The Nonprofit Sector Has a Ferguson Problem

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Ferguson protesting verdict

R. Gino Santa Maria /

Nearly 1,200 miles away from Ferguson, glued to my television, watching CNN coverage of the protests there, I could hear the reaction to the grand jury’s decision loud and clear. Chants and police sirens rang through my Boston neighborhood. I was one of many in the nonprofit community pondering how a Midwest town descended into unrest we haven’t seen since the L.A. Riots.

Most of us are alarmed by the almost unbelievable disparity in Ferguson’s civic life that is fueling the protests. African Americans are two-thirds of the city’s population, but whites serve as mayor, five of six city councilors, six of seven school board members, and 50 of 52 police officers—reduced by one with Darren Wilson’s resignation.

However, are we alarmed at the nonprofit sector’s own lack of representation? Despite groundbreaking efforts by the Center for Diversity and the Environment, the D5 Coalition, Green 2.0, and New Generation of African American Philanthropists, the glaring disparity in nonprofit leadership bears a striking similarity to Ferguson.

People of color are currently 36 percent of the U.S. population and are expected to grow to 50 percent as early as 2042. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, at least 60 percent of nonprofits serve people of color.

However, several surveys of nonprofit employment—from Commongood Careers to American Humanics (now the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance)—have found that whites lead 9.5 out of 10 philanthropic organizations. Only seven percent of nonprofit chief executives and 18 percent of nonprofit employees are people of color.

The disparity continues in governance, where nonprofit policies and programs are set. BoardSource’s most recent survey reports that only eight percent of nonprofit board members are minorities, and 30 percent of boards lack a single member of color. Despite diversity rhetoric, nonprofits have made no progress in recruiting racial and ethnic minorities. The BoardSource survey found that while 63 percent of organizations say that diversity is a core value, the percentage of people of color on nonprofit boards has not changed in 18 years.

Lacking substantive input on how nonprofits should serve them, people of color are relegated to being mere recipients of philanthropy rather than becoming active partners in their communities’ success.

“While increasingly the nonprofit sector is embracing ‘asset’ based approaches to its work, people of color remain too much on the outside of program design, development, delivery and evaluation,” said Tiziana Dearing, a Boston College professor and former executive director of Harvard’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. “As a result, we miss assets they value in the community, run the risk of failing to understand what quality is to those whom organizations seek to support, and under leverage passion for change.”

The nonprofit sector has a moral and programmatic imperative to keep pace with the nation’s growing diversity, and Ferguson presents a catalyst moment to make real change. Diversity statements and commitments mean nothing without concrete steps from organizations.

Transparency. Nonprofits should be required to disclose their employee and board demographics alongside 990s and audited financials. GuideStar has recently added new voluntary diversity metrics—including sexual orientation, gender, and disability status—of employees, and other watchdogs like Charity Navigator should follow suit.

Policies. Going beyond diversity statements, nonprofits should adopt affirmative action policies to have their board, leadership, and staff mirror their communities’ demographics by 2020. As important as conflict of interest and records retention, affirmative action policies should include aggressive recruitment of minority board members and mandating at least one minority finalist for staff candidate slates. Executive recruitment firms should adopt similar policies to recruit and present minority candidates for all nonprofit searches.

Outreach. Fulfilling these policies will mean stepping outside of comfort zones to recruit people from new sources. Many nonprofits I have worked with complain that they have difficulty attracting minority candidates for senior staff and board positions without having performed outreach to communities of color.

“I don’t buy the ‘we can’t find minorities’ excuse,” said Lynn Holmes, a retired BellSouth executive and consultant who has served as board nominating chair for nonprofits in Georgia and North Carolina. “You have to go where the people are. Historically black colleges, local and state government, minority business groups, and fraternal organizations are full of professionals of color willing to serve their communities.”

Diversity audits. Through formal reviews, nonprofits should learn whether minorities feel welcome to join them. Often, policies and culture create unintentionally hostile environments that can sabotage efforts to recruit and retain minority staffers and volunteer leaders.

