By Sarah Audelo
Four years ago, I became the first woman of color to lead the Alliance for Youth Organizing. I was a 33-year-old Latina and first-time executive director with limited fundraising experience tasked with overseeing a nationwide network of groups mobilizing young voters.
This fall, I am stepping down from that position and taking stock of what I’ve learned about how people of color can succeed at the nonprofits we are asked to lead.
While less than 20 percent of nonprofit executive directors or CEOs are people of color, efforts to significantly increase those numbers have recently gained momentum — especially following last year’s massive racial justice protests. But simply hiring more of us isn’t enough. Without intentional support, it’s too easy for executive directors of color to feel like — or be seen as — props or tokens who are set up to fail.
Over the past four years, I’ve come to understand that the support we need has three main components. It starts with organizations laying the groundwork for change before we are hired and then ensuring that adequate finances and board support are firmly in place. A new executive director of color cannot transform a historically white organization alone. We are not your in-house diversity, equity, and inclusion experts.
Lay the groundwork. I once got a call from a headhunter who was looking for a new executive director of color who would shut down existing programs and refocus the organization’s work on young people of color. I looked at the senior staff list, which was all white, and wondered why the nonprofit didn’t make these changes prior to the new leader’s arrival.
“Before a new executive director walks through the door, the transformation into a more equitable and inclusive organization should be well underway. At its core, that means putting the experiences of people of color at the center of the organization’s work and addressing policies and behaviors that perpetuate anti-Blackness so we can begin to decenter white people as the norm and dominant culture.”
Before a new executive director walks through the door, the transformation into a more equitable and inclusive organization should be well underway. At its core, that means putting the experiences of people of color at the center of the organization’s work and addressing policies and behaviors that perpetuate anti-Blackness so we can begin to decenter white people as the norm and dominant culture. Organizations should conduct an analysis of pay equity and personnel policies to understand how people of color are valued — both in hiring practices and in the nonprofit’s programs, issues, and campaigns.
A new executive director of color should enter an organization that is stable. Her hiring should not be used to solve an identity crisis — or any other kind of crisis. Hiring a new executive director of color is not the way to clean up past mistakes or the magical solution for fixing the harm done to people of color.
Provide early financial support. A survey by the Building Movement Project found that executive directors of color reported having a harder time raising money than their white counterparts. Despite my very limited fundraising experience, when I came on board at the Alliance for Youth Organizing, I was suddenly responsible for payroll and ensuring my staff could make their rent and student loan payments. Money was on its way, but moving slowly. I was terrified of having to dip into reserves for the first time in our organizational history.
New executive directors shouldn’t be lying awake at night worrying about how to keep the lights on. Instead, they should spend their first few months learning the job and building relationships. Ideally, the organization should have six to nine months cash on hand before hiring a new leader of color.
I was fortunate that the Alliance had budgeted for me to work with a management coach, who was herself a former young executive director of color. She provided the guidance I needed as I navigated this new role and encouraged me to seek out help from my small network of connections in the field when my cash flow was tight.
Almost immediately, that network moved into action. Austin Thompson, the former head of the Youth Engagement Fund connected me to Luna Yasui, previously a senior program officer at the Ford Foundation. That quickly turned into a $100,000 grant. My former boss, Deb Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, connected me to the incredible team at the Compton Foundation and soon another check was in motion. Those interactions helped me develop the confidence I needed to approach other foundations and changed the trajectory of our organization.
I took the lesson of early support to heart. At the Alliance, we now welcome all new executive directors of our affiliate organizations — mostly young people of color under the age of 30 — with a $30,000 grant. New executive director grants should become commonplace across philanthropy. This can take the form of increased support from existing donors during transitions or support from new philanthropic organizations that see the transition as a moment of opportunity.
Provide board support and engagement. The decision to hire a new executive director of color should be part of a board’s ongoing work to support the organization’s development and evolution. At a minimum, boards must honor their fiduciary and governance responsibilities so that they do not leave the new executive director holding the bag for past mistakes. That means ensuring the nonprofit has robust reserves and has complied with all relevant laws.
My peers at other nonprofits have been forced to address a mind blowing array of problems in their early months on the job, including dealing with the IRS, addressing pay inequity, and tackling problems stemming from their organization’s racist past actions. New executive directors of color should not have to start their jobs with an apology tour for previous harmful behavior.
In advance of hiring executive directors of color, the board may need to do its own racial justice work, reflect on its composition, and educate itself about implicit bias and equity. Executive directors of color are hired for their vision, but too often board members are stuck in the past. One of the greatest gifts my board and predecessor gave me was addressing problematic board members before I started. Our boards should be our co-conspirators and greatest champions.
Any progressive nonprofit serious about dismantling our nation’s inequitable systems should of course consider hiring an executive director of color. But if the organization doesn’t put the pieces in place for that leader to succeed, it will merely perpetuate the inequities it is seeking to overcome.