Heartbreak and Possibility: Is the Nonprofit Sector Ready for Reinvention?

5 minute read

M. Zulayka Santiago, Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation

The North Carolina Center for Nonprofits hosted a webinar in its “Walking the Talk” series where they posed the question: Are we confronting the nonprofit racial leadership gap? Frances Kunreuther, co-director of the Building Movement Project, presented findings from a national survey to determine why – despite an increased number of training programs for leaders of color and the number of groups working on issues of race equity – are there not more leaders of color in nonprofits?

In our office, we decided to host a group viewing and follow-up discussion as part of our ongoing work to deepen our understanding of racial and health equity. A small group of us assembled into our conference room to learn and debrief together. I was the only woman of color in the room – not an uncommon or unfamiliar role for me – but what we learned that day and the implications it’s had in my life were unexpected and course-changing. 

In my almost 20 years working towards social justice and equity, I’ve had many different roles across all three sectors: public, nonprofit and private. I’ve worked with nonprofits for the bulk of my career: in entry-level positions, managing programs, as a board member, consultant, and executive director. I have not had a linear career path, and one look at my resume will quickly indicate that I embrace change as a constant in life!

There were several sobering facts highlighted during the webinar but two really stuck with me: 

  • The percent of People of Color (POC) leaders in the nonprofit sector hasn’t changed since 1994 (and is still under 10%); and
  • Despite POC having the right education, experience, and willingness to lead, the nonprofit sector continues to be pervasively and almost exclusively white-led.  

Researchers concluded that it’s not personal, it’s the system. As I listened to this analysis and looked around the room at the faces of my co-workers, a Peter Drucker quote I had heard long ago popped into my head: The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday’s logic. I wondered then and wonder now: when will the nonprofit sector wake up to the fact that these leadership statistics are unlikely to ever change if we’re not willing to do the difficult, uncomfortable, and necessary work of addressing structural racism and its many ripple effects in our society?

The last time I left the nonprofit sector was in 2007, shortly after having served as ED for almost two years within a Latinx advocacy organization. Like so many other people who enter the nonprofit sector, I initially stepped into the role of ED out of a great sense of responsibility, heart-connection, and duty to do right putting to use my many privileges. I optimistically hoped there was a different way of leading, thinking I had it in me to help shift a traditional hierarchical structure into something that was more life-affirming, inclusive, and cognizant of not perpetuating unnecessary power dynamics. I should be clear here that while I recognize that hierarchies are part of nature and appear all around us – what I am referring to here are the hierarchies that are manmade and that emulate corporate structures. We accomplished a lot together during my short tenure as ED; dismantling hierarchy was not one of them. I left feeling exhausted, depleted, and heart-broken.

I was disappointed to learn that, fast-forward 11 years to 2018, things are pretty much the same when it comes to the underlying power dynamics of how many nonprofits are run and led. As I pondered this conundrum in the days after the webinar, I was struck with a different possible explanation for this problem. Perhaps it’s not just structural racism that prevents POC leaders from entering the top-tiers of the nonprofit sector. Perhaps it’s our own deep wisdom that discourages us from entering top-down, organizational models that perpetuate the notion that the thinking happens at the top and the doing happens at the bottom. We resist models that in subtle, and not-so-subtle ways, perpetuate artificial notions of superiority and inferiority.

I’d like to think that it is this same deep wisdom that begs the question, why do we continue using yesterday’s logic to address this iteration of turbulence? Why would we be surprised to discover that nonprofit leadership continues to overlook and undermine leaders of color if we’re applying the same outdated logic to address problems at the surface but are unwilling or unable to address problems at their core? Or is it that it is not really perceived as a problem by the people that currently hold the power to do things differently? Most importantly, what is the nonprofit sector willing to do to shift these dynamics?

But let us not be dismayed! There is great news for those of us who do perceive this as a problem and have the courage to address it. There are many of us, POC and white allies, who believe strongly that our nonprofits should reflect the beautiful diversity of our society at all levels.

Ten days after the Center hosted its webinar, the Nonprofit Quarterly published an article speaking directly to this problem and directing our gaze to the future of nonprofit leadership. This was welcomed medicine to my weary heart because it also referenced a book entitled Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness by Frederic Laloux. I have not been able to put this book down since I opened the cover and have been talking about it to anyone who will listen. My hope is that more of us commit to reinventing nonprofits so that they become places that actually ‘walk the talk’ towards fostering equity. Only then will nonprofits become places that affirm life, welcome leaders of all backgrounds, and become vehicles for co-creating a future that counters hate rhetoric with unabashed love. For now, I invite you to join me in pondering the following:

Can we create organizations free of the pathologies that show up all too often in the workplace? Free of politics, bureaucracy, and infighting; free of stress and burnout; free of resignation, resentment, and apathy; free of the posturing at the top and the drudgery at the bottom? Is it possible to reinvent organizations, to devise a new model that makes work productive, fulfilling, and meaningful? Can we create soulful workplaces – schools, hospitals, businesses, and nonprofits – where our talents can blossom and our callings can be honored?
–From “Reinventing Organizations” by Frederic Laloux

M. Zulayka Santiago, MPA, is director of the NC Oral Health Collaborative, a program of the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation.


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Equity, Diversity, Inclusion
Human Resources