This post was originally published here (Nonprofit Quarterly)
Building Movement Project’s just-released leadership report, “Race to Lead: Confronting the Racial Leadership Gap,” which you can download here , highlights what many of us know: The nonprofit sector is experiencing a racial leadership gap. As the U.S. becomes increasingly diverse, the percentage of people of color in executive director/CEO roles has remained under 20 percent for the last 15 years. A study respondent said, “One of the big problems in the nonprofit sector is that the leadership of nonprofit organizations doesn’t represent the racial/ethnic diversity of the country.”
Frances Kunreuther, co-director of Building Movement Project (BMP), said, “We had been following that there had been a lot of trainings of aspiring leaders of color and also following the data that there were not more leaders of color in the sector, so we wanted to understand what the reason for the mismatch was.”
The report has a high-level message: “The results call into question the common assumption that to increase the diversity of nonprofit leaders, People of Color need more training. The findings point to a new narrative. To increase the number of People of Color leaders, the nonprofit sector needs to address the practices and biases of those governing nonprofit organizations.”
In other words, while many investments in people of color leadership focus on training and other capacity building for people of color, the real need for capacity building is with the people who hire for executive leadership positions.
Other studies have hinted at this. The Daring to Lead reports of 2006 and 2011 of more than 3,000 nonprofit leaders found that 82 percent of respondents were white. More recently, in BoardSource’s 2015 Leading with Intent report of nonprofit boards, 89 percent percent of respondents identified as white. For over a decade now, survey reports consistently show that less than 20 percent of nonprofit executive leaders are people of color.
BMP has been researching and exploring generational shifts in nonprofit leadership for over a decade, and issues of race and executive leadership emerged early on. Studies warned of a generational leadership gap in the sector. The perception was that there were too few new leaders to take on these roles. New programs emerged to develop the capacity of people of color. But the numbers have not budged over the years and new, deeper data shows a different picture.
The report writes,
The prevailing theory of change has been that there needs to be more attention on finding or convincing People of Color to consider leadership positions, keeping those who are qualified from leaving the sector, and offering training to the others to prepare them for taking on the top job. Underlying this logic are the assumptions that People of Color are less interested in nonprofit leadership than their white counterparts, that qualified leaders of color will leave the nonprofit sector, and that those who stay do not have the skills to be competitive (without help) for top leadership jobs.
The survey findings show, however, that people of color are not only as ready to take leadership as whites, they are more interested. Fifty percent of people of color said they are interested in being a nonprofit leader, compared to 40 percent of whites. The perception that white people are more interested in leading cuts across race. Sean Thomas-Breitfield, co-director of Building Movement project, said, “One interesting thing that happened when we did focus groups is when we shared the two pie charts showing aspirations to lead nonprofit organizations (one showing 50 percent and the other 40), and asked people to guess which percentage corresponded to people of color and which to whites, even in groups with African American people, people assumed white people wanted to lead more.”