Why defining BIPOC-led is harder than you think
As the senior director of Insights at Candid, I often joke that half of my job is asking people to define their terms. The social sector is full of jargon, buzzwords, and abbreviations. It’s equally full of seemingly straightforward words that can mean many different things; for example, the term “year” can mean five different things when talking about nonprofit datai Defining “BIPOC-led” is a perfect example of these issues (BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colorii).
In recent years, it’s become the king of philanthropic buzzwords. It’s also jargony and an abbreviation. And while there seems to be a high degree of agreement that supporting BIPOC-led organizations is mission critical…there seems to be almost no agreement on what the term actually means.
Over the last two years, I’ve talked to dozens of foundations, nonprofits, researchers, and diversity, equity, and inclusion experts about the term “BIPOC-led.” I’ve also reviewed dozens of articles and collaborated on several research projects related to the term. During this time, I’ve come to appreciate that defining BIPOC-led is not at all straightforward, even among experts.
Here are four key things I’ve learned about why defining BIPOC-led is harder than you’d think:
“BIPOC-led” is about power…and power is not easy to define.
Many experts and advocates of nonprofit diversity, equity, and inclusion shared that the term “BIPOC-led” is about more than simply identifying the race of any given organization’s CEO. Leadership is a collective process, especially at nonprofit organizations, which typically have a board of governors that oversee decision making.
For example, BIPOC CEOs with a largely white board and/or executive team might not be able to as easily enact change and wield power as BIPOC CEOs who have strong BIPOC representation across their organization’s leadership roles. There is even some concern that historically white-led organizations may purposefully hire a new BIPOC CEO as a “token” figurehead—without committing to more meaningful shifts in power, policies, or communities served. To this end, some argue that the term “BIPOC-led” should only be used to describe nonprofits that have majority BIPOC leadership across multiple leadership levels; and/or have BIPOC leaders AND serve BIPOC populations.
The “right” definition of “BIPOC-led” might depend on your purpose.
While I’ve found that many advocates recommend a narrow definition (e.g., a majority of BIPOC individuals across leadership levels) to ensure BIPOC voices are truly in control of decision making, some funders may support broader definitions to err on the side of being inclusive. For example, I spoke to one funder who shared that they purposefully used a broad definition (i.e., BIPOC CEO, or 51% BIPOC Board, or self-defined BIPOC-led organization), because they only fund BIPOC-led organizations and they want to be inclusive in who qualifies for their giving.
Self-identity is another complicating factor when defining “BIPOC-led.”
When organizations fill out Candid’s demographic form, we specifically ask for information about how people publicly identify. Along this vein, a valid question is whether an organization’s self-identity should be a factor in whether they are “BIPOC-led”. For example, I spoke with one nonprofit that considers themselves BIPOC-led, because they had a BIPOC founder and a majority BIPOC board, even though their current CEO is white.
To some, the past and future matter for what “BIPOC-led” means.
Several experts mentioned that the identity of those who started an organization is an important factor, as organizations with BIPOC founders may be more likely to be created with BIPOC communities in mind. Similarly, looking at organizational leadership over time can speak to an organization’s commitment to championing and retaining BIPOC leaders. For example, one funder shared that rather than focusing on current BIPOC leadership, they are interested in funding nonprofits who are committing to BIPOC leadership succession plans—believing that it will take time for the sector to shift and wanting to reward those who are committing to a more inclusive future.
In short, there may not be a one-size-fits-all definition of BIPOC-led that is “correct” for every situation, and I think that’s ok. However, I also think it is essential for organizations (and researchers) to carefully consider their BIPOC-led definitions and articulate the rationale for them. From a diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoint, being clear about language and identity is important. When people say “BIPOC” when they really mean “Black,” or “marginalized” when they really mean “people of color,” it obfuscates the narrative and makes it nearly impossible to hold people accountable for change.
For all these reasons, nonprofits and foundations alike should not simply say the term “BIPOC-led” and assume that their partners are all hearing and understanding the same thing. Rather, organizations should have serious conversations about what this term means for them, and be aware that ideally, the term “BIPOC-led” should be used as an indication of BIPOC power within an organization—a concept deeper and more nuanced than simply noting the race of the current CEO.
As for Candid, we believe that the best way we can support the thousands of organizations that rely on us for demographic data is to not impose a single definition on a diverse sector. Rather, we are working with partners to examine how our data can be used to measure multiple BIPOC-led definitions to address specific questions in the field.
i There’s calendar year, fiscal year, form year, circa year, and report year…but that’s a topic for another blog.
ii There’s general consensus that BIPOC individuals are those who do not identify as white. BIPOC is a recent term, used to replace “people of color.” The updated terminology is meant to center the specific injustices experienced by Black and Indigenous populations. However, the term BIPOC is not always ideal—e.g., it is less relevant to non-U.S. contexts; it can give a false impression that Black/Indigenous individuals are included when they may not be. As always, the best practice is simply to be clear, intentional, and willing to adjust your language as needed.
Alex Stone says:
Execellent article. Clear, concise, insightful and informative. Definitely leaves the reader with knowledge and questions that inspire futher research and evaluation of the current conditions surrounding the topic.
Thomas S. O'Connell says:
Really useful and relevant article, Cathleen. I had a similar concern the term "Universal Health Coverage" several years back. Clarity of definitions is not just a theoretical nicety. You can't develop meaningful indicators of progress, nor operationally useful objectives for change, nor hold folks accountable, if you are not clear on what "better" would specifically and measurably look like.
Cathleen Clerkin says:
100%, Shannon! I believe that “inclusive terms" come from a good place... But they can do more harm than good if we don’t say what we mean. We can't end racism if we're afraid to use the word race: https://blog.candid.org/post/the-importance-of-talking-about-and-collecting-data-on-race-to-improve-racial-equity/
Cathleen Clerkin says:
Agreed, Leah! The intersection of phenotype (physical appearance), race/ethnicity, and self-identity adds another layer of complexity at the individual level, especially if someone “passes” as white (on purpose or as perceived by others). The global label of “multiracial” is also tricky (i.e. does “multiracial” assume BIPOC?). In a research project I worked on earlier this year, all three leads (myself included), identified as both multiracial and BIPOC, but we discussed how the term “multiracial” can sometimes also be ambiguous.
Shannon Mouton says:
Folks are often too nervous or afraid of offending and use "inclusive" terms; however, these terms, such as BIPOC-led, are often unclear and leave room for interpretation.
If a funder wants to know does an organization have a racially non-white ED or CEO, then it needs to ask that exact question. Is your organization's ED or CEO Black, is what they really want to know. How many racially non-white Board members do you have? Was your organization founded by a Black person? Ask direct questions to get direct answers.
We live a race-based society and we should not be nervous or afraid to talk about it.
Donna Meltzer says:
Thank you so much for this great article that is spot-on! I am a CEO of a disability non-profit and we are struggling not only with the various BIPOC terminology definitions but also what it means to be "disability-led" as well as "minority-led" which is even larger. This is a challenging topic and one that will continue to evolve. Thank you for your work in this area!
Jennifer Maria Padron says:
Errrr... I never thought I'd see a blog by a white woman writing making all attempts to define BIPOC and certainly not telling POC BIPOC folk an appropriate way to discern and determine how organizationally a POC BIPOC led population should define inclusion.
Shame on you.
Jessica C says:
Cathleen, thank you for this incisive article. Who knew the term BIPOC could be so ambiguous? I'm glad that you have teased out the nuances of this newer terminology for Candid readers.
Be well. Sending warm holiday wishes to you and those you love.
Leah Kyaio says:
Another interesting factor re: BIPOC-led is the self-identity of those who are bi- or multi-racial and are perceived as white presenting.