Structural racism is a barrier to leadership advancement in nonprofit organizations

Reviewed by Penny Sun

Although the nonprofit sector is recognizing its own need for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), the implementation of DEI strategies generally stops at the interpersonal level and few nonprofits have addressed the structures and systems that keep these racialized barriers in place.


Four years ago, the Building Movement Project (BMP) studied the racial make-up of nonprofit leaders across the country to understand why so few people of color hold leadership roles in nonprofits. In that initial Race to Lead report, BMP found people of color were similarly qualified as their white counterparts and were even more likely than their white counterparts to aspire to leadership. They concluded that the lack of diversity among nonprofit leaders is the racialized barriers to these opportunities, including executive officers and executive recruiters’ biases. 

BMP has found that these challenges persist. Although organizations have embraced Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts to some degree in their external practices, this has not translated to an evaluation of their internal procedures. While there is a greater understanding of racism and recognition of persistent racial barriers within the sector, DEI efforts have generally been limited to training. There is little change in power, workplace experiences, or career advancement among staff members of color. The authors also compare organizations led by people of color with those led by white people. In this comparison, they find that staff of color reports more equitable treatment, and all staff reports better workplace experiences in organizations led by people of color. This comparison also showed that organizations led by white people are more likely to have large organizational budgets, which also translates into a greater likelihood of staff receiving bonuses and raises. Thus, within organizations and across the sector, organizational structures continue to systematically reinforce whiteness’s benefits in what the authors termed “white advantage.” These findings are especially significant in the context of the economic recession due to the COVID-19 pandemic, where layoffs and budget contractions provide an opportunity to either continue to devalue staff of color as expendable or shift the structural dynamics of power within their organizations.

The Building Movement Project (BMP) is dedicated to researching, training, and pushing the nonprofit sector on ways to promote social change. BMP is composed of staff with deep ties to the nonprofit community. They leverage their understanding of and connections within the sector to support organizations in developing the vision, leadership, and capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. Frances Kunreuther is a Co-Director of the BMP and works, teaches, and writes on leadership issues within the nonprofit sector. Sean Thomas-Breitfeld is a Co-Director of the BMP and previously worked at Community Change to support their training, coordination, and advocacy efforts. 

Methods and Findings

The BMP conducted a nationwide online survey in the summer of 2019. They distributed the survey among the BMP’s online newsletter list of almost 10,000 people through partner organizations’ outreach, and social media, including Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin, and Twitter, resulting in a convenience sample. The survey was open for eight weeks, and more than 8,000 individuals started the study, of which 5,261 completed responses were included in the final evaluation. The BMP then supplemented survey data through focus groups in Albuquerque, Austin, Boston, Detroit, Memphis, and Milwaukee during the fall of 2019 and early 2020. They asked about respondents’ personal and financial backgrounds, career plans and career supports, their perceptions and experiences of race and ethnicity in the nonprofit sector, and their experiences with DEI activities. 

Upon completing the survey, the researchers found three key findings, each of which is summarized below: 

Key Finding 1: There are few people of color at top leadership positions in nonprofit organizations, but greater interest among the non-CEO staff of color in taking a top leadership position than their white counterparts. People of color are similarly qualified as their white counterparts and experience racial barriers to career advancement, including less workplace career supports. Career-related gaps among people of color and whites remained the same or increased compared to 2016, including access to career support, frustrations about their jobs, and perceptions of reasons for the leadership gap. An analysis considering both race and gender showed that women of color and gender non-conforming people of color were the least likely to have internal workplace mentors.

Key Finding 2: White-led organizations systematically create environments that only enable white staff to thrive, from the culture to compensation to hiring. Its leadership’s racial composition impacts even the size of an organization’s budget. Despite the structural racism that keeps the policies, processes, and protocols that privilege white workers in place, more than half (64%) of nonprofit organizations serve constituents with at least 50% people of color. Among organizations led by more than 50% of people of color on the board of directors and top staff leaders, all staff reports better workplace experiences. In these organizations, the gap in experiences between white staff and people of color staff is also smaller. 

Key Finding 3: More organizations are embracing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. However, these efforts only show up in the form of staff training, and many staff members don’t believe that these efforts are effective or that their organizations are truly committed to DEI. This is particularly true at white-led organizations and notably reported by the staff of color at these white-led organizations. Although the vast majority of respondents agree that it is a problem that leadership within the nonprofit sector does not represent the racial/ethnic diversity of the US, much fewer white staff recognize that decision-makers in the nonprofit sector don’t have the will to make changes to improve DEI. Staff members of color and their white counterparts also have different opinions about the effectiveness and feasibility of efforts to increase and support the leadership of people of color in the nonprofit sector. The authors connect this data with the observation from outside sources that the philanthropy that supports nonprofits systematically under-invest in people of color-led organizations at such blatant rates that some advocates describe this phenomenon as “philanthropic redlining.”


This report’s data reaffirms the need to address racism at the individual, organizational, and sectoral levels, involving internal and external changes. It recognizes that the sector has made some progress in understanding DEI’s importance, affirming that racism impacts their work, and is beginning to change culture and behavior. However, most of the racial gaps surveyed, particularly around intangible experiences and career support, remained the same or widened from 2016 to 2019. The report also finds this work stalls and delays by only training white people to think about DEI without continuing to the concrete work of dismantling the explicit policies and informal processes that keep power in white people’s hands. The authors point to expanding the voices and experiences that determine how the nonprofit sector operates as a way forward.

They recommend the following:

  • Create a cohort of like-minded organizations to learn and collaborate; share learnings and challenges; provide feedback and accountability, and support each other and celebrate accomplishments.
  • Aim to tackle both the structures and culture of race and racism. Connect a structural, historical analysis of race and racism with validating the individual and collective experiences of people of color.
  • Enforcement and implementation of policies are just as important as the design of the policy. Revised policies and processes will only be effective at creating change if they are consistently and universally applied. This also means that organizations should develop explicit policies that provide accountability for unwanted behavior and reinforce models of wanted behavior.
  • Fund organizations led by people of color.
  • Diversifying staff and leadership is essential, but diversification needs to be explicitly supported with resources, from recruitment to retention to incorporating their recommendations for continued change. Diversification must be an active process with explicit targets that aim to ensure that leadership reflects constituents’ racial demographics. The voices of new hires should be heard and valued. 
  • DEI requires continuous investment in measurement, assessment, and accountability to ensure concrete change. The change plan needs to be widely and transparently communicated throughout the organization. It should explicitly detail who is responsible, what should change, and how the organization will know that it has changed. This plan should be updated at predetermined intervals (e.g., every year).

This report emphasizes the importance of taking on structural changes to counter the significant challenges of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying recession. Implementing structural change would also respond to the growing attention to the movement for justice for Black people, to ensure that structural racism does not become further entrenched. The report also notes that although organizational and sectoral change is challenging, it could be expedited if organizations directly address the underlying societal structures that entrench racism across the United States.


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