By Madeleine Davison

July 25, 2018

This article was originally published by Public Source.

“The good news [about this trend] is that it’s busting open leadership opportunities for people ... who have been patiently waiting for their chance to lead.”

In 1997, Walter Smith Jr. became the first black executive director of Family Resources, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that treats people who have experienced child abuse and provides counseling for families.

On his first fundraising mission, Smith––a licensed psychologist with a Ph.D.––had a meeting with a “very formal, well-educated” foundation director. He introduced himself to the man, who looked at him and asked a question Smith said he will never forget.

“Who are you?”

Smith said this experience “took [him] back quite a ways.”

“I remember sort of stuttering my way through that. The question wasn’t like, ‘Tell me about Family Resources.’ It wasn’t, you know, ‘Tell me about your organization. Tell me about your request.’ The first question was, who am I?” Smith said. “And so it became...a question about my social role, my identity.”

Smith, who retired from his position at Family Resources in 2012, said during his career as a black nonprofit professional, he experienced “anger and rage” and a sense that he had to be “twice better” than his colleagues to be taken seriously.

While nonprofits often serve diverse communities, white people dominate the upper ranks of these organizations in the United States.

But in a recent survey of staff from 195 Southwestern Pennsylvania nonprofits, conducted by researchers at Robert Morris University’s Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management, 69 percent of executives said they could retire or planned to retire within the next 10 years.

Peggy Outon, the Bayer Center’s executive director, said that while the impending wave of likely retirements raises concerns about finding qualified successors for longtime executives, she sees it as an opportunity for the sector to “open up space and opportunity” for a new generation of leaders.

“The good news [about this trend] is that it’s busting open leadership opportunities for people ... who have been patiently waiting for their chance to lead,” said Michelle Pagano Heck, president of the Pittsburgh-based executive search and development firm Nonprofit Talent.

But so far, there is little evidence that Baby Boomer retirements have created opportunities for people of color to lead nonprofits; in fact, it seems the racial demographics of nonprofit leadership haven’t changed substantially in the past decade. A 2006 study of nearly 2,000 nonprofit executive directors nationwide found that 82 percent were white. Eleven years later, a 2017 study of 1,378 U.S. nonprofit executives found 90 percent of respondents identified as white.

The overrepresentation of white people in nonprofit leadership does not stem from a lack of qualified, ambitious candidates of color, according to Race to Lead, a national survey conducted by the Building Movement Project [BMP]. Instead, the survey concluded, structural barriers often prevent people of color from reaching the top of the nonprofit sector.

The BMP report, which surveyed more than 4,000 nonprofit professionals across the country, found that white respondents and respondents of color had almost exactly the same levels of education and experience and that people of color were more likely than white people to say they aspired to leadership positions. However, 35 percent of people of color surveyed said their race had played a “very” or “slightly” negative role in their career trajectory, compared with 6 percent of white people.

Checking the box?

At a seminar hosted in Pittsburgh by the Program to Aid Citizen Enterprise [PACE] on May 30, BMP co-directors Sean Thomas-Breitfeld and Frances Kunreuther discussed the study’s findings with an audience of approximately 100.

Thomas-Breitfeld said the survey results indicated that executive recruiters often overlook people of color, and when boards are mostly white, they often don’t support candidates of color in reaching their leadership potential.

Fred Brown, president and CEO of The Forbes Funds, said in an interview that before he landed his current position, he was used to feeling like potential employers were just “checking the box” by interviewing him. So when Brown, who is black, applied for the top job at Forbes Funds, he wasn’t sure how seriously the board would take his qualifications, even though he knew he was a strong candidate.

“When I made the top five [applicants], my first inclination was, ‘Yeah, that’s just the Rooney Rule—they ain’t going to hire me. They’re just doing their due diligence,’” Brown said, referencing the NFL rule that requires teams to interview at least one person of color for each head coach or general manager position. “When I got the phone call, I was in disbelief. I kept [saying], ‘This ain’t real, it couldn’t be.’”

Fred Brown, president and CEO of The Forbes Funds, said that before he landed his current position, he was used to feeling like potential employers were just “checking the box” by interviewing him. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Thomas-Breitfeld noted that implicit or subconscious racial biases can negatively impact the career prospects of people of color.

“Fit” with the organization’s culture is one common criterion of the hiring process that can conceal implicit bias, Thomas-Breitfeld added. Experts say this argument can be used to justify excluding candidates who are different from the existing employees in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, or other characteristics.

“With the ‘good fit’ statement, I get this all the time—‘You’re assertive, you’re direct, you’re intense,’” Brown said. “That’s another word, to me, to be like, ‘You’re aggressive and scary.’”

He said that if he has a passionate demeanor, there are reasons for it. “I’ve had to bury my son’s friends—my son’s 12- and 14-year-old classmates. And I had to explain to my kids at 10 and 11, and 12 and 14, how to conduct [themselves] when they see the police. ... And so, I am a little bit more intense.”

Implicit bias can also bleed into the way recruiters view a candidate’s resume. Because predominantly white institutions are sometimes presumed to be superior to historically black colleges and universities [HBCUs], candidates of color who attended HBCUs might be at a disadvantage in the hiring process, Thomas-Breitfeld added.

“Part of the theory of social network is that because you went to the ‘right schools,’ your resume is going to be at the top of the pile,” Thomas-Breitfeld said. “But if the ‘right school’ is Harvard and the ‘right school’ is not Howard [an HBCU] ... those are ways in which very simple assumptions people make when looking at a resume have real, real disparate impacts.”

Thomas-Breitfeld said that when these and other factors come together, it creates a disproportionately white set of nonprofit leaders. That in turn can make it more difficult for organizations to work effectively, experts say.

