Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

Feminist Answers to Nonprofit Questions

Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, it seems like a good time to reflect on the debt that the not-for-profit sector owes to the leadership and courage of feminists. Sure, women make up nearly 75% of the nonprofit workforce, but that is not the reason that feminism is on my mind. Instead, I’m wondering how I have benefitted from the wage gap between men and women working in the sector. I’m thinking of the data showing that only 45% of CEO positions in the nonprofit sector are held by women and that the disparity increases along with organizational budget. And I’m reflecting on the many times that gender has been the elephant in the room that no one in coalitions and organizations seems able or willing to address.

The historical division of our society into gendered public and private spheres has real implications for the nonprofit sector today. The long legacy of the devaluation of women’s labor (within and beyond the home) has rendered caring professions largely underpaid in our society. And the association between work with individuals and families and the devalued ‘private sphere’ means that the closer a group or job is to the people most affected by social inequity, the less funding and respect it seems to get. For instance, we value social research more than social services; public policy change more than personal growth and wellness; the rush of national campaign organizing more than the long, slow work of organizing local communities. These determinations about what kinds of work in our sector get honored are sadly shaped by the lasting impacts of sexism and patriarchy.

Fortunately, feminist thought and movements provide alternative models for understanding what work matters, what leadership looks like and how we can work together.

At BMP, we have researched alternative leadership structures, implemented our own co-directorship model, and seen more and more organizations embrace more distributed and democratic decision-making. But we don’t often enough recognize the feminist underpinnings of the implicit critique of the CEO / heroic-leader model and decisions about organizational form and structure. It’s certainly a problem that women are under-represented in top staff positions in nonprofit organizations, but bell hooks and other feminists of color have repeatedly challenged us to think about gender equality beyond the existing social system so that we don’t mistake representation for transformation. Keeping in mind this distinction between the number of women in “leader” positions and modes of feminist leadership, Srilatha Batliwala and many other thinkers have written about the particular ways that feminists ‘do leadership,’ noting that groups operating based on feminist principles often work from a vision of shared power and decision-making, and have understandings of structure that go deeper than just examining an organizational chart to also include “the hidden sites and processes of power and influence … like the elephant in the room – we all know they’re there.”

With the growing interest in collective impact and working across lines of difference, feminism provides us with the know-how to put the reins on those elephants in the room so that they don’t trample all over both us as individuals and the work that we are trying to do together.

Leadership feminism heroic leadership leadership organizational structure