If you want to go far, go together: Nonprofits practice shared leadershipFeature: Nonprofit Journal Project

Many nonprofits hail a single charismatic leader in the sector where fundraising is king.

Yet, the practice of distributed leadership is growing for many organizations. The impact of the pandemic and racial unrest on the sector, already operating in a scarcity mindset and minimal operating budgets, has some nonprofits committed to inviting more voices, gifts, and experiences to the decision-making table.

“I think the African proverb that many hands make light work is an antidote to pervasive burnout and the 'Great Resignation,' says Yodit Mesfin Johnson, president, and CEO of Nonprofit Enterprise at Work (NEW). “It pushes back on the idea that nonprofits don't need the same resources, talent, and investment that any other business would need.”

At Ann Arbor and Detroit capacity-building centers, Mesfin Johnson and her colleagues work across the region to inspire and equip mission-driven people, organizations, and communities to realize their visions of a just and thriving society.

She says the events of the last few years have forced the sector into a much-needed dialogue about how organizations operate and what is needed to care for nonprofit workers and social change leaders. It makes sense that there’s a broadening return to collective work, labor, and efforts filtering into leadership, she says.

“If we want to truly advance missions and meet the vision of our social sector and the entities within it, then we need time for creativity, innovation, deep planning, thinking, and evaluation,” says Mesfin Johnson. “That conflicts with the historic models many of our organizations are trapped within primarily because they lack funding, resources, and the skills and knowledge they need.”

As a 2023 Eugene A. Miller Fellowship Program participant, Mesfin Johnson is taking that time now. She’s one of nine Detroit-area nonprofit leaders awarded the McGregor Fund sabbatical this year to allow directors recognized for their long-term dedication to their communities to rest, recharge, and dream.

Before stepping away, she worked with NEW’s team to finalize a succession plan, naming two staff members to lead in her current or future absence. The triad worked closely to plan the organization’s work for the next fiscal year. It’s been a chance to experiment with shared leadership before making formal structural changes.

Through deep discourse with others in the sector, Mesfin Johnson continually learns. The way some people think about co-leadership is powerful, she says, not only as a way to share labor and ideas and have many skills and knowledge leading the mission of organizations, but also viewing power hoarding as an exacerbation of the systemic issues they aim to dismantle.

Historically, most nonprofits run thin and rely on volunteers because their overhead costs aren’t covered through grants. During COVID-19, many more unrestricted operating grants were awarded, she says, but that isn’t the norm. While some local funders and foundations are investing in these shifts, how the sector will broadly finance shared equitable leadership is an unanswered question.

“I think it takes some degree of socialization, of helping people understand this is the evolution of equity and justice work that we need. Policies, statements, and training are simply not enough. We are going to have to turn away from these inherited structures towards something new.”

Shared leadership does not naturally disrupt the cycle of burnout and scarcity in the sector, she says, but it can add space to move from purely reactive to working collectively across the ecosystem. During COVID-19, NEW restructured its organization and job roles around a collaboratively-written theory of change. Building power and leadership in and with impacted communities is one of four approaches they’ve named.

“We have to resist the tendency that persists in the sector to do the quick fix,” says Mesfin Johnson, “and to not invest in the deep and long transformation. This shift of who leads and how we lead is one piece, but we have to be thinking about where the power is and how it moves. How are we intentionally sharing power in decision-making, resource mobilization, and power in the people, with the people, versus for the people?”

Seeding power to nurture change

Keep Growing Detroit (KGD) will tell you they haven't always displayed shared leadership but are a “work in progress,” sincerely building toward this model.

“I think it's always been in our foundation to have staff plan their programs and understand budgets; that's always been the vision,” says co-director Lindsay Pielack, “but actualizing that has had its challenges.”

The nonprofit’s mission is to promote a food sovereign city where residents grow most of the fruits and vegetables consumed by Detroiters within the city’s limits.

Pielack says the organization has been trying to create tools that uplift staff project planning, budgeting, and the idea of servant leadership — where the back of the house is in service to the field staff driving the work — but a power structure based on the urgency of funding needs and grant deadlines often gets in the way.

A self-proclaimed data nerd, Pielack supports KGD’s project planning, runs its databases, and leads the garden development team, including the Garden Resource Program. Since co-founding KGD 10 years ago, she’s co-led the organization alongside Ashley Atkinson, a Eugene A. Miller Fellowship awardee also on sabbatical.

Tepfirah “Tee” Rushdan joined the leadership team in 2020, having worked with the organization for many years. She manages the education and capacity-building team, works with youth, leads infrastructure projects, and handles policy work. She says having a 9-to-5 that aligns with her values is a very special thing.

“I love people, getting to know what they do, and supporting people in their projects,” she says. “I feel super honored by all these community leaders who want to impact their community in different ways. I also think I am one of those people.”

Pielack credits Rushdan with pushing KGD's past shared leadership tools into conversations of giving Detroiters more ownership of the organization by having Black leadership and pathways for growth for Black staff. It’s a challenge navigating how to do this authentically in a way that meets people where they're at and is also within the context of “moving at the speed of spring,” she says.

Slowing down to learn and teach takes time many nonprofits feel stretched to find. In Atkinson’s absence, Rushdan and Pielack are working to “demystify the back of the house,” learning new aspects of the work themselves and documenting “invisible” processes.

“We all have our strengths, and ways of doing things, ways our brains work, and it's not as easy as ‘here are the instructions on how to do it,’” Pielack says.

Though the workload is nonstop for growers this time of year, the co-leaders have forced more time and space to check in with each other through biweekly meetings. Pielack says it’s important to chip away at the culture of urgency prevalent in the sector and part of KGD’s legacy.

“I worked 60 to 70 hours a week for many years. I was young and didn't have a family,” she says. “As we've grown, I see that's not how to show up in a way that allows others to step into roles. Addressing and dismantling that culture of urgency is something we are intentionally working on both individually and as a group. But it's hard.”

Rushdan agrees that slowing down, checking in, and finding a resolution together is hard but says it invites sustainability across the ecosystem and more equity and justice in work.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” she says, pointing to the well-known proverb.

KGD started as a primarily white organization, but it’s a very different mix at the table now, she says, and that comes with new ideas, different ways of doing things, and broader access to communities. The organization has set a goal to transition to majority Black leadership within three years.

Changing the underlying systems, building a culture of appreciation, and moderating the pace of work are needed, Pielack says, to invite leadership that will feel supported.

With Atkinson's sabbatical, the organization received resources from the McGregor Fund for staff professional development. Pielack says skill building and tool access are vital to cultivating confident staff ready for more leadership and having a voice to impact the organization.

If there’s an ideal organizational leadership structure, it’s too soon to tell what it is, but it’s naive to think there is no hierarchy, says Rushdan.

“Saying there's this specific box that you have to fit into is not honoring the nuances of what it takes to run a small org. You need to recognize and honor that hierarchy, name it, and make it transparent. And if you can do that, then you can also do all the things we're trying to do to make true power-sharing and create a path.”

Splitting the work, sharing the fun

Collaboration on stage and behind the scenes has long been key at Detroit Public Theatre (DPT).

The nonprofit, founded in residence inside the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), produces nationally recognized plays and programs with world-class writers, directors, actors, and designers in the heart of Midtown’s cultural district.

The 8-year-old company was created by its current producing artistic directors, Courtney Burkett, Sarah Winkler, and Sarah Clare Corporandy. In 2020, writer and actress Dominique Morisseau joined the leadership team as executive artistic producer. 

Several nonprofits working to diversify their leadership have sought guidance from DPT regarding their shared model. One such organization is the Detroit Justice Center, also transitioning to co-leadership since its founding executive director Amanda Alexander recently stepped down.

“I don’t think we ever considered any other way of founding the company,” says Winkler. “We had a very big vision and very big job to do creating this organization, and we all had very different skill sets. If we could join them in a non-hierarchical and purely collaborative way, we would move much further, much faster.”

When asked how they make it work, she says the team divides the administrative responsibilities but shares “all the really fun stuff.”

The fun stuff happens inside the theater. The team shares all artistic decisions, selecting the season’s plays and building artistic teams. As theater practitioners themselves, they get to a better artistic product when the business model mirrors the rehearsal room, with all voices heard and each collaborator having equal importance.

Morisseau, a MacArthur Genius Grant winner, asked to join DPT’s leadership team in 2020, previously serving as an advisor, board member, and key contributing playwright. Burkett says that Morisseau’s ability to connect with artists and directors across the industry elevates what the theater can achieve.

As a woman of color and a lifelong Detroiter, Morisseau contributes a vital perspective to DPT’s work that was previously under all-white leadership. Making her role visible in the company’s philosophy, structure, and mission was an important step.

With multiple perspectives, ideas, and talents, DPT’s shared leadership model, or ‘sisterhood,” offers an ebb and flow to workloads. Burkett says when one person has too much on their plate, others grab something to lighten the load.

“I feel like we carry each other when we get worn out and down. For me, that's a huge part of it — some weeks I'm stronger, and some weeks they're stronger. It gives us space not always to be “the one,” she says. “That makes the weight of leadership much more bearable.”

It’s also helped the company stay stable and grow during these difficult times. DPT kept its staff through the pandemic and underwent significant construction and relocation. The company recently completed its first season in a newly built 7,500-square-foot building on Third Avenue, designed with industry and local community input. Intending to pay forward the opportunity the DSO gave them, the company offers several yearly subsidized residencies for local arts organizations in the new space.

Burkett says she can’t imagine navigating the pandemic and everything else they’ve navigated without her fellow co-directors.

“If we had been alone having those conversations, any of us, how awful,” she says.  “Instead, we were able to present to our board a coherent and sensible path forward.”

Having multiple leaders has allowed the organization to create more relationships and widen its outreach within the theater and art support communities. The challenge to sharing leadership is that from the beginning, people have continually asked, “Who’s in charge?”

 “I think there are a lot of people who see the four of us and say, if everybody's the leader, nobody's actually minding the store,” Winkler says. “But in fact, four people are minding the store and talking to each other about it.”

“It’s exciting and gratifying to see so many organizations realizing this is a viable leadership model," she says. "As it becomes normalized, I think more and more people will see how leaders can support each other and move an organization forward, better, faster, serving more and more people, and staying on mission if you’re doing it all together.”

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.

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