Graphic: Arrow Join Now! Graphic: Arrow MY AFP Profile Graphic: Arrow AFP Canada Graphic: Arrow AFP Mexico Graphic: Star MAKE A GIFT


Building Movement Project Releases Report on Racial Leadership Gap in Nonprofits

Report finds that systemic racial bias, not a lack of talent, blocks advancement for people of color

(New York, NY) – The Building Movement Project (BMP) has released a new report, Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap, which analyzes the reasons behind why the nonprofit sector has so few leaders of color. Based on data from more than 4,000 survey respondents, the report provides both evidence of the structural barriers that perpetuate the racial leadership gap and recommendations for the nonprofit sector to address them.

The share of people of color in executive director and CEO roles in the nonprofit sector has remained under 20 percent for the last 15 years, despite a growing number of efforts to increase diversity in top leadership roles. BMP’s report suggests that the long-standing focus on training more people of color is not the answer. The sector needs a broad effort to address systemic racial bias.

“The lack of people of color in leadership positions within nonprofits cannot be explained by differences in background, skills or ambition,” said Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, co-director of the Building Movement Project. “Our data instead shows that unconscious biases and racialized practices prevent people of color who are already qualified to lead from rising to the top. These findings should provide a much-needed jolt to the system and we hope they will encourage the nonprofit sector to dismantle the barriers to equity and opportunity.” 

Some key findings include:

  • Respondents squarely identify the lack of people of color in top leadership roles as a structural problem for the nonprofit sector. They agreed that nonprofit leadership doesn’t represent the racial and ethnic diversity of the country, that executive recruiters don’t do enough to find a diverse pool of qualified candidates for top level nonprofit positions, and that nonprofit boards - which other surveys have repeatedly shown are overwhelmingly white - fail to support the leadership of staff of color. 
  • There are virtually no differences in background between staff of color and their white counterparts. Respondents were very similar in their level of education, type of nonprofit work, salary and years working in the nonprofit sector. For example, asked about their educational background:
    • Thirty-three percent of white respondents reported having a bachelor’s degree compared with 31 percent of people of color.
    • Fifty-three percent of whites reported having a master’s degree or the equivalent compared with 49 percent of people of color.
    • Nine percent of respondents of color reported having a terminal degree compared with eight percent of whites.
  • People of color aspire to take on leadership positions. In fact, 50 percent of people of color expressed interest in becoming a CEO or executive director of a nonprofit compared with 40 percent of white respondents.
  • Across race, most aspiring leaders feel prepared to take on an executive role.  When asked about the training they received, people of color and whites had few differences in the areas of financial skills, goal setting, articulating a vision, advocacy and how to collaborate.
  • Yet, people of color face unique challenges and are held to a different standard.
    • All respondents are frustrated by high workloads, but people of color stressed the additional challenge of being called upon to represent a community.
    • More people of color report inadequate salaries, the need for role models, lack of social capital and networks, and the need for relationships with funding sources.
    • Respondents of color also expect an extra level of judgement because of their race as they advance in their careers, and are more likely to feel a need for additional technical training to dispel doubts and added scrutiny about their skills. 

“The nonprofit sector cannot simply train its way out of the racial leadership gap. It has to address issues of bias,” said Frances Kunreuther, co-director the Building Movement Project. “We need a major shift in order to increase diversity in top level positions. That means those governing nonprofits should understand issues such as implicit bias and race equity and use this knowledge to address assumptions about people of color candidates. At the same time, we need HR professionals and recruiters to promote race-conscious hiring practices. We can address structural barriers and at the same time help promote access to networks and resources often denied to staff of color l.”

Some solutions BMP recommends include:

  • Focus on changing structures and organizational practices that keep potential leaders of color out. This includes training all nonprofit staff, especially leaders and those who recruit them, on issues of race and bias. Targeting Boards of Directors and recruiters is especially important so people of color are seen as viable candidates for CEO/executive director jobs.
  • Increase access for people of color to sources of funding and professional connections. Foundations and other funding sources should examine their practices with a race-based lens, including who they meet with and why, and who receives funding and how much. These funders should also think of ways to connect grantees and staff members of color to networks that can “open doors” for career advancement and funding.
  • Create systems of support for people of color to overcome racialized barriers. Aspiring leaders of color should continue to receive the same training and support as their white counterparts to help prepare them for nonprofit executive positions. But nonprofits should also encourage opportunities for people of color to meet with their peers and receive advice from leaders of color on how to navigate systems that are biased against them.

To download the full report, please visit:



 About Building Movement Project:

The Building Movement Project develops research, tools, training materials and opportunities for partnership that bolster nonprofit organizations’ ability to support the voice and power of the people they serve. For over a decade, BMP has been advancing the potential for nonprofit organizations to have an impact in building movements for progressive social change. We help organizations to align their social justice principles with their operating practices. Our practical resources and creative solutions help organizations innovate to meet the needs of the communities they serve and face the challenges of the external environment. We bring people together, sharing best practices and building bridges that lead to policies and approaches that support equity, fairness and sustainability.

For more information:

4300 Wilson Blvd, Suite 300, Arlington, VA 22203 • 703-684-0410 | 800-666-3863 | Fax: 703-684-0540
©2009 AFP. This site content may not be copied, reproduced or redistributed without prior written
permission from the Association of Fundraising Professionals or its affiliates.
Privacy Policy | Feedback | Contact Us | Advertise with Us