Aug 04, 2021 | By Maureen McNeil

Women in Nonprofit Leadership Today

Women in nonprofit leadership today are building innovative, multi-pronged business models to reach a broader swath of society than ever before. Having more women in leadership roles within mission-driven nonprofit work has had a number of indelible impacts on the sector as a whole, from challenging bedrock assumptions about how nonprofits address racial and gender inequality, to shifting the ways in which dollars are spent to tackle social injustice by emphasizing local, grassroots solutions, and even reframing the very definition of leadership in the nonprofit sphere.

Emblematic of women leaders in the nonprofit sector is a deep understanding of authenticity and empathy. Women are scaling their organizations and surviving industry-wide crises by rolling up their sleeves, working as a team, and knowing how and when to deploy unrestricted net income to make necessary programmatic shifts.

Harvard Business school defines leadership as making others better as a result of your presence, and making that impact last in your absence. Simone Maren, Co-Founder of Girls Leadership, disagrees. She started out eighteen years ago teaching girls public speaking, firm handshakes, and eye contact. Girls shied when asked if they wanted to become leaders, but they enthusiastically cheered when asked about helping others. “Today our models include Greta Thunberg’s pink backpack, Emma Gonzalez’s shaved head, and Malala Yousafzai’s printed scarf. We talk with the girls about gender expectations and how bias and institutional racism support or interrupt girls’ leadership development. Today our girls speak up for themselves and others. That is leadership.”

Judy Jablon of Leading for Children celebrates these innate leadership skills in early childhood teachers across the country. “Often considered no more than babysitters, these teachers are role models for today’s children: they are curious, nurturing, communicative, self-aware, and always anticipating the outcomes of their lessons. They are optimistic leaders.”

According to the global consulting firm Korn Ferry, “Women are better at using these soft skills, crucial for effective leadership and superior business performance, and outperform men in 11 of 12 key emotional intelligence competencies.” Data from 55,000 professionals across 90 countries at all levels of management were examined in 2016. “If men acted like women in employing their emotional and social competencies, they would be substantially and distinctly more effective in their work,” stated Professor Boyatzis at Case Western University.

The next generation of women in nonprofit leadership are not climbing ladders to put their names on buildings, but building authentic relationships and working collaboratively to bring together grassroots communities and financial partners.

Anecdotes about female leaders who are making huge impacts in the nonprofit sector are endless, but the following case studies illustrate just some of the ways in which women in nonprofit leadership positions made pivotal impacts at their organizations during crises, including the coronavirus pandemic, over the past year:

  • Fredda Rosen, JobPath
    She thought she had seen everything in her twenty year tenure growing JobPath, but when the pandemic hit, 85% of the people with developmental disabilities that Jobpath supports on work sites were furloughed. “The senior staff met every day to figure out who had technology at home, and who had the support at home to teach her workforce. You could say the pandemic had a pewter lining because almost everyone gained the necessary skills and is now thriving working from home.”

  • Tené Howard, Sadie Nash Leadership 
    She cut $400,000 from her annual budget and reallocated resources to hire six social workers and created 200 small grants as an emergency response for the girls and families the organization serves. Her calculated risk exemplifies the mission at Sadie Nash: take action, brush convention aside, and lead by example.
  • Ann Schomaker, Columbia Memorial Hospital
    The 2020 gala was canceled, yet seasoned board member Ann Schomaker refocused the fundraising effort to the end-of-year appeal and raised nine hundred thousand dollars more than previous years. The extra funds went toward the purchase of imaging machines for breast cancer and heart attack patients, sorely needed in the small community.”
  • Ngozi Okaro, Custom Collaborative
    During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, my trainees–Black and Brown, low-income women and immigrants–sewed 500 hospital gowns and masks. My five-year goal is to open workshops in half a dozen big cities across the US, and I’m committed to doing it through non-polluting practices and living wages.”
Repairing holes in the social safety net of the nonprofit sector is an ongoing struggle. Day to day racist and sexist biases take a toll. Making sure everyone is on board often means finding multiple solutions to problems rather than one big fix. 

Only 5% of corporate CEOs in America are female and many, like MacKenzie Scott, Laurene Powell Jobs, Priscilla Chan Zuckerberg, Melinda French Gates, are using their wealth to forge new paths in philanthropy by allocating trillions of dollars aimed at solving women’s issues around the world. Moreover, with increased pressure for equitable corporate hiring practices, female CEOs will join the ranks of these large donors, scaling this crucial new source of philanthropy. This is good news for women in nonprofit leadership. Challenging the status quo means not only getting access to unrestricted funding but making leadership opportunities within everyone’s reach. Key social justice solutions often reside in the hands of those they seek to help.

The Biden-Harris administration’s proposed trillion-dollar investment to reinvigorate jthe US post-pandemic economy includes what some refer to as “soft” infrastructure–child care, education, health and parental leave–that are traditionally areas of women’s repair. Women in leadership positions are capable of knitting the holes in the social safety net with a team of innovators in technology, law, education, communication, and design. Building a safer,more inclusive American middle class requires groundbreaking approaches to nonprofit finance and leadership, and women leaders in the sector are the right candidates for the job. 

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