The Race to Lead in the Nonprofit Sector

Episode 6: February 18, 2021 | The Public Space

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Co-Director of the Building Movement Project joins Lilisa Hall to discuss the racial gap in nonprofit leadership and offers tangible actions to address the gap.

Show Notes and Resources

The nonprofit sector has a racial gap in its leadership. Sean Thomas-Breitfeld shares empirical data collected from surveys, focus groups, and interviews conducted across the U.S. He discusses how 2020 events have galvanized people and movements into action, and have started a whole set of changes that should be continued in 2021. He offers tangible actions that we can take to address the racial gap in nonprofit leadership.

In this episode:

  • The Building Movement Project (3:25)
  • Organizations vs. Movements (6:22)
  • What the Race to Lead survey data told us (7:52)
  • What 2021 will look like for nonprofits (15:00)
  • Affecting and influencing change in 2021 (16:07)
  • Ways foundations can invest in nonprofits (16:57)
  • Ways organizations can support movements (18:19)
  • Tangible ways to address the racial gap in nonprofit leadership (21:43)

Additional resources:

About Our Guest

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld co-directs the Building Movement Project. Prior to joining the BMP staff, Sean spent a decade working in various roles at Community Change, where he developed training programs for grassroots leaders, worked in the communications and policy departments where he coordinated online and grassroots advocacy efforts, and lobbied on a range of issues, including immigration reform, transportation equity, and anti-poverty programs. Before joining Community Change, Sean worked as a policy analyst at UnidosUS, where he focused on employment and income security issues. Sean holds a Master’s in Public Administration from NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service and a bachelor’s degree in social work and multicultural studies from St. Olaf College in Minnesota.


Lilisa Hall: [00:00:00] Hi everyone and welcome to The Public Space, a podcast from the Nonprofit Association of Oregon. The Public Space is where thought leaders share strategic ideas and solutions that spark positive change in civil society. I'm Lilisa Hall, Membership, Communications and Advancement Director for the Nonprofit Association of Oregon.

And in The Public Space episodes, we connect with experts from across the nonprofit sector and beyond to talk about the changing ideas, opportunities, and issues that affect our communities. And each of our conversations offers tangible steps that nonprofit organizations, supporters, and partners can take to better our communities.

And today, I am thrilled to welcome our guest, Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, who is the co-director of the Building Movement Project. A big welcome Sean - it's great to see you here again, and thanks so much for making the time to be with us today. 

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld: [00:00:56] Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be with you. 

Lilisa Hall: [00:00:59] So Sean is coming to us from New York City and we again are really excited to have him.

Today's conversation is about the "Race to Lead" - research that Sean and his team at the Building Movement Project have been doing over the past few years about the racial gap in nonprofit leadership across the U.S. And no surprise - there is a racial gap. And we're going to hear more about that research from Sean, find out if things have changed or moved over the past few years since he's been doing this research. Sean will also share his thoughts on what proactive actions we can all take to close that racial gap in nonprofit leadership across the country, and particularly in Oregon. 

So, just some background. I first met Sean back in the summer of 2017 in Washington, D.C. where I attended his presentation on the findings of BMP's 2016 Race to Lead survey at the National Council of Nonprofit's Confab, which is National Council of Nonprofit's Annual Conference. And we invited Sean to join NAO at its annual meeting that fall in 2017, and Sean was our keynote speaker. So, it's been a while. I know it's been about three years. I know it kind of feels like it was just yesterday, but it really wasn't, or isn't, so really glad to see you here again, Sean.  And also want to send out a big congratulations to you for being elected to the National Council of Nonprofits' Board of Directors. So, I am thrilled that they have you on the board and I'm sure you're going to have a lot of input and great thinking and perspective on that board. 

Before we dive into today's conversation on the race to lead and the racial gap in nonprofit leadership in the U S., a bit about Sean. He is the co-director of the Building Movement Project, which is an organization with a national footprint that supports and pushes the nonprofit sector to tackle the most significant issues of our time. And Sean has spent over a decade at Community Change where he worked on developing training programs, he coordinated grassroots advocacy efforts, and lobbied on a range of social issues. He is a national speaker and presenter. And again, we're honored to have him spend time with us today, coming to us from New York City.

So, without further ado, we're going to just dive straight into the conversation and we have a bunch of questions for Sean, of course. Let's kick it off by asking the question about the Building Movement Project - what it is, why it started, and what it does. 

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld: [00:03:25] Sure. So, the Building Movement Project was founded 20 years ago by my co-director, Frances Kunreuther. And, she created it as a project when she was working at a organization that did research and capacity building for nonprofit organizations, but the types of organizations that they were focused on were huge, like really big national nonprofit organizations and Frances had come out of community-based work.

She had worked in domestic violence organizations. She'd worked in organizations providing services and advocacy for LGBTQ youth during the HIV and AIDS crisis. And so she created BMP as a place to contribute to the knowledge and to lift up the best practices of organizations that were more community oriented and also a place where people could wrestle with difficult questions that were emerging in the nonprofit sector before other folks were ready to really dig into them. And so as an organization, we've really tried to stay focused on what is it that organizations that have a social mission or are trying to achieve real material change in their communities and in the world. What they need to be focused on to have real impact, and how to align their practices in terms of like the organizational management - the way that they go about doing their work with that mission, so that the impact is based in values of equity and opportunity and things like that. 

As far as the programmatic work - from the beginning, we've had a focus on helping particularly human service organizations be more connected to advocacy and organizing work and particularly to support and build up the voice and power of the communities that come to those organizations for direct support. That, they're sort of main bucket has always been focused on leadership and early in BMP's organizational life, we were more focused on some of the generational dynamics that were playing out in nonprofit organizations. And that was a really important knowledge base for us as we moved into a greater focus on the racial dynamics that have been playing out in nonprofit organizations.

And it was also an important way of understanding and framing how complicated and nuanced these issues can be, because Frances, along with several co-authors, wrote a book about what it actually takes to work across generations, that there wasn't this assumption that these tensions were permanent, that these tensions could not be overcome, that these tensions could not be worked through. And so we've really tried to bring that into the way we've looked at these issues of race as well in the sector.

And the third main bucket of work has always been looking at how organizations can be supportive and partners of movements for social change. We don't believe that organizations are movements themselves. We think of movements as having a different time horizon than organizations, coalitions, and campaigns. And we think of movements as having a clear and really central role for the creativity and energy of grassroots leaders who may not be thinking about the work of the movement on a 24-7 the way that a nonprofit organizational leaders have to. And so that's also been a big focus for BMP's work from the beginning. 

Lilisa Hall: [00:07:00] Great, thanks for setting the context of the stage for the Building Movement Project, Sean. And, so I want to maybe focus a little bit on the surveys that you and your team have been doing and the Race to Lead survey in particular. And I know you've, you all have done a couple of surveys. The first one was back in 2016 and then a subsequent one in 2019. Can you maybe walk us through the Race to Lead survey, sort of the background on it, the data, the analysis, and then also - and this is sort of a whole bunch of questions all at once - what changes have you all seen between the two sets of survey data? And what are you concluding or what did you guys conclude from it? Or what are you seeing changing between those two surveys? All of that! 

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld: [00:07:51] Sure! So the reason we did a survey back in 2016 was... we were aware that there was data that demonstrated there were few people of color in top leadership roles in nonprofit organizations. And what was surprising, although I'm not sure why we were surprised by it, but what was striking, shall we say, was that the numbers hadn't really changed. And Frances and I are of different generations. She's worked in the sector for longer. I had been, you know, as a person of color, the beneficiary of leadership development programs in the sector that were really about, sort of supporting younger people of color to gain the skills and confidence to try to aspire. RIght. And the sort of logic that was seemed to be dominant was that the reason that we weren't seeing more people of color in top leadership roles was 'cos they didn't have the skills, support, or aspiration to take on those roles, right. That the roles were out there, but that people weren't striving enough for it. 

And the data when we first surveyed in 2016, really showed how much of a lie that was. And we should have known this because it's been demonstrated in so many other cases as well. If you think of workforce development programs, people of color go through these cycles of getting trained through/in workforce development programs that, you know, sometimes it's useful, sometimes it's just you're cycling through these programs, gaining certifications, but if the employment landscape, the employment market is still biased against hiring people of color, that's really the fundamental problem. And so it was striking when we did the survey in 2016, was that what we were hearing from the survey takers and then in follow up focus groups and interviews was people really felt a frustration about the kinds of racialized experiences that they had experienced, weathered, survived in hiring dynamics in nonprofit organizations. And so sometimes that had to do with frustrations about the sense that executive recruiters were trying to diversify a pool of candidates, but were never actually advocating for people of color to be the people hired, right. That it was about like, what the pool looked like, but not who actually got hired for these top jobs. And that was a source of frustration. 

Sometimes it was the kind of stories that we heard in focus groups around having gone through the interview process multiple times for different executive leadership jobs and always making it to the final two candidates, but then, you know, for reasons that they could not understand - not getting the job. And other times it was like having had real negative experiences with board members in an organization who were convinced that the only way to fill this job was to find the right person from outside of the organization, right, this idea that internal promotion was a bad thing. And so all of those kinds of frustrations really came through in the data back in 2016, and it really painted this picture that people recognize that there were racial biases that were playing out in hiring decisions and in hiring dynamics in nonprofit organizations and then the sector more broadly. They recognized that it was a problem and so then when we re-surveyed in 2019, we wanted to know had any of this changed. And what was striking in terms of what had changed to your, your other question, I think what changed was that there was greater consciousness, right? And so this increased awareness then also in some ways, led to increase in people reporting the negative experiences, because I think what happened in 2016 was the sort of rollout of the reports. And the speaking about these issues made people then more aware of like, Oh, maybe what happened when I made it to the top two for that job, but didn't actually get the position. Maybe that actually had to do with this racial bias that I'm now reading about as being a problem in the sector. And so I think it's been, it's been a very complicated story to tell in terms of what has changed about the data in the sector.

Lilisa Hall: [00:12:10] Going onto the next question, Sean, so given COVID in 2020, have you seen anything change given sort of also the racial awakening and the demonstrations that occurred, you know, in 2020, have you seen anything change anecdotally or from a data point of view? What's your sense? 

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld: [00:12:30] Well, in the spring of 2020, we did a smaller survey of executive directors of color to get a sense of what they were experiencing, and due to COVID, and this survey happened before the upswell in mobilization and demonstrations around anti-black racism around the country. But so the survey was done before that period, but then we did interviews with a subset of the EDs who filled out the survey during sort of national reckoning on racism. 

And what was striking from the data was that organizational leaders were very concerned about the moment and the impact of COVID on their communities. And they were trying to figure out ways to adjust their programming models to do more to engage community members who were struggling. And they were also expressing like real concerns and worries about the financial stability of their organizations and one of the things that we were able to understand and unpack through the larger data set from Race to Lead was the way that money and funding in the sector does not necessarily flow in ways that would be equitable, and that leaders seem to have at their availability more resources than organizations led by people of color. And so when we did this survey specifically of leaders of color, we really wanted to understand what kind of funding concerns they had. And it was striking to see like already in the spring of 2020 that particularly black leaders were already reporting that they were losing grants.

And so again, that was before the sort of national conversation focused on anti-black racism. So I have heard anecdotally that some of the concerns raised by the data ended up actually being a sort of relieved and addressed by the moment this summer. And. I've also heard from some peers that like some of the increased flexibility and increased resources that happened during that period of the summer has now sort of been pulled back already as we move into the next year, as some foundations and funders are reassessing or reevaluating, what kind of commitments they're going to make.

So, yeah, I think that this current moment is just one of like everything being very unsettled and I think organizations are trying to address a lot of different issues. And I think, you know, we're moving into a time in terms of 2021, where there's just a lot of uncertainty, uncertainty about what state budgets are going to look like for particularly for direct service organization, concern and uncertainty about what kind of commitments private and family foundations will be making in this new year with a new sort of sense of what's happening politically in the country. So it's just a time of a lot of uncertainty and potentially flux. And the challenge is that oftentimes organizations that are closer to community - smaller, more grassroots, have less position to weather that kind of uncertainty.

Lilisa Hall: [00:15:41] Thanks for that, Sean, and sort of, you know, opening up our eyes and minds a bit to what's in store for us this year, that is 2021. I guess my question for you would be what might be some maybe positive and uplifting steps you think you can foresee in 2021? So that would be one question, let's start there and then we'll get to my other question that's following very quickly in my mind. 

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld: [00:16:07] Well, I think one positive is that, you know, 2020 really did I think, make the case for a whole set of changes that need to be followed up on in 2021, right. So, you know, from public policy issues related to health and healthcare, I just think organizations that are advocating for that kind of change have never been better positioned to make the case for those kinds of shifts and public investments in our communities. I think that organizations that want to, and, you know, I think legitimately should be putting pressure on their funders to make different kinds of investments and increase their investments in community-based work in needed critical services for communities that are really struggling still with the economic downturn.

You know, this is a time for private and family foundations to really step up because we know that there's going to be huge financial holes to fill because of the impact of the recession on the state budgets, individual donations, things like that. And I also think that the national sort of reckoning on race has really positioned organizations and advocates for making nonprofits more equitable workplaces. There's real understanding that those demands and those needs are legitimate I think in a way that may be that were approached with some measure of skepticism in previous years. I just think that the nature of the conversations that could be happening in organizations has shifted as a result of what has happened in this country over the past year.

Lilisa Hall: [00:17:47] That really gives us a great perspective on sort of the overall landscape and sort of the foundations, the funders, the individual contributors, and everyone else who can kind of help sort of move the needle on the racial gap in nonprofit leadership.

I'm kind of curious about what do you think are specific actions that nonprofits themselves can take to meet movements where they are, and then also to make space for their leadership while supporting those movements and those nonprofits?

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld: [00:18:19] Sure. Well, I mean, I think that, you know, over the summer 2020, I think many organizations that had not previously taken a stand on issues of race affirmed publicly that they stood with the movement for black lives, which I think is that a critical and important first step. And I think then the question for organizations becomes how to follow up on that and how to make it real.

I think one way to do that is to be still supportive of movements without trying to control or co-opt, right. And so not dictating to activists, like what are the sort of reasonable or legitimate demands to be making of public policy makers because the point of movements is to make demands such that what's thought of as politically impossible, becomes possible.

And I just think that the sort of instincts that sometimes organizational leaders have to rein in or control the kinds of demands that come up from the base, is ultimately counter productive both in terms of the sort of long-term goal of actually shifting mindsets and shifting what is considered possible, feasible, legitimate as a political demand, but it's also counterproductive in terms of, you know, wanting people to have a real say in the movements that they're invested in.

So I think that that's for organizations that are sort of more directly connected to movement energy on the ground and to the sort of negotiation around particularly policy demands that come out of movements from the grassroots. I think for organizations that sort of took the allyship stance in supportive movements, whether it was movement for black lives or movement for immigrant rights. I think that those organizations have to continue to affirm those stances and be supportive of the local leaders who represent those movements. You know, sometimes that support looks like providing space for meetings and not charging people a fee, right. Or providing other kinds of in-kind capacity support that grassroots folks will need. And other times that involves sitting at the table with those movement leaders, with other people that you bring to the table because of your positionality in a local community. I think that we sometimes underestimate the impact that nonprofit leaders can have if they are saying to elected officials or other community leaders, we need to, take a stand on this issue. There's a real power in the voice of local nonprofit leaders and I think the more that that can be leveraged and utilized on behalf of these demands for real systemic change, I think the better.

