Leadership Development Programs Need an Upgrade: Five Ways to Advance Racial Equity

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This post first appeared on the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog. It is reposted here with permission.

As the nation grapples with “the great resignation” across a range of job industries since the start of the pandemic, employment challenges extend to the nonprofit sector as well. Nonprofits are experiencing high rates of burnout and turnover, and many are struggling to fill vacancies. At the same time, the work of nonprofits continues to be lifesaving for communities that lacked adequate resources before the pandemic and have become more vulnerable since. Supporting nonprofit leadership at all levels is as important as it has ever been.

Notions of leadership are evolving, particularly as the nonprofit and philanthropic sector considers what it takes for individuals, organizations, and communities to drive systemic change in pursuit of racial equity and more effective outcomes for all. Leadership is not static, and it doesn’t sit with one person. Instead, leadership is about building collective power to influence and change organizations and systems to operate in just and liberating ways that enable all individuals to thrive. Under this definition, anyone can be a leader, and leadership is expressed through the actions people take.

With support from the Barr Foundation, Community Wealth Partners spoke to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) nonprofit leaders and leadership development program providers to help Barr understand how they and other foundations can support BIPOC leadership in the context of racial equity. With these lessons in mind, Barr has begun to integrate three priorities in its approach to leadership development, including in partnership with some of the organizations featured below.

Promoting, retaining, and supporting BIPOC leadership within nonprofits is critical for driving systemic change. From these interviews, we heard five actions that can have the biggest impact. Funders can consider how they might tailor and incorporate these into their own approaches to supporting leadership.

1. Support leaders to change systems.

While traditional leadership development programs focus primarily on individual skill building, many programs that center racial equity also focus on topics that are important for driving change within racialized systems, such as deepening self-awareness, understanding ways to shift and leverage power, and opportunities for connection and collaboration across organizations and movements. This work is emotionally draining, so leaders also need support for their well-being (see more on this below).

The Institute for Nonprofit Practice is launching its Black Leadership Institute to connect, inspire, and uplift Black leaders who are working on systemic issues that have significant outcome disparities for Black people, such as incarceration and recidivism, health and health care, environmental justice, poverty, and education. Programming will focus on critical topics that enable Black leaders to build power and greater influence in their communities, including resources to expand leadership practices, deepen self-awareness, develop relationships and networks, and cultivate joy and renewal.

2. Center relationships.

Relationships are the cornerstone to building collective power. Leaders need trusting relationships with colleagues and peers to access learning, support, and create opportunities for partnership. They also need strong relationships within the power structures so they can leverage those relationships to drive systemic change. Funders can support relationship building by leveraging their networks and convening power to connect leaders to peers and allies they may not yet know. Interviewees we spoke to lifted up the value of leadership programs that create space for relationship building. For example, when program officers at the Annie E. Casey Foundation hosted the Baltimore Leaders Program for leaders under thirty, they facilitated connections to people in their networks, helping leaders secure additional contacts and sources of funding.

Cohorts can be a way to help leaders build relationships with colleagues and peers. TSNE launched its Executive Directors of Color Capacity Support Pilot to provide BIPOC leaders with adaptive, flexible, and integrated support through a range of offerings, including peer support and networking, participatory training, facilitated discussion, one-on-one coaching, project-oriented technical assistance, and access to tools and resources. TSNE recently completed a pilot cohort with 22 BIPOC leaders from the Boston region and is learning from evaluation results to inform the design of future cohorts.

3. Prioritize BIPOC leaders’ well-being.

Leading and navigating organizations that have been built within a white dominant model while also working to dismantle those structures and systems is complex, emotional work. BIPOC leaders need offerings that create safe space and prioritize their well-being. This could include fellowship programs, retreats, sabbaticals, or supporting changes in job roles and structures that allow leaders to create the space they need to be able to work in ways that feel sustainable and tend to their wellbeing at work.

“BIPOC leaders are serving BIPOC communities that have been historically marginalized. They may identify with those experiences in the community and the racial trauma that exists,” said Vernée Wilkinson of School Facts Boston in an interview. “As I’m advocating for students and families I serve, I simultaneously need to tap into my own trauma from similar experiences. Doing work together to process and heal is important.”

One nonprofit that is prioritizing BIPOC leaders’ well-being and sustainable leadership is New Seneca Village, whose mission is to provide cis, trans, and non-binary Black, Indigenous, and women of color social justice leaders with residencies offering time and space, access to nature, restorative practices and community centered around collective visioning for a just future.

4. Give multiyear, unrestricted support.

Unrestricted support is critical capital that allows nonprofits’ ability to invest in innovation, learning, growth, and operations. It also can support an organizations’ ability to attract and retain staff. Interviewees shared that a key barrier to being able to attract, retain, and develop talent is lack of flexible resources to use for compensation, hiring, and talent development. According to the Race to Lead report by Building Movement Project, BIPOC leaders say increased philanthropic funding to BIPOC-led organizations would help organizations be able to attract and retain more racially diverse leadership.

General operating support is a key component of the Barr Foundation’s Powering Cultural Futures initiative, which invests in 15 Massachusetts arts organizations playing vital roles in BIPOC communities. Grantees receive six years of unrestricted support along with technical assistance, network development, and support building capacity to achieve organizational priorities. The program’s goal is to support these organizations’ effectiveness and resilience so that they can contribute to an equitable arts sector in Massachusetts that uplifts cultural expression in BIPOC communities.

5. Invest in early- to mid-career-stage staff.

Increasingly, leadership development approaches are looking beyond the executive director role and taking collective approaches to strengthen teams, support staff retention, and build a stronger pipeline of talent. Investments at early- to mid-career stages, and focused on BIPOC leaders, are needed to maintain and expand the pipeline of talent in the sector who are ready to continue transformational work. The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s 2018 Strengthening Grantees survey found that nonprofit leaders cited staffing as one of the top challenges organizations face (second only to fundraising). As Rusty Stahl of Fund the People explained in the report, “Most nonprofits do not have the capital or the incentives to invest in their people. Most funders focus on the financial and program strengths and needs of grantees, not on the staffing strengths and needs. This dearth of investment can produce an unjust workplace, weak recruitment, poor work conditions, burnout and turnover, and unhealthy executive transitions.”

Our interviews found that those early in their career cite low pay as the greatest barrier for nonprofit employment. “When the lowest paid staff is earning one-third the amount of the highest-paid staff, that makes it hard for early career staff to feel like they are being valued as leaders,” said Kim Szeto of New England Foundation for the Arts.

Mid-career BIPOC staff named the importance of an equitable and inclusive culture for staff development and retention. One cultural aspect that mid-career employees cited as being discouraging was a focus on perfectionism as a barrier to advancement — something that is common in white dominant culture. “If the culture doesn’t embrace and support mistakes and failures, it will make it hard to cultivate good leadership and will create turnover,” said Melanie Gárate of Mystic River Watershed Association. “Leaders should model saying ‘I made a mistake. It’s ok to fail.’ This doesn’t happen very often.”

Getting Clear on What Matters Most

Recognizing that funders may not be able to incorporate all five recommendations into their leadership development support, here are some suggestions for how you might determine what to prioritize in your approach:

  • Be clear about who you are investing in and the change you want to see. When thinking about who, consider racial identity, career stage, etc. Also consider, what systemic changes are you hoping to see?
  • Get input from your grantees. What would make the biggest difference to them? Start there.
  • If the resources you have available are limited, consider giving unrestricted support instead of developing a leadership development program. Grantees we interviewed said a key challenge to being able to develop and retain leaders is lack of resources for competitive pay and professional development. Modest investments in leadership development from funders will have limited impact if this challenge is not addressed. As Caroline Saunders and Lucia Priselac of Grist shared, “In the context we’ve been working in, which has been high burn out and high turnover, there is no question having better pay has been huge to becoming a thriving community of people.”

Regardless of what steps you take as a funder, prioritizing talent development and retention is critical — perhaps more so now than ever. Nonprofit leaders are experiencing stress, burnout, and exhaustion. Recent research from Building Movement Project found that about half of the leaders they surveyed were considering departing their jobs or actively preparing to leave — and this data was collected before the pandemic started. To move the sector toward racial equity and justice, funders should sustain healthy leadership development within nonprofits that builds collective power to shift organizations and systems toward justice and liberation.

Making Capacity Building More Equitable

What does it look like to center equity in capacity building? This field guide offers questions to reflect on, decisions to make, and intentions to set with your capacity-building offerings. Explore the field guide.

Three Recommendations for COOs Navigating Change

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If you’re a COO, the challenges of leadership may sometimes leave you feeling isolated, unsteady, or uncertain about how to chart a path forward. You’re not alone.

I recently facilitated a multi-year learning cohort with 11 COOs from organizations of various sizes and developmental stages. Initially, the group planned to focus on issues related to organizational growth. Inevitably, those conversations expanded as they faced the realities of leading through a pandemic, a presidential election, and a racial reckoning. From October 2019 to May 2021, thanks to funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the group met monthly to learn together, talk through challenges, raise questions, and support one another.

Again and again, three things kept coming up: how much they valued peer connection, how critical it was to understand themselves in order to lead effectively, and the importance of strengthening their capacity to adapt. I lift up these recommendations for other COOs grappling with some of the same dynamics.

Learn more about why Hewlett believes it’s important to invest in the COO role in these videos.

See what COOs have learned about their role and the importance of investing in it in this Q&A blog post.

1. Seek out peers.

COOs are often uniquely alone in their roles, acting as a bridge between the CEO/board and staff. Finding peers from other organizations can make a tremendous difference. COOs in the cohort were willing to be vulnerable and candid about their own experiences and they received practical, relevant feedback in return. Over time, these interactions led them to feel more connected and better resourced. That’s what peer connection makes possible. Reach out to COOs from other organizations. Chances are, they are also craving connection.

2. Manage yourself.

COOs don’t often get time or space for self-reflection. Yet, for those in a role that is constantly leading others through change, it is also crucial to look inward at what’s driving you and how you show up. During cohort sessions, COOs tackled questions like: How do I deal with difficult thoughts or feelings? Where am I getting in my own way? What practices help me stay grounded and steady? The more you understand about yourself, the better equipped you’ll be to do the work.

3. Embrace adaptation.

If “the job description of a COO is to navigate change,” as cohort member Layla Zaidane of the Millennial Action Project said in our Q&A blog post, then the work is dynamic by nature. It calls for COOs to respond as challenges and opportunities arise, staff change, team dynamics shift, and the organization’s work evolves. Proactively create planning and learning cycles that allow you (and others) to look ahead, respond to changing conditions, and evolve your thinking and approach.

These three things have always been important. But right now, as COOs navigate the prolonged uncertainty of the past two years, investing in them is key to making sure that nonprofit organizations are prepared for the years to come.

Supporting Leaders of Color

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Particularly amid the dual pandemics — COVID-19 and systemic racism — organizations need strong leaders who bring lived experiences and can support, reflect, and understand the concerns and needs of the communities that are disproportionately impacted. Some of these organizations are responding by shifting practices including hiring leaders of color. “This practice is necessary but not sufficient,” said Angela Romans of AchieveMission.

Following the Nonprofit Quarterly article “Failure Is Not an Option: How Nonprofit Boards Can Support Leaders of Color,” the podcast Nonprofit SnapCast interviewed Angela Romans, Idalia Fernandez of Community Wealth Partners, and Monisha Kapila of ProInspire about their work coaching and supporting nonprofit leaders of color and some key patterns they see emerging as many historically white-led organizations appoint leaders of color for the first time. Listen to the episode here.

Here are some highlights:

  • Organizations and boards looking to hire leaders of color need to look inward: “What is the context we’re bringing someone into? To what extent are we prepared to tackle the inequities we’re propagating within our own organization? How will we tackle those as a board and as an organization so that we can truly create the kind of ecosystem that embraces the vision and leadership of a new leader of color and also helps them grow?” — Idalia Fernandez
  • Boards play a critical role in supporting the vision of CEOs of color: “Boards can encourage and support the change by aligning to the CEO’s vision. It’s the board’s job to identify the CEO, but then the CEO sets that vision and the ways the organization needs to change to achieve it. The board has to be on board with supporting that leadership and not second-guessing it.” — Monisha Kapila
  • Organizations and boards need to identify and plan for the challenges a new leader of color might face: “Every organization has strengths as well as growth edges or gaps. So if there’s a big financial mess [at the organization], does the [new] leader of color have strong financial chops and training? If they do, great. If they don’t, develop a professional development plan and staff or consultant support to help that leader face those organizational gaps. You can’t be ready for every challenge, but it’s a matter of understanding where the gaps are and then creating the right plan to address those challenges.” — Angela Romans

Listen to the episode

Read the Nonprofit Quarterly article


Failure Is Not an Option: How Nonprofit Boards Can Support Leaders of Color

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This article was originally published by NPQ online, on June 19, 2020. Used with permission. View the original post here.

By Idalia Fernandez, Monisha Kapila and Angela Romans

As capacity-building consultants to the social sector, we regularly support nonprofit organizations, their leaders, and their boards. Some of this support involves leadership coaching for individuals and teams. At a meeting earlier this year of racial equity capacity-building organizations, we found ourselves in a conversation about what we are seeing as we coach CEOs, executive directors, and other C-suite leaders of color.

Now, COVID-19, as well as the multiple cases of police violence against Black people that we are witnessing, are laying bare the structural racism that undergirds so much of the US social milieu in which our nonprofit clients swim. These impacts can be found everywhere, including the racial inequities in philanthropic dollars and access to small business loans for people of color (POC)-led nonprofits, and disproportionate impacts of the virus on communities of color, even as countless numbers across the country are protesting racial injustice and speaking out about its ongoing traumatic effects, especially on Black people. In this context, leaders of color in nonprofit organizations are in many ways proverbial “canaries in the mine” as their experiences and needs may portend the health and long-term viability of the sector as a whole.

Much of our work has been with historically White-led organizations. Many are, for the first time, appointing leaders of color to serve at the helm. During our coaching and support for these leaders, we see a few key patterns emerging.

“Failure Is Not an Option”

Across the field of leadership development, we read articles with calls for leaders to “fail forward.” Thought leaders from all sectors speak of the importance of failure to learning and growth. Yet we hear from leaders of color, especially if they are the first in their position, that they don’t have room for failure. They feel overt and implicit pressure from their staff and boards to “get it right,” with a covert feeling that if they do not perform at 200 percent, they may be closing the door for other leaders of color to come behind them.

Board members may say or imply, “We tried that [hiring a leader of color] once, and the person was ‘not a match’ for the organization.” As a result, leaders of color feel pressure not to show vulnerability, not to ask for help when they need support, and not to demonstrate the edge of their competency in anything—essentially, holding superhero expectations of themselves and falling victim to a sense of perfectionism that is a prominent harmful characteristic of white supremacy culture. This pressure leaves no room for behaviors like self-care and self-advocacy and reinforces the belief that taking care of one’s needs and asking for more support are luxuries for people with privilege. Combined, these pressures can have major implications for these leaders’ ability to grow themselves, their staffs, and their organizations.

Funding Scarcity

Recent books and articles highlight the implicit bias that drives racial inequity in funding for POC-led nonprofits versus those led by white CEOs. Research from Building Movement Project’s Race to Lead initiative found that 63 percent of POC leaders cite lack of access to individual donors as a fundraising challenge, compared to 49 percent of white leaders who say this is a challenge. Similarly, 51 percent of POC leaders cite lack of access to foundations as a challenge compared to 41 percent of white leaders.

As a result, we see CEOs of color experiencing difficulty fundraising in general, and “funder flight” in particular when an organization’s former leader leaves and program officers hesitate to continue funding the organization under a new CEO they don’t know. This can be particularly acute when an organizational founder or longtime executive director transitions out of the leadership role but still retains funders’ loyalties. As we have seen in the midst of COVID-19, CEOs of color as a whole have fewer strong personal and professional banking relationships, and therefore can have difficulty gaining access to investment capital for building projects, program expansion, and other organizational needs.

“Fix Our Race Problem”

Leaders of color, especially CEOs, are often brought in with an explicit and important mandate to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in general, and racial equity specifically. Unfortunately, they often lack the support to do so effectively, either because board leadership fails to sufficiently or explicitly champion this mandate, or a dearth of financial resources to hire capacity-building support.

If the CEO of color is the organization’s first, they are also often entering organizations with a mostly-white senior leadership team and frontline staff who are more racially diverse, leading to a CEO navigating a tightrope between a senior team resistant to changing an organization’s race equity culture and emerging leaders with high expectations for change and who actively push back if the new leader does not move change fast enough.

In this moment of profound challenge and opportunity, keeping equity at the center is critical. Supporting leaders of color is a fundamental step in this process. Here are a few ways nonprofit boards and their organizations can build structures and practices to attract, hire, and retain successful CEOs and other C-suite leaders of color.

1. Assess your leadership context. Incorporate discussions about the implications for bringing on a leader of color as part of succession planning. In preparing for a hiring process, boards should ask themselves and the organization’s staff, “What do we think leading this organization will be like for this new leader? How do we have explicit conversations about the range of identities and lived experiences on staff and the board and what support this leader will need given that context? What culture are we bringing them into?”

Conduct a formal assessment so you have an accurate, data-informed mirror of how you really are doing and what is required. The purpose of an organizational assessment is to prepare the environment for a new leader; don’t, however, let it be a barrier to hiring a person of color. During your hiring process, be honest with candidates about where the organization is, what challenges they can expect to face, and how the board is prepared to support them.

2. Build in and support a professional- and relationship-development plan. Do not take the approach, “We’ve hired a CEO of color, now we’re woke.” Work with leaders of color to understand where they need support, and budget for professional development in areas that have been shown as disproportionately difficult for organizational leaders of color, such as fundraising and board development. Invest in executive coaching and time for participation in networks and learning communities with other CEOs of color. Connect the CEO with current and prospective program officers and major donors to build new and transition existing relationships.

3. Create a container for risk-taking. CEOs and other positional leaders of color often feel they cannot act boldly given the inordinate pressure on them to perform perfectly. And when they do act boldly, such as making staffing changes that impact white people, they can face allegations of reverse discrimination, negative feedback from board members, and criticism from staff.

Boards can model a climate that encourages and truly supports change aligned to the CEO’s vision by fully supporting the CEO’s decisions and not second-guessing their leadership. Also, create space for CEOs of color to make the inevitable mistakes that come with leading complex change work and are necessary for learning and growth.

Build accountability mechanisms that cultivate a learning culture rather than just “getting it right.” Consider a CEO employment contract that can provide a sense of stability by setting the terms of CEO and board mutual accountability, provisions for contract renewal, and clear stipulations for the CEO exiting the organization, including severance obligations.

4. Partner on racial equity. Leading an organization’s racial equity change efforts must be a shared effort across the organization, not rest solely on the shoulders of one or two leaders of color. As capacity builders, we understand the importance of deep partnership and focused learning among the board, CEO, and staff to sustain these efforts. Outside facilitation can support organizations on their racial equity journeys. Boards should demonstrate their commitment by doing their own racial justice work, including examining their own racial composition, diversifying as needed, and investing in board learning plans on implicit bias and racial equity.

We recognize that nonprofit organizations and their leaders face myriad challenges and opportunities in this time. That’s why, in fact, this work is so important. Let’s do all we can as a field to support the people of color who are currently serving and preparing to step into CEO, executive director, and other C-suite roles critical to leading nonprofits into a new, more equitable normal.

Idalia Fernandez is a Senior Director at Community Wealth Partners. She focuses on leadership development, team coaching, and advancing racial equity.

Monisha Kapila is the Founder and CEO of ProInspire. She focuses on supporting leaders at all levels to accelerate equity in the nonprofit sector.

Angela Romans is a Partner at AchieveMission. She brings deep experience in leadership development, racial equity, and education access and success.

Five Steps to Reimagine Your Organization’s Future Through Scenario Planning

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While the COVID-19 crisis has brought tremendous challenges, it is also bringing out the best in many nonprofit leaders as they work to sustain their missions and create more equitable communities. Many leaders are pivoting their organizations’ services; tending to the professional, emotional, and safety needs of staff and volunteers; forging new partnerships; and testing creative ideas to address inequities.

This type of proactivity is no small feat amid significant disruptions to services, operations, and funding that can leave leaders feeling uncertain about what to prioritize and how to adapt. It can be easy to deprioritize planning completely or default to contingency planning and risk management. In times of crisis, many leaders understandably take a singular focus on preserving the organization’s operations and planning for contingencies. Of course financial health is crucial for continuing services, and our research and experience show organizations also need to take a broader view. Before doubling down on financial health and organizational preservation, nonprofits should focus on the impact they want to have and imagine possible new futures. One way leaders can do this is through scenario planning.

Scenario planning can help your organization manage uncertainty, envision new opportunities, and spot unexpected threats. It helps you focus on the things you can control – even amid great change and uncertainty – so that you are better positioned to achieve your desired impact. It improves your organization’s sustainability by helping you financially prepare for the worst and take data-informed actions sooner than you otherwise might have.

Scenario planning can happen in five steps:

Adapted from Diana Scearce, Katherine Fulton, and the Global Business Network community’s “What If? The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits.”

1. Define key questions.

What questions do you hope this plan will answer? Are you looking to determine how best to hold steady during turbulent times, or do you want to reimagine your programs and services for a new future?

What is your time horizon for planning? Organizations facing great upheaval and uncertainty may decide to look out only six to 12 months while other organizations may be able to take a longer view. Either approach is fine.

Even if your primary focus is on stabilizing the organization and looking at the near term, scenario planning presents an opportunity to think about steps you can take now that will position you for long-term impact.

2. Explore drivers.

The trajectory of the virus will have many ripple effects, such as closures of schools and other places due to social distancing and economic impacts that affect state budgets, employment, and donor/funder behavior. In most communities, the COVID-19 crisis is widening the racial inequities many nonprofits are working to address. Focus on the two to three driving forces that most affect your organization’s future and are the most uncertain.

3. Build scenarios.

Once you have prioritized the drivers that matter most to your organization, develop a set of plausible and thought-provoking scenarios that represent a range of future outcomes. Here is an example of what scenarios might look like for a nonprofit that identified school closures and state budgets as key drivers.

4. Develop plans based on assets and opportunities.

Envision what each scenario would mean for your organization and what you would do in response. Play out how each scenario might impact the community you serve, your programs, funding, staff, and operations. Pay attention to how each scenario and your response might widen or decrease inequities. For example, data show that communities of color are disproportionately feeling the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. What is your organization doing to address disparities, and how can you ensure your response does not inadvertently contribute to existing inequities?

As you develop your plans, consider where you might have the greatest opportunity for impact. If you are getting stuck trying to imagine a different way of creating impact, take a step back and consider your organization’s core purpose. What are the three things you must hold on to? Maybe those things are your values, the population you serve, or the way you show up in the community. What three things might you change or let go of to stay focused on what matters most? Maybe you are open to changing your funding model, ending a longstanding program, or having staff build new skills. This helps you identify where the greatest opportunities lie in each scenario, what tradeoffs you may need to consider, and the steps you need to take to prepare for the future.

5. Monitor indicators.

To be able to act on your plans, you will need to have a sense of which scenario is playing out. Identify two or three metrics that indicate the organization is transitioning into each scenario, so you can make timely choices about how to respond. Many organizations set financial indicators, such as progress against fundraising goals, to guide operational decisions. Consider what outcome indicators might guide programmatic decisions as well. For example, if you see a widening of racial disparities in your community as the virus spreads, you may decide to double down on your efforts to address those disparities, and that may require you to let go of other activities that don’t support efforts to decrease disparities.

Imagining a New Future

During disruption and uncertainty, scenario planning helps organizations focus on the things they can control. It can clarify what’s most important to your organization and what to pay attention to. Imagining what you would do in your most severe scenario will push you to think creatively and identify actions you could take to help ensure long-term sustainability and improved community outcomes.

While scenario planning can help stabilize organizations during times of crisis, it can also help you imagine a new future. As you embark on scenario planning with your organization, bring an asset-based mindset to consider not just future risks but also the strengths within your organization and community. Build on these assets to find the new opportunities and possibilities for the future, even in times of uncertainty.

Podcast: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Sector

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In a recent episode of the Business of Giving podcast, Amy Celep (CEO of Community Wealth Partners) talks with host Denver Frederick about what we’re hearing from the organizations we work with. The conversation explores many things including:

  • How the COVID-19 crisis is exposing deep inequities but also accelerating action to address those inequities.
  • The ways leaders are leading effectively in a virtual world and taking care of staff and themselves. If you want to do best by your mission, clients, and staff, Amy says, you have to pay attention to what you need. And as Maurice Jones, CEO of LISC, told Amy, “We’ve had to up our game in matters of the heart, and give people permission, through our words and deeds, to display their pain.”
  • How scenario planning can help organizations prepare amid uncertainty. Around Minute 8, Amy shares a five-step process for scenario planning.
  • How funders can address power dynamics to better support nonprofits. Funders can proactively encourage grantees to be bold in their asks. They can also continue practices of trust-based philanthropy long after this has passed.
  • How nonprofits can better understand the reliability of their revenue streams. Nonprofits can ask bold questions of donors and funders like, “What are your intentions for our grant/donation? What do you anticipate continuing to do and fund? What might you consider stopping or pausing?”

You can listen to the full interview here on the Business of Giving website or below.


Podcast: Making Change through Coalitions

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Coalitions have to grapple with complex issues. They need strategies bold enough to inspire people to get involved but believable enough that people think it can happen. They need to address mistrust among members and with communities. They need to undo some structures they’ve built and find new ways of working.

In this two-part series, Community Wealth Partners’ president Sara Brenner talks with Vitalyst Health Foundation’s Spark podcast. about findings from research on what contributes to transformational change. In Part One, she shares the four stages of the social transformation lifecycle, as well as a story about a coalition. In Part Two, she walks through ten key elements that can help coalitions drive change that lasts.


“If we take step back and think about how we feel in the work, we realize we’re coming up against resistance all the time. Where are those points where we’re stuck, and why are we stuck? When people talk about being stuck, it’s usually because of the dynamics they have with other partners or people within their own organizations. ‘We’re unable to move on an issue because we haven’t worked through a difference in perspective or some kind of competition or a challenge or distrust or our own ambitions are at the forefront rather than the ambition of the cause.’ What we suggest coalitions or organizations do is spend some time building their culture intentionally.” —Sara Brenner


March Must-Reads

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This month, we came across a report that sparked conversations about funders’ unintended impact on movements. We also were drawn to articles about equitably engaging communities, a practical guide to building strong leadership development programs, and a report drawing a clear correlation between housing costs and health.

What caught your attention this month?

1. How “movement capture” shaped the fight for civil rights

SYSTEMS CHANGE | Vox | 7-minute read

When social movements get investments from foundations, that’s a good thing – right? A new paper by Megan Ming Francis at the University of Washington suggests there might be unintended consequences to funders’ good intentions. Francis uses the NAACP as an example: The organization initially focused on anti-black violence, but when the Garland Fund expressed interest in funding education, the organization shifted its priorities, ultimately leading to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case but delaying anti-lynching laws. To avoid “movement capture,” Francis argues, funders must “consciously prioritize the voices of people on the ground” and “be more willing to make grants that may not immediately produce an obvious, palatable win they can present to their board.” If you’re a more auditory learner, listen to this Tiny Spark podcast interview with Francis about the topic.

2. Empower, Change, Transform: A guide to building a successful leadership development program

LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMS | Schusterman Family Foundation and Rockwood Leadership Institute | 33-minute read

There are many leadership development programs out there, but there’s little evaluation data about them. After the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Rockwood Leadership Institute independently worked with the research firm Learning For Action to evaluate their leadership development programs, they realized they could learn from each other’s data and experiences. In this guide, the organizations share stories and five evaluation findings that might help others managing similar programs:

  • Set the stage for vulnerability
  • Focus on emotional intelligence
  • Be intentional about relationship building
  • Design the right coaching experience
  • Encourage sector and cross-sector collaboration

3. Equitable Big Bets for Marginalized Communities

EQUITY | Stanford Social Innovation Review | 8-minute read

The idea of making “big bets,” or large investments, has been around for years, yet that funding tends to go to white-led organizations. To truly change systems, philanthropy must make big bets in organizations led by the communities most affected by injustice, argue the authors, David Bley of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Vu Le of Rainier Valley Corps and NonprofitAF.com. In this article, they share one example of how this can be done: the Gates Foundation’s investment in Rainier Valley Corps. They walk through how they partnered to understand risk, build trust, experiment, and practice transparency with each other. The case study ends with six recommendations to foundations ready to invest in equity:

  • Provide significant multiyear investment
  • Focus on relationships
  • Constantly communicate
  • Be flexible on timelines and milestones
  • Take risks, accept failure
  • Capture lessons learned

4. The healthiest communities in the U.S. are the ones where people can afford homes

HEALTH | Fast Company | 5-minute read

There is a clear correlation between the prevalence of housing cost burdens and negative health outcomes, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2019 County Health Rankings. The counties where the highest percentage of households struggle with housing costs also show higher rates of child poverty, food insecurity, and poor overall health among adults. In addition to emphasizing the importance of good and affordable housing, this article highlights some housing-focused initiatives that have resulted in better health outcomes for communities, including the Missouri-based alliance 24:1 and Kaiser Permanente’s investment in affordable housing.

5. Community Mapping — Building Power and Agency with Data

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT | Urban Institute | 5-minute read

Communities hold tremendous knowledge and expertise. How can you directly involve them in generating and processing data? One model is community mapping, in which community members collect spatial data on their neighborhood or city – data like vacant or blighted housing, sidewalk or roadway conditions, or flood damage. The DC Preservation Network, a project co-sponsored by the Coalition of Non-Profit Housing and Economic Development and the Urban Institute, shares how they pair on-the-ground expertise with other types of data to learn things they wouldn’t otherwise and position communities to tell their own stories.

January Must-Reads

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The start of the new year brought reflections—one from a former program officer on questions he wishes he’d asked, and one from the codirectors of Management Assistance Group on how the organization is creating a culture of shared leadership. We also were drawn to an article outlining a new model for capacity building, a comparison of the nonprofit sector to the gig economy, and 13 leaders’ perspectives on how philanthropy can further Martin Luther King Jr.’s economic justice goals.

What caught your attention this month?

GRANTMAKING STRATEGY | Chronicle of Philanthropy | 5-minute read

Antony Bugg-Levine, a former Rockefeller Foundation program officer, reflects on seven questions he wishes he had asked of himself and his foundation colleagues, including Why do we award large grants to large organizations but only small grants to small ones? and Why do foundations ask grantees to provide formal written reports, and in a format unique to each of us? Bugg-Levine shares openly about requests he made as a program officer that make him cringe today and what he would do differently in his former role.

LEADERSHIP | Management Assistance Group | 6-minute read

Three years after Elissa Sloan Perry and Susan Misra took on the roles of codirectors at Management Assistance Group, they reflect on what they are learning and the full team’s efforts to co-create a shared leadership culture across the organization. The experiment has resulted in greater shared leadership, a deeper alignment with the organization’s values and the five elements needed to advance justice, and a slower burnout rate. Elissa and Susan write about what shared leadership looks like for Management Assistance Group and eight principles that guide their roles as codirectors.

CAPACITY BUILDING | Nonprofit Quarterly | 5-minute read

Many capacity building models are outdated and set nonprofits up to fail, the author argues. These models are built on false assumptions about who has expertise, funnel knowledge and learning in one direction, and fail to plan for a transition after capacity is built. Organizations can create a new, more powerful partnership model in which all organizations are seen as equal contributors, local leadership is valued, and partners plan for the long term.

GRANTMAKING STRATEGY | National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy | 5-minute read

While many foundations agree that general operating support is critical, only 20% of domestic funding among the largest 1,000 U.S. foundations goes toward general support, creating philanthropy’s version of the gig economy, according to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. A new report, “Capturing General Operating Support Effectiveness” by TCC Group’s Jared Raynor and Deepti Sood, provides an evaluation framework for funders to understand the impact of their general support grants. Yet a framework isn’t enough, argues the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, if funders don’t trust grantees and if funding decisions are based on biased views of what strong nonprofits look like.

EQUITY | Chronicle of Philanthropy | 14-minute read

Martin Luther King Jr. argued for a “radical redistribution of economic and political power.” How can philanthropy move us closer to that vision? Leaders from Meyer Memorial Trust, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, the Ford FoundationDemos, and others share thoughts on linking economic justice to racial justice, addressing housing disparities and student debt, holding corporations and government accountable, and more.

Staying Accountable to Our Community

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I’ll never forget the day when, early in my career, a colleague asked me to do something that felt wrong. I was less than a year out of college and working as a television producer for a major network in Topeka, Kansas, when news came across police scanners that a body had been found in a local hotel room. I remember feeling sick to my stomach. We sent a reporter to the scene.

Several hours later I found myself talking with a colleague from the promotions department. He asked me for video from the scene so that he could produce a promotional piece highlighting that we were the first network there. “What on earth?” I thought. I thought of the deceased person’s parent watching this replayed on TV and their child’s death being used as an opportunity for self-promotion. Where was the empathy for this family? Who was I accountable to? As a journalist, I believed I should be accountable to the community in which I worked, including this person’s family. But I encountered other pressures inside the newsroom, for example, the pressure to promote our station to drive ratings, which generated advertising revenue critical to the station’s viability.

In my current work with Community Wealth Partners, I see similar tensions play out in social change organizations. While nonprofits are ultimately accountable to the communities they serve, pressures to please other stakeholders often distract from this accountability. Many organizations feel pressure to please funders and donors to ensure an organization’s financial sustainability and ability to continue to deliver on its mission. Similarly, executive directors or CEOs of nonprofits often feel pressure—whether one admits it or not—to please the board, as one’s own job or personal sustainability can depend on it.

These pressures can lead to decisions that are not centered on accountability to community. For example, funding restrictions can prevent nonprofits from being able to adapt programs to better meet constituents’ needs. Staff may make decisions that privilege the opinions and expertise of their board members over the knowledge and experiences of community members.

So how do organizations keep focused on holding themselves accountable to the communities they serve, even amid these pressures? For Miriam’s Kitchen, a nonprofit focused on ending chronic homelessness in Washington, D.C., it’s a matter of explicitly committing to who comes first and building intentional practices to make it a reality.

At Miriam’s Kitchen, a core value is that its chronically homeless guests are at the center of everything the organization does. To live this value, the staff have built intentional opportunities to gather input from guests and incorporate that input into decisions about strategy and day-to-day operations. For example, Miriam’s Kitchen has a Guest Engagement Working Group, which is made up of guests that meet regularly to offer input on services. As the organization was refining its theory of change, staff invited a few guests to provide feedback.

“Every organization that serves vulnerable people has a responsibility to set aside times where you really listen to them,” said Scott Schenkelberg, president and CEO of Miriam’s Kitchen. “Otherwise you can easily get to a place where you aren’t listening to them.”

Funders and boards can either help or hurt an organization’s ability to listen and be responsive to guests. Funders can help nonprofits stay accountable to those they serve by providing flexible funding, which allows organizations to create space for listening and adapting based on what they hear. For Miriam’s Kitchen, this has meant working to ensure that most of its funding is unrestricted. “If the majority of our money were restricted, it wouldn’t allow us the flexibility to be able to adapt our programs and services to best meet the needs of the community,” Scott said.

Boards can support staff’s efforts to be responsive to those they serve by refraining from weighing in on management decisions and prioritizing input from the constituents as the most important voice. “We’ve all been on boards where someone is on fire about an idea even when staff says it doesn’t really fit our needs or program model,” Scott said.

The start of a new year brings opportunity for new intentions, such as prioritizing constituents. As you set new intentions, you might consider a powerful question that I learned from Suprotik Stotz-Ghosh at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations: How am I holding myself accountable to those with the least power in the group? Depending on the situation, power may be determined, implicitly or explicitly, by a range of factors including race, gender, age, or positional authority. It can be so easy to respond to the loudest voices or charge ahead with your default ways of working. Reflecting on this question can cause you to realize who you might be holding yourself accountable to, and it could result in different decisions, more inclusive and transparent processes, and better outcomes.

Staying accountable to those experiencing chronic homelessness in D.C. has resulted in progress for Miriam’s Kitchen. Just five years ago, the organization transformed its strategy from a sole focus on direct services to orchestrating systemic change to end chronic homelessness in D.C. As a result of that decision, Miriam’s Kitchen played a leading role in creating a coordinated entry system for individuals experiencing homelessness that streamlines the process for getting on the list to receive permanent supportive housing and gives priority attention to those who are most likely to die on the streets. Today more than 100 organizations in the city participate in this coordinated entry system, which is now housed at the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. Additionally, Miriam’s Kitchen and the coalition it helped build have secured $112 million more from the city in vouchers for permanent supportive housing. These big wins speak directly to the reason Miriam’s Kitchen exists—ensuring that no one in D.C. ever experiences homelessness again.

Photo from Miriam’s Kitchen #MoreThanAMeal video