“What we continue to learn is that responding to the lack of representation without interrogating why certain groups are absent yields short-term results and can often do more harm than good,” said Melanie Allen, who consults for 24 environmental nonprofits on diversity through the Conservation Trust for North Carolina. “For instance, many board members recruited simply to diversify the board do not finish their terms, leaving organizations in a cycle of trying to fill a quota instead of assessing why certain people may not feel comfortable or welcome in their organizations.”

Of the minority board members who responded to BoardSource, more than 60 percent felt excluded from power within their organizations, and 13 percent had negative experiences due to tokenism. I myself resigned from a nonprofit board after experiencing several micro-inequities—subtle, often unconscious messages indicating that my value to the organization was not equal to other volunteers.

Diversity audits, much like capital campaign feasibility studies, can uncover these hidden issues by eliciting candid feedback from minority volunteers, staff, and community members and by recommending concrete changes.

Leadership from funders. The needle will not move on nonprofit diversity unless foundations and corporate donors use the power of the purse to force grantees to make aggressive strides. Sector change is slow and difficult in itself, and our nation’s discomfort with race makes addressing diversity exponentially harder. Without financial incentives, most nonprofits will either shy away from confronting these issues or launch halfhearted attempts.

The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation has a comprehensive policy requiring its grantees to have boards reflective of their communities. If an applicant does not have a representative board, it must submit a written, concrete plan to achieve racial diversity before receiving funding. The Foundation will provide technical assistance in achieving diversity goals, but if no progress is made, it can decline to make future grants.

Foundations and corporate donors can also include diversity work in capacity-building grants, funding nonprofits that are willing to take actionable steps toward inclusivity but may be unable to afford a diversity audit or executive recruitment help.

Many of us are alarmed by the events in Ferguson, but is our sector perpetuating the same lack of representation fueling that community’s unrest? We can respond to Michael Brown’s death and Darren Wilson’s exoneration through marches and organizing, but we would be hypocrites to ignore the disparity within our own ranks.

Changing how our sector does business will be difficult, but holding the moral compass, nonprofits have a responsibility to catch up to government and lead where private industry has not. However, significant change won’t happen until funders push nonprofits to boldly tackle this issue.



  • Sanna Roling

    🙂 I’ve seen exactly what you have stated in both my work experience and in the way some of the volunteers in my charity treat people of different ethnicities. Having grown up in the era when Martin Luther King worked to change the mindset of the nation and world, I saw then and now that we have a long ways to go. Luckily I have friends of all races who accept me for who I am inside, not outside. I feel for those whose skin is different as racism is very much alive. To be rich but not able to drive an expensive car because or racial profiling is ABSOLUTELY WRONG. To be out on the street in certain types and colors of clothing and have issues just because is ABSOLUTELY WRONG. I for one have had a goal since day one to follow the verbiage “without regard to….” and mean it. It took me a while to diversify my organization — those I serve, and the Board who watches over — I’m not where I want to be yet, after 15 years but out of 12 Board members 2 are black, 2 are Hispanic, 1 is native American, and 7 are white. Three are disabled. I still have work to do, but for me it’s simple — in all marketing I use the verbiage “without regard to…” and personally meant it. My organization is made up of people from five continents.

    Yes, we need to continue to work toward equality for all. Equality does not mean everyone has to own the same things or have the same money but it does mean everyone has the right to strive individually for the jobs and status of their choice and effort.

  • Brandon A. Robinson, M.A., Esq.

    Indeed it is. I think the “diversity requirement” that Z. Smith Reynolds espouses should factor not just in the nonprofit sector, but the corporate and public sectors as well. But this should not be diversity just for diversity’s sake–i.e., filling up “reserved” spaces for certain groups–but rather careful, thoughtful selection of a broad range of talented, high-quality people, each of whom truly represents the best of his/her community.

  • Derwin Dubose

    Sanna, thanks for commenting! I’d be interested in learning how you went about recruiting your diverse board. Any insights for the NPQ community?

  • Derwin Dubose

    Brandon, I’m really proud of ZSR, and you’re right about token diversity. Melanie Allen pointed to it in her interview, people who are recruited to boards just to fulfill a quota tend to leave before their terms end. That’s why I’m a big fan of diversity audits to uncover the often hidden issues that keep people of color from engaging with a nonprofit.

