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Will There Be a #MeToo Moment for the Nonprofit Sector?

By Nell Edgington



In light of the recent #MeToo movement raising awareness about sexual harassment and gender disparity in Hollywood and other industries, the Chronicle of Philanthropy/AFP study released earlier this month showed that 25% of nonprofit fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment in their job, most often from donors.

Perhaps this will be the impetus for the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors to uncover and reckon with gender disparity.

And I wonder if this reckoning will also include a recognition that the nonprofit sector itself suffers from a larger gender-based disparity between those who have money and those who seek that money for their cause.

The nonprofit sector is predominantly female — 70% of workers in the nonprofit sector are women. And the leadership of the private sector (from which much of the money to fund nonprofits comes) is predominantly male — 96% of the CEOs in the S&P 500 are male, and 80% of all C-Suite roles belong to men.

Kristen Joiner pointed out this discrepancy a couple of years ago in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article, arguing that the gender power imbalance between those who have money to invest in nonprofit solutions and those running those solutions is based on the larger gender disparity of our society:

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that leaders of startups in the male-dominated sector get financial support for their ability to develop and execute original ideas, while the leaders of start-ups in the female-dominated sector get financial support for their ability to manage someone else’s idea well. Maybe. But I believe it’s likely that the power dynamics at play between the nonprofit and private sectors reflect the gender dynamics of our larger society.

The nonprofit sector is mainly run by women, the private sector is mainly run by men. Is it possible that the power imbalance we talk about between nonprofits and funders has its roots in good old fashioned sexism?  And if we acknowledge and discuss that, could we at long last perhaps find a way through it?

If we were to rectify the gender disparities at play in the nonprofit sector, it might look like this:

More Nonprofit Advocacy
Regulators, board members and funders ask nonprofit leaders to keep their political voices silent, sometimes even on issues that directly impact their ability to achieve their mission. While businesses can spend millions on lobbying and support of political candidates, nonprofit political action is much more restrictive. Nonprofit leaders need to be allowed to raise their voices, whenever and wherever it will help their mission.

More Access to Unrestricted Money
Money given with strings attached is a signal that the funder doesn’t fully trust the skills and abilities of those he is giving the money. More unrestricted dollars means nonprofit leaders are freed up to do whatever they think it takes to achieve their organization’s goals.

More Support of the Fundraising Function
Robust marketing and sales operations are a given in the business world. But “fundraising” (the nonprofit equivalent of “sales”) remains a dirty word. Nonprofit leaders need to be emboldened to build robust, sophisticated fundraising functions, and they need sufficient financial investment to be able to do that.

Rejection of the Overhead Distinction
Nonprofit leaders are often encouraged to spend only a small amount of money on infrastructure, administration and fundraising (overhead expenses). But overhead is a meaningless distinction made in the nonprofit sector, and one that is not made in the for-profit sector. Nonprofit leaders need to remove the overhead shackles so that they can create strong, effective, well-supported organizations.

Development of Strong Leaders
Business leaders often invest in professional development, training, and coaching, but a nonprofit leader must figure it all out on her own. We need to recognize that strong nonprofit leaders are every bit as important and necessary as strong for-profit leaders, and we should invest in nonprofit leadership development accordingly.

I say Time’s Up for the debilitating restrictions placed on nonprofit leaders around securing unrestricted money; investing in organizations, fundraising and leadership; and pursuing political activity. We must recognize and rectify practices born from a history of gender disparity if we want to truly benefit from the solutions nonprofit leaders have to offer.

Photo Credit: numb3r

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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