Women at work Photo by BillMoyers.com

Race to Lead

Barriers to Nonprofit Leadership for Women of Color

Study makes a powerful case for action against race and gender bias in the sector.

This report and executive summary was originally published on the Building Movement Project website.

Executive Summary

This report applies an intersectional analysis to the data from the Building Movement Project (BMP) national survey of more than 4,000 nonprofit staff.

BMP’s research has already emphasized the need to address deeply embedded biases and systemic barriers that negatively impact the career advancement and experiences of people of color working in the nonprofit sector. By examining the impact of both race and gender on survey respondents, this report adds important nuance to the conclusions drawn from the other reports in the Race to Lead series.

Demographically, the Nonprofits, Leadership, and Race Survey sample primarily consists of women. The largest percentage of survey respondents were white women (46%), followed by women of color (32%). Men of color and white men were 9% and 10% of the sample, respectively. Transgender and gender non-conforming people of color (1%) and white people (2%) were the smallest share of participants. Black women comprised the largest portion of women of color respondents, followed by Latinx women, multiracial women, Asian/Pacific Islander women, and Native American women.


Although the survey data demonstrates that women of color face some barriers that are similar to those experienced by white women or men of color, the overlapping discrimination on the basis of race and gender places particularly acute burdens on many women of color. More specifically, the report details the following findings:

  • Racial and gender biases create barriers to advancement for women of color.
    • Women of color reported being passed over for new jobs or promotions in favor of others—including men of color, white women, and white men—with comparable or even lower credentials.
  • Education and training are not enough to help women of color advance.
    • Women of color with the highest levels of education are the most likely to be in administrative roles and the least likely to hold senior leadership positions. Women of color also are paid significantly less compared to men of color and white men and more frequently report frustrations with inadequate salaries.
  • The social landscape within nonprofit organizations can create conditions that undermine the leadership of women of color.
    • Women of color who reported that their race and/or gender have been a barrier to their advancement indicated that they were sometimes left out or ignored and sometimes hyper-visible under intense scrutiny, with both conditions creating burdens.

The report also explores key themes—based on survey write-in responses by women of color and from focus groups and interviews—among Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, Latinx, Native American, and transgender women of color.

Significant percentages of each group of women of color noted that both race and gender had a negative impact on their career advancement; most groups of women of color reported a negative impact of race or gender more often than white women, men of color, and white men. While the survey did not specifically ask respondents about the combination of both race and gender, several women brought up intersectionality in their write-in responses.

Call To Action

Many women of color in the nonprofit sector are highly skilled and want to lead, but the survey findings and focus group and interview reflections shared in this report identify significant obstacles and patterns of everyday discrimination that women of color encounter in the nonprofit workplace. Many women of color described working harder to overcome these barriers; not only is this an unfair burden, no amount of individual effort can be expected to translate into positive outcomes when an organization’s social landscape is fraught with bias. The nonprofit sector must make real changes to ensure a fair and supportive workplace environment for all workers, particularly for women of color.

System Change

  • Leverage the power of philanthropy. Funders should increase their investment in organizations led by and/or focused on the issues impacting women of color, which will help elevate the leadership, perspective, and influence of women of color across the nonprofit sector at large.
  • Advocate for enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. The nonprofit sector should advocate for full funding of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is tasked with investigating charges of discrimination, even if this means uncomfortably turning the lens on itself.

Organizational Change

  • Address internal biases. Nonprofits need robust and equitable human resources policies and systems that will ensure that racism, sexism, anti-trans bias, etc., will not be tolerated, and enforce real consequences are similarly compensated.
  • Pay women of color fairly and create transparency around pay scales to expose discrimination. Organizations should ensure transparency regarding pay scales so that individuals with similar credentials and experiences are similarly compensated.

Individual Support

  • Create peer support affinity groups for women of color. Several Industries have race- or gender-based affinity groups to encourage, support, and advocate for the inclusion and advancement of the constituency they represent. Peer support should be understood as a supplement to—not a substitute for—in-organization mentoring opportunities provided by supervisors and other senior staff, and increased grant investments in women of color-led organizations.