It’s no surprise that the nonprofit sector has a diversity problem, especially when it comes to nonprofit leadership. Over 80% of all nonprofits have a white executive director, even though many of these nonprofits have committed themselves to ensuring equity. While these nonprofits showcase themselves serving black and brown communities all over their social media, their leadership is still a majority white.
I remember my first time working at a majority white organization. I started dreaming about rising up the ranks and eventually becoming an executive director myself because I loved the work so much. But within only a few months, I saw a toxic work culture unfold. White folks who were only there for about a year were being promoted and receiving pay raises, while Black and Brown entry-level workers who had been there for over seven years stayed in the same position and were paid terribly. White supervisors wouldn’t listen to their Black and Brown colleagues and their voices would be drowned out. Most of all, white supervisors would have no one to be accountable to as their supervisors were also white and they often teamed up with each other and had each other’s backs, leaving Black and Brown staff members to fend for themselves.
Specifically here in New York City, we pride ourselves on being a very progressive city. However, a majority of nonprofits in New York City are led by white folks. Only one-third of chief executives are people of color while 62% of all administrative staff are people of color. It’s interesting to see how people of color are trusted to provide direct services or handle important administrative work, but never qualified enough to lead an organization.
For people of color in the nonprofit sector, it only takes a few days of work to realize that diversity is an issue, in leadership and departmentally. But what do we think is the solution to a very white nonprofit sector? I’ll tell you: It starts with the hiring process. Making hiring decisions through a racial justice lens is essential as a racial justice lens acknowledges the benefits of racial diversity and acknowledges the historical barriers marginalized groups have faced in obtaining opportunities.
A good example of hiring through a racial justice lens is the process of hiring interns. I remember when my supervisor was looking for interns, she rejected a lot of resumes that did not have specific experience in our department, which was advocacy and organizing. Many of the resumes presented experiences from McDonald’s or sneaker stores. I was shocked to see these resumes rejected, because the point of an internship was to gain experience, not get rejected because of your lack of it! Personally, my first job was at Popeyes. Not the best experience, but it taught me the valuable lesson of responsibility and learning quickly on the job. What people don’t realize is that professional development opportunities are limited for young people because it is oftentimes underinvested. In the 2020 New York City budget, Communities United for Police Reform reported that for every dollar spent on the NYPD, only 12 cents went to the Department of Youth and Community Development. Youth development is not seen as a priority in the scheme of things, so it is only logical that youth are forced to work opportunities that are accessible to them. In segregated Black and Brown communities like in New York City, most of these opportunities will present themselves as fast food jobs or similar retail opportunities. I advocated for a better vetting process.
We first typed out in our recruiting emails and posts what we looked for in a resume and cover letter. The process was then changed to ensuring that all candidates, regardless of experience, were at least granted a quick phone screening. This would allow us to fathom the interest of the candidate. They would then be moved to an interview with us (the supervisors), and based on that, we would decide whether they are a great fit. We found great candidates who didn’t necessarily have work experience, but the lived experience and knowledge we were looking for. It was great giving young people the experience they needed to grow in the field, and throughout the years, I stayed in touch with them and saw how well they ended up doing!
Nonprofits tend to be performative to receive an influx of funding from donors and foundations, all the while constantly lacking a racial justice lens to their hiring process. Where is the mentorship and pipeline for growth? What happens when submitting a cover letter is not accessible to certain candidates?
When it comes to hiring part-time or full-time staff members, the process is a little more thorough. Recruiting should go beyond posting on job boards. It means recruiting personally at HBCUs, CUNY, SUNY and community colleges. It means sharing the job posting through emails with colleagues from different fields and walks of life. It means making the application process accessible by accepting video and audio submissions. It means requiring a certain number of people of color in a pool of potential candidates. It means coming up with interview questions that have intention behind it, for example, a reproductive justice organization should ask questions about the importance of the reproductive justice movement and why women of color should be leading the way. It means thoughtfully coming up with a scale that grades each candidate based on their answers and seeing who not only has the experience for the job, but the skills and passion.
After the recruiting process, it is essential to create a pipeline to success. Every entry level staff member should be matched with a mentor. There should be monthly brown bags where high-level POC staff members talk about their road to success and give advice. There should be a community built amongst people of color to nourish their capabilities and encourage growth.
This will take a lot of effort and time, but if an organization is truly dedicated to equity, it is important to make this commitment. Lastly, what will make a difference is accountability. Creating a committee, board, or even hiring a high level staff member that holds the organization accountable to its diversity and racial justice vow will ensure that the work gets done.
While it may take a while for a nonprofit to transition their way of hiring, make no mistake: a hiring process done without a racial justice lens to it is not equitable at all.
NEXT STORY: A call for contract justice