It’s Bias That Hobbles People of Color, Not Lack of a Leadership Pipeline

August 11, 2020

In the Chronicle of Philanthropy, researchers Frances Kunreuther and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, discovered that it is not the lack of training that is limiting people of color from top positions in the non-profit world, but rather racial bias.  This challenges the thinking and action of many organizations working to bring people of color into top positions.  They write in part:

“Why are there so few leaders of color in nonprofit organizations?

It’s because of a persistent bias in the nonprofit world that systematically weeds out qualified candidates of color, we found in a study of more than 4,000 people — not a lack of aspiring leaders ready for the job, as is commonly assumed.

Despite years of deliberating the question of diversity, little has changed. Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and other racial and ethnic minorities still fill fewer than 20 percent of nonprofit executive-director positions, a figure that hasn’t budged for more than a decade.

Whether you look at the 2006 CompassPoint/Meyer Foundation study “Daring to Lead,”which showed 17 percent of the top leaders are people of color, or BoardSource’s 2015 “Leading With Intent” report, which put the figure at only 11 percent, it is clear that nonprofit leaders too seldom reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

To better understand this racial leadership gap, we not only surveyed people from across the nonprofit landscape but also conducted focus groups and more than three dozen interviews with nonprofit and foundation leaders as well as management experts to hear their views of the barriers people of color face.

The results and responses, which we published in our new report, “Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap,” went against the common wisdom about both causes and remedies.

It’s not enough — and may be misdirected — to assume we need to train people of color to be leaders. Instead, our findings indicate that nonprofits must tackle head on the biases that shut people of color out of top levels of nonprofit organizations. Among our conclusions:

The racial leadership gap isn’t about education, ambition, or qualifications.

Before conducting the survey, we often heard nonprofit executives say there simply are not enough interested and qualified people of color to lead their organizations. But our data tells another story…”

The authors discovered:

People of color in nonprofits face additional tasks and challenges that get in the way of climbing the career ladder.

Most of those who took the survey felt overworked and experienced high rates of burnout. However, people of color reported that they faced an extra duty: They were often called upon to represent people of their race or ethnicity both inside and outside of their organization.

This created increased responsibilities and work. As one person of color explained in a write-in response, staff members at her organization looked to her to deal with problems related to race, which was not only emotionally taxing but also completely unacknowledged as part of her job…

When presented with this finding, people of color in our focus groups understood this response all too well. They told us aspiring leaders of color don’t really need more training; they are just preparing for the extra scrutiny and judgment they will face as they seek to advance their careers…”

“Talented, ambitious, and qualified people of color are ready to lead, but they are thwarted by assumptions about race, the idea of “cultural fit,” and preconceived notions of what a leader looks like — the structural barriers that exist at nonprofits…”

“Asking people of color to train their way out of the racial-leadership gap has not worked.

Instead, we need to challenge the assumptions and implicit biases deeply embedded in nonprofits and in our society at large. These include educating board members, volunteers, and all who work at nonprofits on the best ways to achieve race equity. It is especially important to target recruiters and others who conduct executive searches so they present viable candidates of diverse races. All groups should institute good, effective human-resource practices that can compensate for biases at work.”

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