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Who Run The Nonprofit World?

GIF of Beyonce dancing

For years, I’ve noticed that the majority of faces you see in most nonprofits belong to women. Beyonce got it right: women are the backbone of the social sector! They lead organizations, run departments, and power nonprofits at all levels. In fact, women make up most of the nonprofit workforce, yet despite that, we still occupy only a small percentage of the leadership slots at the top 400 charities. Sigh.

How can we change that? And what can you do to make sure one of those top nonprofit leadership seats is reserved for you?

I got together with Stephanie Thomas (of Stetwin Consulting) and Adrienne Prassas (of NYU Wagner)-- both fundraisers par excellence-- to convene a pop-up event for AFP NY members about women’s leadership not long ago. A few dozen women participated, representing a diverse mix of ages, backgrounds, and nonprofit professional experience. Here are a few highlights from our discussion.

Volunteering is a great way to develop your leadership skills. Want to transition into a career in international development? Build your skills in planned giving? Overcome your shyness at speaking in front of groups? Volunteer! Organizing or staffing an event, coordinating a committee, and other volunteer activities not only open up networks, they force you to work with new people in new situations.

Tell them what you need to learn. Trying to break into a new area? Develop new skills? Tell your boss or your peers and colleagues what you want to learn, and offer to help out with projects that may be outside of your job description so you can build your skills. For instance, if you’re a grant writer but you want to get into major donor work, ask your boss if you can help them research and prep for a meeting, or listen in on a meeting or two.

Be yourself. We talked a lot about the power of authenticity in building a strong reputation. Not sure what the answer is? Be honest about it. It’s good to stretch - but it’s not good to be something you’re not. Most of the experienced women at this event found their careers really took off when they spoke with their own voice, rather than trying to play a part they felt was expected of them.

Show up. It’s easy to watch that webinar from your desk, follow along via social media in your jammies from home, and learn virtually. But when you show up at a conference, breakfast, workshop, or other event, the benefits are much greater. Get out and show up! You’ll make deeper, more meaningful connections faster.

Personally, I was deeply inspired by the younger women who participated, like Amalyah Oren, a young woman who works by day, volunteers by night, and writes a blog called the Giving Kind.

If you’re building your leadership skills I’ll be participating in a panel on women’s leadership for the Foundation Center on Tuesday, March 7 at 2:00pm ET. I hope you will join this webinar!


Image of Sarah Durham

Sarah founded Big Duck in 1994 to help nonprofits increase their visibility, raise money, and achieve their missions. Today, she uses her deep experience in nonprofit communications to guide the entire Big Duck team. The author of Brandraising: How Nonprofits Raise Visibility and Money Through Smart Communications (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2010), her expertise has been borrowed by NPR, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Guidestar, and beyond. Read more.

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