Colorful line-art painting of a Black woman with golden cropped hair, wearing a bright feather dress. She is in a field of bright flowers.
Image credit: Yermine Richardson /

Editors’ note: This piece is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s spring 2024 issue, “‘Stop Drowning Us, and Stop Making Us Disappear’: A Critical Report on the State of Black Woman Leadership.”

I remember when I first read Maurice Mitchell’s “Building Resilient Organizations: Toward Joy and Durable Power in a Time of Crisis,”1 a flashpoint article published in 2022 that ignited a series of conversations and responses about progressive infighting within the nonprofit sector. The article brought me to tears. I finally felt seen and as though I now had the language to describe some of the experiences I have faced as a Black woman leader.

It certainly reflected the experiences I’d been hearing about from other Black women leaders. From the weaponizing of Tema Okun’s tenets of White supremacy culture2 to being chronically underresourced and expected to single-handedly solve the problems caused by decades of racism, capitalism, and other isms—Black women have been bearing much of the load from a myriad of directions: lack of funder and board support,3 challenging organizational and staff dynamics,4 extractive expectations of the nonprofit sector at large.

Yet having that language was validating. While Black women leaders in the nonprofit sector have, collectively, been facing the inflection point of major societal disruption and change, there are transformative actions that can be taken to ensure that Black women have expansive opportunities to continue leading—and three in particular address root causes of the challenges Black women are facing across the sector: ensuring multiyear, unrestricted funding; trusting in Black women’s decision-making; and confronting the societal discomfort with Black women holding power.

At the (Seeming) Pinnacle of Leadership

Today, we are seeing ever more Black women leaders at the helm of nonprofit organizations,5 but there is still an overwhelming sense of disempowerment, speaking volumes about the relationship between the nonprofit sector and Black women. Doors have been opening, facilitated in part by the racial reckoning of 2020. At the same time, we are experiencing the “glass cliff”6 : being hired or promoted into leadership often in the midst of crisis, with unrealistic expectations to fix or turn things around and little room for error—causing severe burnout and often departure from these roles altogether. This plight is well documented—the Nonprofit Quarterly recently reported on the findings of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation,7 which described Black women leaders as experiencing “hostility toward their leadership, strain on their health and well-being, unfair job expectations, and limited opportunities for career progression.”8 On the day that I read Mitchell’s article, I realized that the broad sense of disempowerment was not an isolated experience and was also less about the external, mission-driven work and more about Black women being seen, heard, and respected—especially at the seeming pinnacle of leadership.

These challenges that Black women leaders are facing are not due to a lack of knowledge about the issues. In fact, there is a plethora of information at our fingertips. So why are we still here? Why are we still having to fight so hard for our dignity? Why are we cloaked in power in the form of titles but with little else to show for it? I can’t help but replay Malcolm X’s quote, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman”9 —but at the same time, I can’t accept this as Black women’s fate. Thankfully, our foremothers have given us wisdom to navigate the challenges to Black women’s leadership, whether it’s knowing that “there are new suns” (in the wise words of Octavia Butler),10 or heeding the instruction from Shirley Chisholm to “bring a folding chair” when not given a seat at the table11 —or just making our own table.

As a collective (not a monolith), Black women have been the strength and backbone of social progress in America, especially in the nonprofit sector. Unfortunately, this includes having been the perpetual canaries in the coal mine,12 pushing us to uphold America’s unrealized ideals. Black women deeply and often personally understand both the challenges and the solutions to some of our most pressing problems across a variety of issue areas in the sector, including: health; economic, climate, and criminal justice; democracy; and others. Many of us have direct lived experience—our families have been impacted over generations, and we are rooted in broader communities facing the intersection of challenges in these areas. Given Black women’s proximity to the issues, we can also articulate the gifts of our communities and provide deep insight about the possibilities.

Many of us have chosen to work in the nonprofit sector to innovate and offer our solutions under the infrastructure purporting to advance mission-driven work. We also strive to build inclusive spaces, given our firsthand experience of being treated as both hypervisible targets and invisible outsiders. But as with our broader society, the nonprofit sector has perpetuated racism, sexism, and other isms that Black women face, even when Black women are leading. Our leadership alone is not a panacea—Black women continue to face the challenges outlined above. However, while this experience is not happenstance, neither is it inevitable—and the following actions can help to unlock and support Black women’s leadership in ways that are sustainable and that help us all realize the fuller systems change our society needs.

1. Resources and safe spaces

Multiyear unrestricted funding is critical for the success of Black women leaders. Such funding yields empowerment and independence,13 realized through choice and the ability to determine outcomes—key components of actualizing what it means to lead. In turn, this facilitates organizational sustainability and, ultimately, safer work environments for Black women. It is well known that organizations led by people of color, especially Black people, do not receive the same level of unrestricted, multiyear funding that many White-led organizations receive.14 When provided, such funding enables Black women to step fully into leadership rather than having to operate under the stress of trying to make an organizational dollar out of fifteen cents.

