The White People Over Your Fave Nonprofits Often Ignore Black Leaders

‘Optic leadership’ — or tokenism — is not a win for anyone

Kristina Dove
5 min readJun 1, 2021


A Black woman leading a board meeting. Image: Getty Creative

As Congress, for the first time since 1989, advanced the slavery reparations bill, we can feel a mustard seed of hope in acknowledging the tragic history of the United States.

Giving Black people what they are due seems like such a far-fetched and daunting task for our country. For ages, Black people have been told to “pull themselves up by (their) bootstraps” Bootstraps we never possessed. However, without the straps, without our 40 acres and the mule, we have pressed forward, making ways out of no way.

We make our way because often — and especially nowadays—Black people are serving in “optic leadership.” You see Black people at the helm, on the stage, and on the panel and begin to believe that these primo nonprofits are led by Black thought, by Black power, by Black voices. But actual Black leadership — and commiserate pay — is not at all the reality.

Black women are the typical head of many nonprofits, children’s centric organizations, and youth-centered groups. We work 15-hour days, give up our own personal lives and often go above and beyond the communities we serve. Yet we never quite get the top job. And we may never live long enough to see any of us get the reparations we are all due, but paying us equitable salaries is something that can be put into action right now.

In 2018, after working seven years for an organization, I was happy to be promoted to executive leadership. I can still remember the day of my salary negotiations for my new role. I remember speaking with the organization’s newly appointed CEO, who happened to be a person of color. This truly made the role a little more exciting to me. This would be my first time to serve alongside an executive leader who looked like me. This promotion felt right; I felt like I had worked hard and deserved it. After carrying systems change on my back, sustaining a six-year initiative, bridging hundreds of partnerships, managing teams, and creating leaders from within, the time was right and now.

No one could tell me that I wasn’t doing all of the right things. Working hard, pulling myself up—many times only to be let down by the lack of advancement, recognition, and respect. That is how it is for many people of color who work in our nation’s and local civic and community entities.

But somehow I believed I was different, that my circumstance would have a unique outcome. I remember taking a deep breath. I believed I could begin to enjoy some fruits of my labor. As I proposed my salary ask, I felt the number was fair for the work that I had provided—and the national salary average reflected this as well—but my leader felt otherwise. It would be a few hours later when he would call me back, after work, to tell me that my ask was a bit high and that after he had talked it over with a White, non-human resource colleague, he was proposing a lower offer.

I took it, reluctantly. Sadly, I accepted less than I was worth, and I did the work. I showed up every day and performed with excellence even on days when I didn’t feel valued or heard. I still did the work.

This unfortunate truth is not just mine but is especially true where Black women in the nonprofit space are concerned. A study conducted by Building Movement Project’s Race to Lead, “Women of Color in the Nonprofit Sector,” revealed that “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.” And take the women of color a step further and shine the light just on Black women for a second, and we will see this gap widen even more.

Black women need levels of support that are not currently in place in most areas of the nonprofit sector. Have you ever come into connection with a nonprofit organization and thought how amazing it must feel to work for an entity with a mission to do good?

You see the people who work there; they are usually so passionate about the work, committed to the cause. Then you take a deeper look, and you see that most of the individuals that are out front representing and doing the work usually look very representative of the people being served, so you have to feel like these organizations are on top of their racial equity, diversity, and inclusion work, of course. This gives the perfect illusion that Black women are on the rise in this sector. But what comes with rising?

The problem is this belief that we are being recognized and promoted for our hard work and tenacity. But many times, the truth is that we are suffering from the constant pushback and continued strain of just trying to get our voices heard and respected in these White-led spaces. This all becomes quite exhausting, overwhelming, and unbearable to cope with.

Yet when White is the dominant culture in executive and board leadership, when the founders and owners are White—no matter if there is a token person of color in leadership—it is a White-led organization. It is a thing we can’t and should not omit from our discussions about our favorite nonprofits.

How many Black women are out there just doing the work?

The Race to Lead study showed that Black women felt that their race and or gender negatively impacted their career advancement. Most directly it states this: “These included being confronted with stereotypes and discriminatory comments on the basis of race and/or gender, being passed over for new jobs and/or overlooked for promotions, and experiencing inequitable salaries.”

This finding tells me that there are Black women that are out here just “doing the work” yet feeling that their racial identifier is impeding their career growth. How do you sit with that, grow out of that, and find and believe in your own value when you know that it should not and does not have to be this way? We have to push for change.

What if we push for nonprofit organizations to take a hard focus on providing safe spaces for Black women, affinity groups, professional development opportunities, coaching sessions led by women of color, fair advancement opportunities, and transparent salary decisions. All of these system changes could affect the career trajectory of a Black woman.

What if we could truly be invested in women of color and didn’t just stand them up as an investment prop? When that happens, we will see real change.

Kristina C. Dove is the owner and operator of Community Power Consulting in Dallas, Texas, and a Public Voices Fellow through the OpEd Project.



Kristina Dove
Writer for

Born in Dallas, Texas. Owner/CEO of Community Power Consulting. Dallas Public Voices OpEd Fellow.