Dani Robbins

Posts Tagged ‘social justice’

Options and Opportunities for White Social Justice Leaders

In Advocacy, Community Strategy, Leadership, Lessons Learned, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on February 24, 2021 at 1:30 pm

I’m writing this piece as the first step in a conversation that’s been long in coming. I’d like to talk about what the role is or should be of white social justice leaders right now.

There have been calls for white leaders to step aside and internal (possibly unspoken) consideration that maybe we should. Many of my peers, clients, students, and friends are trying to figure out if they’re in the right spot or if the spots to which they aspire are no longer appropriate for them to ascend. Each leader must answer that for themselves.

What is the right way to honor the values that we’ve spent our entire careers advancing?

I would like to offer some food for thought while you’re still in the leadership chair as you contemplate your next move.

We can change both the systems we impact AND the ways we lead. We can change the opinions and minds of other white leaders. We can change ourselves!

If you have spent your whole career, as many of us have, trying to advance social justice and working towards racial equity, continuing on or continuing to apply or aspire to apply for the role of a leader of a social justice agency is complicated.

We have a role to play in changing the landscape of leadership by including new and diverse voices in our quest to achieve social justice.

I’ve heard the questions: “Should we step aside to create space for a person of color to ascend into leadership?” “Should we not apply at all to make space for a leader of color?”

While this sounds and is dramatically ma/paternalistic, is it in service to a larger mission? It may or may not be. Individuals have to determine for themselves what their personal sacrifice might be.

While we’re thinking about these large existential questions, our Boards may not be. The million-dollar question right now is “if we do step aside, will the board just hire a different white leader that may know less about justice, equity, the mission and leadership than we do?” If history is any guide, they likely will.

We know, and there’s certainly enough evidence to support, that white leaders get more resources, get hired more often, get paid more, stay longer, and get more grace when they make a mistake.

If we don’t want to be a part of perpetuating inequity, and we don’t, then we must consider our role. A not insignificant number of white leaders have a lot of experience, significant education, a huge network, and have earned respect across communities.

There are too few good leaders of all races anyway, and we can’t afford to say goodbye to the still majority of them that are white.

Which brings me back to my initial question: What is the role of a white social justice leader right now?

I offer the following ideas for your consideration; they all won’t apply to you, but some of them might. Special thanks to Tasha Booker from City Year Columbus, Tiffany Galvin Green from John Carroll University and John Miller from Boys & Girls Club of America for helping me articulate my thoughts around this issue. You each and all bring light to my life, appreciation to my heart, and depth to my leadership.

These are a starting place as I see it. I encourage you to share other options.

Representation matters

Make sure that you are bringing people into your organization who don’t look like you or look like each other.

Representation is built in a variety of ways; it includes where we recruit, how we hire and who we promote. It’s the Boards we build and the policies and practices we recommend. It’s the values we live, and the cultures of inclusion we craft.

It also means we create processes and outcome measures that can be assessed. Most of us don’t like quotas and also don’t like tokenism; find a way to measure without marginalizing. You will need different metrics to measure awareness, education and transparency. 

To be clear, meeting measurements may not mean you’ve changed the culture. It’s one thing to bring in people of color. It’s another to create a culture that allows them to bring their full selves to work, to be their best selves and do their best work. Retention is a good metric with which to start. 

Representation also means not allowing all white leadership or all white boards. If that happens to be where you find yourself, commit to change. Question the process that got you there. Introduce the need for diversity, educate the group on why diverse groups make better decisions, and why homogeneous groups aren’t representative of the community you (likely) serve. Plant and cultivate the seeds for change.

Talk about and improve systems regarding diversity, equity and inclusion every chance you get.

Celebrate successes and call people in as necessary; commit to creating space for alternative opinions and alternative voices. Commit to not only inviting people to the table but making sure they are embraced and made to feel as if they belong. Also commit to being uncomfortable and to holding others accountable when they’re out of line.

The goal is awareness, understanding and appreciation. You may need to create cultural competency even as you’re changing the cultural make up and landscape. Agencies can’t diversify without changing the cultural cues and raising the competency to understand what different looks like.

Commit to improve the policies and practices at your organization to embrace people from all groups and eliminate the ones that alienate, or worse, discriminate. Critique all with an eye toward potential harm and then (work with the Board to) change what does not meet your new standards.

