Rise Academy is Changing the Narrative for Nonprofit Leaders of Color

November 28, 2023

Racial disparities persist between the leadership of nonprofits and the communities they serve, perpetuating a troubling reality. A national survey of nonprofit organizations found that 79% of board chairs and executive directors are white, compared to 60% of the general population

So, what can be done to address these inequities? Rise Academy for Leaders of Color is asking this question and taking steps to support and advance the nonprofit leadership of people of color.

Dispelling Historical Myths About Leaders of Color

In a comprehensive survey of people working in nonprofits, 79% of respondents agreed that one of the most significant problems facing nonprofits is that leadership doesn't represent the racial and ethnic diversity of the United States. To address this misconception, it's essential to examine prevalent myths associated with the racial leadership gap:

These myths point to structural biases that underlie the underrepresentation of diversity in leadership roles within the nonprofit sector, manifesting as limited access to educational and networking opportunities, discriminatory hiring practices and unconscious biases that shape promotion decisions. Acknowledging and actively confronting these barriers is crucial to fostering inclusive leadership.

Kristian Moton, Rise Academy Leader

Challenging the Glass Cliff in Nonprofit Leadership

The inspiration to create Rise Academy came from my observations and experience of 25 years in the nonprofit sector. I saw over and over how difficult it was for leaders of color to succeed in a world set against them.

Not only were people of color struggling to get into leadership, but they were also experiencing significant challenges once in those positions. They were hitting what is known as the glass cliff, where leaders are set up for failure by being thrust into challenging circumstances without adequate resources, support or guidance within organizations prone to misunderstanding their efforts. One report shows that leaders of color surveyed had received less support in preparation for a leadership role than their white peers, with the worst discrepancies in the lack of peer support and on-the-job mentorship.

Leaders of color also often face unique pressures and are burdened with responsibilities beyond their stated positions. In addition to their job responsibilities, their organizations often implicitly expect them to take on the undue burden of diversifying their company and representing the diverse perspectives and aspirations of their entire racial or ethnic group. This shift in accountability places the responsibility for diversification squarely on the shoulders of these leaders.  

I designed Rise Academy, a program for nonprofit leaders of color of youth development organizations, to drive transformative change. Rise Academy dispels the myth that leaders of color are unprepared or unfit for leadership roles when given the opportunity. In truth, we are talented, prepared and credentialed. I launched this program to assert our readiness and reverse the negative narrative about who we are when we come to the leadership table.  

Representation is a powerful tool that can inspire communities and amplify the voices of marginalized groups across the globe. - Rise Academy Leader, 2023 Cohort

The focus on youth development is intentional because of how critical it is to have representative leadership in youth development organizations. Our youth need to understand what is possible for them. They also need to have people in front of them who can understand their lived experience and value that experience.

L-R: Ashley Allen, Denise Cotton and Veronica Colazzo - Rise Academy Leaders

A Holistic Approach to Leadership Development 

Rise Academy's leadership program unfolds in distinct phases. First, the personal stage hones in on individual leadership intended to help emergent leaders define their identity and gauge their current performance.

The next phase is one of the ways the program differentiates itself. It centers on the leader's affiliated organization. Placing the onus of change solely on the shoulders of the leader would be a disservice to them, so Rise Academy requires that participating organizations elevate their DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging) efforts to cultivate a healthier and more supportive environment in which the leader can excel. This enhanced focus on building a strong DEIB culture creates the essential conditions for leaders of color to thrive in their roles.

The next phase is all about community—more than other industries, the nonprofit sector centers on community building. Knowing how to lead and participate in the community is critical to a leader's success.

To culminate the program, we facilitate a meaningful Capstone presentation for the Rise leader, aligning it with the organization’s goals and needs.

I'm very grateful for this experience and plan to take what I've learned to make even more of an impact at my organization. - Melissa Benjamin, Fiver Children's Foundation, Rise Academy Leader, 2022 Cohort

Our Emphasis on Mentorship

One of the most crucial parts of Rise Academy is its emphasis on mentorship that extends beyond the completion of the program. We currently provide the leaders who complete the program with mentoring opportunities. Our mentors combine the professional experience and compassion required to effectively guide and speak to the unique problems leaders of color face. They are passionate about supporting this and the next generation.

These relationships that the leaders form can provide crucial support for leaders who are making critical career decisions to overcome the systemic obstacles put in place because of their race.  For example, one graduate of Rise Academy reported that she utilized her relationship with her mentor to help her advocate for herself in defining her role, be more effective in her position and increase her salary to the industry range.

