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Advice for Young Nonprofit Professionals of Color — From People Who Have Been There

Written by: Nicole Wallace
Published on: Feb 11, 2020

People of color have made important leadership gains in the nonprofit world. But it hasn’t been easy. Leaders of color describe feeling isolated, navigating difficult, racially fraught dynamics with colleagues and grant makers, and dealing with the stress of having to prove yourself over and over again.

Here, veteran leaders of color share hard-won lessons with young professionals who are just starting their careers.

Take advantage of opportunities. Young people of color starting out in the nonprofit world often feel like they have fewer professional connections than their white peers. That might be the case, but they should make sure they avail themselves of all the chances they do have to build relationships, says Sam Cobbs, president of Tipping Point Community. If you get invited to after-work events or weekend retreats, go, he says. "If your CEO is having office hours, you want to make sure that you’re taking advantage of that access to go in and have a conversation."

Cobbs tells Tipping Point interns that they should never eat lunch alone. "You want to pick people’s brains and learn as much as you can from everybody," he says.

Build a board of directors. Develop a circle of professionals you can depend on for career advice and insights on how to approach challenging interpersonal issues at the office. Shijuade Kadree, chief advocacy officer at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York, includes both people in the nonprofit world and friends in other fields.

She says that sounding board was particularly important when she worked at groups where she felt isolated because she was one of the few people of color. "I needed to have a trusted group of advisers who could understand what it was like to be in a space like that and help me navigate it."

Find a mentor. Advisers who are willing to share what they know can help young professionals of color advance and avoid some of the challenges previous generations faced, says Terri Bradford Eason, who has been director of gift planning at the Cleveland Foundation since 2008 after a career in corporate banking. She encourages young people of color to seek guidance from professionals from all backgrounds.

"Many of my mentors were not of color because they were in limited supply," she says. "That did not stop me from reaching out to get some thoughts and wisdom."

Make internal connections. Diane Samuels, vice president for talent and human resources at the Ford Foundation, says she has almost always had strong supervisors who championed her work. But Samuels says that if she had it to do over again, she would have been more deliberate in building ties to people outside her department.

"Having people within the organization who know your work and know your worth, outside of the person who manages you, is actually really important," she says.

Embrace hard conversations. When you’re having a disagreement with a co-worker, open dialogue is better than letting the issue simmer, Samuels says. When she has to confront a difficult interpersonal issue with a co-worker of another race, she takes the advice she gives her employees.

"Even though it’s difficult, I try not to go first to race," she says. "It may be about communication style. It may be about something else that’s happening with them that I have no insight into."

Value your perspective. When young people start working at an organization, many believe they have to adopt the perspective of the organization to be successful — especially if their race, ethnicity, or economic background isn’t well represented on the group’s staff, says Brennan Gould, CEO of the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation. She encourages them to be true to who they are.

"I have to remind myself of this, too, that my lived experience really does add value, and my perspective is a contribution to the work."

Raise your voice. When something doesn’t feel right, say something, says Anthony Chang, executive director of Kitchen Table Advisors, a nonprofit that provides assistance to small-scale, sustainable farmers. "It’s easy for me to say this and maybe harder to have done when I was 25 years old, but I would encourage folks to speak up for what they feel like is right," he says. "Things aren’t going to change unless each of us speaks up and takes action."

Take care of yourself. It’s stressful to overcome bias and break down barriers, and over time that stress can have health consequences, says Laura Gerald, president of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. "We have to be diligent about how we handle stress so that we’re not burned out," she says.

Self-care looks different for different people, says Yolanda Coentro, CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit Practice. It can be spending time with close friends you can talk to, finding a passion outside of your work, creating art, meditation, exercise — whatever re-energizes you.

Know you can leave. Some workplaces are toxic, and you may not have the power to change them, Coentro says. This can be hard to accept, particularly for people who are committed to a cause, she says, but sometimes you have to move on to protect your well-being. "There are a lot of other jobs out there that are very healthy."