A missing perspective

Sometimes, people of color in white-dominated nonprofits feel their organizations get some things wrong about the populations they serve, Thomas-Breitfeld said. Sharon Jefferson, a program manager for PACE, a Pittsburgh nonprofit grantmaking and capacity-building organization, said it can be easier for organizations led by people of color to connect with constituents of color, especially since so much nonprofit work focuses on addressing and eliminating racial disparities.

“There’s an automatic sense of trust and believability,” Jefferson said.

Sharon Jefferson is a program manager for PACE, a Pittsburgh nonprofit grantmaking and capacity-building organization. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In a piece for HuffPost, Baltimore activist Shahem Mclaurin wrote that during his career in the nonprofit sector, he witnessed powerful white nonprofit workers “speak to Black children in derogatory and degrading ways.” Mclaurin, who is black, added that he saw “youth discarded and ousted from networks of nonprofits simply for doing things kids do such as throwing rocks at a sign.” He said white nonprofit staff weren’t prepared to nurture children of color who had been through traumatic situations.

Vu Le, executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, a social justice nonprofit in Seattle, wrote in a blog post that in some white-dominated nonprofits where leaders do not come from the communities they serve, “well-intentioned but useless and sometimes even harmful stuff [gets] voted on and implemented.” Le cited a meeting in which someone proposed putting 100 percent of an organization’s funding into early education instead of youth development. Le had to explain that immigrant children in his community often don’t arrive until after they turn five, “so they’d be screwed if you only invest in early learning.”

In some cases, leaders of color may be more deeply connected than their white counterparts to the communities their nonprofits operate in. Brown said when tragedy strikes—when someone is shot or has a violent encounter with police—he is rarely more than one or two degrees removed from the victim.

“Can you imagine?” Brown said. “You wake up in the morning [and] you get a call: ‘That was my nephew that got killed.’ ‘That was my sister’s boyfriend that got killed.’ I might not know the person, but I know the person’s relative.”

Brown said this proximity to trauma gives him and many other leaders of color greater sensitivity. Their experiences motivate them to “restore hope” in people who have been “marginalized or disconnected from opportunity” without making snap judgments about their situations, he said.

“In many cases … the very things we’re trying to eliminate, we know somebody personally that’s struggling with it,” Brown said. “And so, we’re not quick to throw them under the bus. Some of them are our family members.”

Getting the job is half the battle

Nevertheless, people of color who work on the ground level in white-led organizations often feel underappreciated, Thomas-Breitfeld said. One BMP survey respondent said their organization looked to them to solve all its internal problems with racism, which the respondent said was “invisible” yet draining work.

According to Thomas-Breitfeld, the few leaders of color who do make it to the top ranks get tapped for more advisory roles on boards and committees than their white counterparts, which saps their time and energy. If there were more nonprofit leaders of color, this responsibility would be more evenly distributed.

On an interpersonal level, the constant, erosive power of racism takes its toll, even on people of color in the highest ranks of leadership. Brown said that on average, he experiences two to eight daily microaggressions—verbal and nonverbal slights that communicate subtle hostility toward marginalized groups. Brown gave the example of a coffee shop cashier refusing to touch his hand, instead dropping his change or credit card on the counter.

For Brown, the burden of microaggressions is compounded by the fact that some people who don’t experience them tend to dismiss his perspective. They question his truthfulness and attempt to excuse the aggressor. He said that on some days, he experiences several microaggressions before he even gets to work, and he needs time to process them and compose himself before interacting with colleagues.

“It wears on you,” Brown said.

With all this in mind, Thomas-Breitfeld and Kunreuther emphasized that nonprofits have a responsibility to actively work to improve diversity within their boards and leadership.

Heck said Nonprofit Talent tries to diversify the candidate pools it presents to clients by reaching out to potential candidates she calls “unusual suspects.”

“It’s not just the people who are applying for every job, and it’s not just the same top 10 leaders in the community that everybody goes to and says, ‘Hey, do you want this job?’” said Heck. “It’s looking deeper into organizations, it’s looking across the sector. So, maybe they’re in an arts organization right now, but they would like to be in a health and human service organization, or maybe they’re in a for-profit job right now and would like to make the shift over to nonprofit.”

Brown said when he was executive director of Homewood Children’s Village, he tried to network with potential hires in diverse social spheres, frequenting Latino, LGBTQ and Afrocentric events. He said this helped him build a team that was diverse in its background and thinking.

The way a nonprofit markets an open position also matters. Jefferson said that prior to her arrival at PACE, many of her employers made an intentional effort to signal to candidates of color that they would be taken seriously, which made her feel more confident applying.

Sharon Jefferson, a program manager for PACE, says it can be easier for organizations led by people of color to connect with constituents of color, especially since so much nonprofit work focuses on addressing and eliminating racial disparities. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Words and phrases like “people of color,” “protected classes,” “fighting discrimination” and “minority youth” caught her attention and signaled to her that a person of color would be a perfect fit for the job, Jefferson added in an email.

Similarly, Brown noted that when he applied for the job at The Forbes Funds, he needed to be reassured that the board wasn’t wasting his time by including him for the sake of diversity statistics.

Ultimately, these efforts matter because the fact that nonprofit leadership is disproportionately white is at odds with the core values of the sector itself, Thomas-Breitfeld noted at the “Race to Lead” seminar.

“It’s interesting for us as a sector that is committed to and invested in social change,” Thomas-Breitfeld said, “to then contend with the ways that, inside of nonprofit organizations, we replicate the same systems that are creating inequality in other parts of our lives.”

Madeleine Davison is an editorial intern for PublicSource. She can be reached at

This story was fact-checked by Jeffrey Benzing.