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So you’ve defined “BIPOC-led”…but how will you measure it?


Last December, I wrote about the surprisingly complex challenge of aligning on a conceptual definition of BIPOC-led (BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous and People of Color). In particular, I noted that despite subject matter experts’ general sentiment that the term “BIPOC-led” is about BIPOC individuals holding power in organizations, there are a number of nuances and circumstances that complicate this conceptualization.  
For example, there are differences of opinion as to how much BIPOC representation is needed to be considered “in power” (e.g., is it a BIPOC CEO, a BIPOC majority board, or a predominantly BIPOC staff?). There are also questions about whether an organization’s history or future should play a role in the definition, or whether the communities an organization serves should be considered part of what “BIPOC leadership” means.  

I hope my previous blog offered a starting point for further discussion and crystallization of your definition of BIPOC-led. If so, it’s time to start thinking about how to measure your definition. A large part of the current discussion about “BIPOC-led” is driven by a desire to better understand BIPOC-led organizations—whether it’s funders wanting to increase the number of BIPOC-led organizations in their portfolio, or researchers wanting to assess the circumstances of BIPOC-led organizations. To this end, conceptional definitions need to be translated into specific quantifiable observations.  

Unfortunately, like defining the term, this is easier said than done. 

To help (or maybe depress) those of you working on this challenge, here are four key reasons why quantifying what it means to be “BIPOC-led” is harder than you’d think: 

  1. Your definition of “BIPOC-led” depends on how you define “leadership” and “a majority.” Even if we have a seemingly straightforward definition of BIPOC-led, such as “BIPOC-led organizations are those in which BIPOC individuals hold the majority of leadership roles”….There are still literally dozens of ways to measure this definition (trust me, I’ve tried). Part of the reason for this is that you will not only need to decide what roles count as “leadership roles” (e.g., CEOs? Board members? Executive team? Managers? Community members?). You’ll also need to specify exactly what you mean by “a majority” (e.g., is it 66%? 50%? 51%?), as well as how the majority is calculated (for example, do you calculate 51% across all individual leaders or 51% of the individuals within each type of leadership role?). 
  1. Data limitations play a major role in what definitions get used. To date, most research and reports on “BIPOC-led” organizations seem to have focused on the racial identity of the organization’s CEO. However, after speaking with researchers in the field, I’ve learned that more often than not, this is a practical consideration, rather than a philosophical one. Demographic data in the sector is still hard to come by, and many nonprofits simply do not collect or share demographic data about their board, executive team, or staff members.  
    Because of this, simply focusing on a CEO’s race as a heuristic for “BIPOC-led” is often a necessity in order to have enough data to conduct analyses. In Candid’s own demographic data collection efforts, we’ve found that only about 25% of organizations share racial demographic data about their whole organization, whereas nearly 95% of organizations that share demographic data with Candid include racial information about their CEO.  
  1. Percentage-based definitions may be less meaningful for small organizations. Many measures used to operationally define BIPOC leadership rely on percentages, but these can feel arbitrary, especially among very small organizations. For example, a nonprofit with one senior staff member and three board members, all of whom are BIPOC, could easily lose their percentage-based “BIPOC-led” status if they hired just one white person as a senior staff member. By doing so, they would suddenly have 50% white senior staff, which could ‘disqualify’ them from a BIPOC-led measurement that requires 51% of senior staff to be BIPOC.  
  1. We must also unpack the definition of being “not BIPOC-led.” Every conversation I’ve heard in the field has focused on the definition of “BIPOC-led.” None have included a definition or label for organizations that do not qualify for a given BIPOC-led definition. Implicit in this narrative is the idea that organizations that are not BIPOC-led, must, by default, be “white-led.” However, this is a false dichotomy, especially if we are using a more stringent definition of BIPOC-led. 
    For example, in an upcoming research report in collaboration with Nonprofit New York and SeaChange, we explore a “majority BIPOC-led” definition operationalized as: at least one BIPOC CEO, at least 51% BIPOC board members, and at least 51% BIPOC senior staff. We find that using this definition, only 8% of New York nonprofits are “majority BIPOC-led.” It would be easy to assume that the remaining organizations are all therefore “majority white-led.”  
    However, if we apply the same definition of majority white-led to the data (e.g., at least one white CEO, at least 51% white board of directors, and at least 51% white senior staff), only 13% of organizations qualify under this definition. The remaining bulk (79%) of organizations are either somewhere in between (e.g., 51% white board but 51% BIPOC senior staff) or lack data to accurately calculate percentages (e.g., if half of the senior staff’s racial data is missing, it is impossible to have a majority).     

So, where does this leave us? Even if you’ve spent a lot of time fine-tuning your conceptual definition of BIPOC-led, you might end up having to adjust when it comes time to crunch the numbers. Researchers should also be clear in their methodology about how they are calculating their definition of BIPOC-led. Even seemingly menial differences (e.g., using 50% versus 51% to define a majority), can make a difference in which organizations “count” as being “BIPOC-led.  This year alone, I’ve calculated 15 different operationalizations of “BIPOC-led,” suggested by various partners, and based on Candid’s demographic dataset. Candid qualifies as “BIPOC-led” in three out of 15 permutations.  

I also suggest that researchers be as clear as possible about labeling their definitions. Using terms like “organizations with BIPOC CEOs” or “organizations with a majority BIPOC board” as opposed to the more generic “BIPOC-led organizations” can help ensure we’re measuring apples to apples. 

Finally, the silver lining in all of this is: as more nonprofits share demographic information with Candid, some of these data gaps are likely to close, and as more people use this data to conduct research, more standardized measures and terms are likely on the horizon.


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  • Jackie Dozier says:

    May 21, 2023 1:00 pm

    Great info. I have written a number of grants sincere receiving a DEI certification in 2021. I continue to see the boxes for identifying the CEO and board members listed but none with senior staff. So when applicable, I add the info in the summary and/or history sections.

  • Kien Lee says:

    March 8, 2023 5:14 am

    Loved your comment about clear and specific labels instead of just using "BIPOC-led." I think most funders, researchers, evaluators, etc. gloss over the importance of more precise labels. Thank you!

  • Mary-Kim Arnold says:

    February 23, 2023 9:13 am

    Thank you for this thoughtful and useful guidance!

    I am wondering too whether there's any value in considering who the organization primarily serves, or how the organization approaches its work. There is important information in demographics and representation, but there's also a philosophical or structural approach or culture within an organization that can include (but not always?) representation.

    Do you know of any resources or guidance to consider other indicators beyond representation and leadership-level?

    Many thanks for the conversation!

  • Georgia says:

    February 17, 2023 8:50 am

    Specificity is so key. Thank you. I shared this article on LinkedIn.

  • Rita Dibble says:

    February 16, 2023 12:10 pm

    Thank you for the nuanced approach to a fundamentally complex topic. If the focus on the BIPOC designation is to give greater agency to previously underestimated (I prefer this to underserved) groups, we need to factor in allies and enablers from all groups. While folks with lived experience most authentically represent that experience, others who have spent a career in this endeavor to level the playing field bring the keys to dismantle systemic barriers. As a BIPOC woman I can attest that my successes owe much to the efforts of white colleagues and mentors. Just a thought to continue the conversation ...