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Inclusive Leadership: A Call To Action


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Authors: Deborah Meehan and Natalia Castaneda

According to a recent report by Bridgespan, there have been over 20,000 leadership positions available in the nonprofit sector in 2009. For a year that has been hit by such a severe economic crisis, that statistic sounds rather promising – but for who? Who will benefit from this opportunity and have a chance to step up into a leadership role? We would like to think it’s a matter of equal opportunity but historical data suggests that may not be the case.

Here at the Leadership Learning Community, we have done several studies on leadership and race in the nonprofit sector, most notably a scan on the status of people of color in leadership positions within the nonprofit sector that we did in 2004 for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Through our research and exploration, we discovered three major problems: a) a lack of demographic data about who holds leadership positions in the nonprofit sector; b) signs of the underrepresentation of people of color in leadership positions. For instance, of 1,072 executive directors surveyed by CompassPoint in 2006 for the article “Daring to Lead”, 75% of the respondents were white; c) and a lack of the analysis that would help create a compelling case for the need to remedy the situation – even when most reports acknowledge the underrepresentation of people of color in leadership positions.

Acknowledging the problem is an important first step but it is time to take action. To get there we first need to understand the root of the problem and identify some of the current barriers people of color who are leading nonprofits have experienced. We convened several focus groups and these are the challenges that came up: manifestations of institutionalized, interpersonal and internalized oppression; organizational cultures that are unwelcoming or biased; the larger problems of the nonprofit sector, e.g. poor pay, lack of career advancement paths. A number of participants described the prevalence of a “dominant culture” model of leadership, or set of characteristics defined as leader-like that is culturally biased and can limit the recognition, support, and acceptance of people of color as leaders.

On the other hand there were people who did not believe that the way in which they or their friends behaved as leaders was different. In fact, the term “people of color” was a source of lively discussions since it fails to recognize how distinct cultures and social structures are among different ethnic minority groups. Despite different takes on some of these issues, everyone agreed that leadership programs can help by increasing networks, peer support groups, provide safe places for healing, and access to mentors with influence. Based on these findings we launched a collaborative learning initiative, Leadership for a New Era, to explore ways in which leadership programs can expand leadership opportunities and prepare participants to create racial equity. We are inviting all members of the leadership development community to participate, so check out the website and join the initiative!

Those are some of the ways we believe diversity can be increased at the leadership level, but there are many others – and we would also love to hear about the creative approaches you are taking to address this issue. Regardless of the approach, however, what remains clear is that supporting people of color to take on leadership roles within their communities is a prerequisite for reducing poverty and disparities, as documented by PolicyLink. The stakes are too high; it is no longer enough to simply acknowledge and disregard the issue, it’s time to take action.