We’re Longing for Strong, Anti-Racist Leadership in Non-Profits

When the UK Children’s charity Barnados published a blog post earlier this year discussing racial inequality and white privilege, they faced an avalanche of vitriol. Not just from the usual suspects — internet trolls and far-right extremists — but also from the Common Sense Group, a cluster of Conservative MPs who work against what they call the ‘woke agenda’. Some of these MPs accused Barnados of ‘divisive militancy’ and ‘ideological dogma’. When Barnados’ CEO and vice president both issued statements defending the original blog post, and committed to ‘keep on raising the issues that matter for all vulnerable children’, I punched the air. It still feels so rare to see non-profit leaders take a firm, defiant stand when facing backlash for their attempts to disrupt the status quo. It still feels unusual to see a leader lean into, rather than away from their values when push comes to shove.

Plakat Equal Rights

I work with others on small anti-racism initiatives in the non-profit sector (mostly in the international development space). Over recent months, people of colour have been judging their leaders by how they have responded to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. We have been interrogating the extent to which our leaders and colleagues will be transformed by the gross inequalities that — for now, at least — can no longer be ignored. My co-conspirators working on anti-racism in non-profits know the type of leadership they need to see. Sadly, many of us find our leaders sorely wanting.

I am a biracial woman who has worked for non-profits for over 15 years. My independence as a consultant gives me a freedom to speak in ways that many of my friends who are affiliated with institutions cannot. This article outlines the type of leadership so many of us are yearning for. Perhaps when they read this, some people will say that I need to have ‘softer eyes’. I may be told I have not demonstrated enough empathy with the difficult plight of leaders who are contending with COVID-19, funding crises, as well as everything else 2020 has to throw at us. I understand this. However, while I have enormous empathy for those who are trying to lead their organisations with integrity through turbulent times, I will also challenge the narcissism that underlies this perspective, which says that whiteness must be centered in everything we do, say or write.

Instead, this is an article that will foreground the perspectives and the comfort of minoritized, rather than dominant groups. My approach to leadership, which strives to be intersectional and feminist, necessitates that I centre those at the margins, not those with the most investment in the status quo. After all, which groups have disproportionately suffered from the effects of COVID-19? Which groups are often concentrated in the most precarious positions in our organisations?

So what does strong, anti-racist leadership look like?


Many leaders are going on journeys of ‘self-education’ about racism. Some have started to interrogate their power and privilege. This is all progress. But I want to say that how you self-educate has the potential to cause harm. Many of the people I work with have been part of ‘listening’ exercises with leaders in their organisations that have felt extractive, performative and which have subsequently caused distress. Some black women I work with have been invited to speak about their experiences of racism with their senior leadership teams. To those leaders issuing such invitations, I want to ask: ‘Why do you need to instrumentalise the trauma of black people to further your own education? Why do you require visceral accounts of harm and distress to spur you to action?’ Furthermore, ‘self-education’ often takes the form of asking people of colour in the organisation to perform additional unpaid labour. This reproduces rather than helps to dismantle inequalities.

White leaders must also beware of performing and remaining ‘stuck’ in what feminist scholar and writer Sara Ahmed calls ‘a whiteness that is anxious about itself’. Self-education must lead to action and change rather than endless introspection. Conversations about racism and self-interrogation should not be a substitute for further action.

Intersectional practice

The ability to use an intersectional lens, or to understand how multiple forms of oppression intersect to produce unique kinds of burden, is one of the greatest tools any leader working on social justice issues can have. Yet how many of us can say we are led by those who demonstrate intersectional practice in their work? An example: I know some practitioners working on gender issues in their organisations who have recently been told to ‘park’ or ‘postpone’ gender equality work so their non-profit can instead reallocate resources towards diversity and inclusion efforts. At times of crisis, strong, anti-racist leaders lean into, rather than away from intersectional practice. A board member of a UK charity complained to me that intersectionality was just ‘too difficult’ and complicated. It is very telling which types of complexity are embraced by our sector —non-profit people love to grapple with the chaos inherent in systems thinking and non-linear social change — and which are labelled as ‘too much trouble’.


