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Sep 9, 2019 | Insights

The Future of Nonprofit Executive Directors: 5 Lessons Learned from Millennial Leaders of Color

As millennials of color begin to take the helm as nonprofit executive directors, they are reinventing what it means to lead in today’s world. Many of these new leaders are navigating the challenges of their executive role and using their positions to elevate others along the way.

On Friday, September 6, 2019, TSNE hosted a panel of millennial leaders of color who shared their experiences in rising to the top of their organizations and the lessons we can learn to lift up others to create a stronger and more diverse sector. Millennials Rising: Nonprofit POC Leaders was presented as part of City Awake’s Fierce Urgency of Now Festival, a six-day event designed to highlight the experiences of millennials of color in Boston.

The discussion was based on crowd-sourced questions and findings from a new learning report, Moving Beyond the Person, recently released by TSNE that explores the challenges of retiring, long-term executive directors in preparing their organizations for sustainability following their departure.

The panel was moderated by Yolanda Coentro, President and CEO of Institute for Nonprofit Practice. Panelists were:

  • Carolyn Chou, Executive Director, Asian American Resource Workshop
  • Elijah Evans, Executive Director, Bikes Not Bombs
  • Kendra Hicks, Director of Radical Philanthropy, Resist Foundation
  • Shavel’le Olivier, Executive Director, Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition

Although panelists represented a wide range of nonprofit organizations, structures, fields of service, and paths to leadership there were five overarching themes in their experiences that millennials of color can use to shape the modern nonprofit and make the sector more welcoming to a new generations of leaders.

1. Mentorship and Community Building

Having strong mentors within and outside of their organizations played an invaluable role in feeling empowered to take on executive director positions. As millennials of color rise into leadership positions, the need to become a mentor to others is essential to continue to diversify the sector. However, the current lack of mentors of color in the nonprofit sector across the nation is a challenge. Current millennial leaders find building and participating in less structured networks of colleagues help provide support, advice, and idea-sharing.

“I have always been the youngest at this, the first to do that, because there are brilliant and more experienced people who have taught me things early on and prepared me… to take things on. If you don’t have mentorship now is the time.” — Shavel’le Olivier, Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition

2. Organizational Structure

Retiring leaders often leave behind traditional hierarchical structures that leave the bulk of the organizational history, connections, and relationships in the hands of the executive director. This causes tension and stress when that leader departs. Millennial leaders are exploring alternate organizational structures that flatten the hierarchy of leadership and allow organizational knowledge to be shared across departments and, in turn, build the leadership of all staff members from top to bottom.

“[Traditional hierarchical structures] are siloed and nobody in the organization is prepared to take on that organizational knowledge because nobody has been doing that work with the executive director. When you have a collaborative model, it means everybody is doing the work together. If I needed to leave or was retiring they could continue the work because there is a culture of collaborative work.” — Kendra Hicks, Resist Foundation

3. Reimagining the Role of Executive Directors

The days of the “all knowing” executive director are on the way out with younger leaders. The reimagining of the role of the executive director is top of mind for many millennials of color. From creating more collaborative leadership structures, to looking outwardly for community for input, and listening intently to those whose voices are marginalized, leaders of color at the top of their organizations are thinking more broadly about what it means to lead. Through listening to others and allowing others to lead, they are building stronger, more cohesive organizations.

“I bring a different perspective or voice to the table because we know that in the cycling industry that white men have dominated the conversation and I had to make an effort to make sure that my voice is heard. As executive director, I think advocating for those voices [of cyclists of color] is something I continue to strive for.” — Elijah Evans, Bikes Not Bombs

4. Board Building and Restructuring

Boards of directors across the nonprofit sector often reflect their overall leadership. They’re older and they’re white. As millennials of color move into leadership spaces, they are aware that their boards have to shift to more closely represent the communities they serve. To help diversify boards, both in terms of racial identity and age, what nonprofits look to their boards to accomplish can be reexamined. By easing the fundraising burden, making boards meetings less frequent or virtual, and creating more clear roles and responsibilities, boards can be made more accessible.

“I think we can create more developmental space for board members and [encourage] organizations to take risks on [bringing in nontraditional] members and open the space for folks to ask questions. I think it’s critical to really create that kind of board culture.” — Carolyn Chou, Asian American Resource Workshop

5. Life/Work Balance

Executive directors have historically held the fate of their organizations in their hands, meaning they work 24/7 to keep their nonprofits going. Along with this dedication comes burn out and an unhealthy work/life balance. Younger leaders appreciate the need to balance their responsibilities for their organizations with their personal wellbeing — and believe in that balance across their staff. From working remotely to flexible vacation and paid time off, new leadership is prioritizing the mental health and wellbeing of their staff and creating better organizational cultures.

“I think that millennials are no longer accepting that life needs to end when you take on a nonprofit job.” — Yolanda Coentro, Institute for Nonprofit Practice

Watch our recording of the event

Download the transcript.


This was TSNE’s second time hosting a City Away Fierce Urgency of Now Festival panel discussion. Our 2018 panel, Valuing Our Workforce: How the Nonprofits Can Support Millennials of Color in the Sector, explored how nonprofits can attract and retain talented staff in landscape where millennials are grappling with the high cost of living. See the resources we’ve collected for nonprofit workers: