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September 14, 2017 / WRAG

Why aren’t there more leaders of color in the nonprofit sector?

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

I’ve been reading a lot recently about white flight and residential segregation. Generally researchers used to agree that a white neighborhood could “tolerate” (yes, that was the term frequently used), 5% people of color, maybe 10%, and still maintain its stability. If any more were to move in, the neighborhood was considered to be declining.

Today, in many cities across the country, and especially here in DC, we aren’t seeing white flight. In fact, just the opposite. Whites are flocking to urban areas and displacing blacks, but the sentiment that is engendered now is the same as a generation ago. As more whites move into communities, the neighborhoods are seen as pretty, safe, desirable, and worthy of investment. Where neighborhoods remain majority black, the areas are perceived as blighted and dangerous. White is good. Black is bad.

I think this same dynamic holds true when you think about the lack of diversity in the leadership of nonprofit organizations.

Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, a report recently released by BoardSource, had as its first finding, “Boards are no more diverse than they were two years ago and current recruitment priorities indicate this is unlikely to change.” Anne Wallestad, president of BoardSource is quoted in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, as calling this finding, “really disappointing.”

I would agree that it is disappointing, but it is not surprising. I believe there is a fear of organizational leadership integration just as there was a fear of residential integration. Now, hear me out. I believe that there is a fear, perhaps unconscious, of what will happen to the organization, just like some white homeowners in the past feared what would happen to their neighborhood. Will the organization’s prestige decline? Will donors, who are primarily white, have the same level of trust in the organization? Will the work of the organization change in a way that won’t be supported?

For over a year, the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers has looked at issues of structural racism and unconscious bias. Certainly, recruitment strategies are critically important to enabling a diverse pool of candidates. Nonprofit salary levels are also a consideration not always discussed when trying to recruit broadly. But based on what I’ve learned over the last 18 months, the reason for a lack of diverse leadership in nonprofit organizations may be much deeper and more entrenched. Remember: White is good and Black is bad. You may not think of it consciously, but the sentiment surrounds us like air.

If you are truly committed to diverse boards and increased people of color in nonprofit leadership positions, I urge you to put racism on the table and actively discuss and explore unconscious bias. Having that type of fundamental conversation, along with training, might make a difference.

*Make sure you read Anne Wallestad’s statement on the lack of diversity on nonprofit boards.


  1. Regina Jackson / Sep 20 2017 12:02 pm

    As an african american non profit leader in Oakland for the paat 23 years, i appreciate your perspective. As many of us transition those who replace us will not look like us on thr board or on the ground. Thank you for this article

    • Tamara Lucas Copeland / Oct 11 2017 10:36 am

      Regina, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. There are so many indications that the inequity that I see isn’t seen by all, particularly by many in power. I choose to believe that with knowledge, some might change and that a movement for change will grow. Given that, I think I must use my voice — and I hope you will, too — to speak out on injustice and to elevate not only the inequities, but also strategies for reform.

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