The Strength of Shared Power in Nonprofit Leadership
Co-leadership isn’t new. It is, however, a growing trend in the nonprofit world, where we continue to explore ways to share power and strengthen our organizations’ leadership and stability.
At Youth Rise Texas, we implemented our co-executive director model in 2021, and our organization has grown exponentially since.
There were several reasons we worked with our board to codify a co-leadership model into our organizational structure, but at the core of our decision-making process was the idea that it made more possible.
When there are two people, instead of one, who can dream, think strategically, problem-solve, respond to funders, support staff members or handle other tasks, more can be accomplished. Things no longer must come to a standstill when a solo leader is unavailable. Two leaders also allows our board more sightlines into the organization, heightening accountability and strengthening their understanding of what’s happening day-to-day.
In an organization of our size, things can get bottlenecked waiting on a singular leader to approve things. It takes great coordination and trust, but two people allows for more clarity and efficiency.
Roxanne Lawson and I have served as the co-executive directors at Youth Rise Texas since we implemented the co-leadership model. Together, we’ve done in a year what it would’ve taken a single leader two or three years to accomplish, simply because two heads have been better than one.
Co-leadership allowed for conversations about power-sharing that we hadn’t had at Youth Rise Texas before, and it ensured that we had a new leadership model firmly rooted in accountability and dialogue. The model provided a built-in sounding board with someone who is as invested and committed to organizational growth and development. For Roxanne and I, it also created space to grow in our individual leadership and supported us as individuals trying to be good workers and leaders.
We all have our own commitments, responsibilities, and pursuits. Co-leadership has nurtured an environment where we can show up for our lives outside of work. Because there are two of us, we can negotiate schedules and give each other grace to handle unexpected needs in our families and communities. When one of us wishes to take time off, we can do so without disrupting other functions or putting additional work on other staff.
This has allowed us to further model the practices of rest, self-care and community care that are core values to our work. We want our staff to see that at the executive level so they know they’re also entitled to rest and care, dismantling the prevailing culture of burnout in nonprofit work.
Working in an environment of shared power doesn’t come without challenges, though. To work side-by-side with someone as leaders of an organization takes a high level of trust and collaboration, and you must be willing to engage in conflict, if necessary.
Early on, we struggled with information-sharing because we had different roles and responsibilities within our position despite having the same title. We had to work hard to develop a communication and information-sharing style that allowed for autonomy while still creating space for transparency. We had to work hard to not be seen as the “good executive director” and “bad executive director.” It took time and intentionality to develop processes that worked for us both. We spent time talking through each other’s work and designated projects where we would co-lead, as well as work that we were responsible for individually.
The challenges of a new leadership model come with the territory. But part of our mission as an organization has been to strengthen communities, and we do that by developing the leadership skills of young people in those communities.
As women of color, the communities Roxanne and I grew up in demonstrated the models of shared power we aspire to share with those we serve. We were surrounded by women — our own mothers, grandmothers and other caregivers — who practiced collective community care, sharing the responsibilities of raising children, accessing resources for their families, and supporting each other through the challenges of holding up community as Black women and immigrant women. There’s something similar about sharing the burden of nurturing an organization and developing healthy community structures that we want to model with our work at Youth Rise Texas.
Our co-leadership model allows us to navigate equity and accomplishment roadblocks that women, women of color, caregivers and people of color in leadership face. Our model helps us demonstrate to our communities and those we serve what it looks like to build something different. From a values perspective, it aligns with our efforts to build greater equity and demonstrate the strength of shared power to the youth we serve.
The dominant models of power and leadership we so often see today can be very isolating. Our goal with this co-leadership model has been to create less isolation as nonprofit leaders, and we’ve achieved that.
Kymberlie Quong-Charles is a co-executive director at Youth Rise Texas, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, that is dedicated to creating the conditions for youth of color to rise from systems of oppression, heal from past traumas of parental incarceration and deportation, and become leaders in their communities that affect positive change. Quong-Charles has more than two decades of experience working in community organizing, social justice and youth empowerment.