New Nonprofit Leaders of Color Bring Change but Also Face Hurdles

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By Alex Daniels

Before Joe Scantlebury became chief executive of Living Cities in September, he knew had a daunting task ahead.

An unnamed group of employees who had fled the nonprofit made it clear that they thought the organization needed a radical overhaul focused on removing racial bias from its operations.

In essays posted on the internet, the former employees excoriated Ben Hecht, the organization’s longtime CEO, for “downplaying a toxic and racist culture” at Living Cities, a nonprofit that works to reduce the racial wealth gap in U.S. cities.

For Scantlebury, who is Black, the publicly aired grievances put him in a difficult position.

Scantlebury, a longtime Living Cities board member who has served in senior roles at the Kellogg and Gates foundations, says he knew the postings represented the views of only a portion of the nonprofit’s work force at the time. He is full of praise for Hecht, but he didn’t want to minimize the hurt the critics felt.

Under Scantlebury, the nonprofit has continued the work it started more than five years ago to ensure it doesn’t ignore reports that employees are unfairly treated. It includes mandatory racial-equity training for new employees and a continuing series of discussions and assessments conducted by its human-resources and racial-equity teams to keep the issue front and center.

“We have to stop being afraid of the critique,” Scantlebury says. “We don’t improve in silence.”

Scantlebury is one of many nonprofit leaders of color who have stepped in to lead organizations over the past two years as the effort to end racism has been taken up with renewed vigor. Since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020, many nonprofits, particularly those that serve and advocate for people of color, felt like outsiders in the struggle.

For many of those groups, part of the answer has been to replace white leaders with people of color. Those leaders were often charged with changing the culture of the organization to ensure it was a place employees of all backgrounds could thrive.

Since December 2021, more than 20 large nonprofit organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Greenpeace USA, Kaboom, and United Way Worldwide have announced new leaders of color, according to a Chronicle tally.

Many of those leaders — and others — accepted their leadership jobs knowing they faced problems that involved charges of racism in the way organizations advanced their missions, ran their organizations, or both.

Michelle Boone, who is Black, was picked to lead the Poetry Foundation in April. Her predecessor resigned under pressure because his response to the protests surrounding George Floyd was perceived as tepid.

A portrait of Johanna Chao Kreilick.
Johanna Chao Kreilick became president of the Union of Concerned Scientists after an employee complained that staff members of color were “ignored, tokenized, silenced [and] exploited.”

Johanna Chao Kreilick, who is Asian American, began her tenure at the Union of Concerned Scientists in May after an employee publicly posted a lengthy complaint about the way staff members of color were “ignored, tokenized, silenced [and] exploited.”

The influx of leaders of color who have taken jobs previously held by white leaders seems to have accelerated after the racial reckoning but got started much earlier. About half of the people in positions leading a nonprofit succeeded a white leader, according to a study that was released today — but that was conducted before the pandemic.

Once there, having broken the proverbial “glass ceiling,” they often find themselves teetering on a “glass cliff,” says Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, co-director of the Building Movement Project, which conducted the survey.

The survey found that executives of color did not have the same support as leaders as their white counterparts when they entered their roles. They were asked to do more, and often paid less.

Of the 1,190 executives surveyed, 72 percent of white leaders said they received support from groups of other leaders outside their organization, while 62 percent of Black leaders said they received peer support. Similar percentage differences were found between white leaders and leaders of color who had mentors within the organization. Most of the leaders in the study were from social-service, advocacy, health, or education nonprofits.

While 93 percent of white leaders who succeeded other white leaders said they felt their boards trusted them, that number plummeted to 77 percent among executives of color.

Leaders of color also expressed a higher level of frustration than their white peers with aspects of the job. They reported higher levels of stress resulting from pressures to push diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in the organization — a burden their white counterparts often weren’t asked to take on.

Financial Condition

A separate Building Movement Project study prepared for the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation reached similar conclusions. Released in September, the report was based on interviews with people of color who recently started leading nonprofits that receive grant money from Robert Sterling Clark.

