As part of Co. Act's Leadership Pipeline project, I had the honor of interviewing several nonprofit leaders and stakeholders for the past week or so. In today’s blog, I would like to share an interview I did with a leader of a nonprofit organization in Detroit. Adhering to the privacy guidelines of the project, I would like to keep the names of the interviewee and their organization anonymous here.
How it all started & where they are
Going into the nonprofit sector was something unexpected for the leader. Although they wanted to go work for more prominent organizations that directly deal with specific issues such as health, with internships, they realized that local nonprofits also deal with those issues in their own ways. Rather than focusing on a specific issue and specific organization, they found a greater appeal in nonprofit capacity building to strengthen the nonprofit ecosystem and to support all mission-centered organizations to deliver their purposes. They called themself as a “cheerleader” for nonprofits.
When they first came to their current organization, the structure was so different from now. There was more rigidness and traditional work culture embedded into the organization structure. After several discussions in the leadership team and from firsthand experiences, they learned that the center of an organization’s culture and structure should be listening to people and prioritizing internal human capital. In other words, empathy and mental health should guide the restructuring of the organization.
Another important change in the organization has been Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). As nonprofits often face, the lack of accountability in the DEI work required a new system or process for the operational structure. With graphic representation such as vision traction organizer and accountability chart, their organization attempted to re-establish roles beyond job titles and map out relationships in a non-hierarchical way. These efforts allowed them to easily keep track of goals, values, and vision of the organization not only in the issue of DEI but other emergent issues as well.
What it means to be a nonprofit leader
As mentioned, a deep understanding of the significance of DEI and justice within the workplace is critical to a nonprofit leader who must continue this necessary, ongoing journey. They emphasized how historical knowledge of institutionalized and structural adversity are requirements for effectively serving marginalized communities.
Patience and endurance must also not be forgotten. Everyday nonprofit work is tiring and relentless as it attempts to resolve a structural issue that cannot be solved by a single nonprofit. Leading this bold movement is even tougher. However, they highlighted how leaders must believe in themselves that their work is building towards levels of changes.
Something else that must also be practiced every day is collaboration and empathy. In the end, most of the nonprofits’ important work is done by those in the field who are providing some form of direct service that leads to immediate impacts on the individuals being served. Nonprofit leaders must listen to staff from all levels and work collaboratively.
Despite the burdens and challenges that nonprofit leaders often face (which also often lead to burnouts and leaders leaving their positions as suggested by our project), they were so eager and passionate about their work. They ambitiously talked about the next 4-year plan with the board and their excitement to take on even bigger projects afterward.
Listening to this inspiring story of a passionate nonprofit leader from Detroit, I was personally moved by their journey and vision. Beyond the project, the interview enlightened me to find even greater meaning to be working in the nonprofit sector.