By Ofronama Biu

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By virtually every measure – including number of registered organizations, total employment, and overall social and economic impact – the nation’s nonprofit sector continues to grow in size and influence. Nevertheless, this steadily rising tide has not lifted the boats of all those who work for nonprofits. Specifically, women of color working in the nonprofit sector encounter systemic obstacles to their advancement, over and above the barriers faced by White women and men of color.

That’s the sobering and unsettling conclusion of Race to Lead: Women of Color in the Nonprofit Sector, a new report by the Building Movement Project (BMP). It’s based on data from a survey of more than 4,000 respondents in the nonprofit sector, along with focus groups and interviews. It follows up on an earlier “Race to Lead” report, which BMP published in 2017, on the nonprofit racial leadership gap.

Some key findings of this new report include:

  1. Racial and gender biases create barriers to advancement for women of color. Women of color report being passed over for new jobs or promotions in favor of others—including men of color, White women, and White men—with comparable or even lower credentials.

  2. Education and training do not provide equity. Women of color with advanced education were more likely than men of color, White men, or White women to work in line staff, and administrative roles, and the least likely to hold senior leadership positions. Women of color also are paid less compared to men of color and White men and more frequently report frustrations with inadequate salaries.

  3. The social landscape of organizations is fraught for women of color. Women of color who reported that their race and/or gender have been a barrier to their advancement indicated that they were sometimes left out or ignored, or conversely sometimes hyper-visible and under intense scrutiny, with both conditions creating burdens.


The report also includes a section detailing key themes from survey write-in responses by women of color and from focus groups and interviews conducted with Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, Latinx, Native American, and transgender women of color.

The findings of this report lead us to this conclusion: In response to the Movement for Black Lives and the struggles for the rights of indigenous peoples and immigrants, nonprofit leaders have become more adept at talking about intersectionality, anti-Black racism, and de-colonization. But the Race to Lead data show that nonprofit organizations need to dramatically change more than the words we use on our websites and in our grant reports. Real change means re-shaping the hierarchies and power structures in the nonprofit sector, the ways organizations behave, and how they treat their staff, particularly women of color.


Some solutions BMP recommends include:

  • Leverage the power of philanthropy. Funders should examine their own grant-making practices to support more organizations led by women of color. Funders should also encourage their grantees to embark on a race and gender equity journey by asking about the racial composition of staff and boards of organizations in grant proposals and demonstrating to organizations that diversity information informs their strategy and funding decisions. 

  • Advocate for policy change.  The nonprofit sector should advocate for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to receive more appropriations to investigate charges of discrimination—even if this means uncomfortably turning the lens on the sector itself. The nonprofit sector should also advocate for other policies that would address equity, including gender pay laws—in effect in just a handful of states—increases to the minimum wage, and other polices that would boost economic security for all workers, including women of color.  

  • Address internal biases. Organizations should address both conscious and so-called “unconscious” biases that affect the mentoring, feedback, evaluations, and overall treatment of women of color. These steps toward equity cannot be limited to anti-bias training, which is necessary but insufficient. Nonprofit organizations also need robust and equitable human resources policies and systems that will set an expectation that racism, sexism, anti-trans bias, etc., will not be tolerated, and also enforce real consequences for staff who violate those expectations.

  • Pay women of color fairly and create transparency around pay scales to expose discrimination. Organizations should ensure transparency regarding pay scales to ensure that individuals with similar credentials and experiences are similarly compensated.

  • Create peer support affinity groups for women of color. Peer support does not take place by happenstance: it must be intentionally structured and supported. Peer support should be understood as a supplement to – not a substitute for – in-organization mentoring opportunities provided by supervisors and other senior staff, as well as increased grant investments in women of color-led organizations.

Photo by: Photos By: Milan A. Gary (The photo is of Monica Simpson. She is the executive director of the non-profit Sister Song, a Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective based in Atlanta)

Graphics: Courtesy of Building Movement Project

Ofronama Biu is the senior research associate at the Building Movement Project and a PhD candidate at the Milano School of Policy, Management, and Environment at The New School.

Since its founding in 1999, the Building Movement Project has developed research, tools, training materials, and opportunities for partnership that bolster nonprofit organizations’ ability to support the voice and power of the people they serve. The project’s recent “Race to Lead” reports are available here:

Reposted from the Center for New York City Affairs Urban Matters