Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Two years ago, as the COVID pandemic spread, Black and Brown people were dying in disproportionate numbers. Then came the brutal murder of George Floyd by the police, the latest in a steady stream of state-sanctioned violence against Black people. When these critical events happened, marginalized communities were still reeling from four years of constant trauma and death under a white nationalist administration that openly embraced hatred, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia.

Nonprofits were stretched thin by these crises and their fallout. Nonprofits led by Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC) were stretched even thinner. BIPOC leaders were burning out. Years of sacrificing our mental and physical health to do the needed work and be there for our communities were taking a toll. Many leaders of color had already left their positions—and some had left the nonprofit sector entirely. Those of us who remained were at the breaking point, torn between leaving for our own well-being, or staying and continuing to fight an uphill battle.

We decided to stay. Our communities needed us. But we realized that we had to do things differently. Playing the game—the funding game, the nonprofit Hunger Games, whatever you call it—was no longer good enough, for this game divided us by forcing us to compete for perceived-to-be-scarce resources. It ingrained a sense of learned helplessness in us and our communities, and it distracted us with trivial matters while white supremacy continued to brutalize and kill our people. We wanted solidarity. We wanted to build power. We were tired of playing the same old game.

From these realizations and the many conversations that followed among BIPOC leaders and key white allies, we formed the BIPOC ED Coalition. Four of us—leaders of different racial and ethnic backgrounds—assumed co-leadership. We wanted to ensure that every Black, Brown, and Indigenous nonprofit leader experiencing invisibility and stretched to their limits had a space to be seen and heard—a place where we could fortify ourselves against burnout and disillusionment and organize to challenge existing inequitable systems and power structures. We joined together with a dual focus: to take necessary action for our own health and well-being, and to employ our collective voice to advocate for radical change in deeply inequitable systems.

Today, we are over 240 strong—Black, Brown, and Indigenous leaders of nonprofit organizations across Washington state. We work in solidarity with our partners to challenge funding practices, advocate for equitable policies, and nourish our collective and individual well-being.

What we’re learning

I have a vision of movement as sanctuary. Not a tiny perfectionist utopia behind miles of barbed wire and walls and fences and tests and judgments and righteousness, but a vast sanctuary where our experiences, as humans who have experienced and caused harm, are met with centered, grounded invitations to grow.” – adrienne maree brown, We Will Not Cancel Us

As injustice continues in force, we need more leaders building power in solidarity. We hope the lessons learned offered here can support others in building healthy local coalitions of nonprofit leaders of color working to challenge white supremacy and injustice.

Establish a strong organizational culture grounded in equity. At the BIPOC ED Coalition, we are intentionally nurturing a culture that centers Blackness and is rooted in an emerging practice of liberatory leadership. We operate from the truth that power is inherently relational and we seek effective ways of interacting with each other to disrupt dominant power dynamics. By listening to, understanding, and centering Black voices and experiences—and those of Black women in particular—we are creating an environment where everyone can thrive. There’s no one way this looks; writer Dax Devlon-Ross paints a beautiful picture of what values we should center in our work to cultivate a pro-Black space.

Make the personal well-being of leaders as important as other priorities. Even before the COVID pandemic, people were exhausted, as we’ve all been taught by society to override instincts of self-care and to keep pushing through—no matter what, at all costs. Yet, rest is vital to mental and physical health, especially for BIPOC leaders who are at the forefront of caring for our communities. That’s why healing and wellness are core to the mission of the BIPOC ED Coalition. Last year, we held a series of virtual wellness sessions to explore self-compassion and disrupt white-dominant ideas about productivity. In fall 2021, we offered a Respite and Rest program, supporting 20 executive directors of color each with $2,000 to take a week away from work. And we just launched a new Sabbatical for BIPOC Leaders program to support healing, renewal, and capacity building for individuals and their organizations. These wellness initiatives are essential practices to be integrated into every organization.

Embrace difference. Having over 240 BIPOC EDs come together, united in our demands for change, is incredibly impactful. We believe that we are stronger together. Within that, building networks of trusting relationships is key, and equally important is celebrating disagreements. Core to the concept of diversity is difference, and the belief that difference is beautiful. And difference can mean disagreement. Over 240 talented BIPOC leaders are not going to align on everything, and that’s a good thing—finding core alignments clarifies when and how we can advocate together, while differences offer us opportunities to learn and challenge our unconscious beliefs. Truly celebrating difference means embracing generative conflict and building ways to lovingly disagree with one another.

Hold funders accountable to their solidarity statements. After news of the police murder of a Black person or another injustice, funders often release statements of sympathy and solidarity. Then they go back to the same ineffective and inequitable funding practices. We don’t need more flowery words. We need money! We wrote an open letter to funders asking funders to 1) increase their annual payout beyond the minimum five percent—no more saving for a rainy day because we’re living through torrential downpours daily; 2) earmark funding for BIPOC-led nonprofits, which have been overlooked and significantly under-resourced for decades; 3) make significant, multi-year grants so nonprofits can make long-term plans; and 4) invest in power-building and systems change work led by BIPOC communities. Over 200 BIPOC leaders and organizations have signed the open letter. We are calling on philanthropy to rebalance power and commit to working with BIPOC leaders in healthier ways by signing our Equitable Funder Pledge and increasing investment in BIPOC communities. To truly disrupt the status quo, this pledge must be the baseline expectation of all funders.

Fix inequitable policies and systems through collective advocacy. Policy and advocacy work can seem daunting, and funders often discourage it. Yet, we cannot truly address inequity if we fail to address it at the policy level. We must build a unified legislative agenda that mobilizes the power and genius of BIPOC communities. We also need to look at whole systems change and ensure our government fundamentally supports human beings with guaranteed income, universal health care, and affordable childcare. Through virtual gatherings and trainings on how to engage in the legislative process, we successfully advocated for and saw eight bills that we promoted signed into law in 2022. Still, there’s more work to be done. Next year, we want to deepen relationships between members of our coalition and develop a systems-focused BIPOC policy agenda. When BIPOC leaders drive how issues are defined, decisions are made, and solutions are created, meaningful change becomes possible.

Rethink the impossible nonprofit executive director role. Nonprofit leaders often juggle multiple priorities. Executive directors work long hours and often feel isolated because they are viewed as the only one who can do the job. At the coalition, engagement among members has varied. We’ve rescheduled gatherings because of low registration and seen low participation in surveys. This makes sense because nonprofit leaders have impossible jobs. Our coalition is working to change this. We celebrate rest and balance, not burnout. In addition to creating safe spaces where nonprofit leaders can share what is really going on for them and feel supported, we are promoting new, nourishing leadership models that are also practical. We are modeling such practices at the BIPOC ED Coalition by adopting a co-executive director model where we distribute leadership among four people who are supported by a talented managing director who oversees operations. We don’t need to follow the same structures and practices that have led so many of us to burn out and leave the sector.

Moving forward in solidarity

Genuine bonds of solidarity can be forged between people who respect each other’s differences and are willing to fight their enemy together. We are the class that does the work of the world and can revolutionize it. We can win true liberation.” – Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Liberation

As we face mounting challenges in our communities, we need BIPOC leaders, organizations, and movements to be strong and at their most effective. And we need funders and white allies to step up and live into their values.

BIPOC leaders: Consider forming a similar coalition. Prioritize rest and well-being—yours and that of others around you. Get curious about existing organizational practices and support healthier ones. Set new expectations for your funder relationships and demand changes in funding practices. Focus on changing systems. Be in community with us as we grow together and drive collective change. Dream big.

Funders: Sign the Equitable Funder Pledge if you haven’t already. Tell everybody that you signed the pledge, explain why, and encourage them to sign it too. Have conversations with BIPOC leaders about how to move forward. Create accountability for aligning your organization’s actions and practices with its stated values and commit to reimagining your role as funders and partners in the work.

White allies: You are needed, but you must be OK with playing a support role. Amplify the voices and work of BIPOC leaders. Introduce potential donors and funders to BIPOC-led organizations. Be thoughtful about where you get funding and whether sometimes it may be best to decline funding. Defend and protect BIPOC leaders when we are attacked. Make anti-racism work an everyday practice—by embodying it, not just intellectualizing it—and commit to doing this for the remainder of your life.

When we each do our part, and when we work in solidarity, we can more effectively fight against white supremacy and create a just and abundant world.