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Exploring Strategies to Close the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap

Studies show that the percent of nonprofit organizations led by BIPOC executives has remained stagnant at around 20 percent for over 15 years (see this 2021 study, this 2017 study, and this 2006 study). With so much attention dedicated to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) initiatives over the last decade, why are people of color still significantly underrepresented in leadership positions at nonprofits? Specifically related to hiring, what can we do that we're not currently doing to disrupt this stagnation?

CANOE’s focus during Black History Month is on finding answers to these questions. Through this blog post, our social media content, and this event on February 25th, we’ll be exploring JEDI-centered hiring practices for nonprofits, what works and what doesn’t work, and strategies to support the advancement of BIPOC leaders from within.

A few other alarming data points highlighting racial disparities in the nonprofit workplace:

  • Among foundations, the percentage of BIPOC executive directors or CEOs is even smaller at just 8 percent.

  • On average, just 10 percent of nonprofit staff members are people of color, and 37 percent of organizations have no staff of color.

  • Among the nonprofits that primarily focus on serving communities of color, BIPOC employees make up closer to 50 percent of all employees, but only 35 percent of these organizations are led by BIPOC executives (from this Urban Institute data).

Where do we go from here?

What May Work

We’ll start by examining hiring practices. If you do a Google search for “equitable hiring,” you’ll see thousands of helpful websites, many of which offer very similar tips for ensuring your processes are as unbiased and inclusive as possible. At CANOE, we like the guidance provided by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, The Centre for Community Organizations, The Management Center, Tara Robertson Consulting, The National AfterSchool Association, and this Harvard Business Review article.

Here are some common themes:

  • Lay the groundwork. Start by assessing your organization’s current demographics - what percent of employees represent historically marginalized groups? Then bring a team together to define what success looks like related to hiring, how you’ll track progress towards achieving it, as well as how you’ll monitor it over time. Educate everyone about your plans for change, ensuring that key people have a chance to weigh in and vocally support your plans. You may also need to educate colleagues involved in hiring about unconscious bias, what it is and how to avoid it.

  • Ensure that black and brown candidates will want to work for your organization. Read Tara Robertson’s blog post here. You may have a lot of work to do! But if you already have a just, equitable, inclusive, and all-around supportive work culture, you’re on the right track. If that’s the case, be sure to clearly articulate on your website, in the job description, and elsewhere your commitment to antiracism and a JEDI-centered work environment in which all employees can thrive.

  • Post and share your job description across the widest net possible. Share with as many people as you can, and ask diverse colleagues, neighbors, former classmates, etc, to share the job as well. Get everyone working to identify candidates from marginalized backgrounds and reaching out to them personally. Post in Facebook and LinkedIn groups for BIPOC professionals, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and so on. The Urban Sustainability Directors Network has an excellent list of other suggestions on page 5 of their guidance here.

  • Do the following with your job description:

    • List the salary range and benefits in detail.

    • Avoid using gendered words and phrases, like “commanding” and “dominant.”

    • Be mindful of program-specific jargon that only an “insider” would understand, including the job title. Also consider including language that speaks to applicants from different cultures and communities.

    • Remove all unnecessary qualifications and requirements. Is a college degree actually required for the position? Is experience with Salesforce really necessary, or would simply tech-savviness be sufficient?

    • Be clear on your must-haves for the position. The Management Center has a great set of templates to help with that here.

    • Add as a qualification that candidates have demonstrated skills, experience, and/or commitment to advancing racial equity.

    • Include a description of the hiring process, the timeline, and what applicants should expect along the way. Later, when you’re contacting candidates about interviews, consider providing a list of topics and the types of questions asked.

    • Mention the reasonable accommodation you offer for applicants with disabilities, including a sentence such as, “Please let us know what accommodations you might need when applying or if asked to be interviewed.”

  • Consider using anonymous techniques to reduce bias when reviewing applications. This might involve someone like an intern redacting personal information from resumes like names, addresses, and schools before they’re reviewed by the hiring team.

  • Have a diverse hiring team, which may increase candidates’ comfort levels and help to mitigate unconscious bias.

  • Use the same review process and criteria for all applicants. With your hiring team, make sure you’re all on the same page about how you’ll be assessing applicants consistently based on the criteria in the job description. Having standard behavioral interview questions may help, so long as they’re inclusive. Consider using a hiring rubric to mitigate bias, like this one created by The Management Center.

Above all else, be kind to applicants and help them feel as comfortable and well-informed as possible throughout the process.

What’s Not Working

Many nonprofits have focused extensively on trying to understand and dismantle the racist systems that serve as barriers for employees of color and communities served. They’ve put in place JEDI-centered hiring practices similar to those listed above, but white employees still disproportionately dominate their staff rosters and leadership teams. What’s going on?

During our first Learning Lab on February 25th at 2pm Eastern Time, we’ll be dissecting this question. We're thrilled that executive search and talent expert, Shalena Broadnax, will be joining us to provide insights from her own experience recruiting diverse talent for large nonprofits, including Teach for America and the KIPP Foundation.

Here are a few insights on why JEDI-focused efforts are not paying off:

  • White leaders and hiring teams continue to prioritize candidates already in their networks who’d be a “good fit.” It’s a natural instinct to feel that we can only trust people who are familiar to us, who speak our same language, who can easily join our team with little additional effort. However, studies show that among white folks in the United States, 91% of people in their networks are also white. Current nonprofit leaders need to develop and expand their networks, redefine their understanding of a “good fit,” and be ready to welcome and support new hires from diverse backgrounds.

  • More investment is needed towards developing emerging leaders within nonprofits, in particular ambitious BIPOC employees. What if you didn’t need to hire externally for that new director position? Put in place an equitable internal hiring policy, and create inclusive and culturally sensitive programs to support the development of young leaders. The 2019 Race to Lead survey completed by the Building Movement Project found that nonprofit employees of color are over 40% more likely to be interested in a leadership role with a nonprofit than their white counterparts.

  • Structure and power in nonprofit organizations continue to reinforce the benefits of whiteness. The Building Movement Project’s report from their 2019 survey identifies multiple ways that racialized barriers are common particularly in white-led nonprofits, where BIPOC employees are less likely to receive raises, promotions, and bonuses compared to their white counterparts. On a daily basis, employees of color face biases, microaggressions, and feelings of being tokenized as the only black or brown member of a team. All of these factors lead to higher turnover rates among employees of color, in particular if they report facing workplace biases or microaggressions.

Join us for our conversation on February 25th to further explore what needs to change to successfully recruit black and brown leaders and to ensure you have a work environment that enables ambitious BIPOC employees to thrive.

And talk to us about how CANOE might support your work in these areas. Fill out the form here or email

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