Several of the leaders said they had been assured by their white predecessors that the organization was in solid financial shape but then found that their boards had trusted the say-so of the departing leader without digging deeply into the nonprofit’s finances. Some reported that they had to take extra care to “protect the legacy” of the departing white leader and minimize any challenges their predecessors had left them to deal with.

“I worry that as organizations make this positive step towards embracing more diverse leadership, that the exiting white leaders may not be doing enough work to clean out their dirty closets to make the organization ready for a leader of color,” says Thomas-Breitfeld, who is Black. “Because not everyone may be used to, prepared, or willing to be held accountable by a person of color in top leadership roles.”

In response to the report, Robert Sterling Clark made it a policy to add a year of funding when groups are undergoing a leadership transition even if the nonprofit is at the end of its grant term. In those cases, it plans to provide an additional $10,000 grant that the nonprofit can use as it sees fit, including for leadership coaching to ease the transition for the incoming leader.

With input from the new leaders of color among the nonprofits it supports, Robert Sterling Clark is also developing a list of steps organizations can take to smooth executive transitions, including offering a one-year contract to provide job security, creating a board transition committee to work with new leaders on problems they encounter, and enabling the new executive to select several board members for new or vacant seats.

The idea is to demonstrate a commitment to success throughout the nonprofit, says Lisa Pilar Cowan, Robert Sterling Clark’s vice president.

“This is a collective responsibility,” says Cowan, who is white. “It’s not about a superhero coming in and saving an organization, but this is about an entire organization preparing for and taking on this task together.”

Cleaning Up Long-Term Problems

The efforts many nonprofits are making to become more diverse, including the ascent of more people of color into top roles, simply formalizes the leadership that people of color in rank-and-file roles have always provided doing the unheralded heavy lifting at a lot of nonprofits, says Living Cities’ Scantlebury.

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Joe Scantlebury took over as CEO of Living Cities after some employees who had left the nonprofit made it clear that they thought the organization needed a radical overhaul focused on removing racial bias.

“We’re seeing the talent that’s always been there being brought into the ranks of leadership of organizations and institutions,” he says.

But that talent is sometimes ignored by white board members, according to Monique Jones, who served as the first Black chief executive twice in her career, first at the Evanston Community Foundation and now as executive director of Forefront, a membership organization of Illinois grant makers and nonprofits.

People of color, and Black women in particular, often face the challenge of ensuring their nonprofit becomes a racial-equity leader, while at the same time putting an end to problems the organization has struggled with in its recent past, says Jones.

At the community foundation, Jones reviewed and eliminated a lot of grant-application and reporting requirements and reoriented the foundation’s support toward small nonprofits led by people of color working overtime in response to Covid. The changes, Jones says, weren’t always embraced by the full board. Some board members, she said, asked a lot of granular questions about individual grantees — something they hadn’t done before. The increased scrutiny of her decisions, which sometimes overstepped the board’s governance mandate, made Jones feel distrusted as a Black leader.

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Forefront CEO Monique Jones says she has found some champions in leadership positions on the board and regularly seeks counsel from a “kitchen cabinet” of close advisers.

“I cannot come into work every day being questioned about my leadership and my expertise,” Jones says.

Still, Jones says she felt she was making headway at the foundation, and when the offer to lead Forefront came up, she almost didn’t take it because she feared that the organization was just looking for a Black woman to singlehandedly reverse years of entrenched racism.

“Sometimes what we get is a cleanup job,” she says.

That didn’t turn out to be the case at Forefront, she stresses, but the job is full of challenges. Like many nonprofit organizations, Forefront is going through the sometimes difficult process of acknowledging and correcting racial inequities within the organization. And Jones is the focal point of historic tension between the needs of big city, largely Black members from Chicago and the largely white members from the rural part of the state.

Her work at Forefront is still unfolding, but Jones feels like she’s on solid ground. Drawing from her experience at the community foundation, Jones, says she strengthened her position by finding a few champions in leadership positions on the board and regularly seeking counsel from a “kitchen cabinet” of close advisers. And to address the disrespect she felt as a leader of color earlier in her career, she successfully pushed for governance and racial-equity training requirements for the board.

Racial Equity as Part of Mission

The playground-building group Kaboom has also undergone changes in the past several years as it tries to ensure it is providing equipment equitably among different racial and income groups.

