Sevetri Wilson is Founder and CEO of Resilia – revolutionizing how nonprofits are created and maintained, and how enterprises scale impact.
Following the George Floyd killing earlier this year, there has been a radical shift in our awareness of racial injustice in the United States. Although much of the attention has rightly been directed at issues like police brutality and criminal justice reform, the conversation has grown to encompass an array of industries and institutions, including the nonprofit sector. For many nonprofits founded by people of color, this conversation is long overdue.
Nonprofits often work in underserved communities, which means many of the people they help (and partner with) are people of color. While organizations attempt to address the entrenched inequalities in communities across the country, the nonprofit sector needs to address the very same problems within its own ranks. Nonprofits with people of color at the helm face unique challenges that other organizations don’t have to deal with.
However, there are encouraging signs that the nonprofit sector is stepping up to enact meaningful change. Foundations and other grantors are setting money aside specifically for Black founders, nonprofits are pooling resources to address systemic inequality in their communities and diversity has become a major focus of research in the nonprofit sector. Substantial obstacles still exist, but we have never been in a stronger position to make this vital sector more inclusive than ever.
Systemic disparities in the nonprofit sector
We won’t be able to address the inequalities that exist across the nonprofit sector until we appreciate the extent of the problem. There isn’t just a lack of BIPOC representation in nonprofits — there are also rooted inequities that determine which organizations receive funding and the level of support they can expect over time. These issues demand greater awareness among nonprofits and grantors alike.
According to a 2017 survey conducted by Battalia Winston, 87% of nonprofit executive directors are white, while just 6% are African American, 4% are Hispanic and 3% are Asian. A 2018 report by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that 70% of CEOs believe their organizations’ staff should be representative of the communities they serve, with 61% and 55% saying the same about their board of directors and senior leadership, respectively. However, much smaller proportions of CEOs say they’ve done “very or extremely well” with representation in those areas: 42%, 26% and 23%, respectively.
Why the glaring disparity? While there are likely several contenders we can point to, recruitment sits at the top. As one writer puts it: “Attracting and recruiting diverse talent is easier said than done, especially at the leadership level. If organizations want to create sustained diversity at the top, they need to continuously cultivate a talent pipeline of diverse high-potential candidates, both internally and externally.”
Nonprofits led by people of color face a whole new set of problems. According to a 2020 report by The Bridgespan Group, Black-led nonprofits receive 24% less revenue and 76% less access to unrestricted net assets — resources that can be deployed without having to seek clearance from grantors. The report continues: “The stark disparity in unrestricted assets is particularly startling as such funding often represents a proxy for trust.”
Challenging the status quo
The nonprofit sector and communities around the country are hastening the advance toward equality with initiatives like targeted grants and rapid response funds, more inclusive collaboration and the deployment of technology that can eliminate bias.
In July, Open Society Foundations announced a $220 million investment in “emerging organizations and leaders building power in Black communities across the country,” with $150 million allocated to Black-led organizations. Open Society recognizes the need to do more than strengthen the programs that serve Black communities — diverse organizations that develop those programs need to be empowered as well.
In Minnesota (Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer), foundations and nonprofits have been collaborating to push for police reform, rebuild communities affected by the recent unrest and provide assistance to BIPOC-run businesses and nonprofits. For example, the Philanthropic Collective to Combat Anti-Blackness & Realize Racial Justice was formed in response to Floyd’s killing, and it’s raising $25 million for its “Black-Led Movement Fund.”
Grantors around the country should pay attention to these efforts to help the nonprofit sector live up to the same ideal of equality that drives many organizations to work in underserved communities in the first place.
Building a more diverse and inclusive nonprofit sector
One of the biggest hurdles BIPOC-led nonprofits face is the difficulty of securing funds at the outset. In a 2019 analysis of funding disparities, Echoing Green found that the average Black-led nonprofit (among its pool of applications) received a little over $81,000, while white-led nonprofits received $154,000. There are many explanations for this gap, but two of the most important are BIPOC-led organizations’ lack of access and outmoded forms of nonprofit assessment.
Like any other field, the nonprofit sector is composed of many networks — between grantors, organizations, thought leaders, government officials and so on. Over time, these networks can become exclusive or even discriminatory, and this process often continues even when it isn’t conscious. Privilege and marginalization quickly become self-perpetuating — when an organization starts out with fewer resources and access, it has a tendency to fall further and further behind organizations that are well-connected and well-funded from the beginning.
This is why technology can serve as a powerful equalizer. Transparency and accountability have become increasingly crucial to grantors who want their investments to be used as effectively as possible. Data sharing platforms give all nonprofits — no matter who they’re founded or led by — an opportunity to demonstrate that they’re capable of executing their mission, managing their operations efficiently and scaling impact in a sustainable way.
Because there is now greater awareness of the disparities in the nonprofit sector, foundations, companies and other grantors are more open than ever to working with BIPOC-led organizations. This means those organizations have to advocate for themselves by demonstrating that investments in their programs will be put to good use.