    The Democratic Party has had to go through a true quota system, mandating that there be slots reserved for women, people of color, geographic areas, and political faction in party leadership. Professionally, I grew up in that culture, having to find a “black male from the East” or a “white female teacher from Charlotte” as an entry-level employee.Leaving tha culture to work in nonprofits, I was shocked as to how blind folks are to the optics of not having a diverse board.

  • Vida L. Avery, PhD

    Good article. My colleagues and I wrote about this very issue three years ago in our book, Race, Gender, and Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations, November 22, 2011,

  • Derwin Dubose

    Vida, thank you so much for sharing your book. I downloaded it from the Harvard Library and will add it to my holiday reading!

  • TD

    Bravo on this article! I current work for a nonprofit organization and your details mirror our organization. I’ve worked for a nonprofit for 8 years and witnessed turner over of board members and leadership staff, however not one replacement has ever been a person of color. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Once again, bravo!


  • Carolyn M. Appleton

    This discussion in well-taken. Some of our leading Texas foundations require nonprofits to disclose the ethnicity of each member of the Board of Directors as part of the application process, in an effort to underscore the importance of diversity in governance. In Austin, the Austin Community Foundation has hosted diversity workshops for nonprofit professionals. But still, many leaders in the sector in our state have trouble communicating with and identifying new leadership (and donors) from diverse communities.

    A few years ago, I addressed this issue on my blog, focusing on Asian, Hispanic and African-American communities ( The Brookings Institute produced a brief but insightful video one can view on YouTube regarding America’s changing demographics (2013: The nonprofit sector must focus on diversity; those who do not will be left behind!

  • Derwin Dubose

    TD, thanks for sharing. I think our next piece on this topic might focus on what people like you can do to advance diversity in your organizations. What do you think?

  • Derwin Dubose

    Carolyn, thanks for sharing a treasure chest of resources. I really like the Brookings video from William Frey. I’m helping lead a group of Kennedy School fellows to visit San Antonio and Laredo to study demographic changes. Any suggestions on people to talk to or places to see?

  • Tharesa Lee

    Well, many would say as a sector that we do not have that problem. I enjoin us as a sector to look around, be honest with ourselves and let’s move forward into the next century with a renewed hope and mindset.

  • Carolyn M. Appleton

    Yes! San Antonio is a wonderful city – very diverse and comfortable with its diversity.

    I would suggest Dennis Noll, President and CEO of the San Antonio Area Foundation (210.225.2243), and also, the leadership of the MLK Commission of the City of San Antonio ( The annual MLK March in San Antonio is the largest in the nation (100,000+). I created a video collage of the 2013 MLK March ( just in case – a life changing event!

    Ivy R. Taylor, Mayor would certainly be a good choice ( You might also want to see Belinda Grant-Anderson of AT&T (

    Last but not least a noteworthy news clip:

    “SA tops list for ‘Surprisingly Hot Market’ For Young Americans” on KENS5 (

    Have a great trip and if I can help further, please let me know.


  • Mat Despard

    Derwin raises excellent points. This is a glaring problem in the sector. In addition to strategies readers are discussing about board diversification, I wonder too about the need to increase funding for minority-led nonprofits. There seems to be a two-tiered nonprofit sector that mirrors broader social inequities and I think it may get worse in the rush toward pay for performance schemes/strategic philanthropy – only the largest and most resourced nonprofits benefiting from things like growth capital aggregation, with an occasional exception like Harlem Children’s Zone. I think funders need to move beyond the standard set of excuses about small, grassroots, minority-led nonprofits not having the “capacity” to handle grants and deliver results. Z. Smith Reynolds and Mary Reynolds Babcock are exceptions. Are there others?

  • Derwin Dubose

    Thanks, Tharesa, for a thoughtful comment.

