Nonprofit Leaders of Color Speak Out About Struggles and Triumphs: The Chronicle of Philanthropy

People of color have reached pinnacles of power in philanthropy that once would have been unimaginable. Darren Walker, a gay African-American man, is head of the Ford Foundation, an institution with a $13 billion endowment.

La June Montgomery Tabron, an African- American woman, took the helm at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation after 26 years at the fund.

But things are still rough in the trenches.

The Chronicle spoke with more than 25 leaders of color at nonprofits and foundations, people at different points in their careers, devoted to different causes across the country. The picture they paint isn’t pretty. Leaders described feeling isolated, navigating difficult, racially fraught power dynamics with grant makers, and enduring affronts to their dignity — even having people touch their hair. In interview after interview, they talked about the need to prove themselves repeatedly.

“It’s always about going above and beyond,” says Angela Williams, CEO of Easterseals. “You can’t really afford mistakes because they’re not necessarily forgiven. It’s about dotting i’s, crossing t’s, and spending the extra time to prove that you deserve the position that you hold.” Many talked about becoming bolder and speaking out more as they gained experience and became more established in their careers. “We have to be a lot more courageous about leading with our language and leading with our words,” says Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity. “If we want to see a new world, we have to be willing to speak it into existence — and talk about what we don’t want to see in this world.”

The leaders are resourceful and proud of their accomplishments. They shared the strategies they use — not just to overcome barriers but to thrive. Many are cautiously optimistic that philanthropy’s widespread focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion could lead to real change in nonprofits and foundations. But there’s also concern. Lots of organizations are talking about racial equity, but they’re not integrating it into their work or changing how they operate, says Tonya Allen, CEO of the Skillman Foundation. “I don’t want this moment to pass where we can really make change.”

Here, leaders of color share stories of struggle and triumph and insights in how to make philanthropy truly inclusive.

‘I would get these code words.’

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