A rising insight from one of our recent surveys is just how many former executive directors/CEOs in the interview pool struggled with issues around navigating racial and social inequities. These struggles were attributed to either their own lack of skills and experiences and/or a lack of organizational leadership and support. Many of these leaders won't go back to the executive director role because of their experiences.
We heard from Black leaders who got tired of being looked to as the only one who could explain (and sometimes defend) their BIPOC clients’ worldviews and life experiences to their white boards.
We heard from white leaders who had a hard time leading, connecting and communicating with staff who were all BIPOC.
We heard from a diverse range of leaders who grew weary of hearing comments at funding meetings that were either not inclusive, racist, or ignorant of economic inequity.
Our leadership is angry, tired, embarrassed, and uncertain.
Why aren’t we talking about it?
Looking at Your Workplace Culture With Honesty
The answer to this is complicated. Addressing the prevalence of racism and non-inclusive practices at an organization is hard and frightening. It requires a genuine and in-depth look at every aspect of a workplace culture, including leadership attitudes and backgrounds, hiring practices, compensation equity, staff retention, internal communication, and external marketing. For many organizations, this is an undertaking that has never been conducted with full honesty or the intent to create lasting change.
What’s more, this is often completely uncharted territory. For many white people, especially those new to the leadership role, navigating race and social inequity isn’t even on their radar until they are called out for their biases and behaviour.
The power dynamics that exist in nonprofit organizations are multi-layered and run across the board, executive director, staff, funders, volunteers and clients. For example, one of our survey respondents shared this with us:
“When boards are a certain demographic, it can cause havoc regardless of who the executive director is for different reasons. How emotionally challenging is it when you're trying to do your job and also facing this racism that you can't even call racism because they're so well-meaning or they're your biggest donor and you can't rock the boat?”
Without clear, open communication and courageous leadership on issues of race, equity and inclusion, the trust between leadership channels can get muddied and issues can arise with no space to address them. And this is not the way a healthy, supportive work culture should operate.
How Would You Feel?
Imagine a workplace where you are not confident or invited to communicate your perspective openly and honestly. This could be due to either direct language that discourages criticism of the workplace culture or specific leaders. Or, it could be a result of exhibited behavior from leadership that makes staff concerned for their well being or their job security if they do voice their thoughts. It could also be that the chasm between leadership and staff is so wide, no one trusts the other.
With that in mind, sense how these scenarios we heard in some of our interviews would feel.
A Black executive director in a meeting with their largest donor, when he/she makes a racist comment.
A leader trying to bring their full self to a meeting when everyone else in the room is already connected from exclusive circles they are not a part of, such as alumni from the same prep schools or members of the same country clubs.
An all white board of directors trying to truly govern and strategize for the future of a diverse and community based organization, with no context or experience in the community.
An all BIPOC staff trying to understand why a white executive director is the right choice to lead the organization.
Parents of children in an all BIPOC youth serving organization wonder whether an all white leadership team has their best interests at heart, or whether they truly understand their community.
Unfortunately, scenarios like these are all too common in the nonprofit industry.
By thinking carefully about what it feels like to be in these situations, we are taking the time to listen, learn and build empathy outside of our own worldviews. Creating greater trust and understanding between people engaged in your work is not only a path to greater personal awareness and stronger relationships, it adds deep value to the organization and its results.
Who is the Best Person for the Job?
When hiring an executive director, boards must be clear on what skills and experiences are important to the organization - both those that show up on resumes and those that might not. Boards should also consider what biases are present in their hiring practices. As discussed in this article by the American Bar Association, “human resources directors, diversity and inclusion experts, and others often point out that we all hold unconscious beliefs and attitudes called implicit biases - and that these can creep into our words and our actions, including when seeking candidates”.
Without a common understanding and unbiased process to assess who the best candidate is for the executive director role, boards can become comfortable hiring someone who looks and acts like they do. Since the race, ethnicity and gender of the person who fills the crucial role of executive director has an impact on the way an organization is run, as well as its culture, boards may inadvertently hire someone who may not be the best choice for the organization.
Regardless of who they hire, boards need to assess the positive or negative consequences that the characteristics and background of their leadership may have on the organization and its clients. Then, combat those consequences with open acknowledgment and ongoing support.
This may mean paying for executive coaching, so leaders have a space to explore their experience and reactions, and gain constructive feedback from an outside source. Alternatively, it might mean insisting on DEI training and longer-term consultation for the board and staff, to ensure the group is on the same page when it comes to issues of equity.
As this article in Fast Company highlights, “When we feel out of place, we don’t perform at our best. We keep novel ideas to ourselves rather than risking ridicule by sharing them.” When leaders feel both accepted and clear on the value their unique experience brings to the table, job dissatisfaction decreases and retention increases.
How Boards Can Take Initiative
From the top down, many nonprofits hesitate to do the work around diversity, equity and inclusion. As one survey respondent stated, "I was so embarrassed when that racial stuff started happening [at my organization]. I didn't talk to anyone about it, but I've actually opened up to a couple people since then. They’d be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, in half of nonprofits, that has happened and nobody talks about it’."
It takes courage, empathy and skill to navigate issues of racial and social inequity. It also takes resources and time. So what are some realistic steps leadership can take?
Step 1: Publicly commit as a board to engaging in tough conversations with candor and generosity, and securing the external support to allow for success.
Step 2: Share with all stakeholders how the process of listening, learning, and changing will be conducted and communicated.
Step 3: Act with intention, yet allow the organization time to genuinely understand and reflect on its dynamics.
Step 4: Create multiple and ongoing spaces for employees to give and receive feedback on their experiences, as well as ways to show the feedback has been understood.
Step 5: Model a posture and approach to the work that shows an open mind and a willingness to be challenged.
The key though, is to incorporate the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) into all aspects of your organization’s work. As Nishant Mehta, Managing Director and Independent Schools Practice Leader at Storbeck Search & Associates shared with us, “most organizations and leaders treat DEI as a programmatic initiative rather than core to the culture and strategy. When it's treated as an add-on, then that's what it will always remain: an add-on.”
How New Leaders Can Take Initiative
As a new leader, being prepared and ready for the executive director role includes some homework. In relation to racial and social inequity issues, when you are being interviewed for an executive director position ask and notice:
Does the board have diverse membership?
Do the board members seem to connect with each other on a personal level?
Does the organizational leadership (board and staff) reflect the constituents being served?
How do foundational and direction-facing documents demonstrate a public commitment to DEI work (e.g. mission, values, strategic plan, etc.)?
Does the board know of any existing tension around DEI? Does the staff?
What support will you receive to deepen your work and practice around creating an inclusive environment?
How are the voices of potentially marginalized constituents being solicited and heard?
Is anti-racism training and awareness programming part of board and staff professional development?
The complexity and challenges of navigating racial and social inequity as an executive director is another layer on an already demanding role. The work we propose leaders take part in is hard. It takes time and it takes courage, but it will ultimately benefit not only your organization but the community you’re working to serve.
While we are not experts on systemically navigating racial and other inequities, we would love to point you towards some professionals we know who are doing incredible work in this area, and can be a valuable resource to your organization:
Listening and learning to build connections, trust and understanding between people is a path to both greater personal awareness and stronger relationships. By committing to re-think racial and social equity in the workplace, leaders bring deep value to their clients and invest in a sustainable, long-term future for the organization as a whole.