Why more and more leaders of color are leaving nonprofits - and what we can do about it
We need our leaders to look like the people we serve, or there’s no way we can effectively tackle systemic injustice.
At the end of this year I am stepping down as Executive Director of my organization, Rainier Valley Corps in Seattle, Washington. While my transition is extremely positive—my board is awesome and supportive; the team is really great; it’s completely my decision to step down; and we have a nice timeline to find my replacement—the reality is that I’m also exhausted. And I am not the only one.
Executive Directors and CEOs of color have been leaving their positions in the nonprofit sector left and right - I know of at least a dozen in my region who have left their positions in the last few months. There’s not many of us to begin with, as only 10% nonprofit leaders are People of Color (POC), so this is a serious problem. The attrition of POC leaders is an urgent issue we’ve been ignoring, and it will have serious implications for our sector. All of us need to pay attention to these issues, especially funders.
So why are POC leaders leaving their ED jobs, and what can we do about it? There are several reasons, and it is important for us to understand them. There has been some important research done on this topic. The Race to Lead report by the Building Movement Project, for example, discovered that EDs/CEOs of color were more likely to experience leadership challenges like inadequate salary (49% POC leaders reported experiencing this problem vs. 34% of white leaders); lack of relationship with funding sources (49% POC vs. 33% White); and being called on the represent one’s entire community (53% vs. 23%).
The Talent Justice Initiative research led by Fund the People, meanwhile, discovered other challenges, such as “Senior leaders born outside the US were significantly more likely to say that their ability to succeed was hindered by funders’ wait-and-see practice (12%) in compared to those born in the US (4%).” This is the horrible practice where funders wait to see if a new nonprofit leader will succeed before the funder funds or renews funding, which is precisely what causes these leaders to fail in the first place.
From talking to the leaders I know, and from being in the trenches myself, here are some other reasons:
The ED job is impossible for one person to handle without burning out: We expect nonprofit staff, and EDs in particular, to not only wear “multiple hats” and do myriad disparate things, but to do them well. The ED job is a job for at least two people—an internal leader, and an external one, for example—and we need to explore new models. My organization hired a Managing Director—the brilliant Ananda Valenzuela—who essentially played the role of an internal ED while I focused on fundraising and external communications.
This structure of ED/MD, with Ananda playing a pivotal role in shared leadership, has in many ways been one of the biggest drivers of RVC’s growth and success these past few years, and a major reason I lasted this long. Our sector can’t and shouldn’t any longer expect the ED to be a magical unicorn who can do everything effectively. (See Ananda’s post “The executive director job is impossible”)
Funders’ lack of trust is demoralizing: A funder once told me, “We trust you nonprofits, but we need to verify.” No, you verify and verify and verify and verify; you never actually trust. Trust would look like unrestricted funding. Trust would look like you accept a grant proposal we wrote for another foundation, because it’s the exact same information. Trust would look like you spend a few weeks at most making grant decisions, not 6 to 24 months. Trust would look like you accept a short grant renewal report after we’ve worked with you for several years instead of demanding we fill out the same burdensome application over and over.
The lack of trust is pervasive, as I wrote about here in “We need to stop treating nonprofits the way society treats poor people.” But as rare as trust is, it’s even rarer for leaders of color. This is why grassroots organizations led by and serving people of color get saddled with the smallest-amount-yet-most-burdensome grants in our sector.
The constant need to fundraise and lack of funding stability is exhausting: Because of the lack of trust, we are given tiny grants that we must Frankenstein together to help our communities. And even the most progressive funders still only fund one, at most three, years at a time, which means we never know if we will be able to keep our existing staff or grow or maintain our programs. We cannot plan for the future. How can we solve systemic injustice when we can’t dream or plan because we are constantly waking up in cold sweat because of the ongoing struggle for funding?
The push for us to raise funds from individual donors is understandable, but how are we small grassroots nonprofits going to pay the salaries for our development staff during the several years it takes to build up a base of donors? Again, these issues affect all nonprofit leaders, but it’s even worse for leaders and nonprofits of color. Plus, the WAY our sector does fundraising may be causing inequity, and this dissonance is another reason many leaders of color leave.
Having to deal daily with racism, inequity, fragility, and unconscious bias wears you down: Being the ED means we are often out there talking to funders, donors, city officials, the media, partner organizations, etc., who are often white. As well-intentioned as everyone is, there are still constant currents of ignorance, color-blindness, microaggressions, white fragility, funder fragility, whitesplaining, and general racism that we have to wade through.
Once, I gave feedback to a funder who called me and two other leaders of color in to her office in downtown Seattle for a meeting (while I was on paternity leave) just to tell us that we didn’t get a grant, something that could have been done over the phone or by email to save us all time. I would later find out that that she asked one of her colleagues who shares my heritage, “Why was Vu so upset? Is that a cultural thing?” We deal with this stuff all the time, and it builds up like toxins in our bodies and takes an emotional and psychological, sometimes physical toll.
Solutions privilege means our ideas are regularly passed over or stolen: I wrote a few weeks back about the phenomenon of people expecting the folks who are most affected by injustice to come up with solutions instead of “whining” about it, while simultaneously being unable to register the solutions we propose because it challenges folks with privilege. What this means for nonprofit leaders of color is that we constantly propose solutions that struggle for funding, while our white colleagues get the big-bet funds to implement their ideas.
Often those ideas are extracted from marginalized communities and then monetized. It’s tiring and demoralizing to never get enough funds to fully implement solutions we know from lived-experience would work, while our white colleagues get ten times the funds we had asked for to implement ideas we know would fail because, while well-meaning, they have no understanding of or relationships with the communities they’re trying to serve.
The never-ending criticism from staff: I am lucky to have a ridiculously awesome team. But so many of my ED colleagues in addition to the other challenges listed here also face constant criticism from our own staff. No matter what we do, we are never good enough. Often we are seen as “The Man,” the force to be fought against, the embodiment of patriarchal oppression. There are plenty of crappy EDs out there, don’t get me wrong, and on some days I am one of them. But most of the time, EDs are just imperfect human beings trying to do our imperfect best to fight against an imperfect system.
For EDs of color, we also face the pressure to be perfect when it comes to issues of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, as if we should intrinsically be able to navigate all these complex dynamics, and when it’s shown that we are not, it leads to disillusionment. We know criticisms both internal and external come with the territory, that this is our job, but after a while, it takes a toll.
The lack of support from boards: My board is amazing and its support and trust of me is one of the main reasons I’ve been able to be effective at my work as an ED. But again, not all my colleagues are as lucky. This is for a longer post that I promise to write later, but our sector needs to examine our default board structure, because I don’t think it’s working. So many board members are micromanagers who do not know how to stay in their lanes. So many boards are not representative of the people their orgs serve. So many board members come from corporate or academia and have not the slightest clue about how nonprofits actually run, yet they get to make vast strategic directions and supervise the ED who knows way more. Even when we have brilliant board members, the default structure we have often prevents them from being helpful.
I know that’s a lot to take in, and I am sure there are additional reasons. And we haven’t touched on intersectionality, since leaders of color who are also women, have disabilities, are LGBTQIA, or are older face even more challenges. The fact that leaders of color are leaving is an urgent issue, but we’ve been boiled-frogging it. We all need to freak out about this because the more leaders of color we lose, and the more up-and-comers refuse to even take up leadership roles in the first place because they see all of these challenges, the less effective our sector will be. We need our leaders to look like the people we serve, or there’s no way we can effectively tackle systemic injustice.
So what are the solutions? Here are some that I and other leaders of color are proposing:
Foundations need to tenfold increase funding specifically for support of leaders of color: It is a sad and pathetic statistic that less than 1% of philanthropic dollars go to leadership development, and of that, a small fraction goes to developing leaders of color. Foundations need to increase their payout and invest ten times more than they have been in this area. There are a few foundations who focus specifically on developing leaders. These amazing funders though are rare. They shouldn’t be. ALL foundations need to invest in leadership development, and focus on bring in more leaders of color and supporting them through fellowships, mentorships, peer learning groups, retreats, and sabbaticals.
Foundations need to trust nonprofits to do our jobs: Get over archaic, ineffective practices like focusing on “overhead” or asking about “sustainability.” Or providing one-year grants and restricting funds, and worst of all, one-year restricted funds. Invest ten years at a time so we have stability and predictability to do our jobs. Simplify your grantmaking and reporting processes so that we don’t waste hundreds of thousands of hours in bureaucratic red tapes and can focus on high-level strategies, collaborations, and supporting our team to deliver high-quality programs and services. These are not just nice things to do. They are effective at keeping leaders of color like me from running screaming into the wilderness to live among pandas.
Foundations must make big bets on organizations led by and serving communities of color: As I wrote about here, it is completely inequitable philanthropy’s default practice of giving large organizations large grants and smaller organizations small, excessively burdensome grants. These smaller organizations tend to be led by and serving people of color. Providing them with big bets aligns with our sector’s value of Equity and allows these organizations to grow their programs and infrastructure and just as importantly, it allows leaders like me to be able to keep great team members and provide them with fair compensation, which builds morale, which encourages us to stay in our positions.
Funders need to support new leaders during transitions: As mentioned above, funders’ “wait and see” approach when there’s transition is a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to failure. It’s like watching someone struggling in the water and saying “I’ll see if they survive and I’ll throw them a lifesaver if they do.” As Fund the People’s research pointed out, this happens more frequently with EDs/CEOs who are immigrants. A leadership transition is precisely when we need the most support. Invest significant funds into orgs that are undergoing transition, both multi-year general operating funds, and in addition provide support and resources for the transition itself, such as to hire an outside consultant to provide help with the search process.
We need to look at different leadership philosophies and structures: The era of the traditional heroic solitary leader who does everything needs to end. It’s burning people out. Our sector needs to explore with radically different approaches. RVC’s ED/Managing-Director model is one approach. But let’s also look into co-EDs, or tri-EDs, or no EDs, or whatever. Funders, you need to take risks and fund these structures that are different from the traditional structure, and fund them over a period of time (several years) so they actually have a chance to succeed (or fail, which is important too).
Staff, please try to understand what EDs and other leaders go through: Your feedback is often extremely valid and much appreciated, but it needs to be balanced out with an understanding and empathy. You may want everyone’s salary to increase, and your ED probably does too, but where is this money coming from? It has to be raised by the ED and development team. You may be upset that a well-liked colleague was let go, but try to understand that your ED cannot discuss confidential personnel information with you, and so you never get to see the full picture, and the full picture may include performance and other issues. You may think that your ED sucks at a bunch of things, and it’s completely true, but also take a moment to see what positive things they have made possible.
Boards, please support your EDs and check your egos at the door: Your work is really important, and we are appreciative of your time, as you are all volunteers and donors. But please get out of the mindset that you are the ED’s boss. You are like a co-equal branch of government, like the ED is the executive branch and the board is the legislative and judicial branches. There should be checks and balances, and no one is above anyone. Stay in your lane and focus on the work of the board (representing the community, making sure the organization’s finances are in compliance with state and federal laws, fundraising, providing annual evaluations of the ED, etc.), but also examine alternative board structures. Trust your ED to make decisions and to do their work. Your EDs of color also face things like racism, and it’s important for you to understand that, and to be a partner to effect change. Meanwhile, check in on them and buy them several shots of mezcal (if they drink) and let them vent.
White-led colleagues, please understand your power and privilege and be willing to give up some of it: You can be amazing allies to leaders of color, which will prevent us from leaving our positions. Get trained and regularly refreshed on implicit bias, white fragility, etc. Support your ED colleagues of color by sending potential grants and donors their way. Sometimes, don’t apply for a grant that might be a better fit for an organization led by and serving people of color. Be aware of how you may be perpetuating things like Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE), where your org gets significant funds which you then trickle down a small amount to small grassroots organizations. Don’t be a gatekeeper. And don’t ask us to do stuff for free. Here are other suggestions for being a good partner.
Being an ED is a rewarding and magical job. And it is stressful AF. And being an ED of color is even more so. And thus many of us are leaving our jobs, and this is something the entire sector needs to worry about, especially funders, because the way we fund organizations and leaders of color directly affects how long they stay at their jobs, which affects how effective we are at addressing systemic injustice. This is a critical issue. We need to treat it as such.
This article was first published on NonProfitAF.
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