Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during May/Jun 2009, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
The process of executive turnover, the transfer of leadership to younger generations, and the search for new leadership models in nonprofits have received a lot of national attention, including the excellent new book, Working Across Generations, whose authors are interviewed in this issue. f
At GIFT, we’ve been a living example of this trend. Here we share some of our recent experiences that may be useful for other organizations facing leadership transitions or looking at shared leadership structures. Although this article isn’t explicitly about fundraising, there are certainly fundraising implications to these issues, which we touch on briefly.
In the fall of 2006 GIFT and the Grassroots Fundraising Journal (GFJ) began merging, and GIFT closed its office in Denver and moved into GFJ’s Oakland office. Priscilla Hung, who had replaced Kim Klein at the Journal, became co-director of the joint organization (using the name GIFT) along with Stephanie Roth, long-time editor of the Journal. In January 2009 Priscilla became sole executive director of GIFT, and Stephanie has continued as editor of the Journal for another year as she transitions out of a staff role in the organization.
Stephanie, 54, a white, Jewish lesbian, is part of the Baby Boomer generation born between 1945 and 1964. Priscilla, 31, is a straight Chinese-American born to immigrant parents on the tail end of Generation X.
Stephanie: I wanted to work with Priscilla as co-director both because I feel I do my best work in partnership and because I wanted to work part-time so that I could continue with my consulting practice with nonprofits. It was clear to me that the executive director position was not one that could be done on a part-time basis. In addition, I didn’t think it made sense for GIFT—an organization whose work was largely about developing the skills and leadership of people of color in fundraising—to have a white executive director. I felt confident that a co-directorship with Priscilla could work because we knew each other and shared values and perspectives on GIFT’s mission. Because Priscilla already had a history with GIFT from being part of GIFT’s intern program several years ago and because of her fundraising background, I also thought that she had the skills, experience, and commitment to share the leadership of the organization in this way.
Priscilla: As a person new to the executive director position, I highly recommend this process of first being a co-director. It allowed me to gain experience while being able to access the expertise and wisdom of my partner. It also allowed me to share the workload and responsibility
so I could take the time I needed to learn new skills, which minimized feelings of overwhelm.
I felt supported, prepared, and excited. It was successful because Stephanie and I had previously worked together, and we like and respect each other. We each had experience with both GIFT and the Journal, and we were both invested in the newly merged organization succeeding under our leadership. I doubt that the co-directorship would have worked if any one of these elements had been missing.
Although aware of some differences between us, we didn’t initially focus on them. As we worked more closely together, however, our differences in working style and priorities became more apparent. We started to realize that some of our struggles had to do with generational differences and, to a lesser extent, racial-ethnic differences.
Priscilla: In Working Across Generations the authors note that a typical characteristic of Generation X is to act as a buffer generation between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. As a younger woman of color from Gen X, I often feel squeezed between two different orientations. I seek legitimization as a professional in worlds that are mostly white, older, and with a hierarchical culture. At the same time, I feel compelled by younger generations who are rebelling against the nonprofit- industrial complex and seeking new organizational forms with more fluidity and lives with more balance.
“ DIFFERENCES [OF RACE AND GENERATION] AFFECTED OUR DISCUSSIONS OF WORK SCHEDULES, VACATION AND TIME OFF, AND COVERAGE IN THE OFFICE.”
Stephanie: Clearly, Priscilla and I grew up in different eras. I came of age when the nonprofit sector was much smaller and less professionalized. I always thought of my work as
“movement” work, and initially I was part of the women’s movement working on issues of reproductive rights and violence against women. There were no boundaries between “life” and work, and the term “work-life balance” had not been invented (though we all complained a lot about having too much work and not enough fun). We experimented with collective structures, and we tended to use titles like
“coordinator” as opposed to “executive director” (much less CEO or president!). But these organizations, which were politically progressive, were also often led by white people, and the organizations were unable or unwilling to deal very effectively with racism and multi-racial organizing.
Although at GIFT Priscilla and I did not talk a lot about the differences in our age and racial-ethnic identities, I never felt they were topics we couldn’t discuss. I was most aware of them in relation to the larger community outside of the organization. For example, in meetings, people addressed me more often or more directly than Priscilla, as if she might not be as “important” or have as much to offer in the conversation.
Because I’ve been in the movement 20+ years longer than Priscilla, I have longer-term relationships with people who are considered leaders in the social justice nonprofit sector. I believed that one of my key roles was to introduce Priscilla to some of these people and support her development. I didn’t realize that this wasn’t a typical experience of younger, newer folks in the sector. Priscilla recently told me that many of her peers complained that the older people they worked with were not very accessible and seemed to have an attitude of “we paid our dues, and now it’s your turn.”
Priscilla: Here are some examples of how these differences affected our partnership. Outside the office, Stephanie had longer-term relationships with GIFT’s donors, some foundation funders, and the community of consultants and intermediary organizations that serve nonprofits. Even though Stephanie did a good job of trying to share her relationships and networks with me, I sometimes struggled with being recognized in those spaces. It could be that these people saw someone who was young, female, Asian, and quiet, and immediately dismissed me as not being leader material. But I also think it is difficult to build rapport in relationships where there are multiple places of difference. For example, with our donors, building rapport with a woman who is older and white was difficult. But with a donor who is female and also young, I can build a stronger relationship even though we’re of different races.
In the office, Stephanie—as is common with Baby Boomers—prioritized being available for the work and flexible with spending extra time to get it done, while I—like many people in my generation—focused more on self-care and allowing staff to set their own boundaries between their work and non-work lives. These differences affected our discussions of work schedules, vacation and time off, and coverage in the office. We also had different relationships with our co-workers. Stephanie, being older and part of the organization for a longer time, held more authority and was used to having to make the decisions. I, being younger and newer, gave more authority to the staff. One style isn’t necessarily better than the other, but neither is going to work if there isn’t agreement between the co-directors and clarity for the staff.
We also had differences in how we viewed finances. Stephanie’s early career in smaller, scrappier organizations that were always struggling financially made her worried about the finances but also willing to take more financial risks. For myself, having started in a more established progressive nonprofit sector that was heavily foundation-funded, I didn’t pay as close attention to cash flow but tended to be more cautious overall. For example, when Stephanie advocated spending money on direct mail to increase the subscriber base of the Journal, I was hesitant to spend money we weren’t sure we actually had.
We all know that conflict is a part of life—and a part of all relationships—but knowing that intellectually and experiencing it at work are two different things.
Stephanie: Given some of the differences mentioned above, it became important for us to understand these differences and come to agreement about how to handle them early on in the co-directorship. We noticed that if we had a different point of view on a decision that had to be made, and those differences were aired at a staff meeting, the rest of the staff often got very quiet. We didn’t realize initially that our differences made the other staff members uncomfortable. They reacted as though they were watching their parents fight, and seemed to feel they had to “choose sides” rather than that they had a right to their opinion, whatever it was. Learning how to work through our differences before bringing ideas to the staff (even if we agreed to disagree) was an important lesson for us.
Priscilla: We have different personalities. Stephanie is an extrovert who prefers working as a team, is passionate and emotional, and is brave enough to say unpopular things. I am an introvert and rational, who often works independently and acts quickly, and tends to speak only when needing to convey something that results in a next step. While this combination might be good for a partnership because we complement each other, I fell into the trap of trying to balance out Stephanie. Instead of providing a more complete directorship, I was actually negating her. For example, Stephanie was good at holding the staff accountable for their work, so I played the role of being good at providing support and understanding. At one point, Stephanie was having a conflict with one of the staff members. I was this person’s direct supervisor, and when they came to me with complaints about Stephanie, instead of helping them talk to each other directly, I just listened and was supportive. I didn’t realize that this was exacerbating the problem and undermining my partnership with Stephanie.
Here’s our advice, most of which requires being intentional and mindful in all of your relationships:
- Be intentional about embarking on this kind of partnership, with an understanding of the obstacles and challenges that you and your co-director (and the rest of the organization) will face.
- Prioritize nurturing the relationship and make it just as important as any other work responsibility.
- Don’t avoid conflict. It’s a part of life, and pretending it doesn’t exist or will go away if you don’t talk about it is bound to backfire.
- Commit to truly listen to each other and respect each other’s point of view, even if you disagree.
- Like two parents, figure out a way to relate to the rest of the organization (staff, board, and other stakeholders) as a team, as partners, and don’t fall into a pattern of playing one of you against the other, or of giving mixed messages to those you supervise.
- Be willing to ask for outside help, which we did by hiring a consultant who worked with the entire staff on identifying the sources of stress and tension in the organization and working with us to improve communication and teamwork.
While it was a big decision to embark on the co-directorship, ending it and transitioning from it in a healthy way also required its own level of effort and intentionality.
Stephanie: I knew that I did not want to stay on the staff of GIFT indefinitely. Soon after Priscilla came on staff, I talked with her about the timeframe I was considering for moving on, though I did not have a firm date in mind. I shared with her my hope that she would continue beyond my tenure and asked what she would need from me and from the organization
to make it possible for her to take on greater leadership and responsibility. Her openness to taking on new challenges and responsibilities, including becoming the executive director when I left, made the transition process go much more smoothly than it might have otherwise.
Priscilla: My own career path, from being completely new to fundraising as a GIFT intern to being the executive director of a fundraising organization in ten years, was marked by continued support and investment in my leadership. I was continually given opportunities to learn new skills, meet people, and take on new responsibilities. In the beginning, I wasn’t great at fundraising, but the main reason I continued to fundraise for social justice was because of the community and mentors I found through GIFT. They helped me feel that what I was doing was important and needed, and I never felt isolated in my work. I couldn’t have asked for a better leadership development process. ■