  • Angie F

    I completely disagree – adding employee and board demographics to Form 990 not only infringes on privacy of nonprofit organizations but it may also hurt them in the long run. People may target these organizations based solely on these demographics rather than focusing on their impact. If the organization is doing good and helping their community, they should not be penalized for the structure of their management and governing bodies. While I agree that this is an issue, making it part of the public disclosure for the organizations is overstepping bounds. Similarly the IRS suggested a mandate to control the number of voting board members which was disputed as overstepping their bounds, mandating a demographic for decision-makers may not be in the best interest of the organization or the community being served by the nonprofit. The board and management should be determined by experience and ability to perform duties first rather than focusing on race or other attributes. As a business woman very active in the nonprofit community, I understand breaking stereotypes; however I also value that we put people in positions that suit them and their expertise. Thank you for your article and bringing attention to this discussion!

  • Ashley

    From the context, I interpret this term – “Ferguson problem” – as emotionally-charged, and deliberately so. If that’s the case, it detracts from the credibility of your proposed solution. If that’s not the case, the term is glib, at best

  • Ashley

    Agree with Angie. Nonprofits should be focused on outcomes, not intentions.

  • Derwin Dubose

    Matt, indeed organizations led by minorities indeed struggle for capital. I see two categories of organizations in your post: 1) Ones that come to mind are organizations that historically served people of color, like historically black colleges and universities, during de jure and de facto segregation. 2) Social ventures launched by minorities. A body of philanthropic and venture capital work to support these types of groups would go a long way.

  • Derwin Dubose

    Angie, thanks for the kind words. I need to clarify one thing: We agree that demographics should NOT be included in 990s, but I think nonprofits should release them to watchdogs and grantors alongside their 990s.

  • Derwin Dubose

    Ashley, thanks for commenting. Data shows that diversity and cultural competence influences positive outcomes, so it’s not about intentions.

  • Derwin Dubose

    Ashley, thanks for weighing in again. I believe it’s hypocritical for the nonprofit sector to express outrage at Ferguson’s demographic shifts when the data shows a similar disparity within its own ranks. We’re not relying on emotion here; we’re relying on data.

  • Dan L. Gibbons

    Finally…some light on the elephant in the room! A well written and much needed article. Now will the sector have the courage to look at this issue honestly and begin to address it in earnest?

  • Eva Hernandez

    While I have not seen this particular disparity in non profit organizations here in rural BC Canada, in our larger centres I can imagine it is also true. My thoughts are that it points to a much broader engagement issue/gap of the sector. If a sector fails to engage with all those that would benefit from or be impacted by the issue being solved, the effort will fail. We continue to provide band aid solutions to gaping wounds in our silos without true engagement of those impacted. Time for an evolution.

  • Leslie Forsyth

    “The board and management should be determined by experience and ability to perform duties first rather than focusing on race or other attributes.”

    I agree, but if that is truly the case, then why are board members and senior staff so white? The implication is that black people don’t have the skills or experience. Do you think that is true?

  • Derwin Dubose

    Leslie, I’m behind in responding to comments, but thank you for raising this question. The underlying assumption to many who don’t like diversity work is that people of color don’t have the skills and experience, which I completely disagree with. One of our next columns will focus on how to find qualified people of color.

  • Derwin Dubose

    Dan, thanks for your kind words. The sector will have the courage to look at this issue an address it when people like you have the courage to lead the charge. I think our January column will focus on how we can begin to address the diversity issues quickly and efficiently, starting with white nonprofit staffers. Do you agree?

  • Stephona

    I completely agree with this article and thank you for enlightening me, personally, to this issue. One question keeps bouncing around in my mind, though. Is there data to show that people of color simply are NOT applying for and/or showing interest in these positions? How big a factor is apathy (for lack of a better word) in the reduced presence of POC on these boards and in leadership positions versus the numbers of volunteers and, of course, recipients?

    Please forgive me as I am rather new in this arena and am still trying to comprehend the dynamics involved. I guess in a nutshell I’m wondering how much we are holding ourselves back rather than how much the organizations are holding us back. How many of us think this big and move toward those levels?

  • Laurin Mayeno

    Thank you for this great piece. I am sharing with my contacts and would also like to include a link to your piece in the blog post I wrote, which can be seen on this link. zations/

  • Lowell Perry

    Well said! It is an embarrassment that the sector lags so far behind when it comes to having a culture of inclusion. That is probably a big reason for the staggering lack of diversity one finds at the leadership and policy making levels. You might enjoy a related article –