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Nonprofit Leadership’s Gender Diversity Problem

Plus, examples of organizations who are leading the way on turning the tide

Though women make up 75% of the nonprofit workforce, they are underrepresented in top leadership roles. In fact, a joint study by The Women’s College of the University of Denver and The White House Project found that women make up only 21% of leadership positions in nonprofits that have a budget of $25 million or more. GuideStar USA’s 16th annual Nonprofit Compensation Report goes on to say that male CEOs of a $2.5-5 billion-a-year budget earn 23% more than their female counterparts. There’s an even greater disparity in the representation (and pay) of minority, trans, gay, and differently-abled women.

However, women shouldn’t be completely discouraged by these statistics. They are gaining some ground in the top profit-and-loss positions within nonprofits. Here are five examples of women who have risen past the glass ceiling; we hope these powerful, inspiring leaders encourage other women to reach for the same.

Jennifer Pahlka

Jennifer Pahlka is the founder and executive director of Code for America, an organization that works with the tech industry to help local governments better serve their communities. Code for America now has 44,000 volunteers nationwide. Recently, Pahlka served as the U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She’s received MIT’s Kevin Lynch Award, and she delivered a famous TED talk called Coding a Better Government

Nancy Lublin

When Nancy Lublin was 23 years old, she inherited $5,000 and used the money to start Dress for Success. Dress For Success now supplies interview suits and career development training to underserved women in 15 countries and 125 cities across the world. In 2003, Lublin took charge of Do Something, a nonprofit that had previously found itself in tremendous debt. She moved everything online and re-branded the organization as It’s now one of the largest youth organizations in the world that mobilizes young people to fight for causes they believe in. She later launched the Crisis Text Line, which is a 24/7 text support service for those in crisis. It is being praised as an example of big data for social good. Fortune later named her as one of the World’s Greatest Leaders.

Gail McGovern

In 2008, Gail McGovern became the president and CEO of the American Red Cross, the nation’s leading emergency response service. Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, the Red Cross chairwoman, said, “Gail McGovern brings outstanding leadership skills from the private sector, coupled with a deep commitment to volunteerism.” McGovern led the organization through several disasters including the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and the Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In 2000 and 2001, McGovern was called one of the top 50 most powerful women in corporate America. She was also the only nonprofit expert on President Obama’s Management Advisory Board.

Stacey D. Stewart

Stacey Stewart was unanimously approved to be March of Dimes’ next President in early 2017. Gary Dixon, Chairman of the March of Dimes Foundation National Board of Trustees and Chairman of the Search Committee, said that Stewart “brings a wealth of experience as a non-profit CEO, a leader of complex organizations with national and global footprints, a fundraiser and a national spokesperson. Stacey is mission-driven and results-focused and is deeply committed to our mission and public service.” Before March of Dimes, Stewart was the president of United Way Worldwide, President and the Chief Executive Officer of the Fannie Mae Foundation.

In Conclusion

These are just a few of the women who have beaten the odds and risen to the top ranks in the nonprofit sector. But the lack of women leaders should not be the norm; rather, the nonprofit sector must restructure their policies to ensure more equity and inclusion in upper management for women and minorities. For instance, one study found that nonprofits that used merit and performance-based policies had a larger percentage of female leaders. What is your nonprofit doing to ensure the balance between men and women in leadership roles? Share your efforts or success stories in the comments.


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