To say the least, it’s been a historic time to take on a new leadership role in the social sector. Eighteen months ago, I was honored to be selected as the CEO of LIFT, a nonprofit that aims to disrupt generational cycles of poverty and build family prosperity. Our offices in New York; Chicago; Washington, DC; and Los Angeles provide integrated financial, educational, and career coaching, as well as direct cash payments, to support parent’s goals for themselves and their children. I succeeded LIFT’s founder, Kirsten Lodal, who had devoted 20 years to building the organization and developing its unique approach, which places import on financial, social, and personal well-being. Since then, we have grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented racial uprising, and continue to reckon with the deadly racial injustice that impacts the communities LIFT partners with the most.
In many ways, we executed the succession skillfully, starting with the board’s enthusiasm for creating space for a leader of color to take the helm. I was an internal candidate, and while Kirsten cultivated and championed my leadership, I earned the position after going through an intensive search process led by the board and an executive search firm. There was also ample lead time; the organization spent more than two years planning and implementing the transition in order to set itself up for success. This process included developing a strategy to increase programmatic impact; engaging in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work; garnering major donor investments; diversifying the board; and strengthening board practices. In addition, careful planning around the transfer of trust and confidence in donor relationships resulted in some funders actually investing in the transition. Finally, rather than taking a seat on the board and thus hard-wiring deference in strategic decision-making, Kirsten took an advisory role, providing me with counsel and support.
However, transitions are tricky by nature, and LIFT was not immune to its challenges. Succession at the top of an organization inevitably sparks turnover. When a founder steps down, other senior leaders also tend to go—to finally start that business, move closer to family, or take that next step in their professional growth. It’s also common for funders to withhold support from the time of the transition until after the new CEO’s first year—arguably when the organization needs support most. This questionable practice exacerbates funding challenges for leaders of color, who receive a paltry 4 percent share of all philanthropic dollars.
All transitions pose challenges, but structural biases in the sector mean there are additional complexities when an organization transitions from a white leader to a leader of color. Black and Brown leaders not only receive significantly less funding than white leaders, but also have less access to informal, intimate, and powerful donor networks. For example, we may not share the same alumni associations, familial connections, or cultural norms and practices that can accelerate or deepen relationships. We also face greater skepticism. Executives of color jump through more hoops to secure less funding than white peers, who often get larger, multiyear commitments, including the kind of “big bet” investments often awarded to social entrepreneurs. They also contend with a heightened sense of responsibility, expectation, and scrutiny. We have little room to fail without facing indictments of our leadership, coupled with a negative halo effect on other people of color within our organizations. As one peer expressed, “I feel like I am expected to do much more than a CEO should be expected to do, because I am a woman of color.” And a top Black executive once advised me, “Don’t let your team delegate up.” In other words, don’t let people demand more of you as a leader because you are a person of color.
The compounding crises of this time—a deepening recession, a global pandemic, and racial unrest—have further exposed how the dynamics of inequity play out for nonprofit executives. For instance, people generally see white leaders who make public statements about inequity and the need for change in a heroic light, but many—including those with authority over funding decisions—have penalized leaders of color for taking a stand against injustices that affect our very own communities.
I’ve felt the brunt of this judgment in my own response to the crises. The band-aid has been ripped off the festering sore of slavery and, like other leaders of color, I feel the pain is almost too much to bear. Days of inspired action are interspersed with days of deep sadness, rage, and exhaustion. I have woken up in tears and the desire to stay undercover. But I’ve also heeded the words of writer and activist Audre Lorde: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important that I am afraid.” I’ve dared to use my power and position to speak out against the repeated and blatant disregard for the people of color we partner with at LIFT. In response to the murder of George Floyd, I wrote a statement explaining how LIFT’s work to bring about economic justice was part of a broader—and needed—effort to dismantle structural racism. After reading it, a long-time donor reached out to Kirsten, who had moved into her advisory role, complaining about the “racialized” statement and indirectly chastising me for speaking my truth. Kirsten responded by affirming every word and defending my leadership, but the exchange was exemplary of the kind of personal and professional affronts that threaten leaders of color as they work to establish their voice.
Equitable representation in leadership comes with a distinct set of benefits, and given that only 10 percent of nonprofit CEOs are leaders of color, I am deeply honored to represent communities that often don’t get a seat at the table. Because we understand what it feels like to confront discrimination, bias, and prejudice, we have proximity to the lived experience of the communities we serve. This influences our ability to directly address issues of equity. Beginning with my interview process, for example, I spoke to the importance of connecting LIFT’s work to break generational cycles of poverty with the painful history of slavery, Jim Crow Laws, redlining. and other wealth-stripping laws and policies at the heart of current racial and wealth divides. I have also driven the team to measurably place race equity at the center of everything we do, including board recruitment, staff training, program design and evaluation, and communications strategy. And my vision for growth and scale is motivated by the responsibility I feel to reach millions of people of color still living in poverty across the United States.
Representation also matters to junior team members. In a world with few C-suite role models, it helps them see themselves in future leadership roles. My team has expressed again and again how much it means to them to see their identity reflected in their CEO. In fact, a recent study by the Building Movement Project, “Race to Lead Revisited,” showed that people of color performed worse at organizations with white CEOs—with less opportunity for raises, promotions, and mentors, despite equal qualifications—while people of color and white staff performed better under CEOs of color.
During this time of crises, proximity has also made me acutely aware of the trauma my team is experiencing and absorbing, just as I move through it myself. While providing support to Black and Brown communities who are feeling the impacts of the pandemic the most, they are also dealing with personal loss in their own lives and vicarious trauma from watching—again and again—violence inflicted on people who reflect their racial identities. I’ve therefore committed to providing empathetic support to all staff through: organizing culturally grounded rituals such as sharing circles to create brave spaces to connect and heal; encouraging self-care through generous offerings of paid time off and flexible scheduling; and leading by example by taking care of myself through connection with others who’ve a shared experience.
Leaders of color who take over from white founders and those who support them must attend to systemic issues as they work to redress race inequity. Following a few best practices can help:
This has been an incredible time to be called to lead, particularly as a Black woman. Along with other, normative challenges during the succession—including clarifying vision, establishing presence, differentiating leadership, running business operations, and building organizational culture—I had to face into the headwinds of bias. The pandemic and widespread protests against racial violence whipped those winds into a hurricane. But there’s nevertheless some calm in the eye of the storm. It lies in the space where we can collectively reimagine, recreate, and dismantle entrenched systems of oppression by taking bold action. Black lives more than matter; our lives, experiences, and voices—our perspectives, innovation, and brilliance—are essential to bringing about true systemic change and social justice. Ample support and investment in our leadership can be the wind at our backs we need to create a more equitable society for all.
Michelle Rhone-Collins is the CEO of LIFT (@Liftcommunities), a nonprofit working to break intergenerational cycles of poverty and build family prosperity. She upholds the powerful combination of hope, money, and love that we all need to reach success in our lives.