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May 18, 2022
People of Color Often Face ‘Glass Cliff’ as Nonprofit Leaders
Trading Glass Ceilings

January 23, 2022 — People of color who traditionally have been underrepresented in nonprofit executive leadership positions often find their struggles with racism don’t diminish, and sometimes increase, when they become leaders, according to a newly published report.

Those leaders often face a glass cliff—circumstances faced by people of color and other underrepresented groups who break through the glass ceiling but find themselves in precarious leadership positions—according to Trading Glass Ceilings for Glass Cliffs, based on research developed by the Building Movement Project (BMP) over the last six years.

“Ascending to an executive position does not end a leader’s struggles with racism, and sometimes increases those challenges,” the report notes. “Executive leadership in the nonprofit sector is notoriously difficult, but too often this work is made much harder for people of color.”

Reasons behind that perceived greater difficulty include lack of efforts to recruit people of color, insufficient training for people of color to assume leadership positions once they are part of the organization, and higher demand and less pay for people of color, compared to white leaders, after becoming leaders, according to the report.

To address the challenges people of color face as nonprofit leaders, the report, authored by Thomas-Breitfeld and Frances Kunreuther, co-executive directors of BMP, suggests the following:

Support on-ramps and off-ramps for nonprofit leaders: “Funders could consider providing financial support to experienced executive leaders who can provide mentorship to aspiring leaders, particularly by sponsoring younger staff of color who are at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing mentors.”

Fund peer supports for leaders of color: “When peer support groups are well-facilitated and well-funded, the combination of emotional support, empathy and flexible funding can lessen the psychological burdens of taking on executive leadership positions.”

Double-down—don’t wait and see: “Funders can implement a wide range of strategies to support organizations during a period of transition, but one thing foundations and donors should not do is take a “wait and see” approach to determining whether or not the incoming leader is successful before providing new or renewed funding to the organization.”

Factor race into executive transitions: “Reducing the ‘glass cliff’ effect for incoming nonprofit executives of color will require funders, interim EDs/CEOs, capacity builders, board members and current organizational leaders working together to make organizations more racially equitable now.” Ways to do this include funders putting pressure on grantees to diversify their organizations (e.g., changing the composition of an organization’s board of directors) and funding consultants to support nonprofits.

Invest in organizations that already center identity: “The racial reckoning that occurred in the spring of 2020 challenged the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors to make real commitments to addressing underinvestment in organizations led by people of color due to prior practices of philanthropic redlining… Identity-based organizations are critical to the nonprofit ecosystem and merit funding commensurate with their impact on their communities and contributions to the social movements that drive change across this country.”

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