Survey shows systemic racism among nonprofit leaders

A new analysis finds racial bias at the highest level of executive leadership. 

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How to improve equity, diversity and inclusion is the biggest talking point in the nonprofit sector right now. A new survey shows nonprofit leaders may be the biggest barrier towards better representation of people of color at the executive level.

The percentage of people of color in nonprofit executive director roles has remained under 20% for the past 15 years, according to the Building Movement Project, a research firm and consultant for the nonprofit sector.

The New York-based organization launched a nationwide survey of nonprofits to find out the reasons why. More than 4,000 respondents answered questions about their job, interest in leading a nonprofit, training opportunities, views of leadership, and personal background. Forty-two percent of respondents were people of color and 58% were white.


The findings were surprising in that they blew apart common assumptions about why there are not more people of color in executive level positions: that people of color need more training to take a leadership role; or that they do not have the educational background to become of CEO.

The survey found people of color aspire to be leaders more than white respondents. It also found that people of color have similar backgrounds in education, position, salary and years working in the nonprofits sector.

The organization concludes that what prevents people of color from taking leadership roles are unspoken and unconscious biases that prevent those with hiring power fairly assessing and valuing their potential.


“Race is a factor of advancement. Over one-third of people of color thought their ethnicity was a barrier to advancement,” said Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, co-director of the Building Movement Project, who presented the findings at the Nonprofit Association of Oregon’s annual meeting on Thursday.

Funders may also play a role in strengthening racial bias.

Because many funders of nonprofits are white, nonprofit leaders may seek to retain white people at the executive level because of either an unconscious or deliberate assumption that funders prefer to give money to organizations that are led by people that look like them.


The Nonprofit Association of Oregon, which turns 40 this year, has done of a lot of work over the past year to train staff on equity, diversity and inclusion. Charitable foundations, such as the Meyer Memorial Trust, have also spearheaded changes at their organizations to make their mission and workforce more rooted in equitable values.

It is a time of deep contemplation and change for nonprofits, many of which are being forced to reassess their organizational structures.

Real change, it seems, really has to come from the top.