Put Race on the Table
The Oct. 18 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy confirmed what we in the nonprofit sector already knew: The nonprofit and philanthropic sector doesn’t do a very good job at this thing called diversity. Though the foundation world would have us believe that much progress is being made with the emergence of giving circles and donor communities of color, the reality is that it’s high time for the nonprofit sector to put race on the table.
In fact, I titled this post as such because the expanded, cop-out definitions of diversity that include gender, religion, disability and sexual orientation allow organizations to avoid the topic of race, and pay lip service to the issue instead of making real cultural changes.
Some food for thought: 82 percent of nonprofit CEOs are white; 94 percent of foundation presidents are white; 86 percent of board members are white. These statistics among the sector’s top leadership highlight the enormous disparity between what our clients and communities look like in comparison to our leaders, given that less than 70 percent of the U.S. population is white.
This disparity is happening all over the country, but it’s especially disconcerting herein Washington, D.C. — colloquially referred to as “Chocolate City” for its high number of Black residents (over 60 percent) — because executive directors and CEOs of nonprofit organizations that serve predominantly Black or Latino communities are predominantly white. It’s gotten so bad that Venture Philanthropy Partners has invested $500,000 in the African American Nonprofit Network to recruit more of the kinds of leaders that look like the people their organizations are serving.
Now let me be clear: I do not necessarily take issue with white leaders serving communities of color. We need all kinds of people to do the important work of social change as it moves their hearts to do so. However, it makes me uneasy when I think about the reasons behind the racial disparity and lack of diversity within the nonprofit sector. Why is it that the people who have relevant experiences of struggle and challenge within communities of color are not usually the ones who emerge as nonprofit leaders to address these issues? Aren’t these the ideal leaders that would know how best to solve these social problems? And if so, why doesn’t philanthropy care enough about real social change to begin recruiting more people of color for leadership positions?
Pablo Eisenberg says that leadership and challenge go hand in hand. So, if our current leaders never had to face the kind of challenges that go along with being a person of color in a community of great poverty but are then tasked with paving the way for change in these same communities, who’s zooming who? If we are, in fact, buying into the idea that a white leadership pool is more desirable than one that is racially diverse, are we really getting anywhere with our goals of solving the kinds of problems that could benefit from leaders with firsthand knowledge of the issues? The nonprofit sector needs to recognize that people of color are often still seen as takers of handouts and charity instead of as empowered and valuable citizens, and having white leaders of philanthropic organizations only reinforces this notion and does more harm than good.
There are many other reasons to promote diversity within nonprofit leadership that we could name here, but the point is that it’s clear we need to start openly talking about these reasons more so that we can begin to truly open up our boardrooms and executive positions to different kinds of leaders. Right now, I definitely think there’s space and opportunity for some real inquiry within the nonprofit sector. We need to ask ourselves some hard questions: Why hasn’t the leadership of the nonprofit and philanthropic sector kept pace with the changes in racial demographics in this country? Can nonprofits ever be fully effective in solving social problems if they don’t include the racially diverse perspectives of the communities they serve? Would foundations be more effective in their grantmaking if they ensured their grantees’ leadership reflected the communities they serve? Who will be tasked to educate the 86 percent of white nonprofit board members so they see racial diversity as a critical issue for them to address?
Rosetta Thurman, president, Thurman Consulting, is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, D.C., area. She holds a master’s degree in nonprofit management and blogs about leadership trends and related issues in the nonprofit sector at The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The above is an Oct. 22, 2007, blog posted at Stanford Social Innovation Review.