The Unsettling Carousel of Non-Profit Leadership

Non-Profit Leadership has turned into a revolving carousel of leadership. We are desperate for new talent yet the top layers still look incredibly white.

The Unsettling Carousel of Non-Profit Leadership in Canada: High Turnover but Limited Diversity

In the 15 years I have worked with the non-profit sector, as a Consultant, Partner and volunteered as a Board Member. Despite many changes in the sector during this time, I am left puzzled by a couple of major trends, that to be honest, I don’t really understand. Perhaps by exploring it, we can begin some much needed discussions that may, to be honest, leave us uncomfortable.

By the Numbers: Turnover in Canadian Nonprofits

The data highlights high turnover in the sector. No one is disputing this.

  1. Imagine Canada’s 2021 Survey: This survey revealed a 21% turnover rate in Canadian nonprofits.
  2. Muttart Foundation’s 2020 Report: It found that 60% of nonprofit leaders planned to leave their positions within five years.
  3. Carleton University’s 2022 Study: This study noted that 58% of nonprofit executives in Canada intended to leave their roles within the next five years.

Diversity in Leadership: A Closer Look

The situation is further detailed by the following insights:

  • Diversity in Canadian Public Companies (2023): Only 27% of board seats in Canadian public companies were held by women, with other diverse groups even less represented. This underrepresentation is indicative of a broader issue within Canadian leadership circles.
  • Lack of Diversity on Nonprofit Boards: A Statistics Canada survey conducted between December 2020 and January 2021 pointed to a significant lack of diversity on nonprofit boards, suggesting that many organizations do not have boards that adequately represent the communities they aim to serve.
  • A diverse sector: 77% of nonprofit workers are women, 47% immigrants and 35% Indigenous and racialized people. 

Unanswered Questions: Setting the Stage for Future Discussions

In Ontario’s non-profit organizations, individuals from racialized groups occupy a mere 18.2% of leadership positions. The representation of Indigenous Peoples is particularly low, comprising less than 3%—the smallest proportion among all groups seeking equity.

Although women represent over half of the director and senior management roles in Ontario’s not-for-profit sector at 56.6%, their presence diminishes in larger organizations and major urban areas. Additionally, there is a notable drop in the number of women leaders within organizations that are funded by non-governmental sources. (Newswire).

When I first started working in the sector, the lack of leadership was explained by Baby Boomer Matrons who had founded many of these organizations, and continued to occupy leadership roles. Well, many of those women have now retired. So what is our excuse now?

Given the high turnover and the continued lack of diversity in leadership, several critical questions arise:

  • Why does high turnover not lead to increased diversity in leadership roles?
  • How do entrenched biases in recruitment and succession planning contribute to the persistence of predominantly white leadership?
  • What systemic barriers prevent the increase of diversity in nonprofit leadership despite high turnover rates?
  • How can the nonprofit sector in Canada break the cycle of replicating homogenous leadership?

These questions are essential for understanding the complexities of leadership dynamics in Canadian nonprofits. I hope that, like me, you are not satisfied with these numbers and we can begin to do better.



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