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By Priscilla Lopezresource organizer and fundraising activist

We need to make intentional power shifts within our organizations to promote emerging BIPOC leaders.

If our sector wants to solve its Black, Indigenous, and People of Color leadership deficit, it must first address its talent management problem.

The nonprofit sector undervalues the reward of cultivating talent internally. 

Due to a lack of resources and HR staff, organizations normalize high turnover and over-rely on external hires to meet their diversity goals. Don’t get me wrong. Turnover can be healthy, and if your staff is primarily white, you should focus on hiring diverse candidates. But for the last 15 years, BIPOC executive leadership has remained under 20 percent. We can’t keep moving in the same direction expecting different outcomes. 

We need to make intentional power shifts within our organizations to promote emerging BIPOC leaders. Those leaders are probably in your office right now. And that power shift can be initiated by every manager becoming an advocate for their staff’s career advancement.

Take a moment to think about your team right now.

  • Do you have BIPOC staff? (You better!)
  • Are they primarily in leadership roles? If not, analyze why they are not. 
  • Have you ever systematically identified ways you and your organization can support the development and advancement of BIPOC staff in your office? 
  • What is stopping you from doing this work?

I’ve worked in nonprofits for eight years in primarily administrative support roles, as do many BIPOC folks, and I’ve always been ambitious in my pursuit of career growth. My managers over the years grew accustomed to my self-initiated professional development plans. I’ve done external training, personal career coaching and courses at city college. Most of my managers were supportive of these efforts. Ongoing education was encouraged. 

But, when I initiated conversations about career advancement internally, some managers — not all — expressed apprehension. 

I understand it isn’t easy because budgets are tight, HR staff is a rarity, and we don’t have the luxury of time to invest in our people’s talents when we’re saving the world — but it’s time to shift our perspective on why it’s worth cultivating talent internally. 

We should be inviting and applauding conversations about career advancement with staff — particularly BIPOC staff.

Value and cultivate emerging BIPOC talent

The lack of BIPOC leaders is rooted in systemic racism.

When someone tells you that they are interested in growing with your organization, your first thought shouldn’t be, “We can’t pay you more.” Instead, you should welcome that conversation with genuine gratitude because they are telling you, “I’m committed and ready to give you more of my talents.” What a gift to your team and organization!

When a BIPOC staff person signals they want advancement — they are offering an excellent opportunity for you.

BIPOC staff contribute more than competencies and skills. We bring invaluable perspective to our work. We have a deep, lived understanding of oppression and are driven by our desire to eradicate it. 

That is the kind of experience we need in our sector’s leadership. That is the kind of experience we need to achieve real social justice. 

But, shifting power from predominantly white folks leading the sector is not easy.

The lack of BIPOC leaders is rooted in systemic racism. According to the Nonprofits So White report, “nonprofit organizations are defined by a pervasive and systemic white advantage … [the] structure and power in nonprofit organizations reinforce the benefits of whiteness.” The growing commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the sector is evolving our awareness of this white advantage. 

But in the last decade, the shifts in power have been nominal. 

Reconsider the origins of existing systems

The racial power structures embedded within our organizations cannot be externally hired away. They need to be cultivated from within.

Despite my commitment to ongoing professional development, I found the pathway out of an administrative support role into leadership tough. I’m still figuring it out. That’s because organizations don’t have internal systems or cultures that support the advancement of staff internally. As a result, even after meeting competencies for growth, the pathways to meaningful advancement are still obscure. 

My experience in the sector tracks with existing research that finds highly educated women of color are most likely to occupy administrative roles and least likely to hold senior leadership positions. That is rooted in how women of color have always been considered “the help” in our society. As a Latinx woman, I’m accustomed to seeing myself in the media portrayed as a maid. It follows that the world would not see me as a leader. 

In Women, Race, and Class, Angela Davis explains that “… women of colour – and especially Black women – have been receiving wages for housework for untold decades. In 1910, when over half of all Black females were working outside their homes, one-third of them were employed as paid domestic workers. By 1920 over one-half were domestic servants, and in 1930 the proportion had risen to three out of five.” The racial power structures embedded within our organizations cannot be externally hired away. They need to be cultivated from within.

Unlike the private sector that has long invested in human resources, our sector doesn’t have extensive experience investing in the people doing the work

That’s because the nonprofit sector was never intended to be a professionalized field. In the U.S., the nonprofit sector has only been in existence for about 100 years. The professionalized field we’ve come to know originated from wealthy white women looking for something to devote their time to in the absence of voting rights and access to the workforce. 

