The Signifying Nonprofit



Way down in the jungle deep,

The philanthropic funder stepped on the signifying nonprofit’s feet.

The nonprofit said, “Funder can’t you see?

These restricted funds are slowly strangling me.”

The funder replied, “I ain’t heard a word you said,

My money only supports programming, I don’t care ‘bout overhead.”


Now the nonprofit lived way up in a tree

With no funder on his back he was happy as can be.

Hard days addressing social challenges were followed by hummus and kombucha tea.

But ever so often the funder would come around

Just to show the nonprofit who was the best problem solver in town.


Collective impact and innovation the funder demanded

The poor nonprofit fell in line but no funds were ever handed.

The nonprofit got tired of the funder playing tricks

He came up with a plan, “I’ll fix this tricky dick.”

So the nonprofit ran up to the funder the next day

“Mr. Funder a whole lot of trouble is coming your way.”


I ran into Mark Zuckerberg the other day.

He talked bad about you till my hair turned gray.”

He said, “Your daddy was an industrialist who just got bored.”

And “Your momma was in bed with a Rockefeller, a Carnegie and a Ford.”

When the funder heard this he was fit to be tied,

“How dare an owner of a raggedy social network question my bona fides!”


The funder took off in a rage

He found Mark Zuckerberg on a TED stage

“Zuckerberg, what’s this I hear about you dissing philanthropy,

You messed up in Newark now you want to start some funky, LLC.

If you were smart you would be like Bill Gates and start a 501c.”


Zuckerberg roared, “You dusty, old funder I know you ain’t talkin’ bout me

When the whole philanthropic model might be an affront to democracy.

You redistribute resources and make policy without a single vote cast

Your days are numbered, your time has passed.”

The funder was about to speak when Zuckerberg exclaimed, “Don’t say another philanthropic word!

Or I’ll call every one of my friends on your funky little board.”


The funder left with his head hanging low

He couldn’t believe he let that signifyin’ nonprofit trick him so

When the funder saw the nonprofit the next day

He said you signifying trickster I’m gonna make you pay

The nonprofit ran up his tree and started to dance

He told the dusty old funder, “You’ll never get the chance.

Zuckerberg is the new philanthropy and I’m no longer subject to your whims and rants.”


Just then the nonprofit slipped and fell

He tripped over some old funder progress reports he forgot to mail.

The nonprofit hit the ground with a loud thump

In an instant the philanthropic funder was on his rump.

A tear welled up in the signifying nonprofit’s eye

The funder’s teeth gleamed reflecting the sun in the sky.


And with one final tear, the nonprofit knew that was the end of his signifying career.







Our Sector Doesn’t Hire or Advance Black People

Did you know the nonprofit sector employs 10% of the America’s workforce and is worth over 800 billion dollars? That happens to be 10 million employees and 5% of the country’s gross domestic product.

You are probably thinking who cares about these random facts. Well, you should care especially since the nonprofit sector, the third largest industry in America, is horrible at hiring and advancing black people or other people of color.

And before you start thinking I’m a disgruntled worker who wasn’t hired for a nonprofit sector job or a crazy, conspiracy theorist that sees secret plots everywhere let me share that I am not. I happen to be black and employed by the nonprofit sector. In fact, they pay me a sizeable salary, provide me health insurance, a flex spending account, vacation and sick days, and a 401(k).  In essence, I have a career in the nonprofit sector.

You might be thinking this is a really poor example of how the nonprofit sector is not hiring or advancing black people. Until you consider the fact that I am the exception not the rule. My personal journey to employment within the nonprofit sector involved volunteer work, paid and unpaid internships, college and graduate school. I’ve worked with local and national nonprofits from South Carolina to Ohio in the roles of staff, executive director and board member. Currently I’m living and working in the equivalent of nonprofit nirvana, Washington, DC. Somehow, I have managed to go from being totally unaware that the nonprofit sector existed to a part of the nonprofit industrial complex.

Another way to say this is that I am a member of the nonprofit black bourgeoisie, a small group of black people who have managed to navigate and secure employment with benefits, protections and some influence within the nonprofit sector. While being black and bougie in the nonprofit sector comes with its own set of issues -I hope to elaborate on this in subsequent writings- it does put my employment in the nonprofit sector in perspective. Blacks are woefully underrepresented in the nonprofit sector workforce and even more poorly represented within the leadership of nonprofits even though black people and people of color make up a large percentage of whom nonprofit organizations serve. So like I shared earlier, I’m the exception not the rule and there’s data to prove it.

