By Kimberly Lewis

September 21, 2018

This article was originally published by Forbes.

When I was a young girl, I never dreamed of working at, much less running, a nonprofit organization.

I didn't have a framework around nonprofit or for-profit, for that matter. Today, colleges and universities offer students majors in nonprofit management and philanthropy. But there weren't a lot of visible options for me. I didn't see many women in roles of authority aside from teachers, nurses and a few small restaurant owners in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. Still, I sensed that there was something different waiting for me.

In high school, I joined the debate team, where I found my voice in the dramatic interpretation and poetry and prose divisions. Public speaking was difficult at first, but with practice, I became comfortable and won several awards. That clinched it. Public speaking in some form was where and how I would make my mark. In college, I majored in fine arts and minored in communications and quickly landed a job in print journalism (my first love was writing, so this was perfect).

I thought I would work in this field until retirement, but after more than a decade as a reporter, I again sensed there was a different path for me. I began working on a book about my family, which led me to leave the newspaper to devote more time to this endeavor. I had a few extra hours in the day, so I decided to volunteer at a local nonprofit agency.

After a few months, my role changed from volunteer to employee, and I saw the dedication it took to keep an organization afloat. The founder, an African American woman, became a wonderful mentor to me. She took me under her wing and gave me more responsibilities, which helped develop my business skills. There were very few women of color in executive positions at that time, and she imparted the importance of paying it forward to help others develop their skills.

The Landscape Today

Women chief executives represent only 23.8% of all chief executives in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau. When you look at people of color, the percentage of representation at the chief executive level is no better for men or women, according to a Race to Lead survey, an initiative of the Building Movement Project.

What's more, Daring to Lead's 2011 nonprofit leadership report found 82% of the executives who answered the survey identified as white. And the foundation boards surveyed in BoardSource’s 2017 Leading With Intent reportrevealed that 85% of their board members are white. This consistently and dismally shows that less than 20% of executive directors/CEOs of nonprofits are people of color. This has been the pattern for over a decade and if we take a nod from for-profit corporations, it doesn’t look much better in the future -- at least, not without intentional intervention.

Just look at the CEOs in today's Fortune 500 companies. Only three black men are in these positions of power, according to a March Fortune article. This is down from six African American Fortune 500 CEOs in 2012. This total has not been this low since 2002.

Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns was part of this exclusive club, but she left Xerox in 2016. Female Fortune 500 CEOs, as a whole, have declined by 25% since 2017, according to a May Fortune article.

Diversifying The Pipeline

We can safely assume that people of color and women are losing ground in the for-profit arena and are stagnant in the nonprofit circles. The solution to this issue is for both nonprofit and for-profit leaders and boards of directors to be intentional in attracting, building and retaining talent in these underrepresented populations.

I believe the talent exists, but it is not fully cultivated. If every executive took one woman or person of color, mentored and encouraged them to move up within the company or seek higher levels outside of the company, we would see gradual but significant improvement. We can accomplish this by doing three things:

1. Build bench strength. This can be done by providing mentoring and/or coaching, educational investment and assigning special tasks to help employees grow their skills and knowledge.

2. If your organization lacks diversity, recruit it. Intentionally seek applicants via various affinity groups, such as the local or state Hispanic Alliance, the National Urban League or the American Business Women’s Association.

3. Create a diverse succession plan. This succession plan should intentionally increase the diversity within an organization and allow for planned upward mobility.

These practices take time, often years. But more than that, it takes the intentional commitment of leaders, staff and the board.