Avoiding the Glass Cliff and BIPOC Leadership Initiative

“I have experienced the weight of the responsibility of being the “first” and have imagined the possibility. However, in my 20 years of leading human and civil rights organizations, this is the first time I have experienced a transition that intentionally
focused on avoiding the Glass Cliff.”

Monika Kalra Varma, BoardSource President & CEO

Avoiding the Glass Cliff

The Glass Cliff is a phenomenon based on research conducted at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom. It revealed that women were promoted to higher positions when organizations were struggling or in crisis, and the chance of failure was high, essentially leaving them standing on a “glass cliff.” However, the Glass Cliff is no longer only relegated to women but has broadened to describe the challenging position many leaders of color find themselves in when they follow white leaders.

In 2022, BoardSource partnered with the Building Movement Project to develop a resource to assist boards in alleviating the Glass Cliff. The resource outlines:

  • Steps for establishing a culture of racial equity before hiring a new leader of color.
  • Methods for emphasizing racial equality during the hiring and transition processes.
  • Opportunities to support new leaders of color following their hiring, starting with orientation and establishing clear year-one expectations and goals.

Monika’s Path at BoardSource

Monika Kalra Varma joined BoardSource as its first BIPOC President & CEO in 2022. Over her 20 years of service in the public sector, she held multiple executive roles and navigated potential glass cliff scenarios. BoardSource has been at the forefront, developing innovative tools and resources in partnership with other organizations to help the sector tackle this challenging issue. We are also closely tracking our own transition journey. With Monika’s inspiring leadership, we are excited to further our efforts to support leaders of color and advance the sector as a whole.


BIPOC Leadership Initiative Launch (formerly the Glass Cliff Initiative)

BoardSource is in an opportune position through our leadership journey to help alleviate the glass cliff for other BIPOC leaders. In early Spring 2023, we interviewed and surveyed over 40 BIPOC leaders to share their experiences.

Through these interviews and surveys, we determined:

  • The need and interest in a BIPOC-only executive retreat for leaders of color
  • The interest in establishing a cohort of BIPOC executives that would provide peer-to-peer support and mentorship
  • The need for case studies as sector resources
  • The need for facilitated training for board members focused on roles and responsibilities, governance, and the realities of the glass cliff


Based on our listening with humility approach, a component of our new theory of change, we created a groundbreaking cohort-based initiative supporting leaders of color. Our objectives are to develop programming for our cohort and their board members and tools to strengthen and uplift the entire sector.

These objectives include, but are not limited to:

  • A year-long learning space, including virtual sessions and opportunities for peer-to-peer connection.
  • An in-person retreat in Coronado, CA, focused on learning, rejuvenation, and community-building.
  • Complimentary membership access to BoardSource resources and tools for the cohort.
  • The opportunity to co-create resources to support other leaders and a space to experiment with new approaches to governance.
  • BoardSource-led and co-created presentations to cohort boards on topics such as Purpose-Driven Board Leadership and alleviating the Glass Cliff.

Key Themes

Based on what we heard from the interviews with leaders of color who find themselves in glass cliff scenarios, we summarized a few key themes.

  • The majority of organizations did no preparatory work with staff nor the board in terms of organizational management or culture change work before a leader of color joined.
  • Fundraising and continuity of funding can be challenging for many leaders, especially when the previous white leader has connections to funders.
  • Many leaders find it difficult to interact with the board, especially the board chair. The challenges include micromanagement versus disengaged board members, boards needing to understand their roles, lack of diversity among board members, and lack of engagement in fundraising.
  • Staff turnover was high due to the leadership transition.
  • There was a lack of transparency regarding budget, organizational turmoil, and other “items in the closet.”

A Cohort of Brilliant Leaders

BLI Cohort Group photo


About the Inaugural BIPOC Leadership Initiative Cohort

With over 40 chief executives of color participating in the inaugural BLI cohort, we have seen the tremendous wisdom and innovative approaches cohort leaders bring to their organizations. As shown in the photo above, the vibrant group of leaders attended an executive retreat in Coronado, CA this past April.


Highlights from the BIPOC Leadership Initiative Retreat

BoardSource began meeting virtually with the BIPOC Leadership Initiative (BLI) cohort in the fall of 2023. This allowed the cohort to meet and get to know each other briefly before the retreat in San Diego in the spring of 2024. The retreat provided an opportunity for peer-to-peer mentoring, identifying board roles and responsibilities, and rest and relaxation. At the end of the retreat, the cohort offered their reflections about the initiative, and others completed an evaluation of the retreat. We have summarized some of the comments here:


“…I’m not on this journey alone is huge because it is lonely at the top trying to figure it all out. So the fact that you have provided these beautiful souls to me feels like a treasure.”


“…being here gives me hope, but also I’m encouraged. Someone said to just be bold and that is what I’m leaning into. I have new energy to make bolder steps, bolder encounters with the board, and just believing that this is where I’m supposed to be.”


“Thank you Board Source for creating a safe space for BIPOC Leaders to be undone, honest, supported, affirmed, and reminded that moral courage does exist. The retreat could not have been more timely. It was the retreat we did not realize we needed. It far exceeded my expectations.”


The connection has been invaluable…seeing and hearing the passion, the brilliance, the excitement, and also knowing that there’s so many of us doing amazing work in communities across the country…”


“It was so inspiring to meet phenomenal leaders across the country. Many of us are facing similar challenges, and I learned so much from each conversation I had with fellow leaders…Also wanted to share my appreciation with BoardSource for investing in us as leaders. It really says so much about BoardSource that it would be willing to invest these resources in us, when there’s no shortage of competing opportunities for BoardSource to invest in. A heartfelt thank you!

Glass Cliff Resources

To learn more about how you can support the BIPOC Leadership Initiative as a founding partner, please reach out to Stella Ford at [email protected].