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Why is leadership aspiration down among BIPOC nonprofit staff? 

A diverse group of colleagues having a discussion.

In late January, the Building Movement Project (BMP) published our newest Race to Lead report on leadership aspirations among those working at nonprofit organizations. Based on a 2022 survey of more than 3,000 nonprofit staff, The Push and Pull: Declining Interest in Nonprofit Leadership found that fewer respondents said they aspired to lead than in 2016 and 2019. These findings raise real concerns about the future of leadership in the sector.  

While interest in leadership declined among both BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) and white respondents, this article will focus on trends and dynamics among BIPOC staff.  

BIPOC staff are more likely to aspire to lead than white staff

When we began surveying the nonprofit sector about issues of race and leadership in 2016, our primary question was: “Why are there so few leaders of color in the nonprofit sector?” The answer was not about how qualified BIPOC survey respondents were compared with white respondents; it was about structural barriers and lack of supports for BIPOC staff to advance to the top jobs. We also found that BIPOC respondents aspired to leadership at higher rates than their white peers.  

In addition, between 2016 and 2022, steadily increasing shares of both BIPOC and white respondents reported receiving peer support, training on staff management and supervision, coaching and executive coaching, and internal mentorship. 

So, we were surprised that the latest survey showed that the percentage of BIPOC respondents aspiring to lead had dipped from 50% and 52% in 2016 and 2019 to 46% in 2022. That led us to look for clues in the data, especially the types of supports associated with leadership aspirations.   

BIPOC nonprofit staff are ‘pushed’ by challenges toward leadership

Ideally, nonprofit staff would become inspired to lead through encouragement, opportunities for advancement, positive role models, and the belief that they could make an impact by building on the foundation laid by their predecessors. In other words, they should be pulled toward leadership roles by positive, affirming experiences.  

Instead, our report shows that aspiring leaders are often pushed to lead to escape negative experiences, such as difficult work conditions, and to make things better for themselves and others.  

BIPOC respondents who reported “often or always” facing challenges—inadequate salaries; the stress of being called upon to push diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts; lack of attention to staff well-being; and few opportunities for advancement—were more likely to express an interest in the top role than those who “rarely or never” faced them.  

What about positive factors such as training, mentorship, and other supports? BIPOC respondents reported similar levels of leadership aspiration regardless of whether they received management, fundraising, budget, or media training. But those who did not have a mentor, self-care and wellness support, or a supportive workplace were more likely to express leadership aspirations. Those staff are being pushed to lead by challenges and lack of supports.  

Such “push” factors were also seen in the higher rates of leadership aspiration among BIPOC respondents working at nonprofits with a white executive director (ED) or CEO and at white-run organizations (where 75% of the board and senior leadership are white). BIPOC respondents at white-run organizations also reported less positive workplace experiences than those at organizations where 50% of the board and senior leadership are BIPOC. 

BIPOC leaders still lack support 

Given that working under leaders of color does not appear to pull BIPOC nonprofit staff toward a desire to lead, we were curious to examine how the leaders themselves are faring.   

BIPOC EDs and CEOs continue to report less support from boards and staff—both before and after their transition—than their white counterparts. And with the exhaustion expressed by BIPOC EDs and CEOs in write-in responses, it is not surprising that 41% of BIPOC leaders who are planning to leave their jobs report burnout as the top reason, compared with 31% of their white peers. 

When the crisis of leadership transitions—the expected mass retirement of baby boomer leaders—was first noted nearly two decades ago, another warning was raised but mostly ignored: The Daring to Lead series of reports highlighted problems leaders faced, from their boards to outsized expectations, that led to 67% of leaders reporting that they planned to leave within five years. BMP’s latest survey data makes clear how much still needs to be done to inspire nonprofit staff—especially BIPOC staff—to lead and to adequately support them in their roles.  

Photo credit: xavierarnau via Getty Images


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