Report highlights large diversity gaps in women, people of color leading large R.I. nonprofits

PROVIDENCE – A joint research report released Tuesday by a group of local nonprofits highlights that diversity gaps in women and people of color serving as nonprofit leaders or board members for major organizations in Rhode Island are significant.

The 19-page report, titled “2019 Census of Directors and Chief Executives of Rhode Island’s Largest Nonprofit Organizations,” includes self-reported data about racial and gender diversity on boards of directors and chief executives for the state’s 150 largest 501(c)3 nonprofits. Data noted in the report includes financial information from the nonprofits’ 2017 990 forms that were obtained online in September 2019, and information on board members and chief executives were gathered either directly from the nonprofits, the R.I. Office of the Secretary of State or other available resources, the report notes.

According to the report, women hold 876 out of the 2,304 board seats, or 38%, on the 150 largest organizations in Rhode Island. That figure, the report states, is under the 48% national average according to data from the 2017 “Leading with Intent” report from BoardSource. About 44%, or 66 women, are chief executives of the top 150 nonprofits in the Ocean State, whereas the national average is 72%, the report states.

While Rhode Island is close to average for women involvement in leading nonprofits, it is well below average regarding people of color.

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The report states only 233 people of color, or 10%, serve on the top 150 nonprofits’ board of directors in the Ocean State – the national average is 16%. For chief executives, just 3% of people of color are among leaders of the 150 organizations noted in the report. Only two of them – Tessie San Martin of Plan International USA Inc. and Ann Marie K. Foster of Phoenix Houses of New England Inc. – lead organizations with budgets of $20 million or more.

“Considering that many of the organizations on this list serve diverse constituencies, it concerns us that their voice is not well represented at the tables where their lived experiences are addressed,” the report stated.

“Rhode Island does OK on getting women in the CEO role and represented on boards at our largest nonprofits, it still doesn’t reflect what the community looks like. We’re doing OK and we could be doing better,” said Kelly Nevins, executive director of Women’s Fund Rhode Island and was chair of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access committee that helped put the report together. “We’re not doing OK is in reflecting people of color leading the largest nonprofits.”

The IDEA committee was formed in 2017 and, a year later, the group saw a similar diversity report produced by Boston-based Massachusetts Nonprofit Network to use as a guide for the committee’s own research in Rhode Island, Nevins said.

The report also offers eight recommendations on how to address the diversity gaps. Among them are prioritizing demographics, particularly “racial and ethnic diversity, in recruitment strategies” and ensuring more than two individuals fit “diversity screens” on boards; move beyond “personal networks” of current board members by “engaging” outside networks to source future members; recommend women or people of color to serve on boards or open CEO positions; and offer fundraising and development-support training for board members and leadership.

The report was jointly sponsored by Women’s Fund Rhode Island, the Association of Fundraising Professionals Rhode Island chapter, Rhode Island Foundation and the United Way of Rhode Island.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.