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The State of Diversity in the Nonprofit Sector

With this post, we will examine data surrounding the current state of racial diversity in leadership, staff, and boards across organizations in the nonprofit sector. As the sector increasingly recognizes the need for talent diversity as a strategy to accelerate social change, Community Wealth Partners has conducted a scan of existing research to understand the factors leading to gaps in attracting/recruiting, hiring, retaining, and advancing people of color. The scan was conducted at the request of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has launched a Social Sector Talent Pipelines Lab to tackle these factors with key partner organizations.

To solve complex problems, it is critical to understand the root causes of those problems. In the case of the growing and related issues of racial inequality and poverty, we must openly acknowledge that the problem exists, and then explore the factors at the root of that problem. Sadly, statistics from high school dropout to incarceration rates point to the reality that in America, racial discrimination is one of the most significant root causes of inequality in education, health, and wealth outcomes.


There is a growing belief across our sector that in order to increase racial equity and inclusion, we must look inside and pursue greater diversity among staff, leadership, and boards of nonprofits and foundations. In partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, we recently conducted research to understand the full picture of racial diversity in the nonprofit sector. Our research looked at the current state of diversity in the workforce, as well as specific trends in attraction, recruitment, retention, and advancement of people of color in the sector.

We started by seeking the most up-to-date numbers on the representation of people of color in nonprofits and foundations. Overall, we found that while people of color represent 30% of the American workforce, only 18% of non-profit staff and 22% of foundation staff is comprised of people of color. For foundations, this number significantly decreases when looking at leadership and board member positions. This gap in diversity across staff and leadership in the sector reflects a lack of diversity in perspectives and backgrounds that could help organizations better understand the market and adapt and innovate strategies.

To understand this gap, we next examined practices around attraction, recruitment, retention, and advancement of people of color in the nonprofit sector. Through this research, we identified implicit biases throughout critical points in the hiring process that explain why staff at organizations continues to be predominantly white. The fact is that organizations rely heavily on existing staff, who are predominantly white, to pass along job openings through their networks, which are often homogeneous. The result is that white staff members are generally spreading the word regarding job openings through a largely white network, creating a perpetual cycle of hiring on repeat. For those people of color that do submit resumes, controlled studies have found that subconscious biases exist, resulting in individuals with white-sounding names being 50% more likely to get an interview. For those people of color that do get an interview, controlled studies again have found bias where white interviewers recommend a black candidate significantly less often than a white candidate with the identical credentials.


In order to address these biases throughout the recruitment and hiring process, organizations should take stock of critical points in recruitment:

  1. Assess the diversity of applicants submitting resumes for various positions within the organization to determine if current recruitment outlets are attracting a racially diverse pool of applicants
  2. Examine the diversity of candidates selected for the interview process to assess whether there may be implicit biases in the resume screening process that limit the number of diverse candidates being considered for positions
  3. Examine the diversity of candidates that receive job offers to assess whether there are implicit biases in the interview process that limits the number of diverse candidates that are given job offers

Identifying the point(s) in the hiring process where an organization is failing to recruit or select diverse candidates is a critical first step to developing more inclusive strategies and processes, and in turn, better equipping the organization to accelerate social change.

The hiring process is just one of several points in the talent pipeline where nonprofits are failing to attract, retain, and advance people of color. In future blog posts, we will further explore our findings on the role that leadership commitment to diversity plays in attracting people of color, and factors that hinder the advancement of people of color to leadership positions.

NOTE: For consistency, the author used the same terms to describe race/identity as the cited research.

Discussion Questions (please leave comments below):

Which of the findings did you find surprising?

What strategies have you implemented to build and retain a diverse and inclusive team at your nonprofit? What worked? What has not worked?

What are the sector’s biggest challenges to making the talent pipeline more diverse?

Does the sector understand this issue fully? What further research is needed?

What can we learn from the corporate or government sectors’ efforts to diversify their talent?

Further reading:

Diversity in the Philanthropy Career Pipeline

Council on Foundations

Career Pathways to Philanthropic Leadership: Baseline Report

Career Pathways to Philanthropic Leadership: Conversation on Diversity and Inclusive Practices

D5 Coalition

Philanthropic Paths: An Exploratory Study of the Career Pathways of Professionals of Color in Philanthropy

 Diversity in Nonprofit Hiring

D5 Coalition: 2014 State of the Work

Nonprofit HR Solutions: Nonprofit Employment Trends, 2013

Slate: Why it shouldn’t surprise us that whites and blacks have so little empathy for each other, 2012

Booth School of Business: Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? 2002

Nonprofit Quarterly: Color Blind or Just Plain Blind? 2002

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