On any given day, there are countless trade-offs, tensions to balance, and difficult choices that must lead to decisions. Trust must include acknowledgment of these, and it must include space for Black women to do, to experiment, to make mistakes, and to pivot, without the automatic penalty of mistrust.

For example, unrestricted funding helps leaders to determine what strategic opportunities to pursue beyond short-term outcomes that do not advance broader mission and systems change; put into place critical operational infrastructure for areas that require investment but often get overlooked, such as IT and HR; build team capacity with people who have the right skill sets for the work; engage in ongoing equity work and culture change work; and expand external capacity through coaches or consultants—all of which can help to ameliorate the overly full load, including the often unacknowledged and uncompensated emotional labor expected of Black women. Unrestricted, multiyear funding contributes to Black women leaders being sustained and feeling whole in the sector. With access to such funding, Black women leaders have choices and a full set of tools, and can determine what is needed across an organization without having to carry the burden of it all on our own backs. And it should go without saying that such funding must necessarily be put toward an organization’s equitable compensation structure.

Unrestricted, multiyear resources can also support Black women in finding the external learning opportunities and safe spaces needed to thrive in the sector and strengthen leadership capacities. For example, there are many fellowships and other opportunities designed to provide such spaces, but they sometimes require financial resources and always require the resource of time. At Common Future, I was given support to participate in the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity,15 where I convened with other leaders similarly focused on equity and on eliminating anti-Black racism. It was a safe space where I was validated as a Black woman and could openly share the joys and challenges I was experiencing, learn from others, and engage with AFRE’s excellent facilitators, who helped us to push the boundaries of our thinking about how to create a better world. I left those convenings strengthened to go back to the work of a sector in crisis, ready to problem solve. Other programs—such as Rockwood Leadership Institute,16 The Highland Project,17 the Institute for Nonprofit Practice’s Black Leadership Institute,18 and Cause Effective19 —similarly provide safe spaces apart from the work, with some designed just for Black women. Having the resources to join a safe space where we can grow, find support, and be renewed and reenergized to come back to work that is often exhausting and thankless is critical. Funders and boards in particular must grapple with how to better resource Black women leaders with unrestricted funding to truly bring change to the way we do our work.

2. Trust in Black women’s decision-making

While resources are absolutely critical, they get constrained when Black women are not trusted to make decisions. Trust means making space for Black women to have the autonomy and latitude to achieve goals. Trust also includes believing Black women’s understanding of the issues, accepting the solutions offered, and deeming those insights as credible and attributing those insights directly to us. Trust is further demonstrated through right-sized resources to support the decision-making expected of leadership. It also means that the knowledge of funders, board members, or even other leaders is not automatically assumed to be, or treated as, superior to Black women’s insights. And it means that Black women are encouraged and reminded of what we can accomplish, even on days when we don’t believe in ourselves or feel like imposters. Trust is support and resources provided based on Black women’s demonstrated potential, rather than waiting for the results of working twice as hard for half as much.

On a day-to-day basis, a lack of trust can play out in various forms. This includes micromanaging, nitpicking, constant questioning of decisions, and requirements for unrealistic amounts of data for every decision—evidenced by short-term investments, overreliance on narrow measurement and evaluation, and other strains on ability to bring big, long-term visions and solutions to life.20 While sometimes framed as lack of clarity, these actually reflect lack of trust. Lack of trust is Black women being relegated to being talking heads when it’s convenient or when it gets organizational points based on the optics of Blackness. Trust in Black women must be daily and decisive. On any given day, there are countless trade-offs, tensions to balance, and difficult choices that must lead to decisions. Trust must include acknowledgment of these, and it must include space for Black women to do, to experiment,21 to make mistakes, and to pivot, without the automatic penalty of mistrust.

I am not suggesting that there should never be any conflict or questions. Generative conflict is evidence of a psychologically safe environment in which we can surface what’s in the cracks that lie under the veneer of the niceness that is so pervasive in the sector. It helps us to learn and thrive together. Destructive conflict, however, contains an inherent root of mistrust, such that any and every decision gets questioned or meets with skepticism at best and scorn at worst. Further, this is not always a top-down experience reflected in funder or board engagement. Sometimes it can come from staff in different places across an organization. It is difficult to say this, given the inherent power dynamics in organizational structures—yet informal social capital can be used as a sword, and death can certainly result from a thousand tiny cuts. There is a difference between grievances about the workplace and questioning its practices—indeed, these help us to examine and design a better workplace22 —versus anti-Blackness couched as a grievance but which manifests in power plays, false equivalencies, microaggressions, emotional manipulation, ignoring, isolating, and undermining. It isn’t just lonely at the top, it’s downright scary for Black women who are fielding such challenges from multiple directions. Thus, all stakeholders in the sector must examine their actions and whether those actions evince trust or mistrust of Black women—and adjust accordingly.