In 2017, when it had built its 3,000th playground, leaders at Kaboom came to a sobering conclusion: Despite more than 20 years of work, the number of public playgrounds available to Black children and kids from low-income families was much lower than for white children and children in high-income families.

Because it hadn’t made racial equity a key point of its mission, not only had the nonprofit’s work done little to reduce the gap, some people thought the nonprofit failed to treat people of color in the neighborhoods where they worked as true partners.

During a two-year examination of the organization’s commitment that followed, a Black employee suggested that the nonprofit could easily be seen as guilty of “white saviorism” — the idea that a white nonprofit needed to come into a Black, Asian, or Latino neighborhood and serve as a “hero” to people in need.

Portrait of Lysa Ratliff, CEO of KABOOM!
Lysa Ratliff, CEO of the playground-building nonprofit Kaboom, says her experience growing up in a family in which her white and Black relatives weren’t always on speaking terms sharpened her ability to help people develop respectful relationships.

Such a mind-set, says Lysa Ratliff, who took over as chief executive in February 2021, treats families as problems to be solved rather than partners with whom to build relationships and work toward common goals.

Ratliff says her own personal experiences help her make those connections. Her existence as a “middleman” between members of her mother’s white family and her father’s Black family — in some cases, people she says would ordinarily not even speak with one another — has sharpened her ability to help people develop respectful relationships.

After growing up in public housing and benefiting from the Head Start program, Ratliff earned an advanced degree in international management from the University of Maryland and went on to a career in the business world at MCI WorldCom and UPS. After her stint in business, she worked at nonprofits including Habitat for Humanity and Save the Children, before joining Kaboom in 2016 as a vice president.

Ratliff, who was appointed CEO after serving as the group’s interim leader, says her background has helped her feel empathy for families that might be struggling financially or whose children need more support.

“That is as valuable as the experiences I’ve had in corporate America or in the nonprofit environments I’ve worked in, but I diminished that for a long time,” she says. “I didn’t celebrate it as something vital to making change until recently.”

Ratliff’s decision to elevate the importance of her own experiences has helped usher in a new way of getting things done. Since it was founded in 1995, Kaboom has attracted employees with a “project” mind-set that values setting up new playgrounds erected as quickly and efficiently as possible. The idea, Ratliff says, is that an employee could take a binder down off the shelf that provided instructions for how to develop a play space, follow the step-by-step guidance, and move on to the next project once it’s completed.

Instead, Ratliff would like to attract employees who dig deeply into data to determine where the biggest need for playgrounds are. Those workers, she says, will need to incorporate the nonprofit’s equity mission into everything they do and will need to work closely with local leaders before projects are completed, and after, so the nonprofit can see what kind of impact the projects have had.

Less than a year into her tenure, and following layoffs as a result of the Covid pandemic, Ratliff and her staff have used that approach to create a campaign that has already attracted support. Kaboom today announced a plan to raise $250 million over five years to build in 25 cities where playgrounds are most needed. The effort is anchored by a $14 million gift from MacKenzie Scott.

‘Was I Doing Enough?’

One newly minted chief executive, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America’s Artis Stevens, who is the first Black person to lead the organization, says he felt called to step up into leadership after experiencing the turmoil of the past two years.

Stevens worked in a succession of senior leadership positions at Boys & Girls Clubs and the National 4-H Council. He says he felt destined to eventually step into a job leading an entire organization, but he didn’t follow up on the calls he got from headhunters.

But after Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man was murdered by three white men who saw him jogging in their neighborhood, Stevens picked up the phone.

Artis Stevens Alumni Profile
Artis Stevens, the new CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, says he felt called to step up into leadership after experiencing the racial turmoil of the past two years.

Arbery and Stevens both grew up in Brunswick, Ga. Stevens knows Arbery’s family, and as a kid he walked on the street where Arbury was chased, cornered, and shot.

Arbury’s violent end was jarring, Stevens says, and it planted a simple question he couldn’t get out of his head: “Was I doing enough?”

In Big Brothers Big Sisters, Stevens says he found an organization committed to serving children and young people who need support the most. But there were still things about the nonprofit that needed to change.

Upon arriving, Stevens created a Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, or JEDI, council of advisers from other nonprofits and academe. He also formed a national youth council. The idea behind both groups is that nonprofit organizations tend to be insular — it is easy for leaders to persuade themselves they are doing well. The outside groups, he says, will hold Big Brothers Big Sisters accountable as it tries to make good on its commitment to diversity and equity.

Another problem, he says, is that while about 70 percent of the young people Big Brothers, Big Sisters serves are people of color, the overwhelming majority of mentors lined up to work with them are white. While it can be very helpful for a boy who is Black to develop a relationship with a white role model, Stevens says, young people of color really need to see people like them in places of authority.

A problem, Stevens says, is that the organization had not recruited heavily enough for Black mentors. Stevens has established a relationship with the national Black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha to help attract new volunteers. And employees at Big Brothers Big Sisters who orient volunteers are now trained in making potential mentors of color, as well as LGBTQ volunteers, feel more welcome.

Perhaps one of his biggest early accomplishments is reflected in the demographics of the group’s board.

When he interviewed for the position in 2020, people of color made up about 15 percent of the board. Now it is close to 50 percent, an increase largely reached by increasing its membership.

Stevens says that when he was a candidate, he was interviewing the board as much as its members were interviewing him. He did not have to persuade the board to invite more people of color to join. It was clear the trustees were committed to change.

“They want a leader to help this organization grow and to reach kids that needed us most,” he says. “And for us to do that, we need to ensure that we have voices around the table that are really plugged into those kids’ backgrounds and experiences.”

Diverse Mix of Brainpower

Leaders of color have been picked to succeed white executives at nonprofits that work on a variety of issues, not just to lead human-service and advocacy organizations.

For instance, Ebony Twilley Martin was named co-executive director of Greenpeace USA in September, making her the first Black woman to lead the environmental nonprofit. And in April, when Kreilick was picked to lead the Union of Concerned Scientists, she became the first Asian American to lead the group, a scientific advocacy organization focused largely on climate change and nuclear proliferation.

To successfully confront the existential problems posed by climate change will require a diverse mix of brainpower, a change in culture, and a fight against entrenched power, Kreilick says.

That’s why the nonprofit sent a quarter of the $15 million it received from the Bezos Earth Fund to small environmental organizations in need of support.

As a leader of color, Kreilick says, she is especially attuned to how groups wield their influence and how to bridge differences among people to build effective, trusting coalitions.

Her experience building coalitions started well before her previous position, leading climate-change grant-making efforts at Open Society Foundations. In 2005, as manager of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s economic-justice program, she was busy organizing faith leaders and labor unions to raise the minimum wage.

The effort, the “Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign,” helped secure increases in the minimum wage adopted by the federal government and in 18 states.

At the outset, the members of the coalition didn’t seem to speak the same language, Kreilick says. The labor leaders spoke in terms of “solidarity,” keeping up “the fight,” and “discipline,” she says, while faith leaders were more inclined to frame the effort in terms of “values” and “service.”

“My job and the job of the other leaders in the coalition was to help translate what were clearly shared interests across these two groups of potential allies so that they could hear, see, and understand each other so that they could build trust and relationship and solidarity with each other,” she says.”

Her job at the Union of Concerned Scientists, she says, involves transforming people as well as policy.

“To lead organizations today, particularly those that are seeking positive social change, requires a certain kind of deep experience to drive accountability, legitimacy, and innovation.” she says. “It’s not just about being the right thing to do, but it’s actually about the kind of leadership required to make change and to lead complex organizations that are in the midst of this huge societal transformation.”

But Kreilick stresses that it is not just her professional experience that is an asset as she takes over at the union.

When she was introduced to the staff, she recounted how her grandfather had served as a geologist for the U.S. government for decades, first for the U.S. Geological Survey and then for NASA. He helped put a man on the moon, Kreilick says, but as a Chinese American, he never felt appreciated and weathered racial hostility from his peers for decades.

“My identity as a woman and as a person of color growing up in the United States has given me a front-row seat on experiencing power,” she says, adding that it has helped her develop the agility and courage to fight “the uphill battle of social change.”

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