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CEO of Vancouver nonprofit sees ‘good things’ as Clark County makes strides to diversify leadership

Equity challenges highlighted by study that finds more than 70 percent of nonprofits led by white CEO

By Chrissy Booker, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 17, 2024, 6:04am
4 Photos
Karen Morrison, right, executive director of Odyssey World International Education Services, works with Abby Hollopeter, women&rsquo;s health advocate/researcher, in their downtown Vancouver office Monday morning.
Karen Morrison, right, executive director of Odyssey World International Education Services, works with Abby Hollopeter, women’s health advocate/researcher, in their downtown Vancouver office Monday morning. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A recent national study found diversity among nonprofit leaders has not increased in the past three years, but one Vancouver CEO is optimistic about strides toward diversity, equity and inclusion.

Candid, a national nonprofit database, gathered race and ethnicity data from 33,504 nonprofit organizations in 2023. The study found no major shifts in racial representation since 2020: More than 70 percent of nonprofit organizations analyzed were led by a white CEO.

However, Karen Morrison, executive director and founder of Odyssey World International Education Services, believes there is room for change as Clark County continues to grow and diversify.

“A lot of good things have happened here (in Clark County), but the challenges are harder because the systems aren’t set up for everyone to succeed,” said Morrison, a Black woman. “We are trying to change that and dismantle the systems that were never meant to help us, while also calling other people to that.”

Odyssey World partners with other community organizations and educational institutions across Clark County to address issues affecting people of color and low-income communities.

Over the years, the organization has evolved to address even more challenges, such as food insecurity and affordable housing.

Morrison, who started the organization with her daughter in 2006, said the community has made headway toward closing the racial leadership gap, but there are still challenges she faces as a Black woman in leadership.

“If you remove all of the small nonprofits, our systems would collapse, because they’re really the ones that hold up that infrastructure from the bottom and do the heavy lifting,” Morrison said. “We, as people of color, deserve that right to feel safe, significant and valued where we live, too. That’s priceless.”

According to the study, only 13 percent of nonprofit CEOs identify as Black, while 6 percent are Hispanic/Latino and 4 percent are Asian American/Pacific Islander. Indigenous people are the least represented race and ethnicity, accounting for less than 1 percent of CEOs since 2020.

However, because CEO tenure tends to be lengthy, the study mentioned there could be shifts happening that are simply not noticeable yet. Among the approximately 2 percent of organizations that saw a change in their leader’s race, the majority reported a shift from a white leader to a leader of color.

Elvia Dominguez, volunteer and internships coordinator at Odyssey World, said she’s witnessed the change taking place in Clark County — and hopes it will continue.

“I definitely feel like the community here has started doing all the work that I had hoped to see. I definitely wish I had seen it when I was younger,” Dominguez said. “I feel like there has been more diversity, especially young women of color, taking up different leadership positions, and starting to really get a platform and have the momentum to be out there and stand out.”

Morrison has started working with other nonprofit leaders to incite change in a small way — by supporting one another.

For the past six months, she’s been attending a monthly coffee meeting with other executive directors and CEOs to listen, share ideas and help each other meet their goals.

“We’ve developed relationships with each other from meeting and attending,” Morrison said. “It came out of need where we all didn’t know what we were doing. When I share something now, it reaches thousands.”

Morrison said part of the change is allowing younger generations to become leaders, too. She wants to usher in her daughter to take over the organization once she decides to retire.

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“We can’t go back and change the past, but we sure can go toward the future and make some different choices so the outcome is better. That begins with listening,” Morrison said. “It’s growing and changing here. We are a beautiful mosaic of cultures, people, and there is no way you can sit and not see the beauty in where we live.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.