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How White Nonprofit Professionals Can Work Towards Being Allies to POC

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Recently at a conference, I sat on a panel of three women — two white, one black — and we ended up talking about how women treat each other badly at work. As the talk went on, it became apparent that a lot of white women in the audience were not aware of how to be good allies to people of color at work.

One of the white people on the panel had worked in the nonprofit sector for years. She also said she wished her son was of color, or a foster child, because she could not find any boxes for him to check to get scholarships for college.

I said, “Hey, two of my white brothers have made more every year than I ever have, and I know a white guy who got not only a full scholarship to our local university, but he also got paid to go there. He didn’t even have to buy books.”

One white person in the audience proudly said her children “did not see color,” and I could tell that we were going to be here for a long time until we had a session on intersectionality, and how to be a good ally.

The nonprofit sector is perhaps especially prone to the belief that “we can’t be racist” because “we’re doing good work.” If you are not convinced that our sector has a bias problem, here are five charts that show racial bias in the nonprofit sector.

What is intersectionality?

According to the Oregon Women’s Foundation calendar sitting next to me, Intersectionality, a term coined by scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality is the recognition that different forms of oppression can interact and overlap, combining to create even more harm.

Such discrimination may be based on identities like gender, race, ethnicity, geography, age, income level, ability, citizenship status, language, sexual orientation, and others.

When white people say things like “I don’t see race” or “I don’t see color” it is not only not true, it is a way to shut down the conversation about race. It is oppressive to people of color who are judged by the color of their skin every day.

When white people are so concerned with their own comfort instead of having the hard conversations around white privilege in the workplace, and how their experience might be different than someone who isn’t white or cisgendered, they actually shut down avenues of resolution and healing.

Why should you care about being an ally?

Because we can’t claim to want a better world when we are unconscious of our bias, our structure that underlies our nonprofit sector that privileges white people at every possible juncture. We are being hypocrites to want to create a better world outside our organizations without looking inside first.

Because when people are being held back by structural or personal racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism or a host of other things, then no one is free. Privilege also hurts those with privilege.

As Desiree Adaway says: “Let’s all get free.”

I challenge you to stop business as usual at your nonprofit. I challenge you to be a white ally. What does that look like?

There are plenty of resources out there about books to read, movies to watch, or things to do in general. What can you do, specifically, as a nonprofit leader?

Values inform our actions. We need to lead with our values, now more than ever.

Values are shown through REPEATED actions.

If you truly want to make a better working environment for people of color who work at your organization now, or who might work there in the future, consider these words of wisdom from Kishshana Palmer, founder of The Rooted Collaborative, a global community for WOC in fundraising and the social sector.

She writes, “This isn’t just happening in the streets. It’s happening in our organizations right now. This is why the silence of many of my peers and organizations who employ black people are deafening. If you look deeper into these organizations, you can see the patterns. Who is getting promoted, who is passed over, who does and doesn’t get a second chance?”

If you truly want to be a white ally in nonprofit work, there are key questions you need to be asking about the systems and structures inside your nonprofit. And how to start to dismantle the assumptions and biases inherent in these structures.

Good leaders start with questions to reveal patterns. Let’s start with a couple Kishshana asked:

1. Who is getting promoted? That means, who gets to be CEO? What is our board makeup? Is it truly representative of the people we serve? If not, why not? The US will be 50% POC very soon. Can we get to 50% POC in leadership by the end of 2020? If you want more BIPOC to feel like your organization is a safe space to be in, the first thing you need to do is consider how you look from the outside. So, with your leadership being all white, do you really think you look like a place where they will believe they can get promoted?

2. Who is passed over? That means, why does that person of color who has been here for years not have a better title? What are their professional hopes and dreams? Why is nobody assisting them to get there? Is there an invisible rulebook about who gets the title and the corner office, and who gets to not get the raises or promotions they deserve, despite doing the work of those jobs for years? 

According to the Race to Lead study of over 5,000 nonprofit professionals, women of color and white women were far less likely to make $100K or more in their jobs, even if they had a master’s degree or above. We can also see women of color and white women overrepresented in the 0-$50K salary range and the $50K-$100K salary range.

What do we lose when we don’t promote women and people of color to C-suite or senior management roles?

Well, the US will be over 50% black and brown people by 2030. So, if you want more donors, more volunteers, and more incredible workers for your organization, you have to make the leadership reflect the demographics. Or your funding, your job, and your nonprofit could simply cease to exist.

Essentially, we become obsolete. Do you want that?

If not, here are some things you can do:

First, take a good hard look at who is leading your organization. Suggest that 50% of the board be made of people of color, to start with. Board members tend to choose people who look like them to lead the organization. Board diversity is a good first step to helping people see that leaders can come in lots of genders and races.

