August 23, 2019

By Yolanda Caldera-Durant, Vice President, Fund the People

Today’s nonprofit workforce is being pushed to evolve the talent that’s traditionally been tapped to lead and staff nonprofits. Professionals of color are more frequently being sought after to take on executive leadership and management roles. Despite this trend, nonprofits continue to have leaders that are primarily white despite this push for change. We still have a long way to go. However, many professionals of color have made clear that they want to take on top nonprofit leadership and management roles. Nonprofits report struggling to identify qualified people of color to take on these important positions. Search firms that are tasked with sourcing racially and ethnically diverse talent must work on building more racially and ethnically diverse professional networks.

One dynamic that I’ve personally experienced is being asked by search firms to tap my professional networks that are racially and ethnically diverse. When I first started receiving these requests I thought that it was commendable that the search firms were reaching out to me, a Latinx professional with deep experience and knowledge of the nonprofit and philanthropic fields, and a racially and ethnically diverse network. However, over time I’ve started to feel like I’m doing the search firms’ job for them, identifying professionals of color for important opportunities. But it isn’t clear whether the firms are putting these individuals forward as serious candidates or whether their nonprofit clients are actually hiring these candidates.

My questions are: What is the role of search firms in expanding their networks of professionals of color to apply for the increasing number of leadership and management roles that are becoming available? Should search firms provide some form of compensation to nonprofit professionals who they are asking to find qualified candidates?

The nonprofit field has a reputation of collegiality in sharing information and resources with our peers in the field. However, many search firms aren’t nonprofits. It’s important for them to build their own deep and rich professional networks that go beyond the people they already know – white professionals. 

It’s time that nonprofit board search committees demand more of the search firms with whom they contract. We can no longer have “business as usual” practices wherein the same professionals of color are tapped to share their professional networks — thereby doing the work of the search firms for free. How should those of us who receive these requests respond? I propose three ideas:

  1. Am I the Only One?: Ask the search firm if they have other professionals of color who they are tapping for contacts or are you the only one? If so, why is that the case and how can they improve?
  2. Placing Value on Access to Diverse Professional Networks: Ask the search firm if they are willing to provide some form of compensation to you or your nonprofit organization for sharing your valuable professional networks? This could be in the form of either a monetary payment, an honorarium to your nonprofit, or an in-kind service to your organization such as assistance with providing constructive feedback on job descriptions.
  3. Track Record in Leadership & Management Placements: Ask the search firm about their success rate in placing professionals of color in leadership and management positions. This is a fair question since those of us sharing our networks don’t want to set up our colleagues for failure or waste their time.

Given the congeniality of the nonprofit field, these may not be easy steps to take. But it’s time to disrupt troubling practices that reinforce white dominance in nonprofit professional searches. It is time for search firms to up their game when it comes to effectively sourcing talented professionals of color through more racially-equitable practices.

Have you had such experiences with search firms? How did you deal with such requests? Please comment below or let us know at

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