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Are Nonprofit Leadership Programs Culturally Biased?

In our current research on racial diversity in the workplace, one question keeps coming up: why aren’t there more people of color in leadership positions at nonprofit organizations? While the answer to this question is complex, we’ve taken a look at the role of leadership programs in developing ethically diverse leaders. Our research led us to a recent report published by Leadership Learning Community, a national nonprofit focused on the way leadership development work is conceived, conducted and evaluated.

According to the report, many of these programs strive to balance racial disparities in leadership roles. However, these programs often take approaches that look at a singular – and often culturally biased – vision of leadership. As a result, people of color – who are already underrepresented in many leadership programs – end up feeling like they must conform to leadership styles that may not reflect their personal beliefs and values.

We spoke with Deborah Meehan, Executive Director of Leadership Learning Community, to learn more about the findings from the report. Here’s what she had to say:

1. What was the impetus for this research?

A few years ago, the Annie E Casey Foundation commissioned us to explore why there aren’t more people of color leading nonprofit organizations. We were able to access data about demographics in the nonprofit sector in general, but not about leadership positions. The lack of data indicates a problem in and of itself. While there is consensus that people of color are underrepresented in leadership positions, the need for hard data drove this research.

Looking at leadership programs was one way for us to collect data and explore these issues. While leadership programs have stepped up their effort to recruit more people of color, we need to do better. We partnered with organizations in the racial equity field to better understand some of the racial issues that existed within leadership programs.

Many leadership programs focus on specific issues like the environment, education, or health reform.  Some programs believe that work on racial justice is another program’s issue or that they need to focus.  Everyone working in leadership on any social issue needs to understand the ways in which opportunity structures in this country often produce different outcomes for people based on race within all of those issues they are focused on. There is no race neutral approach. We saw this research as a call to understand these issues more deeply.

2. What were your ideas about leadership styles going into this research?

When we did listening groups with current or developing leaders of color, we learned that there are many leadership styles that looked different from more dominant approaches We observed that there appears to be a bias towards individualism – like one leader out in front – in many organizations. Some of the people of color we spoke with tended to take more collective approaches, such as honoring the work of a team and not taking individual credit for accomplishments. As a result, these people were sometimes criticized by supervisors for not displaying strong enough leadership skills. This led us to believe that “one-size-fits-all” models of leadership limit opportunities for people of color.

3. Was there a big “aha” moment in your research?

Definitely. The big “aha” for me seeing the influence the dominant culture of individualism has had on the way we think about leadership in this country. Our attachment to the ideals of individualism has led to a rather distorted view of what it means to be a leader. We tend to think leaders alone are responsible for achieving great things by virtue of their talent.  We miss the point that a lot of talented people don’t have equal opportunities and we don’t act alone. The reality is that leadership often emerges from our social and racial identities that give rise to shared frustrations and aspirations that motivate collective action..

4. Why should leadership programs and nonprofit organizations care about this issue?

If we do not help people in leadership understand the system that is stacking the cards against people of color we won’t help to change it.  School leadership that is only focused on school performance without looking at achievement gaps for different populations in the school will probably contribute to the problem of growing disparity. We’re either going to help solve the problem and we’re going to be part of it.

This is an opportunity for leadership programs to learn how to have conversations about racial and culturally driven values. Leadership programs offer a safe place to look at these issues.

This is an opportunity for people in a hiring position to think about question of opportunity structures and their assumptions about people having had equal opportunity.  What someone has achieved by virtue of position isn’t necessarily an indicator of their ability. Some people because of their race or economic status haven’t had access to get into doors to help them establish credentials. It’s important to bring that awareness to creating opportunities for people from different backgrounds when you are hiring.

A free PDF of the report and a list of resources are available at

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