Differentiate between feeling intimidated and being intimidated

You may feel intimidated in the new more inclusive culture you’ve established, but that may have nothing to do with the actions of other people. Learn to discern the difference between feeling intimated and being intimidated.

Impact your sphere

Take a look at everything in your sphere of influence where you can affect change.

  • How is your organization investing their resources?
  • What are your hiring practices?
  • Where are you advertising your open positions?
    • If only white people apply, what do you do next?  (hint: shoulder shrugging is not the right answer; changing where you’re advertising might be.)
  • Who are you grooming for leadership?
  • Who is in your succession?

If you don’t like what you see, change it.

Send the elevator back down

We are all standing on other people’s shoulders. Make sure there are people who don’t look like you standing on yours. Create opportunities for leaders and potential leaders of color to grow and to learn, to safely make mistakes, and to step into their power.

Normalize and invite feedback

If someone calls you out, consider your role in whatever you’ve been accused of and commit to do better. None of us are going to get this right all the time. We have to be gracious enough to realize that and to welcome opportunities to learn.

Create mechanisms and space for feedback- in whatever form it’s offered.  Everyone comes to the table from the personal perspective of their own safety. It’s the leader’s job to create a culture of safety.

Some mechanism will have to be built; we can create the polices, practice and history that demonstrate our ability to hear, accept and integrate feedback and create trust.

Amplify leaders of color whenever possible.

We can amplify others’ voice. Compliment leaders publicly and provide opportunities for them privately. We can reinforce their statements, while giving them credit for making them. We can be an ally and an accomplice to their success. This is true of our colleagues in the community, our peers in the organization and also our team members.

For our teams, I’m going to dip back to the ma/paternalistic for a minute, and we have to, because white leaders are still the majority of leaders.

We can advocate for leadership projects and provide real ongoing feedback. We can position our up-and-coming or current leaders of colors to be in a place to receive public compliments. We can identify them privately with other (hopefully not all white) leaders, provide opportunities for them to take on projects to create a profile for them to publicly represent the organization.

We can find a way to put people of color in situations where they can shine which also advances the mission, and the work of justice.

Avoid performative statements and insist on action

A commitment to diversity is great but only if it moves the action forward. Commitment must be supported by action. It can’t just be on paper and then we all go along the way we always have. If you want change, you have to change.

Consider your place and your role

The questions where we began are tough, and so are you.

Yes, you should probably apply. The hiring decision isn’t yours to make. If you get the job, know that you have an obligation.

You have an obligation to develop every person on your team to become their very best, to be prepared for whatever role they aspire to next, to step into their power and away from feeling like they’re not worthy. You should push and support them in considering roles you see they’re capable of, even if they don’t.

If you are stepping down and you’ve developed your team, encourage them to apply and cheerlead for them to be hired. Consider also keeping an eye out for jobs outside of your organization. Social justice is advanced when we work together as a community to affect change.

Change management requires change in leaders as well.

It’s not enough to change the organization. We have to change ourselves.

It’s much easier to defend our values than to live up to them.

Let’s live up to them. If all we have are words and war, let’s talk. Let’s hold up, mentor and create opportunities for the leaders our communities need. Let’s be the change and let’s develop it in others as well.

This is the way we honor the values that we’ve spent our entire careers advancing.

A New Day Dawns

In Community Strategy, Leadership, Lessons Learned, Non Profit Boards, nonprofit executives on November 25, 2020 at 9:53 am

Four very long years ago I wrote the article Just Don’t after Trump was elected. Since then, those of us who work for and believe in justice have endured four very long years.

Four years of hate, pettiness and meanness.

Four years of seeing our stature in the world reduced, and our friendships with dictators and autocrats increased.

Four years of the dismantling of sacred institutions and the embracing of white supremacy and misogyny.

Four years of demeaning women, minimizing rape victims, and ignoring gender imbalance, other than to exploit it.

Four (more, more encouraged and also more often denied) years of racial and ethnic injustice. Four years of minimizing our fears and embracing those from whom our fears are born.

Four years of the abject denial that there’s a price being paid by the children of those that were brought here against their will and a debt owed.

Four year of turning our backs on immigrants and refugees, despite the fact that almost all of us are the children of immigrants and refugees.

