As capacity-building consultants to the social sector, we regularly support nonprofit organizations, their leaders, and their boards. Some of this support involves leadership coaching for individuals and teams. At a meeting earlier this year of racial equity capacity-building organizations, we found ourselves in a conversation about what we are seeing as we coach CEOs, executive directors, and other C-suite leaders of color.
Now, COVID-19, as well as the multiple cases of police violence against Black people that we are witnessing, are laying bare the structural racism that undergirds so much of the US social milieu in which our nonprofit clients swim. These impacts can be found everywhere, including the racial inequities in philanthropic dollars and access to small business loans for people of color (POC)-led nonprofits, and disproportionate impacts of the virus on communities of color, even as countless numbers across the country are protesting racial injustice and speaking out about its ongoing traumatic effects, especially on Black people. In this context, leaders of color in nonprofit organizations are in many ways proverbial “canaries in the mine” as their experiences and needs may portend the health and long-term viability of the sector as a whole.
Much of our work has been with historically White-led organizations. Many are, for the first time, appointing leaders of color to serve at the helm. During our coaching and support for these leaders, we see a few key patterns emerging.
“Failure Is Not an Option”
Across the field of leadership development, we read articles with calls for leaders to “fail forward.” Thought leaders from all sectors speak of the importance of failure to learning and growth. Yet we hear from leaders of color, especially if they are the first in their position, that they don’t have room for failure. They feel overt and implicit pressure from their staff and boards to “get it right,” with a covert feeling that if they do not perform at 200 percent, they may be closing the door for other leaders of color to come behind them.
Board members may say or imply, “We tried that [hiring a leader of color] once, and the person was ‘not a match’ for the organization.” As a result, leaders of color feel pressure not to show vulnerability, not to ask for help when they need support, and not to demonstrate the edge of their competency in anything—essentially, holding superhero expectations of themselves and falling victim to a sense of perfectionism that is a prominent harmful characteristic of white supremacy culture. This pressure leaves no room for behaviors like self-care and self-advocacy and reinforces the belief that taking care of one’s needs and asking for more support are luxuries for people with privilege. Combined, these pressures can have major implications for these leaders’ ability to grow themselves, their staffs, and their organizations.
Recent books and articles highlight the implicit bias that drives racial inequity in funding for POC-led nonprofits versus those led by white CEOs. Research from Building Movement Project’s Race to Lead initiative found that 63 percent of POC leaders cite lack of access to individual donors as a fundraising challenge, compared to 49 percent of white leaders who say this is a challenge. Similarly, 51 percent of POC leaders cite lack of access to foundations as a challenge compared to 41 percent of white leaders.
As a result, we see CEOs of color experiencing difficulty fundraising in general, and “funder flight” in particular when an organization’s former leader leaves and program officers hesitate to continue funding the organization under a new CEO they don’t know. This can be particularly acute when an organizational founder or longtime executive director transitions out of the leadership role but still retains funders’ loyalties. As we have seen in the midst of COVID-19, CEOs of color as a whole have fewer strong personal and professional banking relationships, and therefore can have difficulty gaining access to investment capital for building projects, program expansion, and other organizational needs.
“Fix Our Race Problem”
Leaders of color, especially CEOs, are often brought in with an explicit and important mandate to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in general, and racial equity specifically. Unfortunately, they often lack the support to do so effectively, either