It’s not like the nonprofit sector is unaware that I’m the exception and not the rule it knows it has a problem hiring and advancing black people and other people of color. A report conducted by CommonWealth Partners on the State of Diversity in the Nonprofit Sector cites that people of color employed in the overall U.S. workforce is about 30% while the number of people of color employed by the nonprofit sector is about half that number. When you look at leadership roles held by people of color in the nonprofit sector that number drops to less than 10%. The report also cites a self-reinforcing cycle that favors the hiring of white people over people of color. The causes listed for this self-reinforcing cycle include a lack of diversity in employment applications and implicit bias in resume reviews and interviews.

Even when people of color are hired by the nonprofit sector they face significant barriers in navigating advancement opportunities. A report by D5, a five year coalition to advance diversity in philanthropy, titled Philanthropic Paths: An Exploratory Study of Career Paths of People of Color in Philanthropy, found that people of color employed in the nonprofit sector identify racial stereotypes and unwelcoming and unfamiliar cultures as one of the major barriers to advancement. You will notice that I used the term people of color when referring to the earlier two reports. When you break the number out to see how black people are doing the employment numbers get even worse.

In case you missed it, nonprofits include way more organizations than that small, one person operation your friend started because she wanted to help some inner city kids read better. In fact, if your friend’s nonprofit, although important and needed, brought in under $5,000 in revenue she didn’t even have to report it to the IRS. While smaller nonprofits, those with budgets under $1 million, make up the lion’s share of the sector, the nonprofits that concern me most are the complex multi-million dollar institutions that range from hospitals, universities and foundations to large arts and human service organizations. These institutions are engrained in our communities and within the fabric of our economy. That means the major institutions that make up our economy are not only failing to hire and advance black people and other people of color but they know it and seem to be getting a pass because they are nonprofits.

So what is the nonprofit sector doing to correct this? Not nearly enough. All efforts so far are a hodge-podge of individualized organizational efforts at diversity and inclusion initiatives with limited impact and results. Historically, the nonprofit sector favors self-regulation and shuns attempts by government and other outside entities to regulate its practices. There even exists a strong nonprofit sector lobby that pushes for greater self-regulation. The current de facto position of the nonprofit sector on the issue of hiring and advancing black people and people of color appears to be current employment laws work and it will all sort itself out if we give nonprofit organizations the time and space to fix it. This argument sounds good but it is also loaded with flaws.

So what can black people and people of color do to correct this? Start talking about the lack of diversity, equity and inclusion in the nonprofit sector and hold the sector and ourselves to account for doing something about it. Long gone are the days of the nonprofit sector getting a pass because it does good work. The nonprofit sector’s value and impact to society can no longer be measured just by what good it does but also by what it is. Right now it is a sector that contributes to discrimination and inequality by denying black people and people of color the same opportunity given to others- employment and the ability to advance.

For the few black people, like myself, who have secured careers in the nonprofit sector it is important that we speak out as well.  Because what good is there in being a part of the nonprofit black bourgeoisie if you don’t use your influence to speak truth even if speaking that truth means risking your career.

What Did You Just Call My Sector?

The social sector, I mean the charitable sector, excuse me, the third sector, wait, the plural sector, errrrh… our sector, is experiencing an existential dilemma when it comes to what we call ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong I believe in the power of language. It can bring clarity or cloud, include or exclude, build or tear down. What is troubling about our inability to come to terms with a name that identifies our sector points to a deeper, more troubling issue — our sector is searching for its identity and purpose in a society and world that has changed dramatically.

Many of these changes are due to societal trends, systems and issues not created by and larger than our sector. Aside from these societal shifts, perhaps our sector’s biggest struggle comes from trying to define our identity in relationship to the public and private sector.

As a Black person in America, I understand the struggle of trying to define yourself in relationship to others and the challenge of claiming your identity in the midst of forces larger than you. The more I thought about my personal experiences with claiming my identity and the challenges faced by our sector in claiming its identity I noticed some remarkable similarities.

In fact, I came to the realization that if all the sectors that make up our economy were a human family our sector, based on how other sectors view it, would probably be a person of color. If you doubt this conclusion here are a few quick questions we can ask to test if our sector’s lived experiences matches the lived experiences of people of color.

  • Do you find you are the only sector like you in the room when you go to a gathering of other sectors?
  • Are you not invited to sit at the table of the other sectors when they are discussing really important issues even though those issues affect you?
  • Do you feel the pressure to represent a diverse sea of beliefs, ideas and actions of others even though you don’t personally know them because the other sectors think of you as different?

