Redefining Leadership for a Power-full Black Future

Melissa Madzel

What if the people that we serve are the people to whom we are truly accountable? What if our nonprofit Wakanda was not about service to the funder, service to the donor, or service to the contract, but about service to our communities and to our people? What if we centered Black voices in a way that eliminates the cycles of poverty and abuse that keep Black people in roles of subservience and need?

To center Black Futures, we must rethink the role of power and hierarchy. We don’t take away systems of structure, but alter them, bringing the most impacted individuals and communities to the top. For the nonprofit community, we change the center of power from the hands of the wealthy and connected to the hands of the experts.

The first fundamental change in my nonprofit Black Future is a mandate that all Boards of Directors will be 100% occupied by members of the community being served by the organization. The leadership teams of organizations will bring the technical skills needed to run a nonprofit organization – expertise in programs, budgets, and so forth – but the Board of Directors will serve as the North Star, guiding the direction of the organization. The role of evidence-based research doesn’t need to be eliminated, but it can be woven into the strategy within the context of the lived experiences shared by Board Members.

How differently would services of a youth service organization look if Black and Brown young people were partnering with the organizational leadership to determine the strategy and vision of the organization? What different outcomes might we see if organizations serving homeless people were guided by the real experiences of people who were or had been homeless?

Decoupling leadership and money can look at change and impact through a completely different lens.

This feels radical and revolutionary, impossible even. And yet, maybe it comes with thinking differently about leadership and power. A leader no longer gets defined by the amount of money they donate or their company donates, but defined by their proximity of experience and knowledge in the particular issue space. Power in the nonprofit sector does not get distributed among a wealthy few, but broadly among a multi-class, multi-skilled many.

It is important to note that this Black Future is not one that perpetuates the role of the Black American as the recipient of services, but provides a place for them at every level in a nonprofit organization. When the systems work, we will begin to shift the need for services and we will see that members of all communities are requiring less support from our agencies and providers. That will come, with time and commitment.

The Black Future of my vision relies on the values of support, community, partnership, and collaboration. The expectations for one person to serve as the CEO or Executive Director or President will be reconfigured in this Future, for we will have all developed a different relationship with power. The race to that sole leader seat will no longer be relevant when we’re not driven by title or salary because we will only be focused on where we can use our individual strengths to contribute the most good.

Nonprofit leadership teams in this Black Future have diversity in thought and experience, as well as race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, physical difference, and socioeconomic background. The teams don’t rely on a single person to be the solution to all the challenges. The idea of the “rock star queer, Black, female CEO who has an unblemished record in management, fundraising, program expertise, and board relations” simply disappears. Organizations that predominately serve Black people will be primarily led by Black people and there will be a supportive community that ensures that gaps in training or experience are filled.

We look to this team model of leadership, focusing on the strengths of the group, knowing that each team member is starting from a different place. The virtuous cycle of teaching and learning does not prioritize the “expertise” of the white leaders, but is driven by the core belief that everyone has something to give and something to gain. My Black Future values the role of coaches, capacity builders, trainers, and educators that provide safe places for learning and growth, beyond the confining walls of organizations that have been rife with sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, and more.

This team works cohesively to build each other up and to build up the strengths of their staff. The front-line case manager and grassroots organizer receive as much investment in support and development as every senior leader. Internal structures ensure that no one falls through the cracks. Each member of the staff is provided with the resources they need to be successful, including a meaningful living wage, emotional support, opportunities for growth and development, and working conditions that meet their individual needs.

My Black Future unseats philanthropy as we know it. It caps private wealth and pushes excess funds to support the communities that have been ravaged by white supremacy, the people on whose backs the fortunes were built. With the resources that were earned by our people, the nonprofit community will no longer rely on the scarcity mentality, but will thrive in the creativity and boundlessness of abundance.

My nonprofit Black Future is broad and inclusive. It creates space for the identities and the perspectives that have been shunned and harmed. We will provide a home and a community for the people who have felt the fear of loneliness and we offer them sanctuary in the missions that we serve. It is for those individuals that we will reserve the seats of power in our nonprofit Boards, for they are the experts.

With each passing year, we can grow slightly closer to this vision and we see Black Futures becoming more centered in the nonprofit sector. We can hold each other and ourselves more accountable, but yet, we still fall into the same patterns of behavior and abuse. With a commitment to redefine power and leadership, our sector can look forward to a new day in which we all center a Black Future that relies on the power and leadership that we can bring.

Melissa Madzel has dedicated her career to building the strength of nonprofit organizations at the local, national, and global levels. Her passion for supporting nonprofits is based in her idealism and a spirit that believes we can all be and do better. She and her wife live in Brooklyn, where they are the proud mothers of two world-changers in training, who inspire them with their confidence. And, as one of these world-changers told her, Melissa’s profession is a “blah, blah, blah, help-Black-people person,” which is pretty accurate.