“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