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Posted under: Opinion

How COVID Has Changed The Way Women Lead In The Non-Profit Space

COVID-19 is showing us that what is predictable is the unpredictable, and Black women leaders have responded with innovation and a laser focused commitment to the work.

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What does it mean to be mission driven? For nonprofit organizations, it means delivering programs designed to change lives, shift trajectories and save environments. It also means raising money to do critically important work locally, nationally or internationally.

Coming into 2020, organizations focused on delivering quality programs to advance their mission. Fundraising activities such as galas, walk/runs, peer to peer events, capital campaigns and annual appeals filled the dance cards for donors excited to support their favorite charity, and fundraisers were on the hook to bring resources into their organization. But 2020 unfolded like a bad straight to DVD movie, and nonprofits globally had to pivot or risk extinction. Organizations moved “in person” galas to stay-at-home affairs. Walk/Runs were held virtually with people running solo and friends cheering participants on through social media. One on one contact, via phone or video became the norm. Marketing efforts increased, with savvy organizations reaching donors in their homes and on their devices in more personal ways. Two words elevated in meaning and importance — connection and community.

Charitable organizations were thrust into a tornado when COVID-19 became our reality. Organizational leaders couldn’t predict where the wreckage would land and what damage it would leave in its wake. Like our peers in the corporate sector, our way of doing business was upended and around the world, organizations, charities and NGOs scrambled to figure out “what’s next” and how to execute their mission virtually. Team members looked to leadership for answers and every leader had to dig deep into their toolbox for tools to inspire, motivate and model what it meant to work differently in uncertain times.

Women led organizations stepped forward as examples of how to weather the ever changing landscape. There was an increased focus on self-care. The conversation around mental health and social justice began to perform a delicate dance as the news flooded our homes 24/7 and there was nowhere to go.

According to an MIT survey conducted in March 2020, nearly half of professionals working before the pandemic in an office environment began to work from home. In the nonprofit sector, women account for nearly 70% of the workforce and we’ve seen an uptick in the number of women leaving the workforce to navigate increasing home responsibilities. This downshift in the workforce, particularly for placed based organizations, exposed challenges that prior to the pandemic sat quietly in the shadows. Many women were forced to lift the veil of being a working caregiver as our colleagues had a window seat into our private lives. What was revealed was the complexity and difficulty of the informal roles many women play at home, while being pulled away from hardwon informal networks, growth opportunities and limited access to social services and care. In our leadership coaching practice at Kishshana & Co., women shared their prioritization of core competencies and daily practices centered around compassion, communication and collaboration. What surfaced in conversations and the dozens of facilitated learning experiences we’ve done since COVID-19 were three strategic priorities women leaders focused on regardless of mission, organizational size or location.


Reimagining the Future of Work for Womxn

COVID-19 is showing us that what is predictable is the unpredictable, and Black women leaders have responded with innovation and a laser focused commitment to the work. There is an increased focus on efforts to mobilize support for women centered issues. Women led organizations have stepped forward to engage the philanthropic community and the public at large in a conversation about what it means to experience this pandemic and the range of issues facing women of color.

Redefining work flexibility, family and what success looks like in order to attract and retain talented women is a critical lever women leaders continue to pull. Women leaders are making hard decisions about choosing their family or their careers. Because of this, there has been a lot of movement. Each week, there are new job announcements filling my LinkedIn feed, and women leaving the sector to start their own consulting practice or go back to school to pursue educational opportunities they might not have leaned into even a year ago.


People Over Money

Listening closely and then taking action has been a critical component of shifting the way women lead. Being able to respond to the concerns of team members is proving to be a simple but effective way to stay nimble and thrive. Raising money is as important as ever and while some organizations can’t keep up with the infusion of donations and investments from philanthropy, others have to work in completely new ways to engage their stakeholders. It's easy to follow the money; private philanthropy is still a large percentage of any organization's revenue mix. But women leaders are calling out funders and stepping up to demand more of the philanthropic community so that it doesn't have to be all about the Benjamins.

So, whether it is elevating the importance of employee benefit programs, shifting roles and responsibilities among teams to accommodate the fast moving work-life bleed or narrowing the focus of programs and services to meet the mission and honor their teams, women leaders are putting their people first.


Creating Communities for Women to Thrive

Amplifying women-led, women-focused communities as a place for connection, growth and safety is another strategic priority for women leaders during this time. When I founded the Rooted Collaborative, a global community for women of color in the nonprofit sector in 2018, I knew Black and brown women doing charitable work needed a brave and safe space to learn, explore, connect and grow. During the pandemic, we’ve experienced huge growth and that can be attributed to informal in person communities (i.e. lunch crews and conference meet-ups disappearing overnight). The challenges women, and particularly Black women, face in the workplace didn’t go away when we started working from home. In fact, they were laid bare on video calls beaming into living rooms, kitchen tables and our private spaces. 

Women leaders in the nonprofit sector face many of the same challenges as our counterparts in the corporate sector. We are often underpaid, undervalued and overworked and our contributions are overshadowed by mediocre colleagues whose lukewarm accomplishments set them on a course to greatness. We must swag surf with grace on a landscape shifting like fast moving platelets under our feet while navigating the rocky terrain of advancing our missions, raising money to thrive, retaining high performing talent, keeping our families happy and not losing our grip on our health or sanity in the process. The opportunity presented is that many of the “surthrival” skills we’ve learned and honed over the course of our careers serves us well right now when panic is a silent mist creeping under our home office doors or makeshift cubicles. We aren’t falling apart at the seams because we know how to push through.

The challenge will be not to lose sight of ourselves while we lead our organizations to solve our society's problems. To be clear women leaders have responded to this pandemic induced frenzy in innovative, game changing ways that have accelerated their organizations missions in new ways. But this cannot be another sad love song where Black women save the day. We are not your superwoman. This is an opportunity to provide coaching, technical support, consulting dollars, unrestricted investments and to make room for women to lead with runway and space to breathe.
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