Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, co-director at the Building Movement Project, an organization that develops research, tools, training materials, and opportunities for partnership that bolster nonprofit organizations’ ability to support the voice and power of the people they serve.
Sean is a seasoned professional with experience in public policy, social change, and research. He and his colleague and co-director at Building Movement Project, Frances Kunreuther, recently co-authored Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap. The new report states that the racial leadership gap has remained the same for the last 15 years, includes findings from a survey of nearly 4,500 nonprofit employees, and outlines recommendations for the sector on how we can improve racial disparities in nonprofit leadership moving forward. So what do we all need to do to see progress in this space? Sean answers some questions below that help outline where more change is needed to see a truly equitable sector.
KGC: Tell us about why Building Movement Project decided to do this survey and report.
STB: Actually, the idea of the survey evolved over time. What really got us thinking and talking about this was hearing from partners who were concerned that they were seeing fewer nonprofit leaders of color in their cities. I’m talking about cities like Los Angeles and Detroit, where leaders were looking around after two decades and had a gut instinct that leadership opportunities were decreasing.
Building Movement Project had already done a lot of work on generational dynamics in organizations before I joined the team as co-director, and one report that predates me called Visions for Change was based on interviews with younger leaders. And the issue of race really came through in that study with people of color talking about leadership challenges that were really distinct from their white colleagues.
So all of that is to say that the survey was an opportunity to start collecting data about things we’d been hearing anecdotally for years. And when we ended up with more than 4,000 individual respondents, we thought there really must be an appetite to have a discussion about race in the nonprofit sector.
KGC: The report explores why the percentage of people of color in executive director/CEO role has remained under 20 percent for the last 15 years. Why was it important to focus on these particular leadership positions at nonprofit organizations versus looking at the percentage of all nonprofit employees?
STB: That’s a really important question because as an organization, BMP believes in supporting leadership at all levels. But we also think it’s important to be real about power. So we have to recognize that our nonprofit institutions are hierarchical. That’s just a statement of fact. And it is a pretty well-known phenomenon that people of color may get in the door, but not be given the opportunity to move up to the higher rungs on the ladder with more power, authority, and financial stability.
KGC: The idea that there needs to be a shift in the responsibility from people of color at nonprofits to the mostly white leadership is something that would resonate, especially with nonprofit leaders of color. How do you see that happening without it feeling like a very top-down approach controlled by the people with the most privilege?
STB: For the last few years, the focus has been on building the skills and confidence of people of color, but if people are ready and willing to lead but have those aspirations blocked at every turn, then we’re not addressing the real problem. In fact, we’re setting people up to become very frustrated.
This shift in responsibility is fundamentally about leadership to address structural racism. I don’t think that leadership is about control and top-down approaches. I see leadership as providing some clarity about intention and direction, so that people are inspired to follow down what may sometimes be an uncomfortable road.
KGC: The report points out the systematic issues with race and equity that are still embedded in our organizations, such as the perception that it is harder for people of color to fundraise. What can nonprofit leaders do to start to break down those systematic barriers?
STB: I want to be clear that we’re not just talking about a perception that it is harder for people of color to fundraise, the problem is the way things work when it comes to securing funding for nonprofit organizations. As a grantseeker, the process doesn’t tend to be very open, it’s much more of a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” kind of relationship. And in the midst of that opacity, there’s a lot of potential for bias to creep in.
So for people working in foundations who are concerned about equity, I think there are a few things to think about. First off, collecting data on the diversity of the staff and boards of grantee organizations can certainly be useful, and I also think it’s important that foundations have a strategy for using that data to inform decisions about grants, as well as providing grantees with the support they need to change those metrics. But I also think that philanthropic leaders can look at whether there are disparities in funding they provide to white led organizations compared to people of color led groups.
KGC: Is there anything else you’d like to add about this report for our audience?
STB: Race to Lead was the first report in a series of reports that we’ll be putting out over the next year or two. In fact, we just released our second report in the series on the sub-sample of survey respondents who self-identified as LGBTQ. We’re really excited to learn from organizational leaders, consultants, and capacity builders who can help identify bright spots so that we know what is working and can share those lessons more broadly.