Black women leading the way,” Johnny Silvercloud

A few years ago, I attended a New York City-area conference that presented some stunning information about who makes up the staffing and leadership in nonprofit organizations. It’s estimated that 80 percent of the nonprofit workforce in NYC is made up of people of color, and 80 percent of those workers are women of color. Yet, only 16 percent of nonprofit CEOs in New York are people of color. I couldn’t find the stat on what percentage of those were women, or Black women for that matter, but I’ve never been able to get that data out of my head. We’ve got work to do.

A couple of days ago, I wrote a LinkedIn post about the need for the nonprofit sector to do a better job uplifting and supporting Black women. The next day, I woke up and nearly 5,000 people had viewed the post, and over 300 had “liked” or commented on the post. Because of the response, I wanted to give people working and volunteering in the nonprofit sector some real tips and tools for changing the trajectory of our sector and moving the needle on equity as it relates to the experiences of Black women in particular.

My career in the nonprofit sector began over 20 years ago when I realized that I could use my passion for social justice, and skills and expertise, in direct service to communities that I love. But my love affair with the sector dates back to those first experiences as a young person on Manhattan’s Upper West Side as a participant in my local settlement house’s day camps, after-school programs, and via a myriad of leadership opportunities. Whether as a student in the LEAD Program in Business or as Chief Justice in the YMCA of Greater New York’s Youth and Government Program, the nonprofit sector gave me my first opportunities to showcase my leadership ability.

As a young Black girl, my leadership capabilities were celebrated and encouraged by amazing youth workers. As a professional Black woman, my story has been as influenced by great allies, mentors, and champions as it has been with adversaries, bullies, abusers, and just plain old haters. Everything I know about leadership, I learned via my family, my community, and the nonprofit sector. And, everything that has ever made me question whether or not I wanted to continue on this path has also grown out of some troubling experiences I’ve had in this sector—from micro- to macroaggressions—and most of those assaults on my dignity have gone largely unchecked.

Despite the ups and downs, I want to make it clear that this commentary comes from a place of love and hope and possibility, and my expectation is that you will read and share this article, and join me in a movement to make the nonprofit sector be all that it can be. I like to think of this amazing sector as America’s Democracy Workshop—this is the sector where we hold the larger society’s feet to the fire on major social and economic issues, and where we create pathways and opportunities that change lives.

I want to emphasize that we don’t need more statistics, research, or testimonials when it comes to the sector’s failure to uplift Black women in executive leadership roles; we need demonstrable, decisive action in support of Black women’s leadership in this sector. There is no shortage of talent, training, etc. when it comes to Black women—we are poised and very often over-prepared to lead. What we do need is a decisive step away from the behaviors and practices that cause racial trauma at work, and a deep commitment to accountability and consequences. Make no mistake, if you are ignoring the leadership of Black women in the nonprofit sector, or actively working to undermine that leadership, you are causing personal, psychological, economic, and social harm to Black women. And, if you are silently standing by as a disinterested witness to harm aimed at Black women in the nonprofit sector, you are complicit and also responsible for our trauma.

I also want to acknowledge that the points I raise here could easily apply to many communities. But I’ve only ever been a Black woman, so I often speak from that point of view. That said, I think the values that undergird my pointers can benefit the sector as a whole and make it more equitable for all communities. And, I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway—not all nonprofits

  1. The board of directors must engage in equity and inclusion work. It’s very difficult to move a nonprofit organization forward without the leadership and guidance of an engaged board of directors. Moving the needle on equity and inclusion means that the board itself must create opportunities to a) learn about the structural and institutional barriers to equity within the sector and within their organizations; b) confront their own personal and professional racial biases; and, c) develop systems of accountability for addressing inequities within the organization that include real consequences. I’m saddened by the number of nonprofit CEOs who are either too afraid to invite their board to have these conversations, or who receive pushback from their boards about whether or not these conversations are vital to their work. If you are a board member, Black women need you to step forth boldly and wholeheartedly to insist that your board colleagues do the work of undoing racism across all levels of the organization. That means vetting board members before they join, engaging in meaningful training and conversations about what bias has to do with your work, and holding board members accountable for questionable statements and behaviors that cause harm.
  2. Eliminate “give/gets” on boards. It’s been my experience that boards with give/gets tend to use those minimum contributions as barriers to board diversity. One can always point back to the minimum contribution as the excuse for why there are no people of color on a board of directors. Although boards, not staff, bear primary responsibility for ensuring that an organization has the resources it needs to operate, a board with little diversity often comprises the people furthest removed from the problems the organization seeks to address. A former colleague whose work centers Black and brown youth once bragged that their board no longer considers anyone who can’t make at least a six-figure gift for board service. Wealth is one factor of consideration when building a board, but it should not be the single most important factor. Do you have multiple board members who reflect the faces of the people you are serving? Remember, tokens went out with the ’70s—we want to see representative diversity, not a single person to let you off the hook! Do you have content experts who can work in real partnership with the staff to help create solutions to the problems the organization is trying to solve? Nonprofit organizations need all kinds of perspectives, expertise, and skills to function effectively. A collegial board is desirable—but, beware of tactics that can turn your board into an extension of the problem, rather than an innovative solution. You’re not building an exclusive club or clique. Your nonprofit has a social contract with the broader society to do real work in service to the organization’s mission. Honor the social contract!
  3. Check your search firm. A great search firm has its ear to the ground about where to find good, diverse talent; a deep understanding about the organizations it works with; and a penchant for understanding the needs and culture of the board of directors. But search firms also serve as gatekeepers, meaning they often determine who t