Massachusetts nonprofits falling short in efforts to support, promote leaders of color

2020 Race to Lead Massachusetts report finds improved awareness, but slow change in leadership trends

October 28, 2020

Boston – New research from the Building Movement Project for the Boston Foundation and the Barr Foundation finds that Massachusetts continues to follow national trends in its failure to promote, retain and support nonprofit leaders of color. The report, The Burden of Bias in the Bay State: The Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap in Massachusetts, used a survey of more than 400 nonprofit leaders and employees and a series of focus groups conducted shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic to get perceptions and data on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the Massachusetts nonprofit sector.

Race to Lead Massachusetts report cover 20201028 Download the report

“While the findings in Massachusetts have improved since our last survey in 2016, the data and discussions illustrate an ongoing toll for aspiring and current leaders of color in Massachusetts nonprofits,” said Frances Kunreuther, co-director of the Building Movement Project. “The number of leaders of color in Massachusetts nonprofit organizations is growing, but POC-led organizations are still undervalued and underfunded compared with white-led peers.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the rightful protests over the brutal murders of Black and Brown men and women have demonstrated the consequences of structural racism,” said Jennifer Aronson, Associate Vice President for Programs at the Boston Foundation. “But they have also helped illustrate the power and importance of BIPOC nonprofit leaders who are authentically connected and rooted in the communities they serve. We hope this report inspires us as a sector to redouble our efforts to tear down the biases, practices and policies that are holding back too many of our communities’ most valuable leaders.”

“While Massachusetts and Greater Boston are rapidly becoming more diverse, this report illustrates just how slow and challenging it continues to be for people of color in the nonprofit sector,” said Kimberly Haskins, Senior Program Officer, Sector Effectiveness, at the Barr Foundation. “This research shows that qualified, experienced, inspired people of color are simply not getting the opportunities of their white counterparts – and that must change.”

More motivation, less opportunity for people of color

As in the 2018 Race to Lead Massachusetts report, the data show that people of color are more interested than their white peers in assuming leadership roles within the field – 51% of people of color in the survey expressed leadership aspirations, versus just 38% of white respondents.

However, nonprofit staff of color were more likely to express frustration with their limited opportunities for advancement, and fully half of staff of color in Massachusetts said they felt their race had a negative impact on their career advancement, versus just four percent of white staff.

Race and advancement chart

In addition, while 37% of staff of color said their race had a positive impact on their career advancement – there are signs that advancement comes with a ceiling – 91% of staff of color (and 76% of white staff) said people of color must demonstrate more skills than white peers to advance, and 83% of staff of color said organizations seeking the “right fit” for executive positions used it to rule out candidates of color. 66% of white respondents agreed.

In most cases, the Massachusetts findings closely followed national trends – however, white respondents in Massachusetts were more likely to call out the structural racism in promotions and executive hiring than peers nationally.

Disparities in compensation and a lack of networks

Respondents of color in Massachusetts and nationally were more likely than white respondents to say their salaries were inadequate (42% to 33%). They were also nearly twice as likely to call out their salary as inequitable, relative to colleagues doing similar work (31% to 17%).

And in a troubling trend echoed nationally, respondents of color were less likely than white respondents to say they had received a cost-of-living raise or a performance-based raise during the previous year.

Compensation chart

And finding role models and mentors, while difficult nationally, seems to be even more challenging in Massachusetts. Respondents of color more often said that they needed to go outside their organizations to find mentors for advice and support. In addition, respondents of color in Massachusetts were more than twice as likely as white respondents to say they often or always experienced a lack of role models than white respondents, and more than twice as likely to highlight a lack of social capital and networks that can be key to advancement.

role models chart

Awareness and engagement in DEI has grown – but problems loom

One place where Massachusetts nonprofits seem to lead their peers across the country is in embracing the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion – DEI for short. Eighty-two percent of Massachusetts respondents indicated that their organization was engaged in DEI efforts, compared to 74 percent nationally – and this data was gathered before the current pandemic and social justice crisis that has put DEI issues even more front and center. Much of that work is focused inward: the top three initiatives in place included training for staff, leadership, or board; addressing ways that race inequity/bias impact the issues on which the organization works; and clarifying that DEI is central to the organization’s purpose and reflected in its mission.

While awareness of DEI's importance has risen – more than 9 in 10 white and POC respondents to the survey said a lack of diverse leadership is a “big problem” in the nonprofit sector – respondents see the path forward as problematic. Seventy-seven percent of POC respondents, and 62 percent of white respondents, said nonprofit leaders lack the will to make needed changes, while three-in-five respondents overall said trying to address race and race equity can create issues that nonprofits are not equipped to resolve. This leads to a level of skepticism about the potential of success expressed to researchers in the Massachusetts focus groups.

DEI Likelihood of success chart


The survey also asked about the current composition of each organization’s leadership – board and staff – and found differences between white-led (those with over 75% white leadership) and POC-led (those with over 50% leaders of color). White-led organizations in Massachusetts tended to be larger, with 54% having budgets over $5 million per year, versus just 33% of POC-led organizations. But respondents from POC-led organizations more fully agreed (on a scale of 1-to-10) with the statements that:

  • “I feel I have a voice in my organization.” – 8.5 in POC-led organizations, 7.1 in white-led ones.
  • “My organization offers fair and equitable opportunities for advancement.” - 7.2 vs. 5.7.
  • “I would be happy working here three years from now.” – 7.5 vs. 6.6.

Opportunities for change: Five strategies to advance DEI

One way for nonprofits to overcome the challenges of the difficult work of DEI, the authors note, is to connect with peer organizations that share similar goals. The Building Movement Project also highlighted five key opportunities for those networks:

  • Focus on Structures and the Experience of Race and Racism: Take on a structural analysis of race and racism as a critical foundation for race equity work, and couple that with efforts to understand and validate the individual and collective experiences of people of color in nonprofit organizations.
  • Policies Have Meaning… If Enforced: Examine and change organizational policies to reflect an organizational commitment to equity – and act on them consistently and universally.
  • Put Your Money… : Examine funding practices and break the cycle of inequity to ensure organizations led by people of color are receiving adequate funding.
  • Reflecting the Community: Racial Diversity in Action: Demonstrate racial diversity in action by investing time and resources, listening to staff and change organizational practices to recruit and retain diverse staff and board leaders.
  • Responsibility and Results: Organizations committed to DEI must establish thoughtful and measurable ways to assess progress based on a widely-shared plan for what should change, who is responsible, and how results will be documented and reviewed annually.

The Building Movement Project offers more in-depth descriptions of the change efforts above in the national version of this report, Race to Lead Revisited: Obstacles and Opportunities in Addressing the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap.