Black Women Leaders Lean Into Resilience
The novel coronavirus has created unprecedented challenges for nonprofits, as well as rapid shifts and responses to the communities being served. The pandemic has made a historical mark on our society, locally, nationally and globally. The pandemic has also demonstrated that no one is exempt from the experience — leaders of nonprofits face serious challenges as the uncertainty of resources hovers over their minds.
Black women leaders of nonprofits face even more barriers and challenges relative to access to funding than other leaders in the field, especially as it relates to staff capacity and sustaining funding resources. In tandem with having fewer financial resources, black women-led organizations are often serving the most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations with the least amount of funding. However, even while dealing with multiple barriers, historically, these leaders have exhibited four key characteristics that have supported them through other crises, and they continue to employ these attributes and strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Black women nonprofit executives often lead with multiple challenges and, on numerous occasions, find creative ways to get the work done with great sacrifice, extremely hard work and fewer resources. While the global pandemic has forced many nonprofits to shift how they work, including moving to remote work environments, switching from in-person engagements to virtual programming, financial scenario planning, as well as reimagining ways to engage donors with canceled special events and galas, black women leaders have one more challenge that sets them apart from other leaders: barriers to access to resources.
Those barriers are multi-layered and span across four fundamental areas — personal, social, external environment and organizational — and represent difficulties that black women face in sustaining their organizations and ensuring its survival in the market. Leaders are grappling with strategically thinking about how to build access to networks with wealth, reducing the dependency on one single source of funding, as well as investing long term in staff and organizational infrastructure. Management of those dynamics causes a tremendous amount of burden as they simultaneously try to cope with structural and systemic racism.
The pandemic shines a greater light on the disparity and severity of the inequities within American society, as seen in the alarming and disproportionate number of cases of COVID-19 in the African American and Latino communities. Black women persist, make changes and shift where necessary. They are mission-driven and guided heavily by the core values of the organization. All these things ensure resilience and staying power for the long haul.
Black women often face burdens and high levels of stress while leading organizations, and they employ acquired and innate skills, and strategies, to sustain their organizations while remaining very optimistic about the future of the organization. These leaders cultivate innovative programs and are dedicated to supporting the empowerment of the communities they serve. Black women have demonstrated adaptability by shifting systems, programs and staffing to meet the needs of their constituents and keep their organizations running.
They continue to lean into being adaptable, even more now, to support their organizations through uncertainty — including shifting how they support staff, seeking technology and systems to support a new way of working and collaborating with their teams, as well as digging into grassroots methods of fundraising and leveraging new technology to continue to build community online.
Remaining Connected to Community
Black women are adept at making connections, which is often a critical component to running their organization, fundraising and building a meaningful rapport with the community. They are dedicated to serving the community in ways that are authentic and embedded in their role positionality.
There is a deep sense of solidarity and connectedness with the community, as opposed to distancing and serving others. Black women have the ability to leverage, build and create deep relationships in the community and continue to support and define how they organize their communities through trauma and onto healing.
They also have a profound understanding of the needs of the community that translates into funding negotiations. As more funders are coming forth to support nonprofits through COVID-19, it will be critical for funders to continue to listen, learn and understand how leaders are shifting programs and budgets, but also how they are still figuring out what to do next. Many black women executives have long desired to have deeper connections and more authentic relationships with funders. This pandemic creates an opportune time for funders to understand the critical issues facing the communities now in crisis and beyond.
As many nonprofits will suffer losses and big gaps in funding due to postponed or canceled events, residencies, in-school contracts and fundraising initiatives, the time post-COVID-19 will be spent rebuilding and reimaging not only their infrastructure, but strategies to support their communities from the trauma of a crisis. How they will shift their programming and services in the post-COVID-19 era will be just as important as how they showed up when the first mandated stay-at-home policies were announced.
For many black women-led organizations, they are facing a critical juncture, making tough decisions, and are seeking to secure and save their organizations. But for many black women, what is at risk in saving the organization is the communities they serve that are vulnerable to the myriad effects of poverty and deemed invisibility during a major crisis.
Self Care and Wellness
Black women are taking back their power by focusing on self care, wellness, healing and empowerment, starting with themselves and thus making different business decisions. The ability for black women to exhibit self-care is as much a personal decision as it is a business decision. Resilience and adaptability are key factors, but resilience is also a movement in resistance. The ability to resist the status quo; to resist oppressive policies, attitudes and external behaviors; and to resist models that do not fit the complex issues of their communities.
Black women who lead organizations in marginalized communities demonstrate the ability to recover quickly from difficulties. This ability is even more important during a crisis — the ability to shift, as well as care for themselves, allows them to better support the communities that they serve and to heal and overcome the emotional, financial and mental traumas of a pandemic. They have developed skill sets to effectively overcome barriers including inner drive, adaptability and patience. Thus, leading them to be radical in imbuing change and transformation in their organizations.
The road to recovery post COVID-19 will be long and hard, but black women leaders have shown that they can rise through hardship.
Ayoka Wiles, PhD, is the senior director of programs and innovation at Cool Culture, which provides 50,000 families from historically marginalized communities in New York City with access to 90 cultural institutions through school partnerships. Ayoka has a 20+ track record of transforming and inspiring organizational and program development for award winning arts, cultural, education and youth development organizations. She has been committed to high-level outcomes and building institutions that provide access, high-level achievement and excellence. She is seasoned nonprofit strategist with experience in programs, finance, grantmaking, tactical integration of technology, evaluation and fundraising.