Ending Implicit Bias in Nonprofits

Nonprofits So White: Ending Implicit Bias

The most recent statistics show that the senior executives, boards and staff of nonprofits are disproportionately White. By and large, minorities are underrepresented, even in nonprofits whose constituents are primarily people of color. As a consequence, White-led nonprofits too often find themselves in the position of telling people of color what is best for them and often exposing implicit bias.

However good the advice or well-meaning the intention, White-led nonprofits are often experienced by people of color as patronizing – or worse. As Tené Traylor, Atlanta Fund Advisor at Kendeda Fund wondered in Nonprofit Quarterly, why do we “still trust white [sic] folks to tackle blacks folks’ problems”?

As White America comes to grip with and – we hope – starts to redress our country’s systemic racism, our sector must examine why Blacks are underrepresented in leadership, on boards and among staff. It’s almost certainly attributable to hiring practices that bear the implicit bias of a society that most of us who self-identify as White are just learning to recognize. The numbers speak for themselves.

People of color represent 30% of the American workforce and 36% of the population according to the U.S. Census. Yet, one study reported that only 18% of nonprofit staff and 22% of foundation staff were people of color. A 2017 Board Source study found that 89% of nonprofit CEOs are White and as reported in Nonprofit Quarterly, for more than a decade, less than 20 percent of nonprofit executive leaders are people of color. 64 percent of the country is White according to the Census.

The problem is exacerbated by “White leaders [who] are still refusing to defer to the leadership of people of color, even when their clients are predominantly people of color,” suggests racial justice writer Anastasia Reese Tomkin. This is not to impugn every nonprofit whose leadership is disproportionately White. What we are suggesting is that organizations examine their board, leadership and staff selection processes, along with their missions and constituents, to assess and correct how their hiring and career advancement processes may carry the imprint of implicit bias.

What Must Be Done?


The first step is to recognize patterns that deny access to people of color and actively work to change them. For example, an argument frequently made by hiring companies is that “we are colorblind – we hire the best person for the job.” Such statements ignore the implicit bias that often defines the criteria for the “best” person.

To correct this, each of us who sit on a nonprofit board or participate in hiring must do more than make a list of what we think the qualifications are for a specific job. Actively listen to people of color on your team and in your community and integrate their ideas. Ask such questions as: Is there a different way to do this job than I am imaging? And, Am I open to allow a different perspective to lead in setting the mission and in determining the outcomes for this organization?

Marketing and event executive Omar Johnson (@omar_johnson) is among many Black leaders who remind us that another step nonprofit employers must implement is “Fix[ing] the [recruiting] pipeline by redoubling efforts to identify, recruit, attract, develop, and elevate Black talent.” Once Black talent is on the board, leadership must help “Black talent climb the ladder, and turn[] over power and authority to rising Black leaders.” As Beverly A. Allen, head of the Land of Lincoln Race Equity Task Force wrote in Diversity and Inclusion in Nonprofit Organizations, “nonprofit organizations must develop a collective will to share power, embrace diversity and hold themselves accountable for achieving these goals.”


The Chronicle of Philanthropy highlighted this challenge more than a decade ago. Little has changed since then. To prime the pipeline, nonprofits must actively support America’s reinvestment in and reimagination of education. Calling for “ONE America,” in a two-page ad in this Sunday’s New York Times, Black media mogul, Byron Allen, wrote that “education needs to be completely reformed.” If people of color “do not get access to a proper education, [America] will continue to position [them] to fail,” he added.

Irradicate Hostility

Once hired, Blacks in nonprofits often feel isolated and underappreciated, according to Leaders of Color Speak Out, a recent article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. In addition,workplace hostility demoralizes and drives out Black talent. Office microaggressions must stop. As Omar Johnson reminds us in his open letter to White corporate America: “Check yourself before you call a Black person ‘aggressive,’ ‘disruptive,’ or ‘difficult.

Audit and Adjust Compensation

Nonprofits must also pay their workers of color market-rate salaries. Our sector is notorious for underpaying its workers. Often described as the “passion premium,” the thinking is that nonprofits can get away with paying less as workers will sacrifice pay to do work they love. Unfortunately, wage discrimination in the sector means that people of color are often paid even less than their underpaid White counterparts.

Do It Now

Another argument employers make is that change takes time. As Ms. Tomkin posited in a recent Medium article: “The excuse that change takes time is bogus…. When there is a sense of urgency, nonprofits can move mountains to keep themselves afloat.” For evidence, look how quickly nonprofits responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. Even quicker has been the speed by which some Fortune 1,000 companies are putting big efforts into educating their employees about implicit racism and actively changing how they operate.

Nonprofits Can and Should Lead Change

America is at an inflection point. Nonprofits can lead the charge against implicit racism by aggressively and meaningfully examining their board and staff recruitment and training processes and materially correcting their racially disproportionate board and staff composition quickly. As suggested in a May 2018 article in Nonprofit Quarterly, failure to do so will damage their credibility, resulting in a lack of public trust among their constituents and donors.

Closing with the words of Kendeda Foundation’s Tené Traylor:

Philanthropy is really centered on this notion of charity and benevolence to its core. There are assumptions of privilege and power wrapped up in that. For us to see progress, it’s not just about trusting the black leader. It’s not just about having black folks at the table. It’s about right-sizing those investments accordingly. It’s about us trusting black folks to tackle black liberation and black solutions in a meaningful way.

NOTE: The information contained herein is not intended to be legal advice and the reader should know that no Attorney-Client relationship or privilege is formed by the posting or reading of this article which is also not intended to solicit business.

Casey Summar, Partner, The Law Firm for Non-Profits,1812 W Burbank Blvd, #7445, Burbank, CA 91506

One Response to “Nonprofits So White: Ending Implicit Bias”

  1. Mark Vega

    Spot on Arthur. As a cis-gender, heterosexual, white male lawyer over 50, I’m shocked at how little progress there has been. And I’m an active, empowering, egalitarian, on and on and on guy. WTF? Your suggested steps above are right on the money. I have started to take up every conversation with these matters and nothing else. Almost as though I set the bait, get people engaged, then hound them for action. Not sure whether it’s guilt or shame or both but things need to change right here, right now. And it starts with me.