I am a biracial woman and second-generation immigrant. Like many people of color who are drawn to the nonprofit sector, I was inspired by the idea of helping to solve the world’s most complex and deeply rooted injustices while advocating on behalf of my own communities. And, with more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered with the Internal Revenue Service in 2016 (and 32.5 percent of them being human services-oriented organizations), I found plenty of opportunities to get involved.

Nonprofit organizations fill large gaps in services that may not otherwise be provided by the federal government. Take a look around your own community and chances are that local places of worship, cultural centers, farmers markets, health clinics, homeless shelters, job training programs, and more are run through nonprofits. Given the stakes that many marginalized communities have in these services, I naively thought that direct stakeholder engagement in decisions affecting communities would be routine. It was not.

In some regard, there is an established logic at work based on the seriousness and immediacy of the problems that nonprofits tackle. So, if there is pre-existing literature or research that suggests a particular intervention will help a mother have a healthy pregnancy, for example, then setting that intervention in motion—through direct services or policy recommendations—is the obvious choice.

But obvious for whom?

Community engagement has not been the standard order of operations in white-led nonprofit organizations. Good intentions aside, it is easy for people who control the power and resources to slip into mindsets of “we have what you need, so we’ll make the choices for you.” To call it a shame would be putting it lightly, since the services, advocacy, and policy levers that white-led nonprofit organizations champion as “the” solutions can maintain status quo incrementalism without addressing root inequities. As environmental advocates Robert Garcia and Marianne Engelman Lado wrote in the National Recreation and Park Association’s Open Space blog, “A thoughtless policy can be as unfair as, and functionally equivalent to, intentional discrimination.”

Social sector leader and critic Vu Le shared the following exchange in a story he wrote for his Nonprofit AF blog: “Over a year, we asked a whole bunch of organizations led by communities of color what they need in order to grow their capacity. We had interviews and focus groups. What they all wanted was staffing. They need people. … That’s what the communities want! Why are you trying to find a model when we already have a strong model to test out?” (emphasis added). His comments reminded me that exclusion is not accidental: White leaders are given the answers, but choose not to listen.

Read the full article about white nonprofit leaders by Kaitlyn Ram Bo at Stanford Social Innovation Review.