Inclusion and Diversity in the Nonprofit Sector: The Race to Lead Report by the Building Movement Project

by Janetta Cravens, vice president of programs, OKCNP

We spend a lot of time at work and our workplace creates a culture with a people that we choose to do life with. I know I want to work in an environment that is inclusive of differences, that supports people at all levels of the organization, and checks its bias so that each person has equal access to advancement and promotion, regardless of the shade of their skin. But, like many of you, I also know that there is a ways to go until this reality is fully realized across the board, and it took the lives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to add to the ever-growing national awareness that racism is still a thread that runs through every aspect of society.

I truly believe that equity – especially racial equity – is essential for leading institutions in today’s world. Leaders must have aptitude and acumen in this area so that it can inform the way they treat people. Equity is needed as a skill set, and inclusive action needs to be incorporated as a part of our work ethic. I’ve heard it referred to as “flexing our equity muscle,” which has a certain “let’s get to the gym and work on this” aspect to it, which I like. What I know is that diversity and inclusion efforts need to be an expected leadership trait that we embrace for ourselves and are willing to transfer to our organizations.

In my experience of living and working in this work to some degree over the last twenty years of my career is that 1) it never ends – racism keeps popping up in new ways and there is always more to learn about it, and 2) our biases come out in our behavior, especially in ways we are unaware, which means that there is always work to be done to grow in our understanding of how we’ve been socialized to think about people who are Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, immigrants and refugees, people of non-Christian religions, and those of us who live with seen and unseen disabilities. Or, in other words, see #1.

It’s a hard reality to face, but the nonprofit sector isn’t exempt from participating in racism or white advantage. This is a reality that organizations led by people of color know all too well, but is a reality that white-led organizations need to become more aware of. Vu Le’s popular nonprofit blog frequently deals with the subject and discussing racism with our sector and how it effects funding, hiring, decision-making, and board leadership needs more attention.

A couple of years ago, OKCNP invited Sean Thomas-Breitfeld with the Building Movement Project to Oklahoma to share the results from a report they had just released on racism within the nonprofit sector. For those who were there to hear the presentation, it was not a surprise to learn that there is still a ways to go before we as a sector have fully aligned our values for diversity and inclusion with our practices. This survey, initially released in 2016 led to a series of reports called Race to Lead and has been very helpful in providing specific data points around how the nonprofit sector experiences racism and white advantage within our workplace.

The Building Movement Project just released a “revisted” survey – 4 years and 5,000 respondents later — representing every state in the nation. Their 2020 report is a snapshot in time further telling the story of where we are as a sector in this work. You can read the whole report or watch the video of the discussion they hosted around their findings. Here are some of my takeaways from the data:

  • There is a clear advantage for white people who are working in the nonprofit sector. People of color have similar qualifications as the white respondents in both reports, but people of color face racialized barriers to advancement. Half of the people of color who took the survey said that their race or ethnicity had a negative impact on their career. Yet, they are more likely to aspire to be the CEO than their white colleagues.
  • There is also a problem of a lack of role models and mentors for people of color which we know is important for providing the emotional support which is critical for persisting through microaggressions and adverse traumas due to race. There is also a problem with organizations ruling out people of color based on the perceived “cultural fit” of the organization, which is a stand-in for implicit bias. This results in the reality that people of color need more skills and training than their white peers in order to be considered for leadership positions.
  • Based on the racial makeup of who’s in power in nonprofit organizations and the income and financial disparities that were reflected in the data, there is a white advantage in the nonprofit sector. We know from other research that diverse teams are stronger, and a lack of leadership by people of color impacts the organization itself, as well as the ways people experience their own opportunity to personal and professional development within the sector.
  • Being the only, or one of a few person of color in an organization can led to isolation and a constant internal debate about when to speak up. Margaret Mitchell, Executive Director for the Cleveland YWCA and one of the panelists in the video discussion said, “Being a black woman and showing up in spaces where I’m not necessarily always “the only,” but often one of the few, and certainly it is expected of me to be able to carry the banner. I’m always fascinated by white men who say to me, “Oh, I really pushed for you to be in this meeting so you would say XYZ.” … And when I say to them, “Well, I’m waiting for you to carry the banner and lead the conversation around racial equity and social justice.” She goes on to clarify that we can’t expect the people of color in our organizations and networks to be the only champions for racial inclusion and equity. The way that we undo white advantage is for us to understand that how we show up in the workplace is steeped in white dominant culture and we play a role in upholding it.


  • There is a lot of diversity, inclusion, and equity work being done in the sector, but there are still questions as to whether it’s changing the workplace. The report shows that fewer than 25% of people at the board or senior leadership level within a nonprofit organization are people of color. BoardSource provides a similar report on board-specific data for those who would like more research on this specific aspect see Leading with Intent which reports similar findings. This means that more than 75% of those in key power positions are white, but at least 2/3 of the responders said that they are serving a constituency base made up of at least 50% people of color. Only 14% reported working for organizations where half of the board and leadership team were people of color.
  • In the survey, when asked, “Would you be happy working in the organization three years from now,” and “Do you feel you have a voice in the organization,” respondents who worked for organizations that were 75% white reported lower happiness by both white and people of color than other organization types – though the gap is much bigger for people of color. People of color felt that they were much less likely to say they felt they had a voice in their organization compared to white respondent’s working in white-run organizations. Also when asked about fair and equitable opportunities for advancement and promotion, both people of color and white respondents rated their organizations much lower when they worked for white-run organizations, when compared to other organization types.
  • However, more organizations reported to have engaged in DI&E training (74%) which is an increase from the last survey. This showed the sector currently engaging in how DI&E is central to an organization’s mission and how racial bias impacts the work. For the most part, participants felt that the training had a positive impact, a sentiment felt especially by white people. Training can lead to transformation – but, only if the training is operationalized and put into practice within the organization. Otherwise, participants reported that the training was just “checking off the DEI box” with little to no effect across the organization.
  • They asked a new question this year which received high levels of agreement, especially from people of color. “We know how to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the nonprofit sector, but decision makers don’t have the will to make the changes.” 72% of people of color agree with that statement compared to less than half of the white respondents.
  • This means that there is a discrepancy between our organization’s practices and the solutions we bring to our communities and the funding sources which invest in those solutions. Edgar Villanueva, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and author of the book “Decolonizing Wealth” said as part of the panel discussion, “I want to underscore that there is a direct correlation between who decides where the money goes in foundations and where the money actually ends up… Three-fourths of foundation staff are white, only 8% of foundation CEOs are people of color. Only 3% of philanthropic institutions are led by Black executives. And I can think of three Native American CEOs in the sector… One of the barriers to diversity is that we are saturated with white dominate culture.”

In the conversations that I’ve been a part of lately, there is a growing understanding that we need more action around diversity and inclusion, specifically around anti-racism. Training is an important start because it is here that education can take root and seeds can be planted that change minds and inform behavior. OKCNP, as always, will offer courses this year on diversity and inclusion especially the two-day course Cultural Consciousness: Beyond Tolerance and Inclusion which is provided at no cost to our members thanks to the generous underwriting of the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at the University of Oklahoma.

However, we as a sector, also need to be able to apply the skills that we learn in training and be willing to operationalize the equity we seek for our workplace. The threads that we learn in trainings and books need to be pulled throughout the organization in order to expose how racial inequity is impacting us and drive forward with the changes for more equity and inclusion. This will require boldness on our part, to build both pathways and gateways that are inclusive and seek to dismantle the bias and cultural norms that influence our workplaces.  Which is why I believe that equity as a leadership skill is needed now more than ever.


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