This article was published in the Urban Matters, a publication of The New School.
The Building Movement Project, where I am co-executive director, has released two reports on the experiences of nonprofit executives of color, the unique burdens they face when taking over leadership from white predecessors, and the steps that foundations and organizations can take to support them.
Together they paint a vivid picture of the racialized challenges facing nonprofit executives of color, as well as the opportunities for change that foundations and nonprofits can make to support and sustain BIPOC leaders for the long-term.
The first report, Making (Or Taking) Space: Initial Themes on Nonprofit Transitions from White to BIPOC Leaders, is based on interviews with incoming leaders of color, exiting white leaders, and board members. The more recent report, Trading Glass Ceilings for Glass Cliffs: A Race to Lead Report on Nonprofit Executives of Color, builds upon the findings of a 2019 Race to Lead Revisited report, as well as a previous report on nonprofit executives from 2016 Race to Lead survey data.
Making (Or Taking) Space documents how even when organizations were intentional about recruiting a new leader of color, the incoming BIPOC leaders inherited organizational dynamics that were trickier than anticipated. Combined with data from our 2019 Race to Lead survey, it shows how unprepared the nonprofit sector is for an expected wave of such executive transitions.
The report is based on interviews with EDs/CEOs of color, their white predecessors and board members. Comparatively, of the more than 1,000 survey respondents who indicated that they were a nonprofit executive director or CEO in our 2019 Race to Lead survey, 48 percent of EDs/CEOs of color and 44 percent of white EDs/CEOs reported that they were thinking about transitioning, planning to transition, or were already in the process of leaving their present jobs.
The potential scale of these executive transitions could actually be even bigger than these survey results suggest. Multiple funders have noted that cohorts of grantee organizations are experiencing executive transitions. In the interviews for our 2020 On the Frontlines report, we also heard that the Covid-19 pandemic has added to perpetual concerns about burnout among many organizational leaders.
In Trading Glass Ceilings for Glass Cliffs we observed how the “glass cliff" effect is impacting leaders of color in the sector. A companion to the well-known glass ceiling that has blocked women or people of color from assuming leadership roles, the glass cliff identifies a phenomenon where BIPOC folks break through the glass ceiling and find themselves in precarious leadership positions. Our survey data and interviews revealed how many BIPOC executives of color find that taking the helm of organizations can put them on a slippery slope, with a high isk of very visible failure. As one survey respondent told us, “I have been cast as an ‘angry black man,’ … I now know that I cannot operate by the same rules as my counterparts of other races. I don’t get the benefit of the doubt.”
We know from our 2016 and 2019 surveys that the bulk of EDs/CEOs of color who were part of an executive transition took over their leadership role from a white predecessor. Awareness of racial equity in the sector is pushing nonprofit boards to recruit a leader of color. However, the transitions are too often happening before the organization is ready to be led by a person of color. As we found in Making (Or Taking) Space, many “incoming leaders [of color] were expected to heal tensions that had overheated under previous [white] leadership.”
Instead of hiring DEI (“diversity, equity, and inclusion”) consultants, many organizations are hiring EDs/CEOs of color to both run the organization and fix the organization’s DEI problems. The added DEI job that incoming leaders are forced to take on makes it even more impossible for new BIPOC leaders to succeed. This is identified as a major frustration and challenge in the bar chart below.
Adding to the pressure, many organizations engage in essentialist thinking – assuming that simply by virtue of the new ED being a person of color, they can magically and definitively fix longstanding internal dynamics that their white predecessor had not been able to resolve.
One interviewee described how many of her peers inherited staff teams with “deep-seated issues of race and gender,” so the new leader of color stepped into their role and people expected the issues “solved tomorrow.” She explained that “We don’t have the liberty as Black women leaders to say we’re going to set that aside and come back to it in a month. Our staff will revolt.”
I too often hear similar concerns about brewing “revolts” within the staff teams of newly BIPOC-led nonprofits. This impatience on the part of staff and boards for new leaders to turn around their organizations adds to the psychological burden and extra work that leaders of color often don’t factor into their salary negotiations.
When considering what a “fair wage” would be for BIPOC leaders, incoming EDs/CEOs of color should be pushing for additional compensation based on the expectations that they will not only run the organization and help it achieve its mission, but also be the person who will address the racial equity concerns that made the board consider a leader of color in the first place. Let’s just be real about the second job that BIPOC leaders are inheriting and compensate them for taking all of it on.
SEAN THOMAS-BREITFELD IS CO-EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE BUILDING MOVEMENT PROJECT, WHICH SUPPORTS AND PUSHES THE NON-PROFIT SECTOR DEVELOPING RESEARCH, CREATING TOOLS AND TRAINING MATERIALS, AND FACILITATING NETWORKS FOR SOCIAL CHANGE. IT EXPLORES HOW NONPROFITS CAN TRANSFORM INTERNAL STRUCTURES AND SYSTEMS TO BECOME MORE EQUITABLE WORKPLACES AND TACKLE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT SOCIAL ISSUES OF OUR TIMES.
ILLUSTRATED BY: ISABELLA WANG