“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 hopeful staff members lose their patience and insurrect. Unchecked microaggressions abound. The incoming executive may question whether they want to lead an organization so unready to support them. And the departing executive—one foot in, one foot out the door—may wonder if they should stay.
Advantage: Leaders Who Keep Rising
I often coach rising executives of color who are perplexed by their white predecessors’ reluctance to depart. They assume the barriers to leaving are financial. It is unimaginable to them that retiring executives are struggling with being unable to envision a future in which they are useful and continue to have esteem and relevance.
There are wide ethnic and social variations among Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian cultures, but one thing they often have in common is a practice of eldering. Unlike white US culture, which associates “elder” with infirmity and marginalization, leaders of color often come from communities and movements where seasoned leaders continue to ascend in value, even after they have left the day-to-day leadership work. When they retire from full-time service, many of these leaders keep rising in recognition and esteem in communities where they become elders.
Movement elders—like the late Grace Lee Boggs, Loretta Ross, Barbara Smith, and Shirley Sherrod—are sought out, consulted with, and provide encouragement to mature movement leaders like Adrienne Maree Brown, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Leah Penniman. Elders of color who have retired from full-time leadership return to provide transitional support in moments requiring philanthropic unity; Johnnetta B. Cole and Ruth Simmons both returned from retirement to stabilize economically endangered HBCUs. Legendary foundation executive Handy Lindsey returned to the field to help a family foundation repair harms to the local Black community that helped to produce the donor’s wealth. These elders offer more than technical expertise. They have demonstrated a lifetime of skillfully nurturing leaders and institutions that support the well-being of their people and, as such, are offered their community’s ongoing deference, preference, and respect.
This culture of movement elders offers significant advantages for nonprofit and philanthropic leaders of color who honor it. They arrive in new leadership positions with connections to wisdom traditions and a kitchen cabinet of experienced advisors that allows them to be both visionary and strong. Connection to movement elders provides the benefits of mentoring and accountability from a predecessor without the expectation of obedience or a struggle for control. This modeling encourages rising leaders to cultivate “bench strength” among emerging leaders in their organization and field. Movement elders provide living links to oft-untold chapters of history, including the multiracial histories of the social movements that seeded and grew into today’s nonprofits. Leaders can turn to movement elders to help them design antidotes to the single-issue narratives and single-constituent politics found in racially exclusive, snowcapped organizations.
Sector at a Crossroads: Crisis and Opportunity
Instead of thinking of the current demographic and generational shifts in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector as a crisis—a cataclysm, an avalanche, a void—we can think of our sector as arriving at an important crossroads. A crossroads is a place that asks us to carefully observe the barriers before us and make conscious choices about how and with whom we shall proceed.
If we acknowledge that we have come to a crossroads about the kind of leadership needed to take our sector forward, we can lessen our anxiety about departing from “the way we’ve always done things.” We will have space to recognize and celebrate the ways rising leaders of color are bringing forward the very insights and inclusive practices that we have been struggling toward. This pivotal junction for the field invites us to turn away from our habitual path of exclusion, a path that excludes both the contributions of seasoned elders and well-prepared younger leaders from the roles that await them.
A crossroads is a good place to pause. This is a moment for us to take stock and finally learn the skills we will need to carry us forward: the multifaceted practices of inclusion that are required if we are to be the justice and equity we seek to amplify in the world.