Second, try salary transparency at your organization. It will help people start to realize how they can ask for more. It can go a long way to decreasing inequities at your organization.

Third, go through some regular equity and inclusion trainings at your organization, so people can start to understand their unconscious biases without people of color having to bring it up and do that unpaid emotional labor.

Ask, where do we find people to recruit? Many nonprofits have recruiting channels that are predominantly white. How can we find different recruiting channels to get BIPOC in positions of leadership in our organization? Look at LinkedIn and start with a recruiter of color. Do not ask BIPOC that you know to do this work for you. You have access to the same internet.

You don’t have to stop there. Here are seven ways that you can be an ally to the people of color within your nonprofit organization:

1. Realize that you have never had to really face your race every day. You can stay in environments where people look like you all day. Everything in our culture normalizes your experience. You have the choice to engage with other cultures or be completely ignorant of them. People of color do not have that choice. One person of color said after years of studying, she is an expert on white culture now, and she can navigate it like she belongs there. I lived and worked overseas in South Korea for a year and among other things, I got stared at every single day. I had to navigate a new culture and deal with a new language. It was an experience of being an ethnic minority that I would recommend to any person from the dominant culture.

2. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Realize that you have been conditioned to avoid talking about your privilege. Start looking at it. Consider what you can do to reduce the number of micro-aggressions that you engage in every day. Engage people who are different from you in friendly conversation instead of ignoring them or avoiding their eyes. Seek out cultural experiences that are different from your own. Go into spaces where you will be a racial or cultural minority. Work to cultivate an appreciation for other cultures, and friendships with people from other cultures.   

3. Realize that your feelings are not important when you have offended someone. Your intentions are not important. Instead of a knee-jerk reaction to someone telling you that what you said was racist, take a deep breath, and just listen. Then apologize. Then ask how they are feeling. Ask what they are thinking. Ask what you can do better. And then, do better.

4. Stand up at work when you notice something racist, sexist, etc. happening. The next time something like this happens, speak up and say, “Hey, I don’t like what just happened there.” Then say what you noticed. Say how it made you feel. Then ask the person to change their behavior. If you stay silent when you see something racist or biased happen, then you are complicit in what just happened. We need to look at workplace bullying, and microaggressions, and ways we are silent about racist and sexist and misogynoir incidents. A quote from Corinne Shutack’s helpful article on Medium comes to mind: “The question isn’t: Was the act racist or not? The question is: How much racism was in play?” So maybe racism was 3% of the motivation or 30% or 95%. Interrogate the question “How much racism was in play?” as you think about an incident. Share this idea with the people in your life when they ask, “Was that racist?”

5. Check out a few books that can help you learn more about how to be a good ally. I like Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. And The Body Is Not An Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor. Then there’s White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo.

6. Get some training at your nonprofit on bias or unconscious racism. I know a few people who offer these trainings: Desiree Adaway, Principal of the Adaway Group, and Kishshana Palmer, CEO of KishshanaCo. In Canada, you may want to contact Hamlin Grange, Principal of DiversiPro. Bloomerang has other resources listed here. If you know more people who offer these trainings, or if you’d like to recommend another book, please leave a comment.

7. Support Black-owned businesses. Ask: where do we get our catering for our board meetings? Who do we get our awards from? Who do we call when we need some tech support? How about where we do our printing? Why do you bank where you do? Find some Black-owned businesses on WeBuyBlack, The Black Wallet, and Official Black Wall Street.

I am not an expert, I am an amateur, and I would welcome all comments on how people can go even further and do even more.

What tangible changes have you made within your nonprofit organizations to become more equitable? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Mazarine

    Thanks for your comment Simone. I will leave you with 3 key questions of a racial trauma expert and activist that i know. She writes, " Where are we with our own personal power, privilege, and inequity status work in order to respond effectively amongst people of color? In what ways could current funding be directed to POC-led agencies that are already trying to serve populations of color? In what ways can we allow POC practitioners to have initial access to the funding to undergird their current and possibly future work with people of color? In what ways could we suggest to officials that funds be used to inform and provide workshops free of charge to help those already working with people of color apply for this very funding?
  • Simone Joyaux

    Beautiful piece, Mazarine. So I'll ask again ... to every fundraiser and worker in the nonprofit sector ... How about those questions that I suggested in my article here at Bloomerang ... and in the AFP Anti-Racist Chat... Do you make sure that your board actually consciously talks about board composition...including race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, socioeconomic status? Would your Board Development Committee/Nom Com/whatever you call it say: We will not nominate/elect any more white people for the next several years? Will your organizaton create an atmosphere where asking uncomfortable questions happens regularly. And everyone responds. And people get so excited that they even talk back and forth to each other and and and ....
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