What we need from new leadership

New leadership.
New leadership.

What we need from new leadership

According to 15 people running nonprofit organizations, new leaders need to be allies with the ability to listen to those they’re serving.
September 26, 2021

Like many people, I thought that New York would be heading back to some kind of normal this fall but that hasn’t been the case. 

Perhaps it’s more productive to accept that what counts as normal is in constant flux due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The challenges and logistics we are facing in our homes and in our professional lives are complicated and murky. In the nonprofit and philanthropy sector of New York City, as in so many other areas, we are all looking for strong leadership and it’s a tough time to be a leader. 

We have learned so much about what good and bad leadership looks like at every level of every sector over the past 18 months, and nonprofit and foundation executives are thinking about how to apply these lessons to our work. On good days, it feels like this could be an exciting moment for new leaders who are committed to addressing the systemic racism and inequity laid bare by the pandemic and the racial justice uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Now, foundations have the opportunity and the responsibility to support our nonprofit grantee partners in this critical moment and to do so we need to listen to them as they tell us what support they need and how they want us to show up for them. 

I spoke to 15 people running nonprofit organizations about the kind of leadership they hope to see from philanthropic institutions going forward. They described the need for allies and decision-makers who have lived and learned experience in proximity with the work they are funding, and the ability to really listen and understand the realities of the challenges our nonprofits are facing each day.

Executives need to have a clearly articulated commitment to prioritize systemic change instead of just treating the symptoms of poverty and racism. Not just funding food pantries but advocacy and organizing efforts to address the root causes and policies that lead to endemic hunger in the city. Foundation leaders should have a lived, not just intellectual, understanding of the challenges faced by the communities their grantees serve. It is time to acknowledge that organizations do better and more effective work with leadership that is proximate to the issues they address. This calls on the sector to invite new voices, identities, skills, experiences, and vision into the mix. 

Philanthropic leaders also need to be knowledgeableabout what it takes to confront systemic issues. That includes a real understanding of how nonprofit organizations work and an honest assessment of what their leaders, staff and members need. One of the non-profit leaders I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid pushback from existing funders, told us that they had never been asked for their opinion by a grant maker. Philanthropic leaders would benefit from going directly to the experts, the people working and living in our communities, for guidance and direction.

This historic and unbalanced moment calls for a new way of doing things, rather than a return to our old ways. Philanthropic foundations have a moment and, I would argue, a mandate to try new methods and strategies to fund their partners in order for them to succeed. This requires grants that are proportionate to their needs that require as little bureaucracy and paperwork as is possible. Many foundations made changes to their proposal and reporting requirementsduring the pandemic to give grantees more time to focus on important work. 

Additionally, foundation leaders should not only be thinking about how to use grant dollars but about how they can increase the amount of money that they give away and how to invest and leverage their endowments. The combined endowments of U.S. foundations total billions of dollars. We can use our voices to amplify grantees’ messages and use all of our relationships and social capital to promote grantee work. We can position ourselves as allies and partners in the work rather than judges or overseers of it. An organizer’s mindset in philanthropy is useful for being strategic within an individual institution and also for marshalling support of other grant makers to multiply resources and impact

Leaders need to be clear-eyed about how to do this complicated work with integrity and honesty. Many of us would agree that philanthropy emerges from a deeply problematic structure. Donors are implicated in the systems that cause the inequities we claim to address and many foundations’ fortunes are initially earned through exploitive labor, and then deemed non-taxable so taken out of our tax stream. In effect, this money is stolen twice before it is given away. 

We need leaders who will use the tools that philanthropy offers to address the paradoxes of the moment, who are honest about the contradictions and point towards changing the systems that both support and necessitate philanthropy as it is currently practiced.

The people who meet this criteria are out there and ready for a new kind of transformational philanthropy. However, before these new leaders become a part of a new organization, there is much to be done. Foundation boards need to make sure that their operations, systems and practices live up to their stated values and make sure that they are ready to move beyond a surface ‘diversity’ lens. Transition plans need to include not only expectations for the new leaders but also expectations for the board and staff that will set the stage for success.

As for the rest of us already working in the city’s philanthropy sector, we need to get ready to follow and support these new leaders, to prepare our own institutions for transformation and to follow the advice of the nonprofit leaders who provided us with a clear blueprint for what organizations need during this time of transition. 

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.