies indicate that diversity in the workplace unlocks innovative environments, as organizations with diverse leadership both out-innovate and out-perform those with homogenous teams. Research further shows that a team with a member who shares a client’s ethnicity is over 100% more likely to understand that client’s needs. This demonstrates the need for BIPOC serving nonprofits in particular to have leaders of color throughout the organization in order to truly understand the community’s need.
Community partners, donors and volunteers can see when an organization is not being holistic in their DEI practices. While nonprofits implement DEI measures without putting them into practice, these groups are judging by what they see and may be deciding to shift their support to an organization that is more actionable in its efforts. This can also lead to a lack of volunteerism, as volunteers and employees alike want to know that they are represented within the organization, without being a token minority.
A number of policies and practices can be implemented within nonprofit organizations to address these challenges and affirm equity in their leadership including:
- Providing staff with bias and cultural competence trainings that meaningfully address DEI issues
- Utilizing strategies to ensure the efficacy of the training (e.g., empower participants, affirm employees that they have control over their biases, increase awareness of biases and focus on behavior change, etc.)
- Utilizing hiring technology that hides applicant demographics
- Increasing mentoring initiatives for BIPOC staff
- Recruiting staff from BIPOC peer networks and job boards, and historically black colleges and universities
- Identifying clear, measurable goals with transparent dashboards to ensure there is accountability for how DEI efforts are being achieved
By actively taking part in addressing racial leadership gaps within their organizations, nonprofits can intentionally make space for positive outcomes to flourish both internally and within the communities they serve.
Brittney Riedinger is a 2021 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. She received her bachelor’s degree in Social Science from the University of North Dakota. Since then, she has been living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her two cats. Currently, Brittney is the Engagement Manager at The Bridge for Youth, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “center youth voice, justice, and equity in all we do, and empowers youth experiencing homelessness through safe shelter, basic needs, and healthy relationships.”