By Courier Editor

This article was originally published by the New Pittsburgh Courier.

“It’s important to think about how we strengthen the community by building leadership”

Since its beginning in the wake of the riots following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, PACE, the Program to Aid Citizen Enterprise, worked to build the capacity of individuals, groups, organizations and small minority businesses to fight inequality. Now in celebration of its 50th year, PACE is hosting a series of seminars to further that goal.

One of these, held May 30 at the Highmark Auditorium, looked at the racial leadership gap in non-profits across the country, and findings from a survey on the issue conducted by the Building Movement Project. The survey indicates that despite diversity and inclusion efforts designed to expand the pool of minority candidates for board-level and executive positions, the roughly 80/20 racial gap in leadership exists—meaning 20 percent or less of non-profit leadership posts are held by people of color.

“As we move forward in supporting individuals and non-profits that support our community, we want to make sure we also confront the circumstances that cause those unequal conditions,” said PACE Executive Director Lucille Dabney.

Evan Frazier, Highmark senior VP for community affairs, acting as host, echoed Dabney noting the importance of the survey.

“It’s important to think about how we strengthen the community by building leadership,” he said.

The survey responses were presented by Building Movement co-directors Sean Thomas-Breitfeld and Frances Kunreuther. The survey yielded 4,385 responses over a three-month period from non-profit employees at various levels within their respective organizations. Among its findings are that the leadership gap is:


  • Not about differences qualifications—minority and White respondents were similar;
  • Not about lack of aspirations—minorities showed a higher desire for leadership;
  • Not about skills—minorities and whites had similar financial, goal-setting, and visionary skills.


What it is about, the survey found, is an uneven playing field, where minorities have the added burden of “representing their community” and said they lacked the role models, social capital/networks, and the relationships with funding sources needed to succeed at the highest levels.

Breitfeld highlighted one response that summed up this frustration:

“(The organization) looked to me to solve all the problems of racism within the organization. By default, POC often become the face of accountability or point of feedback in such situations. It put a huge responsibility on me; over time, I spent at least 50 percent of my time doing that work…rather than my job description of national organizing. A lot of my work was invisible…”

Respondents across all races also cited the lack of people in top leadership roles as a structural problem—they believe recruiters and boards need to do more to diversify leadership. But they also noted that diverse leadership candidates can be eliminated from consideration because of the nebulous excuse that they “are not a good fit.”

Kunreuther did tease out data for Pennsylvania, which showed slightly better representation than the national figures. One thing that stood out in the PA data was that those in the LGBTQ community felt race was a far bigger hinderance to advancement than either gender identity or sexual preference.

As for recommendations, Breitfeld and Kunreuther cited several areas where the needle should move:

  • Rewrite the story—to address how potential leaders are “weeded out.” Leaders should speak out on addressing race in their organizations, and gain support for these efforts from funders;
  • Address system barriers—initiate training and hiring standards for board members, create support systems of mentorship, sponsorship, and change philanthropic practices to increase access for people of color;
  • Measure results—begin collecting data on how organizations are moving forward on hiring high-level people of color, compile track records on recruiters’ commitment to presenting viable minority candidates for boards and executive-level positions.