March 9, 2020

Nonprofits need women of color in leadership and to disrupt the structural barriers to their advancement

Sarah Iddrissu Executive Director, E4E-Boston

As a woman of color leading a nonprofit, I am no stranger to mansplaining. As a male colleague explains, I stare. Blink. Smirk. I then wait for them to stop explaining something I already know and understand deeply. Then, I breathe to ensure my response is graceful enough as to not seem too aggressive or arrogant—fully aware of the biases that exist against my additional identity as a black woman. As a manager and a leader, I also think about the culture shift organizationally that needs to take place so that this doesn’t happen to others and the need to give helpful feedback so that this person learns. 

All this happens within a matter of minutes. For me, it is a deep and energy-draining experience, whereas the other person simply sees themselves as helping and can move freely through their day. It happens multiple times per day in many different contexts. Yet it is important for me to persist through the barriers and continue to break them so that the next generation of women of color who lead nonprofits experience these microaggressions less and less. 

While we cannot solve every interaction, we can shift structures and systems to prepare leadership from more women of color. 

Across the country in the elected positions, the last election brought forth a wave of women of color leading more visibly than before. We are securing leadership positions in the nonprofit sector, as well, leading organizations like Planned Parenthood, the Drug Policy Alliance and Teach for America. This surge is exciting. It means that leaders are beginning to better represent the identities and experiences of our communities. Yet, this doesn’t mean that the structural barriers that previously prevented women of color from taking the helms of leadership in nonprofits have instantaneously disappeared. Those barriers still exist, and the demand for more women of color in nonprofit leadership needs to be met with the will to ensure their success within their roles. 

Diversify Boards

As we see more and more representation of women of color in executive positions among nonprofits, there is also a need to diversify boards. According to a study conducted by Indiana University, nonprofit boards today are 78.6 percent white, 7.5 percent African American, 4.2 percent Latino American, and 2.6 percent Asian American. The researchers also found that boards tend to be older than the general population. If women of color bring leadership founded upon lived experiences, they deserve a governing board that also represents a diversity of thought identity and experience. When we provide alternative opinions, a diverse board will better absorb the rub against the status quo and be able to innovate. It goes without saying that boards and board chairs hold power. Failing to diversify our boards communicates a belief that people of color—and especially women—do not truly hold power. It is critical for our boards to be diversified as we also hire more women of color into leadership.

Philanthropy Sets the Tone

Philanthropy has traditionally been white and male. The fact that many institutions that give money and are connected to generational family wealth is something that many people--especially women of color--are expected to  understand and adjust to. Yet, the responsibility to understand and bend to the culture of philanthropy shouldn’t rest at the feet of this new wave of leaders. Philanthropies must be challenged to meet the demand for increased diversity in leadership. They can do this by paying attention to organizations that have made progress diversifying their leadership and boards, and intentionally invest in those organizations. There are incredible examples by the Nellie Mae Foundation’s initiative to fund organizations led by people of color. When philanthropic organizations such as Nellie Mae decide to focus on nonprofits with diverse leadership, the landscape changes. The drive to hire women of color into leadership positons is recognized institutionally, thereby spurring other philanthropic organizations to do the same and incentivizing nonprofits to make thoughtful hiring decisions. 

Facilitate Peer Support

The truth is, being a woman of color in nonprofit leadership is exhausting. We work to advance our values on behalf of communities we care deeply about while also fighting structural barriers to our career success. At the end of the day, we need more than a glass of wine: women of color need each other. We need fellowship and camaraderie to validate our experiences, support our efforts and build bridges in what would otherwise feel like very isolating roles. I applaud organizations like The Boston Foundation, which recently introduced the Anna Faith Jones & Frieda Garcia Women of Color Leadership Circle, a structured cohort program designed to support women of color in leading nonprofits. Women of color can innovate and bring new solutions to problems that nonprofits are trying to solve. Our leadership better mirrors the experiences of historically marginalized groups while we also are able to navigate dominant power structures. We’re caught in multiple worlds and intersectionalities. This makes us well-positioned to lead. It also means we need organizations that understand and address systemic gender and racial biases.

Sarah Iddrissu

Sarah Iddrissu is the Executive Director of E4E-Boston.