Even under the best circumstances, leadership transitions can be unsettling for both the organization and the leader. As the National Council of Nonprofits noted, “Whether a transition occurs due to an unexpected vacancy on the staff or board, or the anticipated transition of a long-tenured leader, being deliberative and thoughtful, and having a plan in place, can help a nonprofit weather the inevitable challenges of leadership transition” (n.d., para. 2).

For some leaders, these transitions can be particularly challenging — and risky. The concept of the “glass cliff” — first coined by authors Ryan and Haslam (2005, para. 9) — refers to the tendency for women and racial/ethnic minorities to be appointed to leadership positions during times of crisis. The theory based in this research explains that these individuals are essentially set up to take the blame if the company fails or continues to struggle, even while the organization itself is able to boost its reputation as modern and enlightened (Kagan, 2022).

With more and more people of color, and especially Black women, appointed to leadership positions following the crises of 2020, we’re seeing the glass cliff attracting greater attention and concern in research, commentary, and conversation. Faced with struggling organizations, reduced time to perform, and insufficient support, leaders are finding themselves in untenable situations.

An Inclusive Sector Will Mean Investing in Success for Leaders of Color

Many Black women and other leaders of color have found themselves on the “glass cliff” since 2020. Yet the reality and dangers of the glass cliff have existed for far longer than that. Utah State University professors Alison Cook and Christy Glass set out to study the glass cliff a decade ago, only to identify a further phenomenon — that of the “organizational savior,” or the hiring of a white male to follow the ousted woman or person of color leader (Munson, 2013).

Grantmakers, nonprofit leaders, board members, and others should ensure that this next wave of executive transitions doesn’t just push more leaders of color over the proverbial glass cliff. As Scott Konrad pointed out for the Center for Association Leadership, “Nonprofits will need to contend with many challenges [in the years ahead] including labor shortages, inflation, donor hesitancy, rising costs, cyber threats, and falling endowments” (2023, para. 1). Nonprofit leadership work is demanding enough, without adding unnecessary barriers created at the intersection of gender and race.