How to Think Differently about Diversity in Nonprofit Leadership: Get Comfortable with Discomfort


This article comes from the spring 2017 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, which addresses ways of thinking differently about a variety of issues affecting the sector.

Editors’ note: This article is part of our ongoing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Project. Visit to access additional articles from this series.

It would be an understatement to say that the past few months have been uncomfortable. The national election was downright ugly, and it exposed just how naïve those pundits were who “dared ask whether the United States had finally begun to heal its divisions over race” after President Obama was elected. The resistance that has sprung up in response to the new administration has also been fraught — apparent, most notably, in the tensions over race and feminism that were sparked in the lead-up to the Women’s March on Washington, in January. The critiques and dissent may have hurt some feelings but the march was an undeniable success, drawing historic crowds to the nation’s capital and highlighting the leadership of the four cochairwomen — one Black, one Latina, one Muslim and Arab American, and one white. Nonprofit leaders should get ready for additional uncomfortable conversations over the next years and accept that conflict will be necessary for progress.

The diverse leadership of the Women’s March was so notable because studies and surveys repeatedly show that people of color are underrepresented in CEO and board roles in the nonprofit sector. In preparation to launch our own national survey on nonprofits, leadership, and race last year, my codirector, Frances Kunreuther, and I conducted more than thirty interviews with other experts in the nonprofit sector about what we’re calling the “nonprofit racial leadership gap.” The basic question we asked is, “Why haven’t we moved the dial on diversity?” The answers to that question varied widely and are far from conclusive, but without fail the most interesting conversations were with people who had personal experiences to get off their chests. Similarly, among the more than four thousand survey responses from nonprofit staff across the country, some of the richest data came from the hundreds of individuals who answered an open-ended question about how their race/ethnicity had negatively impacted their career advancement. Knowing that discrimination still exists is one thing, but listening to and reading personal stories reveals that racial dynamics are as tense in our organizations as they are in our national politics.

The stories of racism that our interviewees and survey respondents described having confronted in nonprofit workplaces are not isolated incidents. In fact, they reflect clear trends documented by other surveys, focus groups, and high-profile cases over the last few years. In a 2010 survey by Commongood Careers of employees of nonprofits, more than a quarter of the respondents of color reported having left a job “due to lack of diversity and inclusiveness.” Similarly, a 2014 report from A Philanthropic Partnership for Black Communities (ABFE), based on focus groups and interviews with Black professionals in philanthropy, found that when asked why Black practitioners leave the field of grantmaking, roughly one-fifth gave “being pushed out” of philanthropy as the reason for leaving, and two in five indicated that isolation was a cause for leaving foundation jobs. In 2015, an internal memo on diversity issues in one of the country’s biggest and most powerful LGBTQ organizations was leaked to the press, shedding light on what “minority” staff (people of color, women, and transgender staff) had characterized as a “White Men’s Club” environment inside of the organization.8All across the sector, working day to day in racially hostile, isolating, and oblivious environments is taking a toll on nonprofit staff of color and causing staff turnover and recruitment problems. This is a crisis for the sector, especially knowing that it needs to be diversifying its staff and leadership to better reach, reflect, and advocate for constituents who often are people of color.

But despite the evidence that systems and structures are leading to the isolation of people of color in nonprofit organizations, there still seems to be a hesitance to talk explicitly about racism in the sector. I bring up racism specifically, because talking about race in the abstract has proved insufficient. Appreciating racial, ethnic, and cultural differences is great, but too often that is the extent of multicultural work done in the nonprofit sector.

A 2012 study looking at how rationales for organizational change shape multicultural development in nonprofits found that when organizations undertake multicultural initiatives to be responsive to their client base (the top rationale given), the interventions they tend to choose focus on cultural competency, awareness, and sensitivity. This responsiveness rationale probably reflects “cultural competency” finally catching on after two decades of practitioners, consultants, and academics trying to make it a best practice in the sector. By contrast, one of the rarer reasons that organizations took on multicultural programs was to “dismantle white/dominant culture.”10But this was the only rationale (out of eleven) that led to organizations developing career ladder programs and mentoring programs to create opportunities for staff of color. Doing this much deeper multicultural work requires a commitment to “fundamental organizational transformation”11 — a commitment that seems too rare in the sector.

If nonprofits are finally going to tackle…



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Nonprofit Quarterly

Nonprofit Quarterly

Journalism and innovation for the nonprofit sector. Reporting on nonprofit news, trends, governance, activism & philanthropy.