Numerous challenges confront metropolitan America today. Many workers have not seen meaningful wage growth in recent years—despite nearly a decade of economic recovery. Income and wealth inequality persist. Behavioral health systems struggle to keep up with addictions of despair at the same time that congressional actions place health insurance coverage out of reach once again for millions of Americans. Recent GOP tax cuts and spending deals are forecast to create deficits that hamper the ability of federal, state, and local government to care for society’s most vulnerable during the next economic downturn.
The ability of metro areas to respond to these challenges and develop sustainable solutions will rest heavily on the capacity of community-based nonprofits to marshal local resources, deliver assistance to families, and advocate for policy change at all levels of government. To that end, metropolitan leaders must work together to develop a new generation of nonprofit leaders who can help communities and organizations navigate this new environment. Signs of this imperative abound:
- Nonprofit leadership succession challenges remain a prominent concern and many nonprofits in our metro areas lack strong leadership pipelines and intentional strategies for cultivating talent internally.
- People of color continue to be underrepresented in nonprofit leadership positions, not because of lack of interest or qualifications, but because of structural barriers and practices that perpetuate inequality.
- Nonprofit boards, critical to organizational operations, also too often do not reflect the broader community. For example, a 2017 BoardSource study finds people of color compose roughly the same share of nonprofit board positions today—16 percent—as 25 years ago. More than one-quarter of all nonprofit boards have no representation by communities of color.
- Suburban communities—many of which have seen poverty increase by three times the population growth rate in the last several decades—have just a fraction of the nonprofit capacity of their urban centers, and suburban nonprofit leadership structures often fail to reflect the increasing diversity of surrounding communities.
In the coming decade, therefore, we must proactively and equitably train and engage leaders from underrepresented, oppressed, and marginalized communities across our metropolitan areas.
Our work in Seattle and observations of similar work in other regions suggests many lessons about how public and nonprofit organizations can begin to develop the next generation of nonprofit leaders:
- It is critical to provide intentional and sustained learning, mentorship, and growth opportunities for emerging leaders to support their pathway to more senior leadership positions. Cutting-edge nonprofit organizations like Rainier Valley Corps cultivate leaders of color, strengthen organizations led by communities of color, and foster collaboration among diverse communities. Online resource guides that support training and leadership development, executive coaching, and professional development for leaders from marginalized and oppressed communities can be found at sites like the Building Movement Project.
- Disruptors—community actors fighting against persistent, overt discrimination and racial bias in hiring—are building toolkits to promote more inclusive recruitment, hiring, and performance management practices. Consultants like Cultures Connecting, HR & Equity, and New Directions Consulting, LLP are at the forefront in challenging organizations to dismantle organizational cultures that impede efforts to achieve greater equity and inclusion in leadership.
- Corporate philanthropy is increasingly finding ways to promote employee engagement and social impact through volunteer service and leadership trainings. Many companies rely on local experts, such as Seattle Works and affiliates of Points of Light, who specialize in supporting corporate volunteerism to build new volunteer capacity for local causes and organizations. Groups like Premera Blue Cross are investing in scholarships for people of color to gain access to nonprofit board training. There is great demand for such opportunities: Seattle Works offered 20 full scholarships for 2018, and the scholarship slots were filled in a matter of days.
- Philanthropic and government agencies can take concrete steps to provide more equitable access to program funding opportunities. Local leaders and philanthropists in metro areas also must flip the script on compensation levels and workplace benefits to improve recruitment and retention. Such work involves active steps to move away from traditional low-pay norms of the nonprofit sector to more competitive salary and benefits packages.
Metropolitan areas must be bold in investing in leadership development. Achieving greater leadership equity means investing more in emerging leaders and organizations from historically marginalized or oppressed communities. The ability of metro areas to respond to today’s unprecedented challenges depends on it.