Supporting Leaders of Color? Insights from “Showing Up to Share Power: A Conversation with Building Movement Project”

Monday, May 9, 2022

Supporting Leaders of Color? Insights from “Showing Up to Share Power: A Conversation with Building Movement Project” 

Leadership transitions are a complex time in the life of an organization. Increasingly, nonprofit boards are actively recruiting leaders of color -- a move that often coincides with internal attempts to dismantle white power structures and welcome leadership that is more representative of the communities nonprofits serve. Increasing diversity and representation is crucial, especially given that over 80% of U.S. nonprofits are currently led by white Executive Directors1. At this time, funders have a unique opportunity to impact lasting systemic change within our field. 


Transitions from long-standing white leaders to leaders of color require a thoughtful approach. In early April, Philanthropy New York’s Leadership Transitions Funders Group convened funders to discuss the Building Movement Project’s report, Trading Glass Ceilings for Glass Cliffs: A Race to Lead Report on Nonprofit Executives of Color. Frances Kunreuther, Co-Director of the Building Movement Project, shared findings of this report that demonstrated that ascending to an executive position does not end a leader’s struggles with racism, and in fact can often increase challenges and exacerbate inequity. 

“Leaving is a leadership function,” Kunreuther said, “but it’s not really taught to leaders, so people don’t know how to leave.” Kunreuther went on to explain that as the sheer number of leadership transitions continues to climb, so does the magnitude of complexity, impact, and risk of those transitions for organizations and the movements and fields they operate within.

Unique Challenges

While new leaders of color are typically prepared for the implicit and explicit expectations they will face with running an organization as well as addressing internal equity issues, they often face other unexpected challenges too. These can include: 

  • A lack of mentorship for leaders of color, not just at the leadership level but at all stages of their careers.  
  • Exiting leaders “holding” relationships (and often taking these with them to their next leadership role).
  • Perception that leaders  of color don’t “come with networks” without recognizing that: 
    • they do come with networks, just not always the traditional networks funders are used to, and; 
    • they are often asked to use their networks as it is convenient to expand board diversity and other efforts, even when that wasn’t explicitly understood before. 
  • ​​More frequently having their authority questioned or challenged. While it is understood that the partnership between executive leaders and boards of directors is a critical aspect of nonprofit leadership, only three-quarters (77%) of EDs/CEOs of color who succeeded a white executive leader reported feeling a level of trust from the board, compared with 90% of white EDs/CEOs.2 
  • Outsized expectations from staff of color who are seeking an immediate culture change in the organization.  

Tailored Solutions and Support 

For funders supporting grantee partners during a leadership transition, this moment invites them to share power. In addition to discussing the recommendations highlighted in the Race-to-Lead report, participants in Philanthropy New York’s April 6th session shared examples from their own funding practice and experience leading through change. Here are three actions you could consider enacting now as a funder:   

  1. Build Networks - Funders often take for granted their expansive networks of grantees and other funders. Creating mechanisms and forums to bring new leaders of color into these networks is an invaluable benefit. So too is making introductions between new leaders and members of your own professional network.  
  2. Budget for leadership transitions - By committing actual dollars to leadership transitions, funders can help ease the anxiety of this moment for incoming leaders of color. This could include tactics such as maintaining funding during transition years, even if the transition occurs during times of grant renewals, and supporting leaders by allocating funding for specialized consultants,  executive leadership coaching, or professional memberships. 
  3. Connect, communicate and engage - It is rare that funders interact with non-profit staff beyond the executive level and program leadership level, so it is only natural that when they leave, funders feel chaos. By making an effort to connect, communicate, and engage with people beyond the ED, funders will be better able to understand and help build an internal pipeline of future leaders. 

Additional Resources: 

As philanthropy continues to examine its own practices and behaviors, join us for the next phase of the Leadership Transitions Funders Group to build on our learning and create a community of practice for leadership transitions that shift the dynamic between nonprofit partners to one of sharing and building power.

Leadership Transitions Funders Group - An Invitation to a Community of Practice

When: Thursday, May 19, 2022, 2:00-3:30 PM, ET

Register here

Further Resources: