Building Unexpected Leaders
Gifford’s Executive Director Sheena Solomon discusses the importance of community representation at leadership tables.
Published August 10th, 2021
I remember very clearly the first time I was asked to sit at a decision-making table. Although I already had experience working with nonprofits, it was a significant moment because it was the first time that I was a part of steering the ship. The first thing I noticed as I looked around was that no one else there looked like me. Yet the population that we were there to serve did look like me, and had lived through many of the same challenges that I had faced in my own life. A little while later, I began my work at Gifford where they taught me the meaning of due diligence which included a review of the organization’s board. Suddenly I began to see this disconnect between leadership and the community everywhere I turned.
Sheena Solomon is the Executive Director of the Gifford Foundation.
It’s normal to gravitate towards people who look like you, but it is also limiting. An organization does a disservice to their community if their board is only made up of people who all look and think the same way. It prevents innovation when you don’t have diversity of thought, of culture, and of background. When I began to challenge other organizations about who was represented on their board, the common response was “we can’t find anybody” or “we can’t keep them.” I began to ask myself, “What if we created a space where nonprofits could have access to people who don’t look like them? What if we provided a space for people to learn how to be effective board members?” This is how Nourishing Tomorrow’s Leaders (NTL) was born.
The original concept for NTL was to have it be exclusively for people of color, but I quickly realized that I didn’t want to have a program about inclusion that was exclusive. On top of that, I often have to remind people that diversity is not just a code word for race and it requires intentionality. A truly diverse board also includes people with a range of sexualities, socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, veteran statuses, educational backgrounds, and much, much more. Now entering its eighth year, the NTL program has nearly 200 graduates and attracts more and more interest each time applications open. This progress would not have been possible without the incredible support Gifford has received from The Central New York Community Foundation, Leadership Greater Syracuse, the Human Services Leadership Council, and several other community leaders.
I wanted to share this story because it challenges the traditional idea of “build it and they will come”. Instead, I invite you to try a different approach: “listen, learn, and together we build it.” By bringing others into the process, you give them a stake in the outcome. Last month, Gifford put this philosophy into practice when we updated our “What If…” Mini Grant program to have a youth focus. While designing the application, we held several focus groups with teens across Syracuse to gather their input. The fact is that youth rarely get the opportunity to say, “this is what we want” – let alone be offered the resources to put their ideas into action.
Inviting young people to help build the process with us was not entirely selfless: it helped us identify and fix weak spots in our design before making it public. It also generated valuable word of mouth publicity before we even started promoting the program publicly. But most importantly, it gave the youth who helped us a chance to be heard, to help build something, and to sit in the big leather chairs in our board room and offer their help to adults instead of the other way around for a change. We are excited about lifting the voices of young people and providing them the opportunity to be a part of the change they would like to see. Through both of these programs we aim to build he capacity of the unexpected leaders in our community.
Sheena Solomon, Executive Director
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