When the Rubber Meets the Road: Diversifying Nonprofit Leadership at the Top

A new study by the Racial Diversity Collaborative and the Urban Institute finds that less than 8 percent of nonprofit organizations in Washington, DC are led by people of color. If the DC metropolitan area is a snapshot of the nation, the nonprofit sector is facing a huge and deepening leadership crisis that will only worsen over the next 20 years.

After at least two decades of working to increase the number of racial and ethnic minorities in the highest levels of leadership in nonprofit organizations and on nonprofit boards, we have failed. While the number of people of color working in nonprofits and in mid-level positions in organizations has increased over the years, the top leadership looks the same way it did thirty years ago--mostly white and mostly male. And when people of color do lead organizations, they tend to be identity-specific, fledgling or on the verge of collapse.

The sector, for the most part, has been allowed to drag its feet on the issue. A few programs spring up here and there, but very few are maintained or expected to deliver real outcomes or system-level change. Organizations and foundations usually get an E for effort and after a few months things revert to business as usual.

So what gives? There are a few reasons for the slow progress in terms of diversifying the leadership at the top levels of nonprofit organizations.

The first is that the pipeline is broken or clogged with the same old white men. People of color have only recently begun to enter the nonprofit sector in sizeable numbers, so it makes sense that they might be outside of the pipeline in terms of possessing the skill set, networks and work experience needed to take up an executive position when one becomes available within an organization.

A recent study by the Women of Color Policy Network at NYU Wagner of young women of color executive directors found that leaders of color are more likely to take a non-traditional path to nonprofit leadership. They often spend years in their communities organizing around an issue before they actually enter the sector. This puts them at a disadvantage in terms of moving up the ranks because they may have lost out on years of relationship building, mentorship from senior leaders and learning the nuts and bolts of running an organization.

Next, nonprofit organizations have an investment in the status quo. They are institutions with particular histories, cultures and points of views. Funding and sustainability are often linked to these three things. For this reason, maintaining existing leadership may be safer than bringing in someone new who might question the organization's point of view or culture. Diversifying leadership is not only about bringing in brown faces, but about bringing in new perspectives and ideas as well. Organizations have to be prepared for the shifts and changes that may occur.

Lastly, very few resources and time have been dedicated to tackling the problem head on. It is assumed that the problem will eventually solve itself. This is not the case.

In order to increase the number of people of color in the pipeline for senior level and executive positions within nonprofits, organizations and philanthropic foundations will have to be proactive and deliberate in their efforts. Organizations will have to shift their organizational culture and take risks on new leadership. Foundations will need to be willing to support organizations that take these risks and devote resources to long-term strategies to increase the representation of leaders of color at the top levels of leadership.