Diversity Among Nonprofit Leaders Still a Long Way Off, Report Says

by Drew Lindsay  

Nonprofit leadership remains predominantly white and isn’t likely to grow more diverse anytime soon, according to a new report.

Whites fill 90 percent of board seats and CEO positions, according to BoardSource, a research and support organization for nonprofit boards. More than a quarter of boards are all-white.

Those numbers have varied little since the organization began surveying board chairs and top nonprofit executives in 1994. And BoardSource concludes they aren’t likely to change, because recruitment, at least at the board level, typically doesn’t focus on diversity. Only about a quarter of board chairs and chief executives rate demographic diversity as a high priority in recruiting.

“These are really, really disappointing findings,” said Anne Wallestad, BoardSource’s president. “You would hope that we would have made much more progress in the past 20 years than we have.”

Ms. Wallestad said she was particularly troubled that the report showed a “dissonance between attitudes and action.” Many groups don’t understand that adding diversity to boards will require professionalized, disciplined recruitment efforts.

“It is really, really hard for organizations to wrap their heads around how much of a priority it needs to be,” she says. “There’s a sense that if we just care about it enough, it might happen.”

Persistent Bias

Frances Kunreuther, co-director of the Building Movement Project, says the BoardSource report is a sign of a persistent bias in hiring and board appointments. A Building Movement survey of nonprofit workers found that more than a third of people of color reported that their race or ethnicity had negatively affected their career advancement. When hiring chief executives, she says, boards often fear that donors won’t feel comfortable with people of color.

“These types of biases are insidious,” she says.

Foundations in recent years have begun to measure staff diversity among their grantees, but Ms. Kunreuther says they need to consider consequences for organizations that don’t change.

Foundations, however, have been slow to improve their own diversity outlook. The D5 Coalition, a group of grant makers committed to increasing diversity, concluded five years of work with a 2016 report that found pockets of progress but little change over all. It is continuing its work, in part because of increasing racial tensions in the country.

“My sense is that our nation’s political environment demands that institutional philanthropy demonstrate greater resolve on matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion at this time,” said D5 co-chair Robert Ross, president of the California Endowment, said in an email. “Tone-setting must emanate from executives and trustees, and the ‘authorizing environment’ in the boardroom is critical.”

All-White Boards

Other findings from BoardSource’s “Leading With Intent” report:

  • Twenty-seven percent of boards identify as all-white.
  • CEOs and board members value diversity differently. Nearly two-thirds of chief executives report they are not satisfied with their board’s diversity, while only 41 percent of trustees say that.

At groups with all-white boards, 62 percent of chief executives say expanding the board’s diversity is important to the group’s mission. Yet only 10 percent say demographics are a high priority in board recruitment.