Do non-profits suffer from a leadership gap?

09/12/2017 03:47 PM ET

How empowering women can empower non-profits

The Leadership Gender Gap – Plaguing Non-Profits Too?

It’s well-established that a leadership team with a diversity of thinking patterns is stronger, better, and more successful. Building management teams comprised of people from diverse backgrounds, genders, ethnicities and experiences is the most direct way to get that “diversity leg up.” But despite the proven operating advantage, the majority of companies continue to lack diversity in upper-management roles.

Let’s focus on the diversity that women bring to leadership teams. The 2017 Fortune 500 CEO list contains 50% more women than the 2016 list. This rate increased the number of female CEOs featured on the list to an all-time high…of just 32. While a 50% increase sounds impressive, the fact remains that for every female CEO on this list, there are nearly 15 men to match, and this doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

As disappointing as these numbers and anecdotes continue to be, the disproportionate representation of women in tech and senior corporate roles is old news. However, what is surprising, is that women are also vastly underrepresented in leadership positions at nonprofit organizations - a sector with a majority female workforce and where the role of diversity has long been established.

The Gender Gap – Hurting Nonprofits?

A survey by the White House Project estimated that a whopping 73% of all nonprofit employees are female, yet women account for only 45% of nonprofit CEOs. That gap only widens in larger organizations – the same study found that just 21% of nonprofits with a budget of more than $25 million have a female CEO.

A lack of female leadership negatively impacts the nonprofit sector in the same tangible and unproductive way as it does in the commercial sector. The gender gap affects everything from an organization’s ability to recruit talent to its potential donor pool.

A 2014 poll conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy and NYU’s George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising found that 40% of female nonprofit professionals believe that men are treated more favorably when they are evaluated for chief leadership positions.

The gender gap may also lead to skewed donor outreach. The same poll found that 40% of nonprofit professionals think their organizations focus more effort and attention into appealing to wealthy male donors despite studies showing women are more likely to give in greater sums than men in similar situations.

Gender diversity might also have an impact on organizations’ ability to fulfill their core mission. Women are more likely than men to be the beneficiaries of nonprofit services, yet it is fair to ask whether an organization with male-dominated leadership can be as effective at providing services to a largely female constituency as an organization with balanced and diverse leadership.

Closing the Gender Gap for Nonprofits

To make the required changes and reap the attendant financial and social rewards, nonprofit leaders must be intentional about recognizing, developing, and promoting talented women to leadership positions.

Solving the gender gap in nonprofit leadership requires constant focus from stakeholders across the nonprofit world. Donors must demand more female leadership on nonprofit boards and in the upper ranks of management. And, most importantly, a mindset of recognizing and promoting women must cascade down until it becomes embedded in the DNA of the organizations themselves.

For too long, the nonprofit sector has been excused from the type of scrutiny given to Wall Street and Silicon Valley because it’s incorrectly assumed that value-driven organizations would be better at addressing social issues like gender imbalance. Increasing female leadership is the right thing to do – organizationally, economically, and morally. But it’s not going to happen without open and honest dialogue about the issue and a concerted effort to make a change.

From assisting survivors of domestic violence to breaking the cycle of recidivism, our nonprofit partners selflessly commit themselves to addressing some of society’s most overlooked challenges. But today, we are increasingly realizing that when it comes to closing the gender gap, our work must begin a little closer to home.