The Future Of Nonprofit Leadership & DEI

* Editor’s Note: During the next 10 days The NonProfit Times will publish commentaries looking to 2021 and beyond from some of the sector’s most accomplished leaders. All of the commentaries are available in The NonProfit Times’ digital edition on this website.

Amidst a global racial reckoning, now is the time to spark a long overdue leadership revolution in civil society. There should be a younger, more racially diverse generation of leaders entering the C-suite, supported by their predecessors, boards, and the philanthropic community.

We must once and for all abandon the notion that there is a shortage of talented, ready, social change leaders of color to meet the sector’s leadership needs. There is no shortage. Rather, there is a lack of accountability and dedicated resources for the unique and systemic challenges that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) leaders face as they work to advance in leadership and influence.

The real shortage is of vision and the ability to recognize the potential within our organizations. If we do the work to build up and support leadership at all levels, then successors will be apparent and ready to fill the seats.

As our nation confronts its history of systemic racism and oppression, it is more critical than ever that we address the profound racial leadership gap in the social sector, and actively contribute to the building of power and influence for BIPOC leaders.

At the Institute for Nonprofit Practice (INP), we imagine the possibilities of leadership that fully represents the diversity of our communities. We work to expedite social progress by ensuring those closest to and most deeply affected by our greatest challenges are at the center of developing solutions. Achieving equity when the percentage of BIPOC leaders in nonprofit CEO/executive director roles has remained less than 20% for the past 15 years might seem like a far-fetched dream. But, there is a pathway to progress and we need one another to get there.

The nonprofit sector faces a seismic shift in power — and a historic opportunity to change the face of leadership as the Baby Boomer generation retires. How will we do this? If we have learned anything, it is that we must value the wisdom of those who have led us to where we are today, those who fought to secure the civil rights we are now fighting to protect. We must also recognize and embrace the innovation, lived experiences, and energy of the next generation of leaders. The balance of these elements is the bridge that will carry us into a more equitable future.

As a woman of color following a white leader at my own organization, I know what is possible, even as I know it is not easy. When our founder, Barry Dym, decided to retire after decades of leadership in the social sector, we navigated the transition through many differences. We worked across age, gender, race, educational status and leveraged one another’s experiences, expertise, and passions to bring our work forward faster, in more expansive and inclusive ways.

Truth be told, I wouldn’t have had a shot at this role if I had simply submitted an application through a firm. My way into executive leadership was by being discovered. Barry had the good instinct to look for the right qualities in a leader, beyond words on a resume. He understood that the mission of INP was personal for me, since I am an alumna of the institute, and that alignment between my life and professional experience could move the work forward in dynamic new ways.

He had the foresight and willingness to hand over the reins, but also brought his ability to remain in the work as it changed, and to tolerate the discomfort inherent in the process. I brought my ability to authentically trust, respect, honor, and listen to the wisdom he offered. He shared his networks, ideas, philanthropic connections, and helped me establish credibility with the board and with funders. I was capable of doing this on my own, but his partnership expedited my success and in turn, the organization’s evolution. We did not always agree, but we always respected the process and each other.

If we are to change the face of leadership and create a sector that leads the way in racial diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, then those in leadership now must commit to investing in the development of BIPOC leaders. The investment should not be just those next in line, but emerging leaders at all levels. Our job must be to:

* Open the door to hard conversations about culture and practices;

* Invest in network development;

* Share social capital and leadership opportunities;

* Make investments in rising leaders and those BIPOC leaders already at the helm whose efforts we want to sustain;

* Be transparent and direct in decision-making; and,

* Invite divergent views and work creatively to ensure all voices are heard.

These steps are not impossible, but they can be challenging and require focus. Those who truly want change must be willing to take such steps.

We can all play a role, no matter where we sit in the sector. Start assessing the past decisions of your organization and make plans now to advance racial equity in leadership. As a board member, who do you envision succeeding your current executive director? As an executive director, can you educate your board and staff on the value of lived experience to propel your organization forward and integrate practices to advance this agenda?

If you are a funder, who will you trust to carry the torch for your most treasured grantee partners? Ask yourself what they look like, what experiences you value and why. Can you stand by those assessments? Do they limit the possibility of the organization reflecting the community it serves from top to bottom? What perspective and experience could new leaders, and especially BIPOC leaders, bring to expand and progress within the work? Are you looking to fill the usual seat or change the game? Are you ready for the game to change?

We will not realize the imperative to advance social change if we cannot dismantle the structurally racist context within which we work. We can only do this together. We need a new vanguard of leadership, and we need those who paved the way to travel the road with us. 

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Yolanda Coentro is president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Nonprofit Practice in Boston, Mass.