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Published in Nonprofits
The race or ethnicity of nonprofit executive directors in West Michigan. The race or ethnicity of nonprofit executive directors in West Michigan. COURTESY OF MICHIGAN STATEWIDE NONPROFIT CENSUS

‘HONEST CONVERSATIONS’: Report spotlights racial gap in Michigan nonprofit leadership

BY Tuesday, December 13, 2022 03:05pm

A major statewide survey of nonprofit organizations highlights significant and persistent racial gaps in the sector as roughly three-quarters of Michigan nonprofits remain white-led.

The Michigan Nonprofit Association, Data Driven Detroit and Grand Valley State University’s Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy collaboratively produced the census, which was released last week and is the first of its kind to this scale.

“We started dreaming about doing something like this in 2020 when it became really clear that we needed to have honest conversations about the impact of race — race equity — in so many different arenas,” said Michigan Nonprofit Association Social Innovation Officer Nellie Tsai. 

Erica Raleigh, co-executive director of Data Driven Detroit, said comprehensive data on the nonprofit sector’s demographics has been lacking.

“And that seems quirky because it is a very important sector, especially in Michigan — it accounts for a lot of jobs,” Raleigh said. “We were really excited to participate in a project where we could start trying to fill in that gap.”

The Michigan Statewide Nonprofit Leadership Census aimed to measure the current baseline of nonprofit leadership demographics across the state. It includes the gender, race, length of tenure and other data on executive directors, board members and staff of nearly 600 organizations. 

The survey was piloted in Detroit in February 2021, then expanded to capture statewide data in January 2022.

West Michigan in focus

In West Michigan, 94 nonprofit organizations completed the survey. The majority of those, 79 percent, reported that their executive directors identified only as white. Statewide, 76 percent of organizations reported having all-white executive directors.

The Lakeshore/West Michigan region reported a smaller proportion of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC)-led organizations than the Metro Detroit region, but a higher proportion than the other four regions surveyed: Mid-State/Central Michigan, Southern Central Michigan, Tip of the Mitt, and the Upper Peninsula.

West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology President Jamon Alexander grew up on the southeast side of Grand Rapids and calls his childhood neighborhood his “first teacher.” He believes structural biases in hiring and career advancement, salary limitations in the sector and lack of value placed upon lived experience often keep young professionals of color from rising through the ranks in the nonprofit sector. 

Working in mostly white organizations also can take an emotional toll, he said. 

“Professionals of color are often seen as representatives of our communities, which can be both empowering and emotionally heavy,” Alexander said. “It makes sense that professionals of color would rather be compensated more in the private sector, if we’re to endure this mental or emotional tax regardless of position, sector or industry.”

Compared to the statewide average, West Michigan nonprofits are slightly more likely to have Hispanic executive directors and slightly less likely to have Black executive directors. As is true across the state, the majority of nonprofit executive directors in the region are women.

About 73 percent of executive directors in West Michigan identified as white, 11 percent as Black and 6 percent as Hispanic. While the demographics of board members are similar — 74 percent white, 14 percent Black and 6 percent Hispanic — staff tend to be more diverse, with about 60 percent identifying as white, 18 percent as Black and 11 percent as Latino, according to the census. 

Across positions, West Michigan nonprofits are more likely to have Hispanic employees and less likely to have Black employees compared to the state average.

West Michigan has a lower proportion of homogeneous (all-white or all-BIPOC) boards than the statewide average.

Across the state, executive directors typically have served five years or less in their current position. In West Michigan, however, it’s more common to have multiple executive directors and for those directors to be young — 34 percent of directors in the region are between 25 and 44.

The survey also asked organizations to identify key equity issues in their region. In West Michigan and across the state, nonprofits emphasized housing, transportation, and class, labor and economy as the most pressing equity issues. West Michigan nonprofits were much more likely to also identify immigration, migration and refugees as a pressing issue.

‘Make real change’

Both Tsai and Raleigh said they hope the current census is just a beginning. 

“I think there is an opportunity to actually use the data to make real change and ensure that nonprofits that operate in communities are more reflective of the communities that they serve,” Raleigh said. “And an opportunity to get foundations the data that they’re looking for, in this timely moment, (when) trying to find the nonprofits that they can fund who maybe they aren’t typically funding through their existing relationships.”

The Michigan Nonprofit Association plans to host a series of conversations early in 2023 for nonprofit leaders to explore the data and its implications. Project leaders hope to be able to repeat and build upon the census. 

Tsai said she is optimistic that a repeat survey in the future might see different results. “Anecdotally, I feel like I see a more intentional hiring of leaders of color, but it’s in pockets,” Tsai said. “There are organizations and communities who do want to address the different equity issues and want to have leadership that represents the various lived experiences of the populations and the communities that they are serving.”

Organizations that want to buck the demographic trend need to think beyond hiring, Tsai said.

“It’s often done with good intentions, but maybe not all the support needed to make it successful,” Tsai said. “I think hiring someone who has that lived experience is great, but making sure to set them up for success is the next step.”

Alexander said he would advise organizations aiming to increase leadership diversity to develop and commit to a DEI strategy, ensure workplace environments are designed with, and for, BIPOC communities, and work to raise wages.

“Lived experience should be an asset in leadership work, and yet we haven’t adopted tangible ways to acknowledge and account for it,” said Alexander, who has served with WMCAT since 2015 and was named president and CEO in March 2021. “The skills uniquely acquired through lived experience should be factored into hiring, compensation and career advancement.”

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