Rising Above: The Journey to Equity and Empowerment in Nonprofit Leadership

As a Black woman seeking a higher-level position within a predominantly non-diverse nonprofit corporate structure at the time, my journey up the ranks left me little room for error. I walked a daily tightrope of having to present two distinct traits- very educated and very much in control of my emotions. Unfortunately, these two requirements are not unfamiliar to most women, and beholding to them remains true as we navigate up to the higher echelon of the nonprofit sector that can be predominantly male.

Today, we live in a time where the DEI framework is becoming central to shaping the mission of Nonprofits and recruiting a diverse workforce. While we celebrate these advancements and the increasing numbers of women in the C-suite, we must continue to identify and address the gaps remaining to achieve a level playing field for more workers.

The Building Bridges Initiative recently released a Leaders of Color Project Concept Paper that identified the challenges experienced by BIPOC leaders compared to other leaders in predominantly less diverse led organizations.

According to the report, women’s labor has never been adequately compensated, earning 84% of men’s earnings. For Black women that number plummets to 63% and Hispanic women are at 55%. This massive pay gap across race and gender is nationally recognized. The chasmic wealth gap Black and Latino families have experienced (continue to experience) forcing generations of these families further and further behind the curve. If you’re not paying women of color the same, you’re economically holding them back which impacts their health, and their home life, which in turn impacts their performance. Holding someone back from their salary potential holds them back from a growth perspective. Generally, if your salary is 10% lower you will always be coming from a position of disadvantage and continually playing catch-up with no viable pathway to a level playing field. Addressing this very tangible reality, paying all women equitably to men should be a primary goal of any DEI effort.

In my observations, the issue of wage disparity is one of the most evident, cyclical, and problematic barriers to sustaining women BIPOC leaders and higher-ups in the Nonprofit workforce. We need to address the issue of unequal pay for equal work and its ripple effect on systemic barriers.

In my own experience, and with the grace of hindsight when I look at what opportunities provided my advancement in the field and eventual top-leadership positions the answer is not a what, but a who. Two who’s to be exact. Audrey Williams and Vicki Thompson-Sandy two mentors who at different phases of my career are without a doubt the reason I am in the leadership position I’m in today. Their candid advice provided me with an unvarnished view of the workings of a nonprofit and an understanding of what was working and where there were power imbalances that could be corrected. Most of all they instilled two guiding leadership principles- accountability and empathy.

I never would have identified one of my greatest strengths, which is agency stabilization, were it not for my mentor Vicki assigning me to an underperforming adoption agency in Michigan. My job there was to evaluate the weaknesses and use the strengths to counteract those limitations. I had no idea I was capable of doing this job, but soon after starting I saw what my mentor saw, having observed me for years, I was suited to excel at this role. And sure enough, I did. The agency went from overseeing 100 adoptions to 500 adoptions!

Promotions are important but equally so are having people like mentors who understand the unique set of strengths that women of color employees possess and know what opportunities they would succeed at. I would have never assigned myself to that agency in need of a turnaround because I identified as a policy creator but it was my mentor who saw that my penchant for policies came from seeing the surmountable shortcomings of current policies.

We in the nonprofit world have a lot of heavy lifting to do to construct pathways to equity. Here at Vista, we are committed to inclusion and the benefits of it on staff. Our board is committed to fostering a culture of equity and accountability. Most of all our board encourages Vista staff to advocate and speak up for themselves to increase visibility. But like always there’s more that could be done. Current leaders must offer their tutelage to younger employees and help direct them to opportunities that allow for success. Only then will Women especially BIPOC women be able to step off the socially constructed tightropes and celebrate achievement-based feats which foster employee retention and organizational success. As a product of great mentorship, I am passionate about helping staff develop. We have started a program identifying leaders within the agency, giving them the tools to blossom into the next wave to carry Vista well into the future.