By Frances Kunreuther and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

April 24, 2018

This blog post was originally published by the Barr Foundation.

A new report explores the racial leadership gap in Massachusetts’ nonprofit sector and offers recommendations to address a longstanding challenge with deep roots.

One of the Barr Foundation’s core values is to invest in leadership, which we see as one of the essential capacities needed for a healthy, effective social sector. We are particularly interested in efforts that build a pipeline of diverse, well-prepared leaders who can motivate others, drive change, and produce results. Yet, despite significant demographic shifts, recent reports (Compass Point’s “Daring to Lead” and Board Source’s “Leading with Intent”) have consistently found that nonprofit leaders were overwhelmingly white (over 80 percent) and that the sector was not making progress in hiring more people of color into top leadership positions. In an effort to address the sources of this racial leadership gap, one of Building Movement Project’s goals has been to understand why it has persisted. Barr Foundation is honored to support BMP’s national research as well as a local report that unpacks the challenges and opportunities in Massachusetts.

This April, our organization – the Building Movement Project (BMP) – released “The Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap in Massachusetts: A Race to Lead Brief,” thanks to the support of the Barr Foundation. This latest report in our series on race and leadership in the nonprofit sector examines the state findings from our national survey exploring why there are so few people of color running nonprofit organizations. The report draws on data from nearly two hundred people from Massachusetts and more than 4,000 people across the country who completed the survey, as well as what we heard from four focus groups we conducted in Boston earlier this year.

This report on race and leadership in the nonprofit sector examines the state findings from our national survey exploring why there are so few people of color running nonprofit organizations.

Why focus on Massachusetts? One factor that made us curious about the Bay State was the series of articles by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team examining the perception and reality of racism in Boston that lead to the city’s notoriety as one of the country’s “most racist.” The people who participated in our focus groups – both whites and people of color – were acutely aware of how this reputation was reflected in the nonprofit sector. One white staffer said, “I think the nonprofit community is really self-conscious about its own reputation for being racist.” In our focus group with women of color, one person reflected on her time working at a white-led nonprofit organization, saying “I knew what I was signing up for … I was born and raised in Boston, in predominantly white settings my entire life.” But she was still surprised to encounter a “very clear discrepancy in the recognition and support given” to staff based on their race and gender.

While the region’s legacy of discrimination, segregation and inequality has lasting impacts on the ways nonprofits in Massachusetts are led and resourced, responses to the survey paralleled what we found on a national level. The Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap in Massachusetts offers ideas for making change based on both the survey data and insights from focus group participants:

  • Examine institutional practices. Respondents consistently cited the challenges nonprofit leaders of colors face in raising money, especially in Massachusetts where elite white wealth is hard to access. To counter this issue, we call on funders to examine their own grantmaking practices, to ensure that they are not contributing to funding disparities based on race.
  • Support and advance staff of color. To strengthen and diversify top leadership, the nonprofit sector needs to re-think its models for staff development to provide many pathways for staff to take on new challenges and build their skills, even if it means helping staff of color advance by taking new jobs in different organizations.
  • Build a community of changemakers. We believe that all nonprofit leaders can challenge the implicit and structural biases blocking progress and equity. Building a sense of community among leaders who are taking these steps will normalize and support the work of addressing race head on and develop best practices for making change in our organizations.

We released this latest “Race to Lead Brief” at a forum hosted by The Boston Foundation on April 2, 2018. In addition to presenting the findings, we were joined by a panel of local leaders that included Michael James (Senior VP of Human Resources Old Colony YMCA), Imari Paris Jeffries (Executive Director of Parenting Journey), Jocelyn Sargent (Executive Director of Hyams Foundation), Cassie Scarano (CEO & Co-Founder of Commongood Careers), and Celina Miranda (Executive Director of Hyde Square Task Force).

Watch a recording of the "Race to Lead" forum: