Michigan nonprofits cite need for change in board diversityFeature: Nonprofit Journal Project

Following the murder of George Floyd and the racial protests in 2020, many organizations vowed to confront issues like systematic racism and representation. Now many of them are walking back their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs. One-fifth of international companies surveyed as part of the DDI's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Report 2023 say they no longer have a DEI program.

In 2022, The Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) partnered with Data Driven Detroit (D3) on a survey called the Michigan Statewide Nonprofit Census. The report surveyed the racial and ethnic composition of Michigan’s nonprofits, including their executive boards. Seventy-four percent of nonprofits in the state have an executive director who is nonwhite. In Detroit, a city with a nonwhite population of 87%, the nonwhite leadership is 61%.

A similar survey conducted in 2021 by D3, MNA and other state partners found that in Detroit, nearly 20% of nonprofit boards with white executive directors had zero staff who identified as a person of color, and roughly 5% of those boards were all white.

Why is diversity and representation important to nonprofit executive boards?

“Diversity brings a wide range of experience and solutions to any organization,” the Rev. Horace Sheffield III says. “As a nonprofit, all of our problems are complex because we work so closely with the community. It expands our scope of service so we can meet people where they are at.”

Sheffield has been a community pillar in the Detroit area for over 40 years and serves as the executive director of The Detroit Association of Black Organizations (DABO). He has served as a board member of St. John Northeast Hospital, the Black Leadership Commission on Aide, and the National Cares Movement.

"Diversity is more than just racial," Sheffield says, "There are things like generational, sexual identity, and even cultural differences that we have to be aware of. But it is important to have as many different people in the room as you can. Everyone has their own story."

Kimberly Houston, the vice-chair of the MNA’s executive board agrees.

“One thing I want everyone to understand is whether you’re the CEO or just part of an organization, no one really has the same perspective that you do. You bring something very valuable because no one can say what you say.”

Before joining the MNA board, Houston worked at the Dow Corning Corporation as a chief diversity officer and global community relations leader. She currently serves as a private consultant and coach. Throughout her 35 years of experience, Houston has led, worked for and been served by nonprofits.

As a Black woman, Houston has faced multiple challenges operating in the nonprofit arena.

“I always felt a stereotype that I fought against was [the] ‘angry black woman.’ I'm a very logical person, and I am all about process, but you always feel it, and it can make you feel like you have to constrain some level of passion, because you don’t want to be perceived as feeding into a stereotype.”

Women tend to represent more than men in nonprofits. The Michigan Statewide Nonprofit Census found that 64% of executive directors were women. Only 1% identified as non-binary and there were no transgender executive directors reported. When combined with racial data, there is a much bigger gap with nonwhite women only making up 12% of executive board leadership.

“Part of engaging people is being seen, heard, and understood. Simply putting a person in a position because of their racial or gender identity isn’t enough,” Houston says. There is a teeter-totter there. [You] hope as women, people of color or somebody different that the whole burden of making a change in an organization doesn’t fall on you. That is a recipe for disaster.”

Forty percent of minority women say they plan to leave their positions because of lack of trust in leadership. Attracting and retaining staff can be a challenge for nonprofits.

Michigan nonprofits leaders are considerably older. Fifty-five percent of leadership in the state is above the age of 45, and less than 1% is under 25.

Sheffield says he is eager to hire younger staff at DABO, but can’t afford it.

"You have to think about it like this: When a kid comes out of college they have to pay for their debt and earn enough to survive. We can't pay that."

Black college graduates with bachelor’s degrees have nearly double the debt of their white counterparts. It even impacts funding Sheffield says. "There are a lot of new groups popping up in Detroit now. They have younger people and more tech skills so they can present these more polished packages to donors. It makes competing against them harder when we can't get access to that same talent."

Leadership impacts more than just staffing. The 2021 survey discovered that the difference in organizational assets between white and nonwhite boards was nearly double, with nonwhite boards peaking at $1.8 million and white boards at $3.6 million. This could explain the finding that nonprofits led by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color close down four years earlier than their white counterparts.

"The biggest challenge for any nonprofit, I think, is funding," Phil Gilchrist says.

Gilchrist is the executive director of Mt. Clemens' Anton Art Center, cultural landmark that has been operating out of the Carnegie Library building for over 50 years. The center provides art classes and public art shows for artists in the community.

In 2021, the Anton Art Center launched the IDEA (Inclusivity, Diversity, Equality, and Access) Council. The council was designed to highlight outreach, diversity and representation initiatives.

“If any organization wants to grow it has to think about its audience and how to attract and maintain more engagement,” Gilchrist says.

The Anton Art Center was able to diversify the executive board significantly following the establishment for the IDEA Council. By 2022, 43% of the board identified as nonwhite.

Gilchrist credits the change to two things: Conversations with the community and the willingness to embrace change. The impact of this can be seen on the art center itself.

In 2022, The Anton Art Center’s IDEA council installed the mural, Power by Jay Hero with the accompanying poem, Silence is a Sound by Jessica Care Moore on a wall outside the Carnegie Library building facing Gratiot Ave.

"I was scared,” Gilchrist says, “I knew it was important to share this beautiful piece of art and its message, but what would the rest of the community think? There is a very clear image of a cross between bloody white hands in the work."

Gilchrist's fears appeared unwarranted.

"We held a lot of conversations with the community about what they thought. In the end, almost everyone was okay with it. It was really a surprise because of how other moments like this played out across the country. It was inspiring to see the community united,” Gilchrist says.

Currently the IDEA Council isn’t as active as it once was. Gilchrist says this goes back to the central issue of funding for nonprofits.

"Since we moved on to mostly a governing board, it has become more about fundraising rather than operations. We have to look at who our traditional donors are and who has access to them. It can be hard to find funding outside of that group, which is mostly older white people.”

Looking to the future, Gilchrist, Houston and Sheffield are hopeful but are well aware of how hard change is.

Houston advocates that everyone be an agent of change.

“First you have to assess and set an intention that you want to do something different. You need leadership to ask questions, so you get the proper metrics. The organizational dynamic determines the degree people are comfortable with speaking up.”

Gilchrist recommends that people take time to speak and listen.

“We can’t expect people to make the change for us. The best thing anyone can do is get into their community and really listen.”

Sheffield thinks of his father and his time in the civil rights movement.

“There are pictures of my father [Horace L. Sheffield Jr.] and others on the wall here, and it reminds me that change takes a lot of time. Everyone is different. But being sensitive to others’ history opens so many doors.”

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.

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