September 20, 2017

Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap

By Sean Thomas-Breitfeld and Frances Kunreuther

The nonprofit sector is experiencing a racial leadership gap. Studies show the percentage of people of color in the executive director/CEO role has remained under 20% for the last 15 years, even as the country becomes more diverse.

To find out why, the Building Movement Project, which we co-direct, surveyed over 4,000 respondents about their current nonprofit jobs, interest in leading a nonprofit, training/supports, views of leadership, and personal background. They were also asked about their views on race and the nonprofit sector. The findings, presented in our “Race to Lead” report, challenge the way the nonprofit sector has been approaching the racial leadership gap.

The prevailing theory 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 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 results tell a different story. They show more similarities than differences in background and preparation between white and respondents who are people of color. In addition, people of color are more likely to aspire to be leaders than white respondents.

The findings point to a new narrative. The nonprofit sector needs to address the practices and biases of those governing nonprofit organizations. Rather than focus on the perceived deficits of potential leaders of color, the sector should concentrate on educating nonprofit decision-makers on the issues of race equity and implicit bias accompanied by changes in action leading to measurable results.

Qualifications and Aspirations of Whites and People of Color in the Non-Profit Sector


More specifically:

  • It’s NOT about differences in background or qualifications:  People of color and white respondents have similar backgrounds in education, position, salary, and years working in the nonprofit sector.

  • It’s NOT about a lack of aspirations:  People of color aspire to be leaders more than white respondents.

  • It’s NOT about skills and preparation:  People of color and whites had few differences in the areas of financial skills, goal setting, articulating a vision, advocacy, and collaboration. People of color were more likely to see themselves as visionary and able to relate to their target population, but less ready to fundraise than whites

  • It IS an uneven playing field:  The majority of aspiring leaders feel prepared to take on an executive role. However, over a third reported they want more technical and management skills, with people of color identifying this need more often than whites. People of color were more likely than white respondents to see race/ethnicity as a barrier to their advancement.

  • It IS the frustration of “representing”:  People of color are significantly more frustrated by the stress of being called upon to represent a community. They are also more challenged by inadequate salaries, the need for role models, lack of social capital/networks, and the need for relationships with funding sources.

  • It’s NOT personal, it IS the system:  Respondents across race squarely identify the lack of people of color in top leadership roles as a structural problem. They believe that executive recruiters and boards could do more to diversify leadership. Whether due to bias or other factors, respondents of color were more likely than whites to agree it is harder for people of color to fundraise. They also were more likely than whites to see barriers to people of color advancing either because of smaller professional networks and/or the need for more training.

The findings indicate that people of color are ready to take on leadership roles, but their leadership interests are not matched with opportunities. Offering people of color supports to advance their leadership is important. However, training will not succeed in moving the dial without a simultaneous and widespread effort to target those governing organizations, challenging the norms and assumptions about race that are deeply embedded in the nonprofit sector and in our society at large.

Based on the results of this study, the sector can:

Rewrite the Story

  • Change the Narrative: Stop presuming that there are not enough qualified people of color candidates; instead place responsibility on the assumptions and structures that guide decision-makers.

  • Start with Bold Leadership: Nonprofit leaders should make race and race equity a top priority, starting with their own organizations, in order to create the culture change needed to advance people of color in leadership.

Address Systems Barriers

  • Implement Race-Conscious Organizational Practices: All nonprofits should implement hiring and promotion policies/practices that address issues of implicit bias, especially targeting the people who hire executive leadership.

  • Integrate Race and Race Equity into Leadership Programs: All leadership programs should address the issue of race/race equity for current and potential leaders. At the same time, create systems of support for aspiring leaders of color where they can have a space to address racialized barriers to advancement.

  • Change Philanthropic Practices:  Foundations and other funding sources should examine racial disparities in who receives funding and how much.

Indicators of Progress

  • Measure Results: Funders and associations can begin collecting information on whether and how organizations are hiring high-level people of color, including the role of recruiters and consultants in addressing issues of race and race equity.

  • Track the Investments: The type of change that is needed takes resources and time; funders should report on investments in the area of race and race equity.

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld and Frances Kunreuther are co-directors of the Building Movement Project. Since its founding in 1999, the Project has developed research, tools, training materials and opportunities for partnership that bolster nonprofit organizations’ ability to support the voice and power of the people they serve. This post is adapted from the introduction to the Project’s recently released “Race to Lead” survey and report, available here: