Nonprofit organizations pledge to serve communities through powerful missions. Often, those missions are around empowerment, restoration, safety, and wholeness for the marginalized within our communities. The past two years of racial reckoning has led the nonprofit sector to examine the ways in which white supremacy lives in our organizational systems. Increasingly, nonprofits are publicly showing support for Black causes—at times, to distance themselves from the appearance of condoning racism. Operating as pro-Black, however, involves much more than releasing a statement of support for Black and Brown lives. It may not even require a change in organizational mission or new programming—an organization can make such changes and still operate with a white supremacist structure.
Being a pro-Black organization means internalizing our missions and extending energy and resources to our frontline staff who serve our communities. It calls for the antithesis of divisiveness and destruction and a movement of restoration. Nonprofit leadership must build thriving workplace environments in which staff have the permission and tools they need to become their best selves. A pro-Black organization ensures staff wellbeing, safety, dignity, and advancement by practicing trauma-informed, collective care, prioritizing psychological safety, and restoring worker dignity by providing equitable living wages and building leadership pipelines.
Our Promise to the Community
Ask anyone in the nonprofit sector why they came to work, and you will get a variation of the same answer: belief in the mission. Nonprofits have beautiful and inspiring missions that make one’s heart leap at their audacious optimism. They envision a world without hunger, disease, strife, or lack. In 2020, Insight Center for Community Economic Development introduced a framework for centering blackness. A key element of their framework is shared abundance. They insist that, to create a world where the marginalized lack nothing—and therefore, abundance is shared by all—our sector must center blackness.
Some nonprofit leaders are concerned that centering blackness will require a whole new direction for their organization. They ask whether centering Black people is “mission aligned” or if their organization is prepared to tackle something so vast. The answer to both questions is: yes. No one can deny the intersection that race has with our missions. Black people are overrepresented among domestic violence victims, prison inmates, and the homeless and underrepresented in educational attainment and economic security. It is absurd to think that any one of these intersecting issues stands alone, and that, for example, we can end homelessness without centering the people largely impacted by it. As legal scholar and activist Kimberle Crenshaw says, “If we aren’t intersectional, some of us, the most vulnerable, are going to fall through the cracks.” We fall out of alignment with our missions when we do not serve the most vulnerable. Centering blackness may seem like a large and intimidating ask, but it is no larger than our bold ambitions to eliminate poverty or end world hunger. It’s the first step toward truly realizing our missions.
Some nonprofits have acknowledged that challenging systemic racism is mission-aligned work; they have started by making statements in support of Black lives and examining how to structure their programming to better serve Black and Brown communities. Statements and programming are a first step toward diversity and inclusion, but they do not move the sector toward Black liberation.
If we want to center blackness, we must be authentic in our execution. We must recognize that standing with the Black lives closest to us—the ones we employ—is the most authentic expression of a pro-Black organization. Our missions are a promise to our communities that we cannot fulfill without first internalizing this promise ourselves.
Pro-Black Organizational Leadership
A pro-Black organization requires pro-Black leadership that dismantles white supremacy internally and replaces its structures by rebuilding an organization that paves the way for the liberation of all people. Such leadership requires an understanding of the anti-Black origins of modern management. The idea of viewing humans as capital originated with slave owners. And as economic historian Caitlin Rosenthal explores in her book, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management, modern workforce management techniques emerged out of plantation slavery. Pro-Black organizational leadership must therefore reject capitalism’s tendency to view workers as producers of capital and focuses instead on workers’ humanity.
To lead restoratively, leaders need to shift from simply managing personnel to fostering an environment that encourages staff to thrive. This means rethinking the way we lead. We must examine whether our actions detract from or contribute to staff thriving. When setting grant outcomes, for example, pro-Black organizational leadership considers the quality of the services provided as well as the resources needed for staff to carry out and sustain the work. These leaders inquire about caseload size and its effect on staff’s overall workload and time for professional development because they understand that burned out staff who do not grow cannot effectively carry out the organization’s mission. In other words, pro-Black leaders extend the organizational missions on our doors to those who serve our communities—our frontline staff.
