A racial reckoning at nonprofits: Black women demand better pay, opportunities

In mid-March, Nicky Goren, then-president and chief executive of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, posted an open letter on Medium announcing her resignation. Goren heralded the D.C. foundation’s success as a national pioneer in “embedding racial equity into our operations, our culture, our work.”

The 55-year-old nonprofit leader, who is White, also revealed that her next role would be as a consultant leading a board initiative to share Meyer’s “racial equity journey,” as well “as my own as president.”

“I have always believed that a critical aspect of leadership,” Goren wrote, “is knowing when to make space and pass the baton.”

Some Black women employed by Washington-area nonprofits took Goren’s statement to mean that she was making way for one of them to assume her position. Yet, what many did not realize is that Goren’s journey had recently been a rocky one: Last year, two Black female employees filed separate racial discrimination lawsuits, one against the Meyer Foundation - created by the former owners of The Washington Post - and one against the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG).

Goren, who served simultaneously as board chairwoman at WRAG, was a prominently mentioned defendant in both lawsuits. The women who sued, Terri Wright and Madye Henson, were each hired to help ensure the success of the racial equity missions at Meyer and WRAG, respectively.

Henson, the former chief executive of WRAG, reached an agreement on June 24 to settle her case for undisclosed terms. She declined to comment, and Wright did not respond to requests for an interview. In court documents, Goren, the foundation, WRAG and three WRAG officials who were also defendants, denied both women’s allegations of racial bias in the way they were treated.

“Nicky’s commitment to the Meyer Foundation and racial equity demonstrates the allegations that have been made against Nicky and the Meyer Foundation are without merit,” Charlene Dukes, the foundation board’s chairwoman, said in a statement. “Nicky was instrumental in getting the Meyer Foundation to where it is today. The positive impact of her work over the last 7 years speaks for itself, and will continue.”

The lawsuits are one aspect of a little-publicized racial reckoning that has been roiling the rapidly growing nonprofit sector - the country’s third largest employer - since the murder of George Floyd last May.

The impact has been keenly felt in the nation’s capital, which has the third largest concentration of locally focused nonprofits in the United States. When national organizations are taken into account, the Washington region is home to about 50,000 nonprofits employing 600,000 people. About 1 in 4 D.C. workers is a nonprofit employee, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among the areas under scrutiny: the way White-dominated boards and leadership relate to the often poor, minority communities they serve, inequitable decision-making by foundations when doling out funding and discrimination faced by nonprofit workers of color.

As with the racial reckoning among for-profit companies, concerns about bias in the workplace have been prompting more employees to voice their frustrations and advocate for change. This is particularly true for Black women, who report experiencing the most discrimination in the nonprofit sector.

Black women are most likely to feel their race has had a negative impact on their career advancement, according to data based on the 2016 Race to Lead Survey of 4,385 nonprofit employees conducted by the Building Movement Project, which assists nonprofits in tackling social issues with their clients and staffs.

Black women cited lower pay, being overlooked for jobs and promotions, lack of mentorship, dealing with assumptions that they are underqualified and being stereotyped as “angry Black women.”

“When people are at the intersection of race and gender inequities, that leads to worse treatment, less leeway for people to learn, grow and make mistakes and more of a sense that people are being overlooked,” said Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, co-director of the project.

Thomas-Breitfeld and other experts noted that the experiences of Black women within nonprofits are similar to those at for-profit companies, except for one noteworthy difference: Nonprofit leaders and board members - the overwhelmingly majority of whom are White - often perceive themselves as society’s do-gooders.

“We are ostensibly doing good and saving lives around the world in low-income and marginalized communities,” said Angela Bruce-Raeburn, who worked for 17 years in the sector before starting her own Washington-area nonprofit diversity consulting firm. “The nonprofit sector often gets away without challenge because there’s a mind-set that ‘We’re helping.’ You’re not supposed to challenge how this help is coming about.”

The racial and gender gaps were brought home to Monica Gray at a recent meeting of nonprofit chief executives that she attended. A White woman began complaining about the size of her bonus, said Gray, 58, chief executive of the National Capitol Area YWCA since 2017.

“I was like, ‘Bonus?’ . . . I was honestly blindsided by it,” Gray said.

Later, in a gathering of about 15 Black female nonprofit chief executives, Gray said she asked whether any of them had ever received bonuses. None of them had.

“It was such a stark difference between two groups that essentially did the same work . . . It made me so sad,” she said.

Gray had entered the nonprofit sector after receiving her MBA at Northwestern University and a quick turn as a management consultant for a corporation. She wanted to marry her degree with her passion for social justice, she said, a common experience among the Black female nonprofit workers interviewed by The Post. Some reported growing up in poverty themselves or otherwise being intimately familiar with the challenges in the communities they serve.

Despite Gray’s success, she believes the labor of Black women is often taken for granted.

The work of nonprofits “was work that women, and particularly Black women, had always done and, unfortunately, we did it for free,” Gray said. “There is this idea that we should do the work for the ‘right reasons’ and not expect compensation.”