I’m going to say it — conversations in this sector about giving up or sharing power are becoming a substitute for actually having to do it. Many non-profits have gravitated towards low-cost, high-noise solidarity signals, such as posting black squares on their social media accounts or issuing statements about their commitment to anti-racist practice. But this doesn’t require those at the top to give up anything themselves. We have heard very few examples of leaders and or board members who are actually relinquishing power as part of their work on anti-racism. Some of us hear white leaders, when challenged why they are taking up spaces that could be filled by those with lived experience and expertise, say they can achieve more by ‘influencing from the inside’ , or that they are advocating ‘for’ those who cannot. These leaders are still engrossed in scarcity narratives. They are hanging on to the idea that power is a commodity; a finite resource. They could benefit from understanding feminist concepts of power, which tell us that power is abundant, and that our access to it will grow if we share and collaborate. When we share power, we collaborate in different ways, we centre trust, we gain access to new knowledge and our relationships are stronger. These are also all very important forms of power.


Sector leaders must start to take accountability very seriously, and practise it proactively, rather than reactively. They must understand that power relations are enacted through our daily work routines and interactions, and acknowledge when harm has been done. Mistakes will be made — and our leaders must surrender to the making of mistakes. Yet so few of them do. Or when mistakes are made, many default to their good intentions rather the impact on the person who has been harmed. The head of a global women’s rights organisation recently stepped down after facing accusations of racism — but the resignation statement made no mention of the harm she had caused. Instead, it was presented as an act of altruism. This was not accountability. Many of my co-conspirators also tell me of the significant defensiveness they face from leaders when they try to provide constructive criticism about their organisation’s diversity and inclusion work, or when they have felt this work was turning into ‘synthetic activism’ . Most commonly, they are ‘tone-policed’ — and told they are too angry or emotional. This sends a message that ‘politeness’ and the comfort of leaders is more important than the content of what the employee was trying to say. Here’s a useful framework to use when someone has raised an issue relating to racial injustice with you:

· I appreciate you telling me this, and I acknowledge this was not easy for you.

· You are entitled to feel angry/upset/sad.

· What would you like to see happen now?

· Here’s what I’ll do differently in the future…

· Is there anything else you’d like to give me feedback on?

(Adapted from Desiree Adaway’s Whiteness At Work approach)


There is also currently very little space for people to be allowed to heal when harm has been caused; they are often told by their managers, ‘let’s look to the future rather than negatively on the past’ or ‘why don’t you acknowledge how far we have come instead of criticising what has not yet been done?’ Anti-racist leaders do not urge employees to move on before they are ready; they interrogate what might need to happen to promote processes of healing and repair, and get external expertise to support that to happen.

Understanding deep structures

Anti-racist leaders should be able to understand the ‘deep structures’ in their organisations. ‘Deep structures’ are part of our organisational cultures. If we imagine our organisations like an iceberg, the deep structures are the part of the iceberg that’s hidden beneath the water line. They form the ‘normal’, unquestioned ways of working in an organisation and can reproduce inequalities. They are invisible, taken for granted and are constantly being produced as the organisation goes about its work — they are created in the ways decisions are made and in the ways the work gets done. Deep structures are where most of the hidden power in our organisations is located and because of our intersecting identities, each of us will experience these ‘deep structures’ in different ways. A focus on developing diversity and inclusion policies alone cannot shift organisational deep structures where racism takes root. It requires us to create spaces where harmful expressions of power — such as racism, ableism and sexism — can be surfaced. It requires us to allocate resources to anti-racism work, practise the type of leadership that challenges unequal power dynamics, admit our own complicity in reproducing systems of inequality, develop policies with an intersectional lens and adopt collective practices that disable oppressive forms of power.

We need boards to start recruiting people with the ability to demonstrate the leadership approaches I have outlined. Much of the above advice aligns with feminist leadership principles, which stress that none of us are liberated unless we tackle all forms of oppression. True, it is not for the faint-hearted — but courage is not something that we either have or do not have. It’s an intention; a muscle that anti-racist leaders choose to build. We need leaders who commit to doing things differently. ‘More of the same, but better’ is no longer fit for purpose.

This article has already been published.