Four years of embracing the idea that experience doesn’t matter, that science isn’t real, and that news is fake, even when you saw it unfolding yourself.

Four years that allowed a pandemic to rage in the final year with no federal response, no compassion and certainly no plan.

Four years of screaming into the wilderness and feeling as if we might lose our democracy, our hope, and maybe even our minds.

Today, a new day dawns.

We have joined together to elect a president who sees us, and a vice president who looks different than any vice president who has come before her. (I cried as I wrote that.)

Together, they are building a cabinet that looks like us, to represent us.

We now can turn our energies to supporting them. We won’t agree with everything they do, and that’s okay. We don’t always agree among ourselves. This is a pluralistic society and if we do our jobs right, it always will be.

We now have the opportunity to focus our energies to move forward the missions we serve, the values we believe and the justice we desire.

Thank you to my brothers and sisters across this country who have used their voice, their bodies and their money to stand up to bullies and to stand against hatred; to stand up for what we believe.

I salute you. I see you. I am grateful for you. Thank you.

Ten Years of Change, Growth and Nonprofit Evolution

In Uncategorized on January 10, 2020 at 10:33 am

Last October marked ten years for my company.  It was a transformational decade for me professionally, for our sector and our work. 

Professionally, I had the opportunity to

  • build a semi successful consulting firm
  • co-write a leadership book (Thank you Maureen Metcalf!)
  • become a nonprofit thought leader (Thank you readers of my book and blog!)
  • teach at the college level (Thank you Rob Greenbaum and OSU’s Glenn College!)
  • Fall in love with teaching (Thank you students!)
  • Get my dream job (Thank you Anne Kugler and John Carroll University!)

I’ve taught over 250 college and graduate students and had the honor to mentor, coach, encourage and support dozens of nonprofit leaders.

Our sector is facing immense opportunities, unprecedented challenges, old issues and emerging threats. We will have to come to consensus on how we respond to:

  • The loss of charitable deductions, and the gifts that go with them
  • The impact of Donor Advised Funds
  • The possible loss of the Johnson Amendment
  • Big philanthropy
  • Immigration
  • Climate change
  • Hate
  • Guns
  • Violence against women
  • Systemic racism
  • #MeToo
  • Voting rights
  • All of the above and much more

There are multiple and competing issues that challenge our democracy, our souls and our future. In honor of each person who reads this blog, and the hundreds of people and myriad issues for which you get up every day ready once again to take up the fight, I offer the most popular and poignant posts from the last decade:

Strong Boards beget strong agencies which beget strong communities. Here’s how to build your board, support them in doing their work and do your own:

An Open Letter to Board Members I Have Known and Loved is the most popular post I have ever written, by thousands.  I wrote it to honor several of my Board members, especially Bud Rogers, officially Bruce W. Rogers of Akron Ohio.  He is, for me, the quintessential board member. He is my ideal. I learned more from his grace, his leadership and his generosity that I can ever explain. May he rest in peace.

The Role of the Board “Every time I speak on issues related to nonprofits, someone asks “What is the role of the Board?” “The Board is responsible for governance, which includes setting the Mission, Vision and Strategic Direction; Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive Director; acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent, setting Policy and Raising Money. Everything else is done in concert with the Executive Director or by the Executive Director.” The question that follows or should follow is “What is The Role of the Nonprofit CEO? “Leading an organization is a big job that looks much easier than it is. In fact, like all leadership done well, it looks like nothing.”

While we’re at it, here’s one on Becoming a new Board President, the fist in the series Governance the Work of the Board and the most important, exciting and engaging opportunity for Board leadership: Generative Governance.

“If your Board is not fund raising the way you want them to, I submit you do not have a fund raising issue; you have an engagement issue and possibly a Board Development issue.” Not Fundraising? Not Engaged. Alternatively, or additionally, if they are not fulfilling their role, it may be because you’re doing their work. If you are, stop. Here’s how: Five Thing to Stop Doing Right Now and Three More Things to Stop Doing.

For my students, young people everywhere and all of our daughters:

Advice for Graduating Students Joining the Workforce

An Open Letter to College Bound Daughters, including My Own

Discretion and Discernment: A Call to Action on Behalf of Our Young People

Finally, the three posts that are closest to my philosophy of leadership and what I believe about how we can move forward social justice:

Does Your Agency Aspire to Social Justice or Charity?

Agreements, Vibrancy and Abundance

Reflecting on my Pursuit of Social Justice

Thank you for reading. Thank you for your leadership, advocacy and activism.  May you and may I still be standing, still fighting, and still inspired to change the world throughout this new decade. Lead on!

Does Your Agency Aspire to Social Justice or Charity?

In Advocacy, Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on May 23, 2017 at 11:40 am

The two questions I repeat the most, in both my classes and in my practice, are these: What’s the goal?  Who decides?

What’s the goal?

Is your agency’s goal to be the best food pantry (or any other service providing/safety net charity)? Or is it to address the underlying issues related to food scarcity (or any other complicated, multi-layered critical issue)?  If it’s the former, that’s charity.  If it’s the latter, that’s social justice.

Social Justice is working to change systemic issues. Charity is responding to immediate needs.  As anyone who has ever taken my class or worked in our field will tell you, we need both.  We’re not going to ignore the hungry child in front of us to work for social justice. Yet, we can’t only get food for those who are hungry, because the root causes are what’s causing food scarcity.

Every person who serves a nonprofit has to decide where to plug in. Every staff member. Every researcher. Every leader. Every volunteer. Every donor.

What’s the goal?

Do we keep fishing cats out of the river, or look upstream and deal with whatever or whoever is causing the cats to be in the river? What’s the goal? (It’s a handy question.)

Nonprofit Boards, in concert with their CEO, set the goal. The goal sets the path. (This could be a great generative conversation for a future Board meeting.)

If the goal is to be the best food pantry, and there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be the best food pantry –  unless your goal is social justice, and then you’re on the wrong path. The path supports the work toward the goal.

Maybe you want both?  I always did. I wanted to run the best agency I could, doing good work, meeting our mission, with a well trained, dedicated and talented Board and staff, serving our clients with dignity AND I want to work with my community partners to eliminate the need for my agency.

That means dual goals with dual paths. You can be the best food pantry and also work with community partners to eliminate food scarcity.  Food scarcity, and all systemic issues, is a big scary multi layered bucket of issues that include privilege, implicit bias, legal and policy challenges, poverty elimination, racism, sexism, classism, housing, school funding imbalances, and lots of other things that are hard to tease out and even harder to solve.

Being the best is a go it alone, we have the answers, and we’ll get it done model. It’s a bit more territorial and a lot less collaborative, but it’s not ineffective and sometimes the circumstances call for it.

Am I competing against my partner agencies for funding?  Sometimes I am. Does that mean I can’t also work with them to address the underlying issues in our community. Some will tell you it does.  I’m here to tell you it doesn’t.  Where you sit always determines where you stand.

It’s why your values have to match your agency’s policies and its aspirations?  As I mentioned in Reflecting on my Pursuit of Social Justice “saying you value one thing but actually doing another sends a very inconsistent and confusing message. If we want our teams to live our values, then we have to live them and our policies and systems have to reflect them.”

Who Decides?

You do, collectively and individually. You decide at the agency level.  You decide at the community level. You decide at your leadership level- on your team, in your neighborhood.  Every day.  With every decision. Every donation. Every allocation. Every choice.

There was a great piece on NPR this morning  In Some Rural Counties, Hunger Is Rising, But Food Donations Aren’t looking at just this issue. It’s not just SW Virginia.  There are communities across the country that are discussing systemic issues and setting goals for change in their community.  I’m proud to tell you that several of those cities are in Ohio; Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus have been and continue to have these conversations.

I’m hoping it’s a national trend. Even if it’s not yet a trend that has come to your community, you can still move toward social justice.

We each get to decide if we run our agencies to be the best organization alone or if we work together to eliminate the need for all of our agencies, because we addressed the systemic issue requiring our agencies.  How?

By deciding to be less territorial and more collaborative. Call your partners and other leaders in your community who work on like issues and invite them to discuss the options. Are you ready to set a Theory of Change for your community?  If so, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has a great manual on how.

Before you do, you might have to stop being afraid of scarcity and start embracing abundance.  If you’re currently looking at the world and your ability to impact change as a zero sum game –  and it’s how many of us have been trained to think –  I invite you to read Agreements, Vibrancy and Abundance.

We can change our corner of the world alone at our desks or we can do it together.  If our goal is social justice, together will get us farther, faster.

What’s your experience standing in the breech between social justice and charity.  Where did you elect to stand? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Wishes for 2016 for the Nonprofit Field

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on December 31, 2015 at 12:49 pm

If you’ve been reading for a while – and if you have, thank you – you know that there are a few things that I find continually, unnecessarily, and routinely crazy making. As such, here are my wishes for our field for this New Year, in the hopes that next year, we can stop doing this stuff and dedicate more time to moving forward our missions and improving our communities.

  1. I wish people would have higher expectations of us. There is an underlying sentiment, usually accompanied by a shrug, of “It’s just a nonprofit.” “Just nonprofits” serve the most disadvantaged among us. I wish, want and need the community to have higher expectations. Not silly jump through hoops expectations that make us crazy but don’t make us stronger. I want real and serious high expectations that our leaders will rise to meet and our field will be stronger for their doing so.
  1. I wish people would stop professing that businesses are better run. Jim Collins said “Social sector leaders are not less decisive than business leaders; they only appear that way to those who fail to grasp the complex governance and diffuse power structure.” In a business the leader can make a unilateral decision and everyone gets in line. Nonprofit leaders don’t have that luxury. In the nonprofit world we have to create buy in and take our Boards, senior staff and sometimes funders along with us on our journey toward greatness. As such, it’s harder. Please, the next time you find yourself about to tell a nonprofit leader why businesses are better run, resist the temptation and remember: different isn’t necessarily better and, more accurately, it’s likely not true.
  1. I wish agencies would spend more time and resources developing their people and their organizations. It’s critical to address our communities’ issues, yet it’s much easier when you have the right people in the right jobs with the right infrastructure, and the right plans under the right leadership. Imagine what you could accomplish if you had clear goals. Imagine if you had Human Resource systems that supported your organizational values, which were set in your strategic plan and are upheld at every level of your organization. Imagine if that plan was supported by a Board Development plan, another plan for raising contributed income and one for developing each member of your team, all of which is coupled with excellent operational policies and processes that protect your agency, serve your clients and impact your community. The combination of each will help you accomplish your true potential. The absence of most or all may mean you’re not only not meeting that potential you may be hurting the people you exist to help.
  1. I wish the people that start a new organization would learn everything they need to know about running one, before they introduce it. I wish they would learn the law as it pertains to their agency, our field and the requirements of both. I wish they would learn everything they can about the issue they hope to impact, the community and its leaders. I wish they would learn how to build a board and attract and keep donors and staff. We all learn as we go, yet and still, I wish the founders of new nonprofits would learn enough to start strong.
  1. I wish each nonprofit executive could see the benefits of collaboration and also the cost of territorialism. If my goal is to make our communities stronger – and it is – then you not sharing information or best practices is at cross purposes with that goal. Now your goal may not be aligned with my goal, but it should be, because your mission certainly is. I believe any process that is in conflict with our goal is a bad process. I once modeled in a vintage fashion show for the local Goodwill. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who said to me some version of “Why are you helping another agency?!” I also routinely took (and still take) phone calls from the leadership of sister agencies who needed capacity building assistance and other leaders took my calls when I needed it. My agency will be stronger when yours is stronger, and we, together, will be that much closer to impacting our collective issues. The opposite is also true, if I only serve to move forward my agency, I am negatively impacting the field I purport to serve.

This list is just a start. I have many more aspirations for our field and the important work we each do to make our world a better place. If we were more strategic, if our goals were better formulated and our systems were better developed, our field would be stronger, and in turn, our communities and our world would be as well.

I believe that anytime you present a problem it is also imperative to present a solution. Since every New Year provides the opportunity to make resolutions, I resolve to continue to work to make our field stronger. I will also – and this is new for me and has the added benefit of making my husband happy to no longer have to listen to how much I miss social justice work – stop turning down interviews and consider going back in the field so I can practice what I have been preaching. Until then (then being defined as the perfect job for me), I will continue to speak, write, teach, train and coach and join with colleagues around the nation and the world to make our field stronger and our reach farther.

What are your wishes for our field and also your resolutions to make them happen? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

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