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

For nonprofits hiring new executive leaders of color, here are some steps to take—and pitfalls to avoid—to ensure a successful leadership transition.

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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.


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