If our sector’s answers would be, and I believe they are, yes to all three questions then our sector would definitely be a person of color. Furthermore, I believe our sector would be Black, but I admit that’s debatable.

Let me offer a couple words of caution. First I am in no way saying our sector’s identity crisis remotely compares to the ongoing systemic and institutional  racism and oppression faced by people of color.  Although if the comparison does elicit more empathy from our sector to the plight of people of color then great.

Second, when you are dealing with something as complex as coming to grips with self-identify and figuring out what to or not to call yourself there are so many ways to go astray. So maybe our sector can learn from the experience of people of color who have also struggled to claim their identity and name. After all isn’t one of the benefits of diversity the ability to gain new perspectives and insights.

Here are a few lessons, mostly advice, from my family, friends and Black culture that have helped me on my journey of self-discovery. I hope they help our sector in its quest to find its identity.

Lesson 1: You are allowed to feel some kinda way

Feeling some kinda way is both a feeling and expressive phrase. It offers the opportunity to acknowledge your feelings but gives you the space and time to explore them more deeply to understand where they come from and what they mean.

So the next time you hear someone say, “Why can’t you operate more like the other sectors?” or “We keep giving you money but where is the societal impact.” know it’s ok to feel some kinda way.

Give yourself a moment to feel the emotion and recognize that you are not just imagining that micro aggression that was just hurled at you. Once you have composed yourself then you can start the hard work of figuring out what that exchange was all about and what, if anything, you are going to do about it.

Lesson 2: Baby, it doesn’t matter what they call you. It matters what you answer to.

Let me be clear- as a sector you will be called out of your name. There are people who either out of ignorance or intent will refer to you as one of the names listed previously. You will have a gut reaction so just refer to Lesson 1.

If the offense is really egregious or if it is leveled by someone from the public or private sector remember this- you have control over how you react. No one or other sector can define you. So instead of worrying about what others call you focus on your best self and act accordingly. If you are referred to as not innovative, then go innovate; if you are referred to as simple charity, then go invest in systemic solutions; and if you are referred to as less than, then become more.

In so doing you will define yourself.

Lesson 3: Don’t look for a fight but if they start one- finish it.

Another way to say this is, “If they put their hands on you, break’em.” Because as a sector you should never condone violence or act violently please take this advice figuratively.

There are plenty of issues giving you a black eye — scandals and abuse by bad organizations, lack of support for a raise in the minimum wage and dark money flowing into politics. In case you haven’t noticed you are in the middle of all these fights and you are getting pummeled.  In life you are known for what you stand for and what you fight for so throw a punch for goodness sake the whole world is watching you.

As a sector you didn’t start these fights but you should finish them.

and one of the most important lessons of them all……

Lesson 4: Never, ever use the “n” word in mixed company

Let’s face it as a sector you have a very tumultuous history with the “n” word. You should never and I mean never, ever use the word not-for-profit, or its derivative, nonprofit, to refer to yourself or others in mixed company.

Let me define mixed company because it can be confusing. There are two types of mixed company- the first consists of organizations who look like you but don’t really identify as like you and the second consists of the other sectors who know for a fact they are definitely not like you.

The first type of mixed company consists of foundations, churches, superpacs and social enterprises and they in no way want to be associated with the “n” word. If you make the mistake of referring to them using the “n” word they will absolutely take you to task.

The second type of mixed company consists of the public and private sector. They know that they are not like you and the “n” word does not apply to them. Please refrain from using the “n” word to describe yourself or others like you in their presence. The last thing you want to do is give the public or private sector the idea that it is ok to use the “n” word because if they use the ”n” word around the wrong group or organizations they could end up in some serious conflict.

Now, whether you use the “n” word to refer to yourself or those like you in your personal conversations is up to you. As a sector you have that right.  But if you do use the “n” word know that if others hear you using it they can and will judge you.

Judging from how well the lessons above apply to our sector I’m thinking our sector would definitely be Black. If you are a little confused and shocked that our sector is a person of color and Black that’s a natural reaction to being seen as the other. I must admit you never really get use too it.

There are way more lessons and questions to consider then the ones I have offered here. And to be honest the lessons at best are just survival and protest tools to navigate the daily challenges of life as a person of color.

The true secret to maintaining your sanity as you search for self-identity and what to call yourself is to not let it consume you to the point that you miss the most valuable lesson of all – it’s not about how others see you but about how you see yourself. Like all lessons in life this one has to be learned, mastered and relearned.

If as a sector we can do this, then we are truly a step closer to finding and claiming our identity, name and power.