What It Takes: Supporting New BIPOC Executives
By: Bipasha Ray, New Executives Fund Project Director, Open Society Fellowship Program, Open Society Foundations
A wave of nonprofit leadership transitions is upon us. The COVID-19 pandemic, a deep economic recession, and an era of racial reckoning are leading to a number of nonprofit leaders in a variety of fields and movements in the United States to step down. Their successors, many of them BIPOC and female, have the vision and new ideas to rejuvenate their organizations and constituencies, and to reach for social and racial equity in ways that were hard to imagine just a few years ago. As these new leaders step in, major funders have to step up to offer responsible financial and other support.
In December, I moderated a Philanthropy New York discussion on supporting new BIPOC leaders, organized by the Leadership Transitions Funders Working Group. In this panel, I was in conversation with two leaders of color who succeeded long-time white predecessors -- Afua Atta-Mensah, Executive Director of Community Voices Heard and Jennifer Ching, Executive Director of North Star Fund – as well as with Jill Eisenhard, the white founder of the Red Hook Initiative who set up a successful transition to a Black woman leader. They shared from their perspectives what they view as funder “best practices” that had been beneficial during their transitions, and urged funders to refrain from damaging behavior such as withdrawing or pausing funding when a new leader comes in.
Since its creation in 2013, the New Executives Fund which I run for the Open Society Foundations, has supported 135 new executive directors of nonprofits across the world, with an emphasis on flexible funding, networks of peer learning, open communication, and relationship building. Through relationships of trust with our grantee community and our colleagues within the Open Society Foundations, we have learned a great deal about how to show up responsibly during these critical moments in organizational evolution. Here are some of our learnings:
- Start from the understanding that leadership transitions are healthy. Leadership transitions are a normal part of organizational growth cycles and can be healthy if we destigmatize, support, and normalize them. Transitions – starting well before a leader steps down and lasting until well after new leadership takes over -- are a crucial time for leaders, staff, board, and other stakeholders to re-imagine organizational futures and rejuvenate impact and effectiveness.
- Fund leadership transitions in addition to ongoing grants. Funders need to double down and add on general support resources during leadership transitions. This flexibility goes a long way to support the re-visioning, reflection, board and leadership development, and planning that needs to happen for successful transitions. While funders should be transparent about any concerns, we need to fund and support the implementation of solutions rather than withdraw or pause. It’s also important to fund the new leadership’s vision rather than simply our own assessment of gaps and needs. Grantees should get to decide how to spend the funds. We have seen that some organizations may need capacity building and leadership support, while others may find that their most urgent needs lie elsewhere, such as developing new programming and partnerships to make their organizations more accountable to constituents.
- Recognize and elevate new BIPOC leaders: At the New Executives Fund, we have learned that an intersectional lens that centers race/gender equity is essential as we consider who benefits most from funder support during transitions. The need is greatest among those leaders who come from backgrounds traditionally excluded from organizational leadership in their cultural or geographic contexts. In the United States, the New Executives Fund has funded a range of leaders and prioritized those who are BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ+. Studies and research have shown that major funding disparities exist between BIPOC-led organizations and those with white leadership. New leaders of color often struggle with fundraising when they can’t access the same networks of wealth as their white predecessors. They must navigate power structures built and shaped by mostly white and mostly male actors—including within philanthropy itself. Funders of organizations transitioning to BIPOC/female/LGBTQ+ leadership should recognize and elevate those voices and visions. Offer to introduce them to other donors or invite them to spaces where they can network. Many of our grantees have used the visibility of the New Executives Fund award to bring new funders on board and persuade existing funders to lean in rather than withdraw.
- Fund BIPOC leaders to dream big. Social justice organizations often recruit BIPOC leaders to bring lived experience, expertise and intimate understandings of racial and social inequity into their organizational culture and strategy. But, faced with tight budgets and limited space for discretion, these new leaders are then hobbled in their ability to refine and implement their brilliant ideas. Leaders of color need early resources and support to be able to lean into the reasons they were hired and imagine new possibilities. Funders can provide unrestricted grants as breathing room and coaching support for leaders to try out ideas and take risks to achieve greater impact.
- Enable supportive and reflective communities of peers. An executive director’s job can be lonely, especially so for BIPOC and women leaders in movements and fields where leadership remains mostly white and male. Funders can deploy their convening power or fund access to spaces for these new executive directors to reflect together, build communities of solidarity and support, workshop common challenges and support each other to reach greater heights.
Flexibility on the part of funders is vital during leadership transitions -- whether in the grant structure, in expectations of how “success” is achieved, time to achieve results, etc. This is especially true when new BIPOC leaders are navigating racial and class dynamics within and outside their organizations and philanthropy. The pandemic’s disruption pushed philanthropy to loosen up grant dollars and reporting requirements allowing maximum flexibility. Funders are recognizing the unique opportunities presented by leadership transitions especially at this make-or-break moment coming out of the pandemic. Now is the time to solidify these new practices, rooted in deep experience, and properly resource organizations and leaders in transitions. To be in further conversation with other funders about supporting leadership transitions through a racial equity and social justice lens, please join the Leadership Transitions Funders Group.