8 Ways People of Color are Tokenized in Nonprofits

First, because the vast majority of charitable dollars are generated from rich White men, which ultimately influences the direction of funding. (This does not mean that POC are not charitable; POC have historically and systematicallybeen deprived of their ability to accumulate wealth.)  Second, because the nonprofit sector thrives less as a meritocracy and more through old, inherited wealth and power networks. This system puts People of Color, especially immigrants and refugees who are newer arrivals, at a stark disadvantage.

So what does tokenism look and feel like? You may be tokenizing POC if:

1. You recruit People Of Color to formal leadership positions, but keep all the power.
That’s tokenism 101. You’ll typically see this in the hiring of a POC to be the “face” of an organization that is trying to become more diverse, while one or more White staff (or a long-standing Board Chair) maintain actual authority. I’ve also seen this play out with Board positions, with POC recruited to serve but not provided the requisite resources, support or authority to act as fiduciaries for the organization. In both instances, POC are brought in primarily for their colorful (pun intended) personal stories of hardship and discrimination to pull at the heartstrings of donors or legitimize the cause. As soon as these tokenized POC try to exercise their leadership roles, those in power will work to undermine, block and derail them. For well-meaning White colleagues, if you’re engaging in this behavior – no matter what excuse you make for it – you are tokenizing people of color.

2. Your paid staff in charge of messaging are White, and your volunteer storytellers are People Of Color.
This type of tokenizing not only perpetuates economic inequality against POC, but strips POC of ownership over our own stories. I can think of several nonprofits principally serving one or more minority groups with all-White communications staff, that solicit POC to share their stories of success, hardship or trauma for the financial benefit of the nonprofit without pay. This, while the organization retains all decision-making within their White staff and keeps POC safely disempowered and on the outside. 

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