A Washington D.C. Nonprofit Is Sued: Was It Racism Or Bad Management?

Written exclusively for ChubbWorks for Not-for-Profit Zone

The CEO of a large nonprofit based in Washington D.C. recently announced her resignation in a public statement. She took the opportunity to call attention to her own and the organization's efforts toward "embedding racial equity into our operations, our culture, our work." Ironically, however, two black nonprofit executives filed separate race discrimination lawsuits last year that name the CEO, a non-black woman, as a defendant.

Both plaintiffs worked under the former CEO in different organizations, and both alleged racial discrimination and retaliation. In one case, the plaintiff describes racially offensive comments from another senior leader which the defendant former CEO failed to address. The plaintiff in the other case claims the defendant former CEO led "uncomfortable" discussions with several employees of color about racial inequalities in the nonprofit, yet no "meaningful change" occurred.

Both plaintiffs allege the former CEO had been purposefully vague in her criticisms of their performance, making improvements difficult. They both state the defendant terminated them in retaliation for speaking out about workplace discrimination.

A 2016 Race to Lead survey of nonprofit employees found that black women in particular believe their race negatively impacted their career development in terms of jobs and promotion, wage rates, and mentorship opportunities. They also cite having to fight the "angry black woman" stereotype. Directors of this survey note that these experiences are no different than those in the for-profit sector but can often be overlooked because of the charitable nature and culture of the nonprofit industry.

The parties in one of the lawsuits have agreed to settle. The other case is pending. Sydney Trent "A racial reckoning at nonprofits: Black women demand better pay, opportunities" www.washingtonpost.com (Jul. 11, 2021).

Commentary and Checklist

This matter will have its day in court; however, the allegations against the CEO appear more as a criticism of management style versus racism. Poor management can lead to claims and charges, including charges of racism.

“Purposefully vague”; offensive comments not properly addressed; and “uncomfortable” discussions are often used to describe managers who fail to address conflict. This can lead to assumptions or suggestions of racism.

Clear and purposeful language is the antidote for management and nonprofits. Nonprofit leaders should begin with written anti-discrimination policies, and those policies must then be put into actions. Make sure, when discrimination is reported, that an investigation results and a remedy is fashioned.

Consider the following additional suggestions to make sure your policies and daily practices are free from racial discrimination:

  • Consider an employee survey to learn about the culture of the nonprofit. ?
  • In addition to a well-written policy that prohibits discrimination and harassment on the basis of race or color, make it clear that you support the policy by setting a good example.
  • Train staff on your anti-discrimination policy, and encourage them to report wrongdoing, including all forms of racial harassment and discrimination.
  • Establish neutral and objective criteria to avoid subjective employment decisions based on personal stereotypes or hidden biases.
  • Focus on work experience and accomplishments for hiring, promotion, and training opportunities. Make sure all employment decisions are made without regard to race.
  • Make sure staff understands that engaging in racial discrimination or harassment of any kind can lead to termination.
  • Quickly investigate all reports of insensitive or hateful behavior, racial discrimination or harassment, or a hostile work environment. Protect those who report from retaliation.
  • Promote an inclusive culture in the workplace by fostering an environment of professionalism and respect for personal differences.
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