A thriving environment will look differently across different types of organizations. However, common indicators across all staff levels include:
- Staff who are empowered and equipped to do their best work
- High retention rates with clear opportunities for growth
- A culture where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities
- A sense of ownership of organizational priorities
- A culture that allows staff to be themselves without fear of retaliation or negative consequences for their self-worth and career
Before white nonprofit leaders jump ship, this call to pro-Black leadership involves you. A pro-Black sector does not call for the mass exodus of white leaders; it calls for the creation of a pipeline of growing, thriving Black and Brown leaders. It will take all of us to make good on this promise.
Reimagine Staff Wellness
When we hear “staff wellness,” we may think of initiatives undertaken by the corporate sector, but on-site fitness centers and weekend-long staff relaxation retreats are unattainable luxuries for the nonprofit sector. We simply do not have the funds. Grant-funded projects may also place restrictions on how staff can use their time. What would it look like to reimagine wellness through a pro-Black lens in a nonprofit context?
The pro-Black nonprofit leader views staff wellbeing as an anchor that guides the way decisions are made and how actions are carried out, in contrast to an approach that uses wellness programming to attract new talent to a stressful work environment. This leader’s commitment to staff wellbeing is centered on the wholeness of their workers as they give of themselves to their community.
A pro-Black organization is one in which direct service workers employ SAMHSA’s trauma-informed approach to care with clients and managers use this same approach with staff. Service workers recognize that clients need specific support to recover from trauma. Likewise, managers recognize that staff—and direct service workers in particular—require supervisor support to prevent burnout and secondary trauma. A pro-Black organization understands the importance of educating and equipping every manager with trauma-support skills and holds leadership accountable for modeling trauma-informed care to “restore a sense of safety, power, and self-worth” to every worker.
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In other words, a pro-Black organization rejects trauma-informed care as simply a term to place on a grant application to gain extra points. Instead, it views trauma-informed care as an organization-wide initiative where leadership supports staff in dealing with secondary trauma, rather than penalizing or discarding them.
When service delivery must be changed to improve the client experience, simply replicating a model that has worked elsewhere—without staff input—can disempower staff. Pro-black leadership asks, “How can we leverage staff as experts and collaborate to adjust this model to best serve our community?”
A pro-Black organization also believes in and practices collective care. When a tragedy touches the community, leadership pauses to create a safe and intentional space for staff to process their thoughts and feelings in a group setting and support one another, instead of continuing the workday as though there is no connection between the personal and professional. Just as the African proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child,” a pro-Black organization acknowledges the toll that community service work can take on employees and draws from the healing power of the collective to mitigate burnout. Pro-Black leaders and organizations believe that collectively grieving the hardships that occur in pursuit of the mission is just as important as celebrating the victories. They also understand the importance of offering safe space for staff to do so. In practice, these safe spaces to develop mutual support can take the form of affinity groups or wellness circles facilitated by an outside, neutral party .
Prioritize Psychological Safety
Another element of centering blackness is redefining safety. There is no denying that physical safety is important in the workplace. While federal and state laws exist to protect employees from physical harm, our sector offers little to protect the mental health of our staff. Because pro-Black organizations prioritize the safety of their staff as whole people, they understand that mental health is an important part of overall wellbeing.
Psychological safety is the ability to “show and employ oneself without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career.” Though the term has recently gone mainstream, the concept of psychological safety is not new to Black people who feel its absence and experience negative consequences when they show up as themselves at work: from employers questioning the professionalism of natural, kinky hair to being perceived as less qualified than white counterparts with the same credentials. Pro-Black organizational leadership takes up the charge to build psychologically safe environments as a moral imperative. Because leaders have the power to deal out consequences and perpetuate fear, they are responsible for restoring mutual respect and acceptance in the work environment. A McKinsey Global Survey backs this up, arguing that “a climate conducive to psychological safety starts at the very top of an organization.”
Once psychological safety is established within an organization, staff in a thriving environment will exhibit four qualities that lead to high performance and innovation, as outlined by Dr. Timothy Clark:
- The feeling of connectedness and belonging
- The ability to ask questions and make mistakes
- The assurance that their contributions are meaningful
- The ability to think constructively to improve processes
Restore Worker Dignity
Many nonprofit leaders would agree that their workers deserve to be paid a living wage. However, nonprofits need more funding to provide better pay. Without increased funding, leaders face the dilemma of maintaining low staff wages or providing fewer services. But it doesn’t have to be this way: Funders and foundations must recognize that operational costs are essential to programming, and we must educate elected officials on the need for increased resources.
Though nonprofit leaders did not create the economic system that underpays workers, through our silence, we have been complicit in denying our staff the wages they deserve. Indeed, many nonprofits do not raise wages until state laws mandate a minimum wage increase. Pro-Black organizational leadership does not wait for wage increases to become mandatory. Rather, pro-Black leaders advance pay equity, a central demand of Black liberation movements: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who advocated for pay equity, was quoted as saying, “We’re coming to get our check,” before the Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968.
Pro-Black organizational leaders understand that messaging is their most powerful tool. They choose to restore worker dignity by refusing to fundraise for the lowest possible cost. You won’t find a pro-Black organization advertising that a child can be fed for less than the cost of a cup of coffee because they understand that feeding a child requires the labor of frontline personnel who purchase, pick up, and serve the food. Pro-Black organizational leaders do not shrink their visions to make them more palatable to others. When designing a program, they ask, “How many staff are needed to effectively provide this service?” instead of, “What is the lowest number of staff required to get this program running?” They unapologetically present the true cost of programming to individual donors—including living wages, benefits, and professional development for all workers—because they know that staff deserve more.
Build Leadership Pipelines
It is no secret that Black and Brown leaders are underrepresented in positions of power within the nonprofit sector. A study from BoardSource reports that only 13 percent of nonprofit CEOs and 22 percent of board members identify as non-white. The reasons for this underrepresentation include Black and Brown workers receiving less support from managers to gain promotions and nepotism within board recruiting.
Pro-Black leaders offer leadership development to all staff because they value potential leaders at every staff level. They understand that true leadership doesn’t come with a title, and they embody shared leadership as an approach to distributing power. Pro-Black leaders encourage growth instead of tempering it for fear that an employee will threaten someone else’s job or outgrow the organization. They make liberal investments in leadership development, knowing such investment creates a more equitable leadership pipeline.
Pro-Black leaders use the leadership pipeline as a tool for succession planning. They have a plan to replace themselves and acknowledge that the lack of such planning leaves a gap in organizational growth, resulting in unintended consequences for the organization and community, including “additional staff turnover, missed opportunities, decreased funding, and diminished service.”
Simply put, a pro-Black organization demands more from its leaders than an organization operating with white supremacist ideals: It calls for leaders who understand that they have a responsibility for staff wellbeing. Pro-Black leaders treat staff wellness as an opportunity to restore relationships and build community instead of confining such work to a program. They acknowledge their power and how their actions contribute to an environment in which staff members burn out or flourish. Pro-Black leaders are also unapologetic about giving their staff the tools to succeed, including equitable living wages and leadership development resources.
It is time for the nonprofit sector to center our missions in everything we do—including how we treat and invest in staff. It is time for us to be just as intentional with our staff as we are with our clients and donors. We cannot expect to change our communities without first changing our internal work environments, and we cannot expect to change our work environments without our leadership teams changing the way we lead. It is our responsibility as leaders of the nonprofit sector to take up the cause of recognizing and restoring the dignity, wholeness, and humanity of every worker. Then, and only then, will we see sustainable change within our organizations and communities.