Sexism & Nonprofits, Dismissing A Sector Run By Women

Rachel Renock
The Nonprofit Revolution
5 min readJul 19, 2017


A couple of weeks ago, Wethos spoke with reporter Katie Benner from The New York Times about the insidious culture of harassment that women are up against today in the tech industry. Numerous personal accounts from female entrepreneurs revealed propositioning, lewd sexual comments, and ostracism at the hands of predatory male venture capitalists.

The reason we came forward to let other female founders know that this behavior isn’t normal. You don’t have to take it, and there are plenty of good people out there who will take you seriously. You deserve to be taken seriously.

The stories shared by these women exposed an ecosystem both unbalanced by gender and ingrained with a toxic power dynamic that has calcified over the decades. But this kind of rampant sexism isn’t just limited to the tech world — an industry where 86 percent of Fortune 500 leaders happen to be men — nor is it exclusive to any other male-dominated sector, for that matter.

It begs the question: Can this behavior extend to affect an industry run predominately by women?

The short answer? A resounding yes.

In the non-profit sector, 75 percent of all workers and volunteers are women. Yet somehow only 45 percent of women will go on to secure a top position at any of these organizations, and only 21 percent of these CEOs will have access to budgets of $25 million or more. So what gives?

It’s certainly not lack of determination. A 2014 study by The Chronicle of Philanthropy surveying 644 women working at nonprofits discovered that more than half of those who were not already CEOs expressed they were eager to take on such leadership. Even more, 62 percent of those who aspired to be at the top had more than 10 years of nonprofit experience to draw from.

According to the poll commissioned by New York University’s George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising, more than 40 percent of female nonprofit workers believe that their organization has a bias towards picking men for chief leadership positions over equally qualified women.

Due to the insidious limitations imposed on workforce intersectionality, women of color face even more opposition from the industry, where 89 percent of nonprofit CEOs and 80 percent of all board members are white.

And for the minority of women who work tirelessly to surmount these obstacles and eventually become CEOs of nonprofit organizations, there’s still a gender pay gap to cross.

One glaring reality many of the “business-savvy” male CEOs in the non-profit sector might not comprehend is just how much money their organizations are losing as a result of these patriarchal maneuverings.

Nearly half of women at large nonprofits admit that their leaders don’t place nearly as much effort into soliciting affluent women as they do men. As a result, countless potential donors are lost in the process every day. Who knows just how much each cause could have benefited from those potential investors?

There is a fundamental flaw in the way that we’ve been told to view nonprofits that continues to stoke these fires of inequality. It’s hardly coincidence that leaders in the male-dominated private sector are awarded for taking risks on original ideas with big payoffs, while the female-driven sector will only receive financial support for their ability to effectively handle the ideas of their counterparts.

The wedge was first driven in decades ago, shortly following the horrific string of assassinations that claimed the lives of both Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. Moved by the decade’s precedence for dividing struggles, a new group of torchbearers carried their dreams of freedom forward. Along with them, the number of nonprofits in the United States grew exponentially in the years that followed.

Robert Egger, Founder and president of L.A. Kitchen and former president of the country’s very first community kitchen, writes about the unfortunate series of circumstances that shadowed this period of growth.

“Back then, nobody was trained to lead a nonprofit organization. It was considered more a calling than a career,” Egger notes.

“And while people from varied backgrounds emerged as leaders, perhaps the most unexpected, and undervalued, were the tens of thousands of college-educated, stay-at-home mothers. These were women who had married, managed their family’s finances, ran the PTA, and, as their children began to leave home in the 1970s, decided it was now their turn — and by the tens of thousands they asserted themselves both personally and professionally and set out to make a difference in their communities and for our country by starting thousands of nonprofit organizations.”

Much as it stands today, America was mired by gender and racial biases that forced most of these founding mothers to live within the confines of what larger society defined their “role” to be.

So long as their efforts were concentrated on charitable missions that didn’t extend beyond the limiting notion of “feminized charity work” — such as helping the homeless and poor, revitalizing communities, or supporting the arts — they were accepted. However, participating in any meaningful discussions about economic empowerment, social injustice, or political inclusion was strongly discouraged.

To make matters worse, the foundation system was monopolized by men tasked with distributing money made by other men. Foundations would think twice about financing any organizations with an objective to guarantee equality; pens halted to write grants for non-profits who called attention to the dominant social order or encouraged political advocacy.

In the 40 years since, the trend in many ways has remained the same. Grants are still primarily made to organizations that are considered “submissive,” those who are willing to bend backwards to meet unrealistic demands, groups who avoid rocking the boat when confronted with myopic policies. They get by without the access to resources that they know is needed to do the job right because they have to.

The fact is that archaic gender norms still demand that men be regarded as providers, dominating and independent, while women remain submissive and nurturing. Nonprofit veteran Kristen Joiner argues that while the private sector is continually drunk off money and the search for profit, the nonprofit sector toils away as a nurturing caregiver. One side controls all of the resources, selectively hiring, firing, and funding the allowance of “good work” as they see fit.

It’s time to change the fundamental rules of this flawed system. It’s time that nonprofits be heralded for their contributions to our economy — not just how many children they feed or save, but also the championing of productive citizens and healthy communities.

It’s time that we finally acknowledge the gender gaps between the nonprofit and private sector if we ever want to see our nonprofits dream up new possibilities and innovations to solve the problems that we feel so passionately about.

It’s time that we leave our dogged, paternalistic ways behind us and encourage women to pursue intellectualism and risk-taking with their philanthropy. The reward will always be limitless.



Rachel Renock
The Nonprofit Revolution

ceo & cofounder @wethosco, rogue lesbian, creative monster, ditched the big agency life to build magical virtual studios 🌝