Lilisa Hall: [00:21:05] Great. Thanks for that, Sean. And, you know, one last question. And it's always a difficult one to ask our guests because this topic that we just covered on the race to lead and the racial gap in nonprofit leadership is such a big, big piece that is hard to get your arms around. And so I'm kind of curious from your perspective, what might be two or three things, and I know there's a whole lot of them, but in your mind, what are the top two or three things that nonprofits and others can do to help close that gap and ultimately eliminate that gap.

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld: [00:21:43] So for, for us as an organization, it's been really important to think about what is it that organizations can and should be doing to be addressing the issues that are raised by our research, through the Race to Lead series.

And so after, you know, the surveys in 2016 and 2019 and the development of those series of reports, we also have been developing a race equity assessment. And some of the questions in the assessment were pilot tested through the 2019 survey. And one of the things that we saw through that pilot testing of some questions was that people of color, particularly people of color working for what we're calling white-run organizations, that organizations where power in the organization is held by majority white, senior staff, majority white boards of directors. That people of color are having very different experiences in those organizations than are white people. However, all people in those organizations are having less positive experiences than are people working for more diverse organizations, which I do think is important to lift up because I think as much as I hate having to make the sort of business case for diversity, I think our data really does show that more diverse and inclusive organizations are also organizations where staff are happier. They're not perfect places by any means, but on the whole, that's what our data indicates. But so as we've been building and pilot testing and refining this race equity assessment for nonprofit organizations, what we recognized was that it's really important to be taking stock of staff lived experience in an organization if the organization is really committed to becoming more inclusive and equitable.

Because organizations often have policies on the books, but those policies are not impacting staff experience. And one of the things that we heard from the focus groups after we did the 2019 survey was just this deep frustration that people have with DEI being done as a checklist, right? So it's like the policy is on the books, but it's just performative. It's just a way of like ensuring compliance. It's not actually changing or contributing to the organizational workplace feeling like an inclusive and equitable place. And so that's, all part of why we felt it's really important to be focused on things that organizations can do is having real conversations about these issues and making space for people to have those conversations in ways that may be producing or surfacing or uncovering some conflict. But that actually is important because the ability to work through those differing views to be able to manage that conflict productively is really critical, as a part of, like the sort of muscle that organizations need to have to be able to knit together a diverse team.

Similarly, we think it's really important that organizations really grapple with issues of power, because this is what makes for more focus on equity, right? So oftentimes we're thinking about - is the staff team diverse? Well, sure, it's diverse even if like everyone who actually holds power in the organization is white, but everyone who is in a subordinate role is a person of color, that's still, you know, "a" diverse organization. It might even feel like an inclusive organization, if they're really good management, but is that an organization that is equitable? Probably not. And so that's why we really think that it's important for organizations to, you know, really move all the way from having conversations, intentional conversations that are sometimes difficult to really unpacking and grappling with how power actually operates in the organization. That's what it takes to move from just being maybe a more diverse and inclusive organization to being an equitable workplace. 

Lilisa Hall: [00:25:29] That was awesome. I love the way you wrapped that up. That was great. Thank you, Sean for that, that was a really great summary in essence, of what nonprofits could be doing more of to close the racial gap in nonprofit leadership.

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld: [00:25:45] Thanks again for having me. 

Lilisa Hall: [00:25:46] You're welcome, Sean. Great to see you, virtually and, we'll be talking I'm sure.

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld: [00:25:51] Absolutely. 

Lilisa Hall: [00:25:52] So with that, I want to thank Sean for taking the time from New York City to be with us today. For more information about the Building Movement Project and the Race to Lead, check out and

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This episode of The Public Space is produced by NAO's Brad Ramos.


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