Making and taking space

Leadership training.
Leadership training.
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Making and taking space

The importance of making structural changes in organizations to support new leaders of color.
October 14, 2021

Over the past 18 months, the job of a nonprofit executive director has become much more difficult.

In the nonprofit sector, we have added addressing systemic racism and remote management during the COVID-19 pandemic to the already over-stuffed job descriptions of executive directors. 

In their influential 2017 study, Race to Lead, Sean Thomas-Breitfeld and Frances Kunreuther of the Building Movement Project collected the data that backs up what those of us working in the nonprofit sector already knew: “The non-profit sector is experiencing a racial leadership gap. Studies show the percentage of people of color in the executive director/CEO role has remained under 20% for the last 15 years even as the country becomes more diverse.”

We know that strong leadership is necessary to create a more equitable and vibrant New York City. We also know that many of the practices, systems and structures that sustain inequity in our communities also show up in our organizations and our sector, limiting our view of who a leader is and what impactful leadership looks like. As such, while many organizations are eager to transition from white leaders to leaders of color, they often do not have the experience, expertise, commitment, or support in place to fully embrace new leadership and make these transitions successful or joyful. Too often, it is the new leaders of color who pay the price for under-prepared organizations.

Melissa Madzel, a managing director of Koya Partners search firm, reflects on the moment. “There are many well-intentioned organizations that are looking to transition leadership to a person of color with hopes that a single person can immediately solve intractable problems simply by showing up,” Madzel told me. “In the executive search world, we see the unprecedented demand for people of color as candidates and know that the success of our clients depends on the willingness of those organizations to rethink their cultures, practices, and governance structures.”

The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, where I work, has seen about a third of our grantee partners transition from a white executive director to a person of color in the last five years and during that time period our foundation also went through such a transition. 

In order to learn from these experiences, we asked the Building Movement Project to interview outgoing leaders, incoming leaders, and board chairs of each of these grantee partner organizations. We hoped to understand common challenges, strategies that were useful for easier transitions, and what we need to do differently in the future as leaders, board members and funders. And more specifically, we were curious about the role and responsibility of organizations with white leaders transitioning out of these roles to support incoming leaders of color.

The Building Movement Project’s Making (or Taking) Space report raises many important questions and highlights the tendency of organizations who are bringing in new leaders of color to expect these folks to continue to run an organization during an international pandemic, while also taking on the issues of systemic racism and often to provide a different level of support to staff of color than white leaders were able to provide. For new leaders to succeed in this almost impossible task, they usually need real structural change to occur within their institutions. 

None of this is easy but as the Building Movement Project writes in its report, “New BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) leaders are often welcomed into the organization by staff and board members who talk about the need for a change. Actually going through and implementing a change process is not only hard work, but it also means challenging some of the assumptions the board may have previously held about the organization … In other words, board and staff members who hire BIPOC leaders should not expect that the internal operations or external work will be the same. Change means change.” 

It is not easy to change and we all have a lot to learn about how to support leaders of color. The stakes are high but the better and sooner we can do this, the sooner we’ll have a city that invites the talent, vision, energy and skills of all of our communities to the leadership table.

Lisa Pilar Cowan
is the vice president of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and in this capacity she helps with strategy, development and oversight of foundation programs and grantmaking. Lisa has been working with community-based organizations for the last 25 years, first as a community health educator and program director at several youth-serving agencies, then as a senior consultant at Community Resource Exchange. Lisa was the co-founder of College Access: Research and Action, where she continues to act as an advisor. Most recently, Lisa was the principal consultant at Hummingbird Consulting from 2013-2016.