3. Comfort with Black women holding power

If trust is built in the proximate relationships we hold, then there is still a larger question to raise about how we collectively view Black women in our society. Given that the nonprofit sector anchors us in mission-driven work, the sector is called to examine its relationship with Black women, and it must be an arbiter of Black women holding power—and not simply in title. When Black women truly hold power, we have the freedom and space to exist in society beyond just the labor we contribute. We have space to flourish, to experience good health and wellbeing, to have balance, and to feel joy; we are equitably compensated; we have a voice and are listened to; we are supported; and we are able to help shape society and realize our dreams. It means that we don’t have to bring a folding chair and squeeze in; rather, the fuller societal table is expanded, and all kinds of chairs are welcomed.

Full trust and comfort with Black women holding power requires continued racial reckoning, especially in the midst of false color blindness and legal (and otherwise) attacks on Black women’s progress.23 It requires the full disruption of the social and racial hierarchy at the center of our country’s founding. Black women as leaders offend those sensibilities in every way: how can someone so far from who was envisioned in our founding documents be a leader, have the answers, and determine our fate? The resistance to Black women’s leadership is so entrenched that even a sector that seeks to broadly change the world and advance rights, equity, and more is seeing Black women opting out. Society has always relied on Black women’s labor but harbored deep fear and resistance to our power. There is an underlying assumption that our power will mean the same kind of power over, domination, and harm reflected in our country’s founding and current existence. Instead, Black women have shown that power can be with, it can be shared, and it is not based on a single, patriarchal hero. It is found in community and it can also be influential and used to get things done—things that would fundamentally change our world into one we have yet to know. Some will have to lean into discomfort and face the pervasive racism in our society—the opposite of what the sector teaches us, which is to strive for politeness and accept how Black women are treated—if we are to get comfortable sitting in different kinds of chairs under the light and warmth of new suns governing new worlds.



  1. Maurice Mitchell, “Building Resilient Organizations: Toward Joy and Durable Power in a Time of Crisis,” NPQ, The Forge, and Convergence, November 29, 2022,
  2. Tema Okun, “Tema Okun on Her Mythical Paper on White Supremacy,” Deconstructed podcast, The Intercept, February 3, 2023,
  3. Jim Rendon, “Underpaid Black Leader Who Turned Around Social-Justice Nonprofit Resigns, Alleging Racial Bias From the Board,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, December 6, 2022,
  4. Sydney Trent, “A racial reckoning at nonprofits: Black women demand better pay, opportunities,” Washington Post, July 11, 2021,; and Sam Woods, “After turbulent summer, Public Allies returns to its roots with new leadership team,” Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, April 28, 2023,
  5. Aimée Laramore, “With Crisis Comes Change: Black Women and the Glass Cliff,” Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy blog, January 17, 2024,
  6. Nicquel Terry Ellis, “‘Very rarely is it as good as it seems’: Black women in leadership are finding themselves on the ‘glass cliff,’” CNN, December 17, 2022,
  7. Cyndi Suarez, “The State of Black Women Leadership Is in Danger,” NPQ, November 28, 2023,
  8. Thrive As They Lead: Advancing the Infrastructure to Support Black Women Leaders in the D.C. Metro Area Nonprofit Sector (Washington, DC: Washington Area Women’s Foundation, 2023), 3.
  9. See Alesha Lackey, “The Fallacy of the Strong Black Woman,” Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Blog, May 12, 2021,
  10. E. Alex Jung, “The Spectacular Life of Octavia Butler: The girl who grew up in Pasadena, took the bus, loved her mom, and wrote herself into the world.,” Vulture, November 21, 2022,
  11. “Shirley Chisholm: Advocate • Inspiration • Congresswoman,” A Seat at the Table, accessed February 22, 2024,
  12. Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres, “Excerpt from The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy,” N.Y.U. Review of Law & Social Change 27, no. 1 (2002).
  13. Rodney Foxworth, “Unrestricted Funding Means Power,” Common Future, Medium, June 15, 2021,
  14. Cheryl Dorsey et al., “Overcoming the Racial Bias in Philanthropic Funding,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, May 4, 2020,
  15. “Connecting Changemakers. Advancing Equity.,” Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity, accessed February 21, 2024,
  16. “Take a Breath,” Rockwood Leadership Institute, accessed February 21, 2024,
  17. “Let’s invest in the driving force of communities: Black women.,” The Highland Project, accessed February 21, 2024,
  18. “Black Leadership Institute: Connecting, inspiring, and uplifting senior-level Black social impact leaders nationwide,” Institute for Nonprofit Practice, accessed February 21, 2024,
  19. “Focus on Fundraising: Building Power for Executive Leaders of Color,” Cause Effective, accessed February 21, 2024,
  20. Gabrielle Wyatt, “Investing in Black Women Leaders With the Dream Capital They Need,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, August 9, 2023,
  21. Jennifer Swayne Njuguna, “The Privilege to Experiment and Fail,” Common Future, Medium, August 30, 2021, Medium,
  22. Letisha Bereola, “This majority BIPOC company has a 4-day work week. Here’s how,” TheGrio, March 25, 2022,
  23. Bria Overs | Word In Black, “Fearless Fund Fights for the Black American Dream,” The Observer, October 24, 2023,