• Dayna Tohidi

It's not you; it's the system

Plaster speaks to Fashion Revolution USA about the causes and solutions to the lack of ethnic minorities in leadership positions within nonprofit organisations

Cover illustration by Meera Madhu

The murder of George Floyd and the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes have put brands and companies under the microscope, but the global nonprofit sector needs to be held accountable too. According to Third Sector’s 2020 diversity survey of UK fundraising charities, only ten percent of managers come from an ethnic minority background. The racial diversity gap is also prevalent in the US. At the American arm of the global movement, Fashion Revolution, all five directors are white, despite six out of eleven team members identifying as a Black, Indigenous or a Person of Colour.

Racial wage gap

Due to a shortage of funds, every role at Fashion Revolution USA (FR USA) is currently voluntary. “We don't like that we're asking people to work for free and we don’t want to work for free either, but that is the name of the game at the moment,” says Shannon Welch, the organisation’s director of strategic initiatives and creative partnerships. Even if their intent to volunteer is just as strong as their white counterparts, the racial wage gap means that unpaid work is less feasible for ethnic minorities. In 2020, the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics published that white employees earn an average of $1008.00 a week, $195.00 and $223.00 more than their Black and Latinx (gender-neutral noun) equivalents, respectively. This gives context as to why FR USA’s director of operations and community, Ashleyn Przedwiecki, has noticed that "white individuals tend to show up first in the onboarding process."

Two of Fashion Revolution USA's directors: Ashleyn Przedwiecki and Shannon Welch. © Ashleyn Przedwiecki/Shannon Welch

Both Welch and Przedwiecki acknowledge that if they didn’t have full-time paid jobs, they wouldn’t be able to commit as many hours to volunteer at FR USA. Welch is the sustainability division director at Chapter 2 agency in New York, while Przedwiecki is a freelance event designer and part-time social impact manager at the Social Enterprise Alliance in Minneapolis. On average, they dedicate between 10 and 20 hours a week to volunteer remotely at the organisation.

“If a person of colour steps into our team but the culture doesn't reflect them, they're not going to want to stay and I don't blame them”

Last Summer, FR USA created a business plan to apply for 501(c)(3) status. If granted, it will be able to accept public and private donations without paying tax (money paid to the government). Donors benefit too because they can opt-in for a tax deduction, known as gift aid. The funds raised would go towards paying its team a salary and funding community projects. Although, this won’t be easy as FR USA advocates for women's rights and the environment; two causes that Przedwiecki says are “usually in the bottom tier of funding from the government and individual donations in the US.”

Bias within professional networks

According to social entrepreneurship consultancy, Community Wealth Partners, 80 percent of nonprofit staff recruit via their professional networks, 75 percent of which don't even have an ethnic minority presence. Welch holds herself accountable here: “as hard as is to say, the majority of my network is white. Realising and saying that out loud, I got a pain in my chest,” she says, crossing her hands over her heart. This is one of several reasons why FR USA has made it a priority to evaluate and diversify its volunteer onboarding process. When hiring a new board of advisors, regional coordinators, city leads and social media staff, they “prioritise individuals with diverse backgrounds, sexual orientations, religions, and ages among other factors,” explains Przedwiecki.

Median weekly earnings by race in the U.S job market, based on information published by the U.S bureau of labor statistics in 2020

Unequal power dynamics

Hierarchy is ingrained in the structure of nonprofit organisations; it’s a legal requirement to have a board of directors. Aware that this might make some of its team members feel undervalued, FR USA is seeking to shift towards a decentralised organisation model, where “directors and the core team provide just enough structure and logistical support so that community leaders feel equipped and empowered to make decisions on their own,” explains Przedwiecki. In addition to this, it’s determined to abolish the white culture that has disseminated through its organisation due to having an all-white board of directors. “If a person of colour steps into our team but the culture doesn't reflect them, they're not going to want to stay and I don't blame them,” says Przedwiecki. Before hiring a new director, the board wants to build an inclusive foundation for the organisation. “We cannot claim that we know how to do this, but we recognise that it starts with doing our own internal work and keeping one another in check about our bias’,” she continues.

Usually, these sorts of conversations only surface after a brand or organisation is “cancelled” on social media. The fact that FR USA has publicly confronted the lack of racial diversity among its board of directors is a positive reflection of the organisation’s values, especially accountability and transparency. As Welch and Przedwiecki acknowledge, it will take a lot of time, education and structural change to achieve an equal and inclusive culture at FR USA, but it's heading in the right direction.