The nonprofit sector has not amassed employee wage data by race. But a Pew Research Center analysis of 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics data of all U.S. employees found that White women earned 82% of the median hourly earnings of White men, while Black women earned 65%.

Men who run nonprofits are paid 5 to 20% more than women, depending on the organization’s budget, according to the 2020 Guidestar nonprofit compensation report. Overall, just 1 in 5 nonprofit chief executives or executive directors is a person of color, according to Bridgespan, a nonprofit consultant group. Nonprofits led by Black women also attract significantly less funding compared to those led by White people or Black men, according to a 2020 report by the group. Often, funding is a proxy for trust, it noted.

Black women in nonprofit leadership positions describe working with White board members who have questioned their authority and knowledge, even as many board members have little experience with the clientele they serve.

One Black female chief executive of an area nonprofit that serves children said she struggled to help the White board members understand that they needed to focus on the whole family to help the child. Some board members, she said, viewed Black parents as stereotypically “hopeless and irresponsible,” particularly Black fathers.

“I was hearing language about our children and families that made me very uncomfortable,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as to not damage her career.

She pushed - with some success - on the issue as well as others, but she feels that it has come at a price. “I’ve definitely been treated like the aggressive, angry Black woman,” a version of which has shown up during her annual reviews, she said.

Bruce-Raeburn, who is Black, described a similar experience. “They tell you to bring your whole selves to work,” she said, but in a way that does not make space for cultural differences in the way employees communicate.

She recalled a meeting about six years ago with her supervisor at the time, a White woman, to discuss putting her on probation because the supervisor said her work was subpar. “I said to her that I did not accept her position because I thought that she changed the goal posts frequently on me,” Bruce-Raeburn said.

After hearing Bruce-Raeburn give examples, the supervisor asked her, “Why are you being so defensive?” Bruce-Raeburn had heard those words before. “It happened both times with White women when I was challenging their authority over me. I could have said ‘OK,’ but I just didn’t agree.”

The woman began to cry, she said.

Suddenly, it struck Bruce-Raeburn that “I had to play a role to get to the next level. I think that Black women like me - outspoken, blunt and direct - struggle in organizations due to these cultural differences.”

According to the Race to Lead Survey, Black women are more likely to be “punished for any displays of emotion,” while White nonprofit employees often enjoy “more freedom to demonstrate a natural range of human emotions.”

Bruce-Raeburn tendered her resignation soon after the meeting and found another job. Earlier this year, she left the sector at 57 after a long career in which she felt that her three master’s degrees and bilingualism had done little to propel her ahead. Her experience is shared by other Black women. Despite the fact that the survey showed they are more likely to aspire to leadership positions and hold advanced degrees than White women, it found Black women advance at lower rates.

Wright joined the Meyer Foundation in February 2018 as vice president of programs and community. Her timing appeared fortuitous: Wright had years of experience in racial and social equity work, including as health policy program director at the Kellogg Foundation. And Meyer had decided to bring greater racial equity to its grantmaking.

Wright’s new supervisor, Nicky Goren, who made almost $300,000 in 2018, had arrived at Meyer four years earlier after a celebrated run at the Washington Women’s Foundation. Goren had already spent several years shifting Meyer’s strategy to give more funds to area projects aimed at closing wealth and opportunity gaps wrought by historic and present-day racism.

The sustained effort by the racially diverse leadership at Meyer, which distributes several million annually to dozens of area nonprofits, had captured national attention long before last year.

“They were ahead of the curve,” Thomas-Breitfeld said.

In her lawsuit filed in July 2020, which claims breach of contract, violation of civil rights and defamation, Wright alleged that, despite its public pledge to fund more equitably, the nonprofit under Goren “wholly failed in implementing racial equity within the Meyer Foundation itself.”

Upon her arrival, Wright said in the lawsuit, Meyer staff members of color told her about " ‘painful’ and uncomfortable discussions” led by Goren during the summer of 2017 about racial equity within the Meyer Foundation. “But many of the participants felt that the concerns raised . . . fell on deaf ears as no meaningful change was implemented.” An internal survey in June 2018 revealed that employees of color . . . believed that their race negatively impacted their work environment,” the lawsuit said.

During an evaluation at the end of 2018, Wright said Meyer praised her for having a “strong year” and gave her a raise before voicing “subjective and false criticism aimed at interpersonal skills and communication issues.” When Wright asked Goren to provide more detail, “she merely brushed her off,” according to the lawsuit.

Wright said she took measures to improve, including engaging a professional coach. Goren gave her positive feedback about her progress during the first quarter of 2019, according to the lawsuit.

Yet not long after, “without any notice” Goren abruptly terminated her “citing communication and interpersonal issues,” the lawsuit alleges.

A severance contract negotiated in October 2019 between Wright and the Meyer Foundation included a “mutual nondisparagement clause.”

In June 2020, well after Wright began work as an independent consultant, Henson filed her racial discrimination lawsuit against WRAG, Goren and three other WRAG officials. In the lawsuit, Henson accused Goren of “illegally orchestrating her termination.” In their reply filed in U.S. District Court, the defendants denied Henson’s allegations.

