Progress Over Profit: Nonprofit leadership must be diversified

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In the wake of both a pandemic and civil unrest, the nonprofit sector is undoubtedly becoming an exceedingly important tool for the public. Whether it’s through donations to Feeding America’s food banks for their coronavirus response fund or the $30 million donated to the Minnesota Defense Fund following George Floyd’s killing, it is clear that people rely on nonprofits to support public issues and cultivate change when the government and private sector fail to act. 

As an NGOs and social change major, I am continuously learning the ins and outs of nonprofits and the philanthropy sector — the good, the bad and the ugly. Now more than ever, nonprofits offer a clear path to a better, brighter future. Even if you are not looking to work in the nonprofit sector postgrad, awareness of how nonprofits can serve as a vehicle for social change would benefit you as a donor or volunteer, while also allowing you to hold nonprofits accountable. 

A major way we can hold nonprofits accountable is by addressing the lack of diversity in their leadership. Although there has been a concentrated effort on addressing the lack of diverse representation in Fortune 500 companies and other for-profit enterprises, the same problems exist within nonprofits — but there seems to be no notable call for change in that sector. This must be addressed. 

A 2018 report found that 87% of all executive directors or presidents in nonprofits were white. This astoundingly high number is not just a fluke from 2018. A 2019 report by the Building Movements Project reported that the percentage of people of color in the executive director role has remained under 20% for the last 15 years. 

Moreover, this lack of representation is not confined to the position of executive director. Boards, which executive directors work under, are also shockingly homogeneous. For instance, a 2018 study conducted by the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy found that nonprofit boards are 78.6% white, 7.5% Black, 4.2% Latinx and 2.6% Asian, with Black, Latinx and Asian board members underrepresented based on population statistics. 

USC, a not-for-profit university, is unfortunately not an exception when it comes to the dismal representation in leadership of nonprofits. In Fall 2016, the Board of Trustees was 73% white compared to 32% of the student population. In 2019, the executive voting committee within the Board of Trustees, an exclusive group that holds voting power when the rest of the board is not present, was also mostly white. For reference, this committee directly oversaw the investigation of how USC handled the case of former Keck School of Medicine Dean Dr. Carmen A. Puliafito. Accordingly, the leadership at USC comes nowhere near an accurate reflection of its student body.

Given that nonprofits often work in communities of color, this homogeneity of leadership creates a disconnect between these entities and the communities they serve. The lack of diverse viewpoints and backgrounds integral to the very core of programming means nonprofits are not delivering on their missions as well as they could and should. 

When leadership does not represent the student body or its community, how can a board be expected to make the best decisions for those it serves or truly understand the challenges a community faces? Nonprofits, including USC, must take concrete steps to increase diversity of leadership in their organizations with the goal of effectively and fairly accomplishing their stated missions. 

It must be acknowledged, however, that some for-profit organizations can make large investments into diversity and inclusion initiatives in a way that nonprofit organizations, who often lack financial flexibility, cannot. 

Despite having less financial resources than for-profit ventures, nonprofits can still make real, sustainable changes. For one, definitive metric goals for diversity can be used as a systematic way to ensure annual progress is made. Additionally, a focus on training for unbiased interviewing and selection processes allows for a more fair recruitment process. Nonprofits must also have open internal discussions about where diversity is lacking, why that is a problem and how members can work to find a solution. 

We task nonprofits with solving complex, important issues at both a domestic and international level, yet fail to equip those organizations with leaders of varied backgrounds, races and ethnicities. The dominant presence of white executive directors and white boards feels eerily similar to the idea of the “white savior complex” — that somehow it is solely the job of white leaders to impart wisdom and lead the charge in service to charitable organizations and marginalized communities.  

With more diverse leadership that leads to the inclusion of more diverse viewpoints and experiences, nonprofits can better live up to their missions and sustain the change that is so desperately needed from their work. 

Sophie Roppe is a junior writing about nonprofit organizations and social justice. Her column, “Progress Without Profit,” runs every other Monday.