The Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap in Massachusetts

A Race to Lead Brief

April 2, 2018

Boston A new examination of leadership opportunities and experiences for people of color in the Massachusetts nonprofit sector finds that, despite the desire to create a more diverse sector, nonprofits are falling short in providing opportunities to qualified leaders of color. The Nonprofit Leadership Gap in Massachusetts: A Race to Lead Brief, was made possible through funding support by the Barr Foundation, and was released today at a Boston Foundation event. The research builds upon the national Race to Lead research done last year by the Building Movement Project, which found people of color nationwide faced steep challenges to advance into leadership roles.

Download the report.

The researchers analyzed more than 170 surveys from Massachusetts nonprofit leaders and staff that were part of the national Race to Lead survey, and supplemented the data with a series of focus groups with Massachusetts nonprofit executives and staff. The Massachusetts findings largely echoed the national results. Respondents of color in both the national and Massachusetts samples were about 6 times more likely to say their race had had a negative impact on their opportunities for advancement. The report also found aspiring and current nonprofit leaders of color faced greater challenges in fundraising and obtaining professional development opportunities than their peers.

“The Massachusetts results offer a sobering confirmation that we must do more than just talk about more diverse leadership in the nonprofit sector – we must dismantle the very real barriers to success that leaders of color face, which have been systematically put in place over time,” said Jennifer Aronson, Associate Vice President of Programs at the Boston Foundation.

Key issues facing sector leaders of color

The researchers found respondents of color were slightly more interested than their white peers in pursuing leadership roles, with 71 percent saying they were definitely, probably or maybe considering leadership positions in the future, versus 64 percent of white respondents.

The report found aspiring leaders of color in Massachusetts nonprofits were more likely to face a lack of encouragement and a lack of mentorship opportunities as they sought higher levels of responsibility in the nonprofit sector. People of color in Massachusetts were 17 percentage points less likely to say they had mentors in their own organization—35% compared to 52%. Possibly as a result, they were more likely than their white peers to find opportunities for executive coaching or attend peer support meetings.

Leaders of color also brought up in focus groups a challenge they face in fundraising—with funders who don’t understand their connections to the community or funders who are more likely to connect with white-led organizations, even when funders intend to address issues in community of color. The data backs up that sense—research found a 22-point gap in agreement with the statement that “People of color–led organizations have a harder time fundraising,” with 53% of people of color agreeing with the statement, versus 31% of white respondents.

And while nearly three-quarters of both white and people-of-color respondents said executive recruiters don’t do enough to find diverse pools of candidates for top positions, people of color were more likely to see a lack of support from Boards of Directors for the leadership potential of people of color, and more likely to feel minority candidates get eliminated for not being the “right fit” for organizations.

When those who said they weren’t considering a nonprofit leadership role were asked why they weren’t, people of color were far more likely than whites (or their peers nationally) to say they didn’t feel their skills or interests were well suited for an executive role, or that they were seeking to leave the nonprofit sector.

What can be done?

To address the obstacles, researchers offer three key recommendations.

  • Follow the Money; Invest in Organizations Led by People of Color

    Foundations should review their grant making and ensure appropriate levels of investment in POC-led organizations.

  • Develop Pathways; Build Ladders and Lattices Nonprofits should work together to identify and support aspiring leaders of color, provide pathways and networks for aspiring leaders of color to take on new challenges and find new roles, and provide greater support for staff development and transitions.
  • Nonprofit Organizations Taking the Lead As race and race equity are top issues for many Massachusetts nonprofits, leaders need to make it a top priority in their own organizations, particularly on their boards. The focus group participants also highlighted the need for the sector to tackle its own issues of implicit and structural bias that block progress on racial equity, and develop peer cohorts for white nonprofit leaders and leaders of color. Finally, the researchers suggest white leaders should speak up on behalf of race and race equity. Many have faced their own barriers—as women, as people not from elite backgrounds—and can now lend their voice and actions to address issues of racial inequities.

Possible solutions and strategies for taking on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion will be the topic of an ongoing series of discussions at the Boston Foundation beginning later in the spring. Details and topics will be announced at a later date.


The Boston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, is one of the largest community foundations in the nation, with net assets of more than $1 billion. In 2017, the Foundation and its donors paid $130 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and received gifts of more than $194 million. The Foundation is a close partner in philanthropy with its donors, with more than 1,000 separate charitable funds established either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. It also serves as a major civic leader, think tank and advocacy organization, commissioning research into the most critical issues of our time and helping to shape public policy designed to advance opportunity for everyone in Greater Boston. The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), a distinct operating unit of the Foundation, designs and implements customized philanthropic strategies for families, foundations and corporations around the globe. For more information about the Boston Foundation and TPI, visit or call 617-338-1700.