Among her complaints: that Goren failed to set “goals, expectations and deliverables” for Henson despite requests. “Henson was therefore left trying to hit a moving target,” hindering her ability to perform to satisfaction and fostering “the racially motivated acts to follow,” the lawsuit said.

Henson also said she spoke to Goren about allegedly racist remarks by a senior WRAG leader, who is also a defendant in the suit, but Goren “did not address the issue,” allowing the senior leader “to feel emboldened to disparage Dr. Henson and undermine her leadership as CEO.”

She said that two employees of color that she hired told her that they had also been treated “in a hostile manner” by the senior leader. Henson later reprimanded the senior leader and shared the information with Goren.

“Instead of getting her backing or backing of the board, [Henson] was retaliated against for standing up for employees for color and was told instead that she created a toxic work environment,” according to the lawsuit. In the ensuing months, Henson alleges that her work, including efforts to plan a first-ever race and equity summit for nonprofits was met with increasing criticism and disparagement.

In May 2020, after retaining counsel and notifying the board of her formal legal complaint, Henson was fired, the lawsuit states.

Wright said she learned that Goren had allegedly spoken ill of her by reading Henson’s lawsuit, which detailed a conversation Henson said she had with Goren in November 2019.

Goren “mentioned that she was feeling backlash on account of her role in abruptly terminating” Wright at Meyer, the lawsuit states, but that she had no choice “because of the ‘negative climate’ Dr. Wright was fostering,” according to the lawsuit.

Wright filed her lawsuit one month after Henson. She alleged that Henson’s account of her conversation with Goren was proof of Goren’s “racial animus.”

Wright alleged that Goren treated her immediate predecessor, who was White, better. Goren allowed him to leave on his own terms and did not disparage him after she fired him, Wright alleged, arguing that the disparate treatment was racially motivated.

As part of a request that the court dismiss the case, Meyer and Goren countered that Wright’s conclusion of racial bias was unsubstantiated. “Plaintiff has not alleged facts from which the Court can infer racial animus motivated any adverse decisions” by Goren and Meyer concerning Wright.

The defendants also argued that Goren’s remarks about Wright to Henson “were expressions of opinion and therefore could not be defamatory,” that the foundation met its obligation contained in the mutual nondisparagement clause and that Wright failed to identify any facts supporting a finding of reputational or economic harm.

The judge has not yet ruled on the motion.

Kia Croom, a fundraiser for a D.C.-based national children’s advocacy organization, described George Floyd’s murder as “a turning point” in her decision to speak out about the racial inequities she had encountered.

“I found myself losing sleep. . . . and I found myself getting really frustrated at the lack of a voice,” said Croom, 40, a nonprofit employee for 19 years, six of which were in the D.C. area.

Croom, who grew up in poor in California, said many Black nonprofit employees “have incredible lived experiences that we bring to these jobs. . . . They want to do something as a result of trauma and then have more trauma perpetuated on them in the workplace.”

In January, the former journalist founded “The Black Fundraisers Podcast” to discuss workplace issues.

Based on her interviews and personal experience, Croom said “there have been more opportunities to confront or have courageous conversations about race, equity and inclusion,” in the sector over the past year , with younger workers being the most vocal.

Thomas-Breitfeld said he has observed nonprofits responding to the protests against racial injustice “in ways that I think are more authentic and potentially transformational than in some of what we may have seen in the PR responses from corporations.”

“Nonprofit organizations have a much stronger connection to a social mission” and awareness of inequities, Thomas-Breitfeld said. He sees a new “sense of urgency” by nonprofits in trying to close the gap between their actions and their often idealistic missions, he said.

A key component of creating more equitable nonprofit workplaces will be diversifying boards and senior leadership, he said. The racial experiences of nonprofit employees of color in the 2019 Race to Lead survey were much more prone to be negative in White-run organizations, defined as those in which at least 75% of board members and executives are White. Only 14% of respondents said they worked for nonprofits in which people of color comprised at least 50% of the leadership.

Meanwhile, Goren’s position as chief executive and president is open. In the interim, Janice Thomas, a vice president at the foundation and a Black woman, is at the helm of Meyer.

In late May, almost one year after Henson filed her lawsuit, the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers named her successor as chief executive and president.

“My board has been extremely supportive,” Ruth LaToison Ifill, a 34-year-old Black nonprofit leader who had served as interim president for a year, said in an interview.

“They have really propelled some of the ideas I’ve brought to the table related to racial equity,” she said, which includes giving nonprofits in under-resourced communities of color more agency in deciding how money is spent.

The racial reckoning, LaToison Ifill said, has put the onus on foundations “to look at themselves, look at who they are hiring, look at their grant processes.”

As an example, she pointed to the Meyer Foundation, which announced on May 20 the first nonprofit recipients of the Fund for Black-led Change. The fund will invest $20 million over five years in Black-led organizations that “center Black communities” in the D.C. area.

“The Meyer Foundation had already been exploring racial justice,” LaToison Ifill said, “but this project will say that a part of advancing racial justice is to believe Black women . . . to believe Black people, and to support their ideas and their innovations from a place of trust. "

The Washington Post’s Alice Crites and Tom Jackman contributed to this report.