Impact Beyond Leadership

While the program's primary goal is strengthening leaders, its purpose extends beyond that. The leaders who graduate from the program walk away with an understanding of their value, non-negotiables, and nonprofit operations sustainability. Sixty percent of the first cohort have either moved on to more prominent positions in the sector or received promotions and larger scopes of work. Participating organizations have also reported the benefits of solidifying a more diverse leadership track through Rise Academy. Furthermore, Rise Academy provides a unique opportunity for emerging leaders to expand their networks and make valuable connections.

I am a better me because of Rise Academy. I feel more accomplished and closer to my goals and dreams, and if I feel like that, then I know others will feel the same. - Dunasha Payne, Drama Club, Rise Academy Leader, 2022 Cohort

Through the program, leaders also learn the value of building a supportive peer community that champions their initiatives. Rise Academy is a safe space where leaders of color can lower their guard and actively listen to and hear from their peers without fear of judgment. It's a space where leaders consistently express gratitude for feeling seen and heard and for the relief it offers from the challenges they face.

Being surrounded by other leaders of color pouring into you is imperative. The amount of professional growth and development is unapparelled. - Rise Academy Leader, 2023 Cohort

How Rise Academy is Evolving

Since the founding of Rise Academy, we have recognized the need to address the mental health component inherent in the work undertaken by leaders within the nonprofit sector. This field can be incredibly taxing on one’s well-being, particularly for leaders of color who must navigate environmental and socio-cultural challenges. This part of the program explores the mental health challenges leaders of color face within nonprofit organizations. It helps them develop strategies to enhance their resilience and foster growth and engagement while flourishing.

Additionally, we are introducing a readiness component to our program, acknowledging that while many organizations express good intentions for elevating leaders of color, they often need more preparedness to make the structural changes required for leaders to thrive. Organizations interested in participating in Rise Academy will undergo a personalized one-on-one session centered on establishing their commitment to actively dismantle systemic barriers hindering the advancement of leaders of color within their organizations.

Nonprofit executive directors of Rise Academy leaders will also engage in a series of workshops about the program to foster a deep understanding of the emergent leader’s journey. 

Cultivating a New Generation of Diverse Nonprofit Leaders: Opportunities for the Future

The future of Rise Academy is bright as we continue to expand our program. Still, many are not yet ready to fully commit to the work required to improve their diversity initiatives and support their leaders.

There are many things organizational leaders can do to elevate leaders of color. Crucially, dispelling misinformation; this includes dispelling myths that there are no qualified leaders of color within the talent pool. The imperative lies in authentic and proactive efforts to promote diversity and inclusion among organizational leaders by identifying and cultivating emerging leaders and providing them with the support to thrive in their roles.

Rise Academy Leaders, 2022 Cohort

Commitment and Collaboration to Propel Rise Academy Forward

We are grateful for the partnerships that have made it possible for Rise Academy to transform the landscape for emergent leaders of color. This award-winning program, developed in collaboration with Jennifer Rutledge and Brian Leander, Ph.D., Center for Nonprofit Leadership at Adelphi University and enhanced by AIIR Consulting's executive coaching, is rooted in a shared dedication to dismantling systemic barriers that hinder the advancement of leaders of color in the nonprofit sector.

L-R: Jennifer Rutledge, Tracie Gilstrap Marshall, and Brian Leander, Ph.D.

Canaccord Genuity LLC, the U.S. division of Canaccord Genuity Group Inc., has been instrumental in realizing the vision of Rise Academy. Their generous commitment of $750,000 to fund the launch of this program marks a continuation of their substantial support to Youth INC, reaching a notable total of $5 million over the past decade.

Additionally, Goldman Sachs has contributed $250,000 through its Fund for Racial Equity. This investment provides crucial capital for the participating organizations, ensuring operational strength and future viability as Rise leaders embark on this vital program.


Tracie Gilstrap Marshall

Tracie Gilstrap Marshall is the Director of Partner Network Engagement at Youth INC and the founder of Rise Academy for Leaders of Color. She joined Youth INC in 2015 and brings over 20 years of nonprofit experience in the youth development and organizing space as well as arts and culture. She has served as Program Officer at the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation, capacity-builder and an organizer when she served as Program Associate at the Ms. Foundation for Women. Tracie is Vice President of the governing board of New Hope for All Saints Lutheran church.Tracie received her Bachelor’s degree at St. John’s University and her Master’s in Divinity at New York Theological Seminary. She is the mother of two beautiful girls who keep her active through soccer and in the performing and visual arts.‍