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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How can nonprofits improve outcomes by diversifying their leadership?

Diverse Leaders

Nonprofit organizations that serve communities of color can maximize their impact by diversifying the voices leading their organizations. Currently, the majority of nonprofit CEOs and board members designing policy solutions for communities of color do not reflect the racial identity of those communities. Nonprofits that prioritize racial diversity in their leadership can gain a competitive edge in hiring and retention, build trust with communities of color, and encourage innovation.

A growing body of research shows that diverse teams outperform more homogenous groups. While people may prefer working with others ‘like them,’ these groups tend toward more agreement, less questioning, and poorer results. Diverse groups challenge assumptions and consider alternatives that can lead to innovation and better outcomes. “Out of the box” ideas are more likely to advance when there is a critical mass of diverse voices in an organization.

As nonprofits look for their next generation of leaders, they should consider whether they’ve created strong pipelines for employees of color. The 2019 Race to Lead survey found that people of color are underrepresented in nonprofit Executive Director/CEO and senior leadership roles and overrepresented in program/line staff and administrative roles. There is incredible opportunity to cultivate aspiring leaders of color, who are far more likely to express interest in top leadership roles than white counterparts.

Recommendations for nonprofit leaders

  • Move from DEI learning to action: While DEI training has been a staple of nonprofit culture for two decades, there’s evidence to suggest it does little to change the behavior of white employees even when well received, and can be a less positive experience for staff of color. While initial DEI professional development can establish common language, set a timeline to transition into addressing practices and systems.
  • Assess your organization and disaggregate your data: As you identify strategies for improving leadership diversity, commit to regularly collecting and disaggregating compensation, retention/longevity, program, and outcome data by race/ethnicity.
  • Prioritize the well-being of staff members of color: Grappling with racial equity and the impacts of institutional racism comes with an emotional and time cost on colleagues of color. Nonprofit CEOs need to ensure that racial equity work does not fall exclusively on leaders of color within the organization.
  • Capacity building over confrontation: Taking a capacity-building approach allows nonprofits to focus organizational strategy on building capacity or removing barriers for employees of color instead of seeking to change individual behavior of white employees through DEI training.
  • Build networks beyond your organization: Move beyond your current networks and cultivate relationships with community colleges, HBCUs, and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs). Current employees can also point you to new recruitment challenge through social networks, peer groups, and grassroots connectors.
  • Include racial equity in transition planning: When nonprofits hire CEOs of color, they often face the “glass cliff”—expected to deliver on organizational goals and rectify histories of institutional racism. Nonprofit board should work with current CEOs to identify on/off ramps that make space for leaders of color to succeed them while building bridges with board members and inheriting institutional knowledge. The Building Movement project also found that CEOs of color need more support and coaching from leaders who’ve faced similar challenges.

While there are no shortcuts to diversifying a nonprofit’s leadership, these proactive steps can help organizations close gaps between the communities they serve, while improving outcomes. Nonprofit boards also have a key role play, especially in equipping the next generation of CEOs of color for success and sustainable careers. Building a culture of racial equity is a multi-year, sustained effort that takes commitment across all levels of the organization, while sparking innovation, improved employee satisfaction, and deeper connections with communities of color.

Megan McWenie is a 2023 graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. Megan is the Director oif Operations at the Center for the Future of Arizona (CFA), which brings Arizonans together to create a stronger and brighter future for our state. She began her career as a K-12 teacher and instructional coach, moving to the nonprofit world to build school networks and improve education outcomes for all Arizona students. Megan is a graduate of the University of Arizona, with a BA in English and History.

Image by Lillian Finley


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The instructional team for this certificate includes current and former CEOs and executive directors of nonprofit organizations, with extensive experience as change-making practitioners in the social sector. We provide an engaging, practice-oriented learning environment that focuses on knowledge, skills and techniques that can be put to use immediately.

Megan McWenie


ASU Lodestar Center Blog