Beyond the Glass Cliff: Redefining Leadership in the Non-Profit Sector

Friday, June 28, 2024

Beyond the Glass Cliff: Redefining Leadership in the Non-Profit Sector
By: Dianne Morales, Founder & President, StillRising

The non-profit human service sector has long been positioned to do the work of countering inequity and injustice, tasked with creating opportunity and access for those who have historically been denied by the very systems and structures that should serve them. Our organizations are often masters at “workarounds” or innovative ways to rewire or connect pathways that have traditionally been elusive. In the ideal world of true democracy and opportunity for all, none of this would be necessary. But in the world we live in, it is not only necessary but essential. To that end, our organizations must embody the very equity and justice we seek for those we serve. That work begins with the individuals we entrust to lead our organizations.

Over the last several years, in response to the “racial justice reckoning” since the murder of George Floyd, there’s been a surge in hiring Black leaders. This is, perhaps, an arguably “easy” signal of change and commitment to diversity. But these leaders, in many cases women, are often hired in response to strategic crises and the need for organizational change with the expectation that they will “fix” the organization’s issues, without the necessary support or resources, and without room for error – though the risk of failure is high. Researchers have labeled this The Glass Cliff1 and it has become more pronounced since the uprisings of 2020.

The challenges leaders of color experience didn’t just start, and they are not limited to this phenomenon. As an Afro Boricua leader, I have had multiple experiences throughout my decades-long career as an Executive Director/CEO where my judgment or expertise was challenged by those around me with less or no relevant experience. My success has at times felt threatening to others who cautioned that I should stop “flying too close to the sun.” And there have been yet other times when I was advised to consider “changing (my) tone” when speaking about the structural and systemic inequities experienced by low-income communities of color. I’ve also been told by a board member that perhaps “(my) people appreciated my perspective (on disparities), but (their) people did not.” Moreover, throughout my career, I have often found myself to be the only person or woman of color in leadership spaces, lacking mentors who could share their experiences navigating those obstacles or guidance in managing the inevitable emotional toll that ensued from these difficult encounters. All of this while feeling the need to ensure I never expressed those emotions in public.

These incidents are sharp reminders that, even as a Black woman with years of demonstrated successful leadership and impact – and all the “right” academic credentials - I was constantly being questioned and did not benefit from the same executive or personal freedoms as my white counterparts. 

As the sector grapples with an uncertain funding landscape, destabilization brought on by the impact of COVID-19, the corresponding racial reckoning, the erosion of DEI initiatives and an increasingly polarized political climate, the challenges leaders of color face have increased. The dearth of capacity-building support is another factor that must be addressed. A survey by the Building Movement Project found that “executives of color (do) not have the same support as their white counterparts when they (enter) their leadership roles. They (are) asked to do more, and often paid less.” They are often burdened by the stress and pressure of dealing with racism and discrimination both inside their organizations as well as in the world around them. 

Philanthropy has taken note. In response, there has been a heightened recognition of, investment in, and emphasis on, providing support for these leaders. Special projects and initiatives have sprung up throughout NYC and across the country, including several I have founded and lead through my organization, StillRising (The Leadership Alliance, Diaspora Despierta and POC Execs@), building on my decades’ experience as an executive in the sector. Each of these programs works to create spaces where BIPOC leaders can feel seen; where they can build and strengthen networks and social capital, and where they can develop skills to navigate their roles. These newly founded initiatives that focus on BIPOC executives are a welcome resource for leaders who yearn for spaces where their identities, their lived experiences, and their unique talents are recognized. They should be supported, further developed, and expanded. But that alone is not enough.

The need to transform systems to provide meaningful and systemic support has become all the more urgent. Power structures in the non-profit sector reinforce the white privilege and create challenges for leaders of color.2 Shifting these dynamics in the sector requires an unprecedented alignment of the ecosystem of stakeholders engaged in human services to realize that transformation. Existing initiatives currently operate in silos. They should work together to integrate learning, strengthen the network of BIPOC leaders and secure a commitment to sustainable support. Systems that support Black leaders and other leaders of color must be established and structured deliberately, comprehensively and sustainably. Rather than require BIPOC leaders to contort themselves into the expectations of white cultural norms, we have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to recognize “there are assets and skills many leaders of color develop and excel at because of the experiences and perspective their identity brings.”3 (emphasis my own). 

We are in the midst of new, or perhaps exponentially greater challenges, but we are also in a moment of possibilities. Funders and board members, in particular, have to commit to recognizing and invest in undoing established practices to create a new paradigm that reflects the experiences, skills and identities of POC leaders. This is a critical step in actively reimagining a collective future that is truly reflective the power inherent in our communities. 

1"The Glass Cliff" from Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience - By: Lynn Perry Wooten, Erika Hayes James

2Kunreuther, Frances and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld (2020). Race to Lead Revisited: Obstacles and Opportunities in Addressing the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap.

3Isom, D., Daniels, C., & Savage, B. (2022). What Everyone Can Learn From Leaders of Color. Stanford Social Innovation Review.


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