A Black woman with braids, leaning against an office wall, holding a computer and looking out the window with a disappointed look on her face
Image credit: SeventyFour on istock.com

For over two decades the Building Movement Project (BMP) has been documenting the experience of leaders of color in the nonprofit sector. A new report titled The Push and Pull: Declining Interest in Nonprofit Leadership finds a “steady decline in the aspiration to lead for respondents not already heading organizations” (3).

More specifically, “A quarter of BIPOC respondents in 2016 (25%) and 2019 (24%) were not interested in becoming an Executive Director/CEO of a nonprofit. The percentage climbed to almost one-third (32%) in 2022” (6).

The report further finds that rather than being “pulled” into leadership—described as “encouragement, skills development, opportunities for advancement, positive role models, and the beliefs that they can make an impact by building on the foundation laid by their predecessors”—respondents “often appeared to be pushed towards leadership to correct their negative experience in the sector” (3). Specifically, they seek to address “negative organizational structures and/or obstacles to advancement” (3).

A new report titled The Push and Pull: Declining Interest in Nonprofit Leadership finds a “steady decline in the aspiration to lead for respondents not already heading organizations.The report compares BMP data from 2022 to that of 2019. Between 2016 and 2019 there was an increase in interest in leadership from leaders of color. Between 2019 and 2022, however, that trend has reversed. Why?

Part of the answer is BMP’s 2022 report, Trading Glass Ceilings for Glass Cliffs, which finds that “ascending to an executive position does not end a leader’s struggle with racism, and sometimes increases those struggles” (1). This is especially so when the leader follows an outgoing White leader. Below are the top findings (emphasis added):

  1. “Executive leaders of color need supports, not more training” (5)
  2. “EDs/CEOs of color take on added burdens without additional compensation” (8)
  3. “Leaders of identity-based organizations face distinct demands” (10) and “nearly 6 in 10 executive leaders of color worked for identity-based organizations” (3)
  4. “Challenges come with taking leadership from white predecessors” (13)
  5. “Too few white leaders factor race equity into their succession plans” (17)

The more recent Push and Pull report adds to this dim picture, “BIPOC Executive Directors/CEOs continue to report less support from boards and staffers, both during their transition into the organization and once they are established” (4).

“Ascending to an executive position does not end a leader’s struggle with racism, and sometimes increases those struggles.”

Another interesting statistic: “BIPOC staffers who worked in organizations run by leaders of color could have seen these leaders as paving the way for more BIPOC staffers in executive roles. Instead, 49% of BIPOC respondents in organizations with white leaders aspired to leadership, compared to 43% in nonprofits with BIPOC EDs” (12).

In the section titled, “The Dilemmas of BIPOC Leadership,” the report explains:

  1. “One explanation for why BIPOC staffers in POC-led organizations are less interested in the top job, may have to do with the obstacles they see facing BIPOC leaders, several of which were outlined in our ‘Trading Glass Ceilings for Glass Cliffs’ report” (13, noted above)
  2. “BIPOC leaders still lag behind their white counterparts in supports from board and staff members and continue to exceed white leaders in their use of executive coaching” (13)
  3. “[L]eaders in the process of transitioning out of their jobs cite burnout as their top reason, with BIPOC leaders citing this far more often than their white peers” (13)

As leaders of color entered leadership positions in the last two to three years—as aforementioned, a key strategy in the sector for addressing racial justice and equity issues that were highlighted during this time period—while there was a slight increase in support for both White leaders and leaders of color, it was much less for leaders of color. “This increased the gap between white and BIPOC leaders receiving board support as they entered their job to 21 percentage points in 2022 compared to 12 percentage points in 2019” (13).

The gap in support to incoming leaders of color from outgoing white leaders actually increased during this time: “in 2022 BIPOC respondents were 8 percentage points less likely than white ones to receive support from the previous Executive Director, while in 2019 there was only a 3 percentage point difference between BIPOC and white leaders” (13).

It’s no wonder that there is a steady decline in aspiration to leadership.

The report sums things up this way:

If BIPOC leaders are more likely to be pushed into leadership by negative forces, they should be receiving more support from staff and board, not less than their white counterparts (15).

Further, as one respondent is quoted as saying,

It feels like we are asking more things out of a workplace than we ever have before at precisely the moment in time people and women of color are being called to lead. The bar was never this high for my predecessors (16).

Even further,

“You want our brilliance, but not our authority.”The energy felt by BIPOC leaders to have an opening where they can make a difference continues to be challenged by the attacks and backlash especially on issues of race including the U.S. Supreme Court affirmative action decision and the funding cliff they now face as foundations and government pull back on their support (15).

The report suggests the following as a start in addressing the systemic barriers facing leaders of color (emphasis added):

  • A doable job including the funds to hire staff that can help address internal structures and external threats.”
  • Support from exiting leader and from other executive directors to offer new leaders the networks they need to get the job done.”
  • Early intervention by existing mentors and leaders, especially those not in the organization, who can show the benefits of leading.”
  • Openness to new leadership models ranging from co-directors to stronger board/leadership partnerships.”

The report’s parting words, “There is not a shortage of people working in the sector who could be leaders, just a lack of imagination of what is possible” (20).

But…there’s more; underlying much of this is the fact that many people don’t want to be led by leaders of color. You want our brilliance, but not our authority. And changing that will take more than imagination. It will take heart.