Inclusion in nonprofit leadership is an opportunity for all

People of color must be equitably represented in nonprofit leadership if we hope to achieve economic and social mobility for all.

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A colleague recently asked, “What happens when we lose the few leaders in our nonprofits — like yourself — who are authentically Black yet connect to the larger community?” I realized she was asking a larger question beyond my contributions or ability to be socially fluid. She was suggesting there weren’t enough people of color in nonprofit leadership.

The nonprofit (social sector) community leads conversations about inclusive economic, and social, mobility.  However, leading requires higher standards of accountability and “walking the talk.”

The nonprofit sector is struggling with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within its leadership roles due to exclusive paternalism, privilege and failure to acknowledge the values of people of color. These trends are harmful to the talent pipeline and, just as important, harmful to the people these organizations serve.

BoardSource, a global nonprofit focused on social sector leadership, conducted a national study that revealed 90 percent of board chairs and CEOs were white, up from previous years. Charlotte follows that trend, along with the reality that almost all of the city’s highest-paid nonprofit leaders are white. In an era of growing diversity, these findings are surprising and consistent at the same time.

How we got here

Nonprofit leaders aren’t immune to the tribalism or “unchallenged privilege” experienced in our public and private sectors. Perceptions that people of color lack the technical skills, education, experience or desires needed for executive leadership roles are wrapped in biases — subconscious and conscious — manufactured over time.

During the nonprofit boom of the Progressive Era into the 20th century, many white Protestants felt a calling to address social ills and other moral issues through increased activism and establishment of charities. Most of the newly established nonprofits focused on issues through a lens of conforming or “fixing” people — a way of thinking that carried paternal attitudes that reinforced social hierarchies. These attitudes are magnified when race and leadership are considered.

People of color — and their unique talents — are often invisible amid leadership. The Building Movement Project, a national organization dedicated to assisting nonprofits as social change agents, reported that employees of color were overlooked for advancement opportunities despite no differences between their white counterparts’ desires or abilities. It also discovered that both groups had almost identical educational and technical experiences. Advancement often eludes people of color due to social capital and traditional views of our racial hierarchy.

To take advantage of diverse talent, intentional inclusion and equity practices are required. Many nonprofits take for granted that their agendas align with these types of practices. Nonprofits can start by infusing DEI leadership practices within their strategic processes and overall measures of success. Tapping into companies recognized for DEI is another route. The opportunities may be closer than you think.

When it comes to foundations, they can support inclusive practices and strategies as part of funding requests. Foundations face the same issues as their partners and need to build DEI practices into their own talent and leadership processes. Most important, organizations must engage those they serve. We can’t have economic and social mobility for all if people of color are not equitably represented in social sector leadership.

It reminds me of my first leadership role in Charlotte. I was approached by a middle-aged Black woman who said, “Oh, are you the new director?! I am so proud!” I helped lead that agency through a few record-breaking years after that encounter. It was a white executive who gave me the opportunity and was intentional about the face that inspired pride in a woman needing support that day.


Patrick C. Graham, Ph.D. is an economic and social sector leader with over 21 years of executive-level experience. He is a published author of policy agendas and inclusive practices as well as a professor of history and humanities.

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