Ironically, in my post-Executive Director life, it seems that what I end up talking most about is being an Executive Director. Since I left my role as Executive Director of SAALT almost five months ago, I have been talking with women of color who are either transitioning out of their roles as directors or seeking to enter roles of leadership at non-profits. Not surprisingly, there are common themes that always come up in these conversations: anxiety about the level of burn-out associated with being an Executive Director of a small, under-resourced organization (read: budgets of less than a million dollars and less than six staff members); the worry about balancing a life that includes non-work responsibilities, ranging from parenting to caring for oneself or family members; and the ability to recognize when it’s time to move on.
We need women of color to aspire to leadership positions in community-based non-profit organizations, especially those that serve emerging and growing communities of color struggling with class and race inequities in our country. Yet, the culture, expectations, and benefits within the non-profit sector often do not make it possible for women of color leaders to sustain themselves. Our non-profit ecosystem – from board members to philanthropy to staff to volunteers – must identify and support different leadership models, support systems, and workplace culture to ensure that women of color leaders can meaningfully commit themselves to the social change values that brought them to their work in the first place. Here are three suggestions on how we can move the conversation forward (and while this piece is focused specifically on Executive Directors, it could also apply to all staff at non-profit organizations who are committed to long-term engagement in the movement).
Set Up Women of Color Non-Profit Leaders for Success
There seems to be a common understanding, a narrative we have silently agreed to, about leadership in the non-profit sector: the hours are demanding; the work is emotionally taxing; and you must give your blood, sweat and tears to the movement, to the issues, to the community. As a result, Executive Directors are usually an organization’s thought leader, fundraiser, spokesperson, budget analyst, decision-maker, and human resources specialist, all in one. It’s not surprising then that there is as much turnover among Executive Directors today. In 2011, the Meyer Foundation and Compass Point released a report based on a survey of 3,000 executive directors. The report found that two-thirds of those surveyed planned to leave their jobs within five years. It’s a grueling role, and one that takes a toll on many, especially women of color.
But, what would happen if we changed the job description for Executive Directors? Most Executive Directors take on these roles because we feel passionately about issues, communities, and values. In time, those passions become eroded, especially with the responsibilities of staff supervision, budget reviews, board management, and funder proposals. In order to free up an Executive Director to be an idea generator and visionary, we need to ensure that they have the time and space to do so. Ask any Executive Director of a small community-based non-profit about her wish list and she will likely say: an administrative assistant, a resource development manager, a deputy director, and a leadership coach. The titles might be different based on the organization, but the roles that Executive Directors need support around are usually fundraising, staff management, scheduling, board support, and a mentor to help guide their leadership challenges. These are positions usually reserved for larger organizations, but smaller ones are locked into an endless cycle that prevents them from getting to scale, precisely because the Executive Director is playing too many roles. If we want women of color leaders to succeed in running community-based non-profits, then we need to set them up to do so with appropriate support systems.
Explore Different Leadership Structures and Opportunities
The non-profit sector provides a range of leadership training opportunities, especially for directors of color. How can these important experiences be strengthened with deeper investment in the leadership of women of color through sabbaticals, alternative work arrangements, and leadership models?
Is it possible to sustain a co-director model where both individuals have discrete roles and responsibilities? Or to provide Executive Directors and long-time staff the possibility of taking paid work sabbaticals? Many small community-based non-profits reject outright the prospect of different leadership structures and opportunities not because of a lack of desire to try them, but due to funding and resource constraints. Giving smaller non-profits the opportunity to experiment with these models, as the Asian Law Caucus did recently, and setting up more Windcall-type sabbatical models could make a meaningful difference for many organizations.
More than An Executive Director
While it seems that being an Executive Director is a 24-7 job, we all know that there are a range of other roles that people play in their personal lives. In my own case, becoming a mother five years into my Executive Director tenure brought a range of issues – from flexible work arrangements to parental leave policies – into clearer perspective. Even though SAALT had grown to a larger staff and budget at the time and had generous workplace policies, I was unsure as to how I would be able to sustain the same pace I had become accustomed to working (and soon realized that I couldn’t). For me, it was hard to keep up with conference calls at nine pm (especially with a little one who is insistent about “Lights on! No sleep!”), travel to conferences and conventions (“Mommy – put down your luggage”), or even attend informal networking events. Social change organizations can, and should, support staff through generous employment policies, flexible work arrangements, and models of self-care to maximize longer-term commitments to the work that they love.
Strong and healthy community-based organizations are at the heart of our social change movements. It’s time to create a different set of cultural expectations, workplace models, and support systems for women of color who will lead the way.