The informal organizational structures that created nonprofits are classist, racist, paternalistic, and not designed to support careers. Today, our sector makes up the third-largest workforce among U.S. industries but is mired with toxic workplace cultures rife with underpaid and burned-out staff

Most development professionals leave a position every 18 months. That is not normal. It indicates severe underlying issues with our workplaces, all of which are amplified for BIPOC staff. And it comes at a high cost.

Reimagine and redesign BIPOC leadership advancement

The shift in power away from white leadership requires a radical redesign of our current organizational power structures.

A lot is spent on external hiring — especially at senior levels. Filling a senior leadership role with an external candidate can cost half their annual salary. Additionally, for-profit research shows that external hires are paid more, have lower performance evaluations, and are more likely to be fired or quit. 

That’s why the private sector has invested for decades in retaining and advancing its staff internally. In some cases, CEOs have dedicated 30 to 50 percent of their time and focus on cultivating talent within their organizations. 

Funders, boards, executives, and managers in nonprofits need to take note, and they also need to take responsibility for developing the emerging BIPOC leaders within their organizations instead of making it someone else’s responsibility. 

That means  skills-building capacity need to be increased and growth opportunities need to be created on the job. After all, research has found that adults learn 70% through on-the-job stretch opportunities, 20% through coaching and mentoring, and 10% through training programs. If the prospect of developing such growth opportunities internally for staff seems daunting to you — shift your perspective.

It is important to shift because we stand to gain an entire leadership pipeline of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color. The shift in power away from white leadership requires a radical redesign of our current organizational power structures. And most importantly, people who are willing to reimagine their individual responsibility to make that shift in power possible. 

Some thoughts for your reimagination quest

1. Invest in a culture that values internal growth

Create an environment where career growth is encouraged, expected, and celebrated. Develop systems that support managers to have these conversations with staff. Get excited when staff raise their hand for growth opportunities, value their commitment, and cultivate their talent. 

Please, please, please stop being weird about engaging in these types of conversations with staff. Snuffing out these conversations results in harmful demotivation of staff and ultimately the work. 

Managers — you have more power than you realize — get creative cultivating growth.

2. Uplift your emerging BIPOC leaders 

Invite conversations with BIPOC staff about their career goals. Even if their sights are set beyond your organization — champion those goals. If they are committed to your organization, work hard to keep them and find meaningful advancement for them. Be a co-conspirator in achieving their aspirations.  

3. Good people management is vital

Supportive relationships between staff and managers are foundational to developing leaders. Invest heavily in hiring, training, and retaining good people managers. Be willing to let go of bad people managers. The damage they cause is not worth it. 

4. Demystify the pathway to internal advancement 

Identify all the possible opportunities for internal advancement in your organization. Not all of them need to be vertical. Some might be lateral or even diagonal. Think about what growth can look like in your organization. Think expansively. Don’t let your fear of not getting it right stop you from trying. 

5. Modeling the private sector can be a starting point, but it’s not a best practice. 

Organizations seeking to dismantle oppression should not replicate the private sector’s systems. As Audre Lorde said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We need to develop systems that are unique to our sector, de-centering oppression and whiteness. We have the creativity to design better systems.  

6. Build the advancement pathways in partnership with staff

Hierarchy is efficient, but it doesn’t always result in unique solutions. A reimagined system will require input from the bottom out. Be willing to co-create advancement pathways with staff of all seniority levels.

7. Shifting power requires investment

Having professional development budgets and good managers are critical. But power shifts require handing over decision-making power along with titles and appropriate compensation. Get ready to make the necessary investments.

I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite principles from Adrienne Marie Brown’s book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, “There is always enough time for the right work … never failure, always a lesson … what you pay attention to grows.” 

PRISCILLA LOPEZ

PRISCILLA LOPEZ

Priscilla Lopez (she/her) is a Latinx-indigenous social justice activist, star-gazer, and vision seeker. She is a major gifts officer at ACLU NorCal working to protect and advance civil liberties for all. She also serves on the board of Eviction Defense Collaborative in San Francisco, enforcing the basic human right to housing and shelter. Priscilla is an avid outdoorist and founder of Yay Area Hikers, a Bay Area hiking group committed to supporting Black, Indigenous, and People of Color explore joy outdoors. When not at work or on a trail you will find her shaking her booty in the kitchen or with her dance team! Priscilla can be reached via Instagram @Pris.chilla or on LinkedIn.

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