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.

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