Larry Smith

In January 2003, I was director of Corporate Strategy for a multi-billion dollar company. I had a six-figure salary, stock options, profit-sharing and excellent health care. I had earned a master’s degree from Stanford Business School in 2001 — and my company had footed the bill. By virtually every secular measure, life was good. Very good. But I was experiencing a crisis of conscience. I had accepted the call to ministry in 2002. After several years of literal soul-searching, I strongly felt the urge to abandon my 11-year sojourn in the private sector for the untold joys, limitless rewards and unapologetic altruism of the nonprofit world. (Though I was called to preach and teach, I did not believe that God wanted me to be a full-time pastor.)

I was primed and ready to tackle social challenges with great zeal. I would be the consummate nonprofit professional! This second phase of my career began auspiciously. I was hired by a nationally-recognized think tank to explore faith-based solutions to poverty. Next, I began my first of two stints working for a major university. (I would spend more than five years at an internationally-renowned academic center that is dedicated to improving the nonprofit sector. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.) I was then recruited to a very well-known, health-related nonprofit organization. While I still greatly respect the organization, it was not the best fit. As a result, I embarked on a five-plus-year journey as an independent consultant. I worked primarily with nonprofit and academic organizations, though I also lent my expertise (such as it is) to small- and medium-sized businesses. I was then lured back into academia for approximately two and a half years before leaving last December to work for myself.

If you’re still awake, please know that my aim is not simply to offer oblique references to my résumé. Rather, I wanted to give a sense of what I have done professionally in order to put into context the complaint that I am about to make. Given the titles that I have had and the places that I have worked, it might seem odd to make said complaints. I also wished to convey a sense that I understand the breadth and depth of the nonprofit sector in Indiana. In any case, I think that my gripe is warranted. So, what gives? 

There are more than 20,000 nonprofit organizations in Indiana. (Some people might find that number to be surprisingly large for a state whose population is “only” 6.7 million people — but there it is.) The fact is that, even if I think really hard, I can’t name five nonprofit organizations in Indianapolis (or even in Indiana as a whole) that are headed by African Americans. (This, of course, excludes those organizations whose staff, board and clients are predominately Black.)

To be sure, I assume that there are more than five such organizations; but the fact that I can’t readily name them is problematic. By the way, for several years I have periodically asked my friends (of all races) whether they could complete that seemingly simple task. To date, not one has been able to do so. To make matters worse, I can’t even name five chief operating officers, chief financial officers or chief development officers who hold those titles outside of African American organizations. (Those roles are frequently the group from which CEOs are chosen.) Thus, I have become increasingly frustrated with the lack of racial diversity at the senior levels of the nonprofit sector. (Such is not the case in other major cities around the nation.)

This is a much broader problem than might be suggested by my personal experience (though I would argue that citing my experience does not make my point less valid). This lack of racial diversity is a frequent topic of discussion among people of color, who are beyond tired of platitudes and lip service regarding “diversity.” (If you don’t think that’s the case, you don’t know many people of color.) Indeed, many of my white colleagues have acknowledged this embarrassing problem. For all the self-congratulatory plaudits and unmerited arrogance that we hear and see from nonprofit leaders regarding moral superiority over for-profit companies, it seems to me that our sector is worse in this regard. Now, to be clear, I don’t think that corporations are inherently more “enlightened” regarding this issue. I think that an informed customer-base holds them accountable. Unfortunately, there is very little “market imperative” to drive racial equality in the nonprofit sector. Thus, in many respects, the sector is immune to our nation’s rapidly changing demographics. 

I have often thought that I should have stayed in (or returned to) corporate America, make a pile of money and give much of it to charitable causes. This would allow me to benefit from the other golden rule: “He who has the gold makes the rules.” 

Please forgive me for taking this point of personal privilege. 

 

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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