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Jun 28, 2017 | Insights

“The Data Tells a Different Story.” It’s Time for Nonprofits to Confront the Racial Leadership Gap

There is nothing like a good set of data to help us confront what is real, versus what we assume. The Building Movement Project recently released its Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap report based on data from over 4,000 respondents. This study sought to understand the causes of this gap—between the racial composition of our society and that of senior nonprofit leadership.

Many of us who have worked in the nonprofit sector for some time have operated with some assumptions about why this gap exists, including the popular view that it is a supply-side problem; and that education, training, mentoring, and support for developing leaders of color has fallen short. Just recently, when conducting a workshop on organizational sustainability, a participant stated “there just aren’t enough well-qualified and interested people of color who are candidates for executive positions.” The Building Movement Project study found that while this may be true, it is only half the story. The other half is the demand side.

Eighty-two to eighty-nine percent of CEOs and Executive Directors are white. This is a fact that has persisted for decades with no change, as documented by surveys in 2006, 2011 and 2014, In digging into the causes the Building Movement Project has discovered that:

  • nonprofit boards have pre-defined notions of “right fit” which reinforce deeply seated implicit biases
  • potential candidates who are people of color are worn down and weeded out of the leadership pipeline by obstacles such as being required to represent and advocate for race equity awareness and change within White dominated organizations
  • philanthropists and donors manifest lack of confidence in people of color who are leaders as indicated in a reduction in funding when people of color succeed white leaders

I have facilitated or managed dozens of nonprofit executive leadership transitions and have seen first-hand who comes through the door as a candidate and who is hired. As a clergyperson and a leader who has facilitated white privilege workshops in my community, I also know first-hand how biases creep into our thinking and decision making, even though we have the best of intentions. It is time for those of us in positions of influence, as consultants, board members, philanthropists and current executives, to reconcile our stated values and intentions with our policies, practices and resources.

I encourage you to read the Building Movement Project’s report. It may well create some cognitive dissonance in some of us — a discomfort that we should not too quickly dismiss or avoid. Sometimes our hunches reinforce deeply embedded assumptions, allowing us to stay in our comfort zones, going with what “feels right” and placing responsibility for challenges outside our spheres of influence. Then, reality steps out into the open, like this study, forcing us to examine our assumptions. Those of us on overwhelmingly white nonprofit boards, and those of us in the overwhelmingly white philanthropic world will find here a fresh analysis backed by the undeniable data that we should look to ourselves as the cause of the gap and examine our roles in making things change.


Stewart Lanier is Senior Associate and trainer in the Better Nonprofit Management Training Series. He will lead a workshop on “Managing Chronic Tensions in Your Organization” in 2018.