By: Maria Rio, 10+ years of experience in nonprofit project/people management

Effective organizations make their purpose clear. Externally there is a vision statement, a stated mission, and a set of guiding principles. Internally, an organization may be working on how they model equity and uphold the values of ethical fundraising, storytelling, and programming. Change has never happened overnight (especially in our sector), but if there ever was a time to look at internal and external practices, it is now.

To turn words and values into meaningful and impactful action, nonprofit leaders must transition our personal leadership and organizational strategy from performative to transformative. Here are 9 problems you may be facing and how to address them:

1. We believe systemic issues should be addressed but are unsure how to meaningfully effect systemic change.

Imagine what our sector and our supporters could do to affect public policy if that was a top priority.

It is extremely easy to get caught up in the nonprofit industrial complex. We raise funds, we spend them, and somehow the issues are still there. Transformative leaders rethink the causes of systemic issues and act to influence policy changes; they walk the talk. Imagine what our sector and our supporters could do to affect public policy if that was a top priority.

There are many ways to approach public policy work:

  • talk to influential contacts in your network about capitalism and racism
  • raise awareness through the media in an appropriate manner (i.e. highlight the work of partners or smaller nonprofits, let communities speak for themselves, refuse to speak on panels of only white experts, etc)
  • ask supporters to engage their representatives
  • share and sign petitions
  • provide funds to organizations working on public policy changes
  • making space for leaders with lived experience
  • deepen partnerships with other nonprofits, grassroots movements, or non-qualified donees.

Some additional materials to reflect on:

2. We believe in equity and inclusion but don’t necessarily want to change our practices to be equitable and inclusive.

It’s always been done this way, how will we engage people, what if we don’t make the same money? While these are valid concerns, they are not insurmountable obstacles. If we — as leaders who greatly value social justice — accept these or other reasons as outweighing the urgency of equitable practices, how can we expect our staff, boards, or donors to commit to those values?

When we consider it’s always been done this way and how will we engage people, we must also consider what systems have led to the creation of inequitable nonprofit practices, and who has been excluded through our fundraising, storytelling, or recruitment.

Turning our attention to what if we don’t make the same money, this is always an important consideration within our sector. People depend on our services and programs need to be funded. However, there is a growing body of evidence that CCF works, and I personally believe this is where our sector is headed.

Check out these resources on improving your fundraising, governance, communications, and community engagement strategies:

3. We believe in supporting other leaders and nonprofits but are not willing to share the spotlight or move aside so communities and leaders can speak for themselves.

How can you share such a precious resource — people’s attention — with other leaders, partners, smaller nonprofits, or grassroots movements?

If you or your large nonprofit find yourself being the main or only voice that is heard through media appearances, op-eds, and general discourse, it may be time to step aside and give smaller, less-funded organizations or grassroots movements some visibility. Let’s eliminate the “voice for the voiceless” narrative: people who have lived experience, are racialized, queer, disabled, neurodivergent, immigrant, or trans can speak to issues their communities face.

Think of the key issues your nonprofit works to address and if you have the lived experience to meaningfully talk about each of them. If not, you could pre-prepare a list of community groups and leaders for reporters to connect with; that way, you are prepared to share the spotlight and not fall for the trap of “the reporter is running out of time, I may as well speak on the issue to raise awareness.”

4. We believe in our work but take donations from corporations or donors who are in direct contradiction with our values.

As a transformative leader, your values and your integrity are not for sale. However, it is almost impossible to avoid the “dirty money dilemma” so what can leaders do to further their mission and stay true to their values? A gift acceptance policy and a fundraiser bill of rights go a long way in balancing the priorities and values of the organization.

Here are some CCF-aligned questions to ask yourself and your team as you reimagine your fundraising strategy:

  • If you are a leader in worker’s rights, do you feel comfortable taking a donation from companies well-known for their violations?
  • What if it was a transformative gift?
  • What if it was anonymous and no one external to your organization would know?
  • What if the donor says or does something problematic — now or in the future?
  • How is your fundraising team empowered to act when faced with a donor who acts in contradiction to your organization’s mission?

5. We believe BLM and posted a black square in 2020 but have not taken significant internal and external action to address anti-Black racism.

If you personally or professionally posted a black square on social media after the murder of George Floyd, have you taken significant action at your organization and externally to address systemic racism and anti-Blackness? Murder is not a fundraising opportunity, nor is it an opportunity to slap an ally sticker on yourself or your organization. If you performatively posted a black square, have you learned from that? Read about how white supremacy shows up in nonprofits and work on dismantling that. The CCF Aligned Actions list is also a great place to start.

6. We want to truly help our community but won’t get political.

Choosing to be apolitical is an option afforded to those with most privilege…For the marginalized, being political is directly tied with our own liberation and the liberation of our communities.

As fundraisers, we know our sector is part of the systems that keep people oppressed. We are part of the systemic problem, and we need to be part of the systemic solution. Choosing to be apolitical is an option afforded to those with most privilege: those who are able-bodied, neurotypical, white, financially secure, citizens, English speakers, straight, cisgender, and securely housed. For the marginalized, being political is directly tied with our own liberation and the liberation of our communities.

Choosing to not seek systemic solutions to systemic issues, and only address the symptoms of those issues, is a bit of a boondoggle. Our sector cannot continue to work piece-meal to address the symptoms; we must work collectively to address the root cause. To push forward meaningful change, transformative leaders must actively be unapologetically political, speak openly about capitalism, the climate crisis, white supremacy, and demand that our elected representatives take measures that benefit all of us, not just some of us. Community-Centric Fundraising cannot be neutral. We should not be content with the notion that living a dignified life is a privilege; it should be something all nonprofit leaders actively and meaningfully use their networks, voice, skills, and privilege to effect.

7. We believe in community, but make decisions hierarchically, have status symbols for our leadership team, and rarely include non-leadership insight in the development of organizational goals.

CCF values reject putting donors on a pedestal; instead, donors, volunteers, and supporters are all partners in the work and personally gain from participating in it. This spirit of partnership should also be felt between leaders, volunteers, staff, and the community. Privileges given only to the leadership team — such as a designated parking spot, different benefits, having people clean up after you, staff not having the opportunity to provide formalized feedback, or a private bathroom — can be symbols of power over instead of power with the staff, volunteers, and community. Similarly, power over the staff and community can also be felt when strategic plans or decisions do not include non-leadership insight or involvement. Engaging staff in the future of the organization will show you value their input and labour.

8. We uplift communities but have never had a non-white ED, or a Board of Directors representative of our community.

In the States, BoardSource has been tracking and analyzing trends in nonprofit board leadership since 1994. According to Board Source’s most recent data:

  • 6% of Board Chairs identified as Black
  • 5% of Board Chairs identified as Latino
  • 2% of Board Chairs identified as Asian or Pacific Islander
  • 5% of EDs identified as Black
  • 3% of EDs identified as Latino
  • 2% of EDs identified as Asian or Pacific Islander

In Canada in 2021, StatsCan reported that board member demographic composition was 59% women (mostly white), 14% immigrants, 11% racialized, 8% LGBTQ2+, 6% disabled, and 3% Indigenous.

These numbers matter. The people on the leadership team direct the communications, public policy, fundraising, and programming direction of the organization. If leaders do not have a similar lived experience to the communities they serve, how can they understand the nuances, the barriers, the shared experiences, or what would bring relief to service users? Having a leadership team, a board, and an ED that is well-supported and representative of the community is imperative in navigating the multi-faceted impacts of systemic issues.

If we claim to value inclusivity, but do not question why the rooms we are in are mostly full of white, able-bodied, neurotypical, financially secure, cisgender, straight individuals, then who are we actually keen on including? Conversations about furthering the mission in these homogeneous circles don’t create spaces in which those with lived experience feel safe or content participating in. We are not interested in being someone’s teachable moment or prop, fighting devil’s advocates, catering to white fragility, masking, or having to frequently explain/defend our identities or expertise. Here are 6 steps to get you started on recruiting an inclusive board.

One more thing – has your organization taken the 50-30 Challenge? The 50-30 Challenge launched in Canada in 2020. The challenge has two goals: gender parity (50%) on Boards and Sr. Management, and significant representation of under-represented groups; significant representation is defined  as a minimum of 30% of board and Sr. Management spots allocated to under-represented groups, including racialized persons, disabled people, LGBTQ2+ individuals, and Indigenous Peoples.

9. We want to be transformative leaders, but reject information that doesn’t align with our established worldview.

Learning and unlearning can be awkward and painful. We have been conditioned to think a certain way about the world, how it should work, and the people within it. When confronted with ways to improve personally and professionally, allyship means taking feelings of shame, pain, confusion, or even anger and dealing with them privately. When emotional labour is being put into educating you or effecting organizational change, a transformative leader takes the time to listen, understand, digest, strategize, get buy in, revisit, and implement. A performative leader hears and then dismisses the information provided.

The above are just 9 ways to transform your operations and leadership — small but meaningful steps can snowball over time, and the organization you have tomorrow will be much better than the one you have today. Moreover, our sector is uniquely positioned to create a model of what equitable, responsible, and communal leadership can accomplish for our communities, for public policy, and for the planet; a model with the potential to be replicated across sectors. Reimaging nonprofit leadership has the potential to exponentially increase justice and inclusion in our work and our societies.

Maria Rio

Maria Rio

Maria Rio (she/her) is the Director of Development at The Stop Community Food Centre, a mid-sized non-profit that provides emergency food access, community building programs, and urban agriculture. Having come to Canada as a refugee at an early age, Maria developed a passion for human rights that now fuels her drive to help locally and make a difference in the lives of people of various marginalized and often inter-sectional groups. After being assisted by many charities and going through an arduous 12-year immigration process to become a Canadian citizen, Maria devoted herself to working in a charity setting to give back to the industry, which had drastically and undeniably improved the course of her life. As a woman, a racialized person, an immigrant, and a member of the LGBTQ2+ community, Maria works diligently every day to ensure that she can make a meaningful difference in the lives of these and other often underrepresented groups.

You can follow or connect with Maria on LinkedIn here.