The Color of Power: Inside a Push to Bring Diversity to Nonprofit Boards


It’s hardly a secret that the leadership of America’s nonprofit sector isn’t very diverse. What’s less well known is how little progress has been made on this challenge in recent decades—a period when demographic change has accelerated in the country as a whole. A report by BoardSource last year found that 90 percent of nonprofit board members and CEOs are white, while a quarter of boards are all-white. These numbers have hardly changed since BoardSource began tracking leadership diversity in 1994. The foundation world isn’t doing much better, according to data from the Council on Foundations.

The African American Board Leadership Institute (AABLI) is one organization working to bring greater diversity to nonprofit leadership. Founded in 2011 and housed within the same building as the California Endowment in Downtown Los Angeles, AABLI’s mission is to strengthen nonprofit, public and private organizations through recruiting, preparing and assisting with the placement of African Americans on a broad range of governing boards. AABLI has a small staff and board, including its chairman and co-founder, Virgil Roberts, a pioneering black lawyer, nonprofit leader and former record executive who worked with a slew of Motown acts. 

I recently sat down with Roberts at his law firm Bobbitt & Roberts in Culver City to get a better sense of AABLI’s history and mission. He spoke at length about his own experiences trying to bring changes to his community as a lawyer, an education advocate, and as a person of color who's served on the boards of a range of nonprofits including the James Irvine Foundation and public media station KPCC. 

The son of Texas sharecroppers, Roberts grew up and spent his formative years in Ventura in Southern California, where his parents did migrant farm work in San Joaquin Valley and picked lemons along the coast. While neither of his parents completed elementary school, they did instill in their kids the value of education. Roberts read about Ralph Bunche, a statesman and diplomat who was the first black Nobel Prize winner, and decided to model his life after him. He went on to UCLA, where he was involved in launching the Black Studies Center, before fleeing campus under threat of assassination. He later ended up at Harvard Law and following graduation, began his long career as a lawyer.

As Roberts rose through the ranks of the professional world, he also started getting offers to serve on nonprofit boards. “It was like being a black Republican. A very short line,” he joked. Virgil was the first black chair of the California Community Foundation, and started a few organizations himself in education reform, including the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now (LEARN).

Along the way, he came to understand how much power boards have. “What I learned from being involved on boards is that most of the decisions that get made either by grantmakers or do-gooders is that it’s a board decision. These boards are not generated by profit, but by philanthropic interests. So if you have an interest and it’s not represented, it’s not going to be pursued,” Roberts explained.

Early on, as one of the lone black voices in the boardroom, Roberts became committed to board diversity. As he puts it, “the more interests you have around the table, the better chances that you’ll come up with ideas that work.”

When board leaders called him to refer other diverse candidates, he started by sending them friends and associates. Now in his 70s, though, Roberts said that most people his age are a bit too old to get involved for a sustained period. "The philanthropic world is very much relationship-driven,” he noted. “My idea is that you need to have people in their 30s and 40s so they can be involved for 25 to 30 years so that they can rise up.” Roberts decided he need to find a way to get in touch with this younger demographic so that he could help empower them.

Roberts connected with Yvette Chappelle Ingram, a nonprofit veteran herself, who put together programs called “Meet the Funder” in black communities. Roberts was a panelist and observed that many community members would lament that they weren’t getting any traction from major nonprofits. Some of these local organizations were steered by people who, while well-intentioned, didn’t have formal nonprofit leadership training. In 2011, Roberts and Ingram launched AABLI, where Ingram now serves as president.

AABLI works to identify black professionals, recruiting them to get training so they learn board member basics like fiduciary duties, how to read financial statements, and fundraising. Roberts also emphasized the value of learning soft skills; for instance, how to navigate being the sole black face on a board and making your voice heard without being considered disruptive. 

AABLI began by focusing on placing participants on nonprofit boards, but has now expanded to corporate boards, as well. Roberts usually tries to get people placed on boards of nonprofits that are mid-level and above, with budgets over $100,000. "A bigger budget means a bigger footprint,” he says.

The AABLI cohorts feature people as old as 60, but the ideal candidate, says Roberts, is someone mid-career in their 30s and 40s. Ultimately, AABLI’s goal is to facilitate a pipeline of qualified nonprofit leaders of color because, as Roberts notes, there really is a hierarchy in the philanthropic world:

There are fewer grantmakers than grant seekers, but you need to be in the field for a while before you get to be a grantmaker. I want to have more blacks on grantmaking boards because these boards really control the resources that are coming into the sector. So you need to be committed to being engaged philanthropically for years for someone to reach out to you at a Ford Foundation or James Irvine Foundation. You want to be where there is a lot of capital going out to try to deal with the social problems of our society and to shape where that money goes.

Roberts can say all of this because he himself has worked both on the grantmaking and grantseeking side. As his professional career moved from working as a trial lawyer and pro bono civil rights attorney to president of SOLAR Records (Sound of Los Angeles Records), founded by Dick Griffey and Don Cornelius of Soul Train fame, he also rose through the ranks of the nonprofit world. In the early 1990s, the late Walter Annenberg announced the “Challenge to the Nation,” a $500 million challenge grant to improve public schools that launched 18 locally designed challenge projects operating in 35 states.

Roberts chaired the local Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project. Ultimately, the project spent $100 million, and it was one of Roberts’ first forays into putting serious money toward the causes he cared about. He says, “There’s no way I would have been able to spend the money I have if I wasn’t involved in the nonprofit arena to try to make a difference for people in the communities that I care about. This is why I’m trying to get more black folks into that pipeline.”

When the Annenberg grant came to an end, the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project and LEARN Reform Group board merged to create the Alliance for College Ready Public Schools, a charter management organization, where Roberts still serves on the board. Roberts adds that another one of his pet projects, Families in Schools, was also created from an Annenberg grant; the organization helps parents empower their kids in education. One program of Families in the Schools is Passport to Success, which provides enrichment programs in the summer to avoid the notorious summer slump. 

Roberts also mentions that AABLI doesn’t just prepare promising leaders to join the nonprofit sector, but also helps them connect with other black professionals. Roberts calls it the “Morehouse experience,” referencing the prestigious historically black college. “You get to meet other black professionals who you may not know exist and create a cohort of folks you can move together with.” There are so many black professionals who didn’t attend HBCUs who have never been in rooms with so many like-minded people who looked like them, and that’s empowering on its own. “You’re not out here by yourself,” Roberts adds.

So far, over 500 people have gone through AABLI’s program.

Despite the bleak statistics on diversity in nonprofit leadership, Roberts believes there is some cause for optimism, and calls this is a golden era for black folks in philanthropy in key respects. "There are probably 10 black heads of major foundations in America right now, including Bob Ross at the California Endowment, Darren Walker at the Ford Foundation, and Judy Belk at the California Wellness Foundation," he says.

If AABLI achieves its goals, there will be many more leaders like these in coming years.