“We wanted change. We planned for change. But not like this,” said one nonprofit program director, hired to succeed the founding executive upon retirement. “Is it that she just can’t let go? Or is it that she can’t let go to someone like me?”
The suffering is palpable: white nonprofit leaders and rising leaders of color, many of them women, find themselves in relationships full of anguish and confusion. The wounds from these conflicts feel personal, but their source is in structural shifts that are happening across the sector. We are in a moment of seismic change. The fault lines are both generational and demographic. And nearly every organization has been hit by collapsing expectations and flying debris.
This dramatic change was long predicted. Since 2002, NPQ has been reporting on how the sector has been preparing for founding directors, many of them early boomers, to retire. Nonprofits and funders were abuzz: Where would we find new leaders to keep the sector afloat? How would we help the generation of founding executive directors to depart?
But this change included more than the departure of experienced leaders. While there was once an assumption that generational change would create a leadership vacuum, this notion of a void tuned out to be the inability of the sector to see a whole phalanx of people of color who were trained, able, and ready to lead.
Rising leaders of color often misread the reluctance of white founding executives to depart as arising from a sense of racial entitlement to a long-held job. But there are two forces at work here: First, there is the changing demographic in the field, which turns racism into blinders. Executives tend to mentor new leadership that looks and thinks just like them. White supremacy can make it hard for them to see the competency of someone who isn’t white. These executives are sometimes weary and ready to depart but unable to see the successors to whom they can responsibly pass the baton. Meanwhile, able candidates are weary of waiting for their turn to lead.
Secondly, the social sector is experiencing a generational change. Leaders who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s are experiencing a cultural cataclysm similar to the ones they created as young adults, but they are now older adults on the other side of it. Those who were once iconoclasts and innovators are now the dominant holders of power in institutions for social change, and their self-image has often not caught up with that reality.
This history also means that departing leaders are not simply leaving a job. For some executives, leadership succession asks them to step away from work that has been their life’s purpose. They toiled at it for 60 or 70 hours a week, and it became the center of their social lives and their deepest political commitment. For these leaders, transitioning out isn’t simply leaving a job; it is often leaving a lifelong sense of purpose and community. We take the existence of many nonprofits for granted today. We forget that they are the legacy of social justice movement work that was, for decades, the commitment at the center of some people’s lives. And in white-led movements, once you step away from that kind of institutional leadership, there may be no useful place for you to go.
The pain of being caught in these social sector leadership transitions can feel like institutional dysfunction. In navigating the shocks and aftershocks of this leadership shift, it helps if the people involved understand two things: the disadvantage of institutions pursuing racial diversity without inclusion, and the leadership advantage that Black, Indigenous, and other people of color have when they are connected to a social movement culture that includes eldering.
Disadvantage: Leaders Departing from Snowcapped Peaks
A decade of advancing an incomplete “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) approach to dismantling white supremacy in the nonprofit sector has contributed to this painful moment. Many organizations have succeeded in hiring more racially diverse program and operations staff, then moved quickly toward developing a more diverse constituency of donors, and are looking toward ensuring equitable outcomes for beneficiaries. They tried to skip the cultural transformation of shared power that is the product of inclusion.
This incomplete approach creates “snowcapped” organizations: places where staff of color carry the focus on equity and justice in frontline, mission-related work, while being clustered at the bottom of the institutional hierarchy. They have little voice, inconsistent influence, and lack the power to change the rules about how the organization works. The decision-makers on strategy and resource allocation sit at the top of the organizational hierarchy like the snowcap on a mountain, mostly white and white-haired people over 50.
This snowcap produces predictable cumulative results. I often find myself invited to meetings with nonprofit and philanthropic leaders who want to work on racial equity. But when I arrive, there are seven white folks! And they experience my work with them as tumultuous as an avalanche.
Having skipped the “I” in DEI work leaves these white-led organizations unhabituated to the programmatic strengths that experienced leaders of color bring to executive and governance decision-making. White boards and executives are often unfamiliar with the wide range of priorities, interdependent concerns, and deep relationships of accountability that executives of color routinely include in their work and, therefore, challenge their leadership. Many organizations are familiar with people of color as experts leading DEI training or special populations initiatives, but not as the people who drive decision-making about organizational priorities. This is especially true in nonprofits that have hired for demographic diversity rather than diversity of lived experience and connection to diverse communities and networks.
During leadership successions in snowcapped organizations, boards and outgoing executives often contact me for help when they are blindsided by the consequences of having pursued diversity without inclusion. They are surprised by the need for new paradigms for thinking about their work, and how they do it, and are shocked by how quickly they must adapt in order for their organization to stay relevant and survive. Succession plans that do not consider that hiring a new executive might require racially and culturally diverse board and staff perspectives in decision-making can cause grueling transitions. Overwhelmed board members leave. Previously