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Black women and gender-expansive nonprofit leaders: Combating the absence of trust 

A business woman having a conversation with a colleague.

A group of concerned nonprofit leaders in the Washington, D.C. area have been discussing a disconcerting trend: Black women and Black gender-expansive nonprofit leaders are leaving their positions, some exiting the nonprofit sector altogether. Those conversations led to the Washington Area Women’s Foundation’s (WAWF) report Thrive As They Lead: Advancing the Infrastructure to Support Black Women Leaders in the D.C. Metro Area Nonprofit Sector, in which 36 presidents, CEOs, and executive directors shared their experiences.  

In a conversation with Candid insights, WAWF president and CEO Dr. Tamara Wilds Lawson highlighted key findings and reflected on the challenges faced by Black women and Black gender-expansive leaders. A common theme emerges from the experiences shared by these leaders from diverse backgrounds: a fundamental absence of trust in their leadership. While the report focuses on one region, the factors behind this attrition have implications for the entire sector. 

The absence of trust

Black women and gender-expansive leaders report that their decisions are often challenged and undermined by board members. They continually encounter entrenched stereotypes and skepticism regarding their financial capabilities and intellectual capacity. As a result, they work with insufficient funding and support while feeling undervalued—which further complicates their efforts to lead effectively. This, in turn, exacerbates the absence of trust in their leadership. 

An analysis of data from over 45,000 organizations that have shared demographic information about their CEOs’ race and gender in their Candid nonprofit profiles confirms the funding scarcity these leaders face. Organizations led by Black women CEOs are disproportionately represented among the smallest entities, operating with minimal funding and resources. A staggering 44% of organizations with Black women CEOs report annual revenues below $50,000, compared with only 18% of organizations with white male CEOs and 16% of those with white women CEOs. This disparity underscores what the leaders in the report say about the need for equitable support and resources. 

“I had a well-respected philanthropic leader talk about this concept of ‘Pet to Threat,’ where Black women leaders are sought after, recruited, and brought into an organization because of their expertise and their vibrancy as leaders, and the thought that they are going to do some really innovative things and bring a fresh perspective,” said Wilds Lawson. “And then they get in the seat and almost instantly, their perspective, their choices are hyper-criticized, and their authority is undermined.”  

Disproportionate expectations and challenges

The report highlights 10 barriers hindering local nonprofit leaders’ ability to thrive. Wilds Lawson identifies three themes she believes strongly resonate with Black women and gender-expansive leaders across the sector. 

The undermining of leadership: Black women and gender-expansive leaders face outsized expectations and disproportionate pressure to lead authentically, yet their leadership is hyper-criticized and suppressed by the board. This pattern of recruiting talented leaders only to question their authority and capabilities can lead to feelings of tokenism, insecurity, and exhaustion. 

“If it’s clear that you don’t have the trust of the folks who hired you, it makes it difficult for you to be as effective in your role, leading your team and making tough decisions,” said Wilds Lawson. 

Unfair expectations: These nonprofit leaders also encounter unrealistic expectations—to fix organizations struggling with financial difficulties, internal chaos, or boards in disarray. And they are expected to navigate these crises on their own, without adequate support or resources—to be a “superwoman.” All the while, these leaders are dealing with microaggressions and lack of recognition for their superhuman efforts. 

Inequitable compensation: Black women and gender-expansive leaders report being consistently underpaid, despite making significant contributions to their organizations. Even after achieving substantial revenue increases, they often cannot get a raise. Moreover, they often must navigate contentious compensation negotiations both before and after being hired—obstacles their white peers do not face.  

“Some nonprofit leaders…said, ‘You know, I often have to forego my salary to make sure my staff is paid, or I am advocating for a raise for my staff. And that’s not even on the table for me. Or I can barely make ends meet for me and my family. And when I talk to the leadership or my board about that, it seems to fall on deaf ears,’” said Wilds Lawson. 

The role of boards

Wilds Lawson emphasized the responsibility of nonprofit boards to offer vital support for their leaders’ visions, faith in their leadership, and attention to their needs.  

“Boards have to do a better job of saying “Yes!” when leaders ask for help that requires resources. Be strategic in their work on the board, in their recruitment of other board members, and in engaging in some serious self-reflection and self-assessment as a leading force in…cultivating an environment in which a Black woman leader can come in and thrive,” she said.  

What has been the impact on nonprofit leaders? How can they thrive?

Leaders experience a significant amount of exhaustion, chronic stress, and burnout due to the absence of trust. Ninety percent report detrimental effects on their health and well-being, including fatigue, elevated blood pressure, and impacts on mental health.  

Wilds Lawson pointed to the sense of isolation many suffer from. “Suppose you don’t have the benefit of a cohort, group, or coach you can use as a sounding board. In that case, it also can seep into your consciousness, chip away at your confidence as a leader, and make you feel like you weren’t the right person for this role, which is an absolute falsehood.” 

 While leaders reported mixed experiences with leadership and professional development programs, they emphasize that these programs should continue and incorporate the experiences of Black women and gender-expansive leaders. Infrastructure supports could include cohort leadership development programs, retreats, learning institutes, trainings, convenings, and a general fund, they said. 

Wilds Lawson added that in areas with a shortage of funders and limited funding for local nonprofits, national funders could identify and support local and regional organizations more actively.  

“There have been some local funders—If, A Foundation for Radical Possibility, the Meyer Foundation, and The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation—who stepped up in the region to help launch the project which resulted in the report. It is resonating locally and nationally,” she said. “We’re hearing more and more from individuals and some funders who are asking, ‘What can we do?’” 

The report amplifies and validates the voices of Black women and gender-expansive leaders and highlights the urgent need to address the systemic absence of trust they face. It also demonstrates the potential for initiating conversations with boards and funders nationwide with the hope of creating more supportive infrastructure, reducing the barriers and disparities that contribute to attrition in essential nonprofit spaces. 

Photo credit: SDI Productions via Getty Images


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  • Patricia Lankford says:

    March 14, 2024 8:55 am

    Thank you Lauren. Excellent article