When I started a nonprofit in 1996 in New York City, I was oblivious to relationships around me. The mission to help kids who don’t speak English at home was not a competitive service. Nobody was doing it so we charged for classes and had some easy years. The school fit my own nonprivileged background so it fulfilled my passion to see others succeed.
What is my background? That may help you understand my thoughts on outsider leadership. In 1918, my grandfather and his brother secured union jobs with Cloverdale Milk. The demise of home milk delivery in the 1960s was a life sentence of poverty for many in our family. My cousin and I were the first in the large Wilson-Knickerbocker family to attend college. We had no knowledge of the business and leadership networks in Binghamton. We were fenced out and didn’t know it!
With the new nonprofit, I didn’t try to meet other nonprofit leaders and had no government contracts. The school flourished until we served about 400 students. New York City moved into our space with public programs so we tried to maintain and grow with government contracts.
Mysterious fences appeared that defeated my efforts. Some contracts seemed to be assigned to an agency that was inside the fence and there was no public notice. Others gave us finalist status but never the gold prize. After blaming and shaming myself, I realized that I was an Outsider Director.
Outsider directors don’t know rich people who are trying to give away their estate. We didn’t graduate from a famous college. An Outsider Executive Director is an executive director whose birth, education, status, or family connections does not give them easy entrance to the fenced networks. Worse yet, our backgrounds do not even alert us that these networks exist! We are fenced out.
If this describes your background and societal barriers, you are the type of leader who will go far after you jump over two network fences built to keep you out.
How do network fences affect your leadership? There direct and indirect fences.
Direct Network Fences
Momentum of NonProfits of Privilege – If you’re an Outsider Executive Director, you can be closed out by the momentum of a larger provider. Consider the situation where my agency was offered a sudden contract with narrow turnaround time for 175 students. We knocked it out of the ball park and assumed that more contracts would follow. My source in NYC said, ‘Oh, no. Ron. We’re glad that you pinchhit but contracts are first offered to providers already nearby the new site. Since Manhattan is only two miles wide and subway service is everywhere, we’re not in Alaska or Texas. The government policy creates nonprofits of privilege, larger providers with momentum.
Capacity of NonProfits of Privilege – Most nonprofits have a complex capital structure. In the private world, you either make something, sell something, or do something. You have a simple capital structure. Nonprofits have several kinds of government contracts plus fee for service and charity. Each of these sources of revenue has it’s own compliance regime. As you grow, you hire more people to deal with all of this and create more institutional memory. When the next Upward Bound contract is offered, you have plenty of material already in place to respond within the limited time period between the announcement and due dates for proposals. Again, size will gives NonProfits of Privilege a direct network fence.
Indirect Network Fences
Unseen gates in fence – New York City has a beautiful alumni club for Harvard on 44th Street in Manhattan. You should stop in and see it sometime – unless you’re not a Harvard alumnus. New York City has several nonprofit consortiums such as the United Neighborhood Settlement Houses, And it has political clubs and alliances. These social groups were not established to get rid of outsider nonprofits but they have a indirect network fence. They hear rumors ahead of government announcements in their chats at meetings and texts. The recent mayor had a transition team that included leaders in some of these consortiums. Why do you think these leaders were on the uncompensated transition teams – merely for the public good? As a graduate of Binghamton, Buffalo, and SUNY Polytech New York State public universities, I have the Ph.D. and MBA but I was not in any clubs inside the fence. Check out 990 reports of New York City based nonprofits. If you didn’t go to Harvard or Columbia and sometimes NYU, you’re on the wrong side of the fence for most ED jobs.
Imposter Syndrome – We all go to trainings and sometimes government contracts require them. Trainings are good. However, some best practices often inspire feelings that some of us shouldn’t be in the room or at least sit at the back of it. Cyndi Suarez (2018) identifies seven methods of domination and you will experience three of them with best practice trainings –
Assimilation – Try harder and see that our way is the best
Certainty – I’m sure that the fence is the same height for all of us and the fact that you didn’t bring a chair to stand on is irrelevant
Authority – we hope you will have good manners at the meeting, shut up, and don’t think about the slings and arrows of your outrageous fortune. Even this video sounds seditious.
What can you do to jump the fences?
You’ve already taken an important step by naming the powers that you face. Paulo Freire says that liberation can’t begin until you can discuss and think about the oppression. Of course, you’re tense and threatened. Discussion with others is liberating. You will discover untapped reservoirs of ideas. Much of my coaching work is asking a few questions and watching the answers get created by the team.
Stop blaming yourself. Of course, there is some envy of all of the opportunities and privilege of others. But I take great comfort in the prophet Isaiah who talks about God taking a rough branch and stripping leaves and bark until there is a polished arrow. Your oppressions have given you competencies that privileged leaders will never understand or copy.
Outsider Executive Directors can find a niche to serve that doesn’t depend on scale. There are about 30 sectors in the nonprofit world from education to health to development (Young, Steinberg, Emmanuele, and Simmons: 2019). That number is multiplied when you consider language, gender, age LGBTQI and other ways to subdivide a sector.
Outsider Executive Directors can find a niche where clients want a deep relationship with each other. Large nonprofits of privilege often cannot also specialize in intimate networks where clients learn from each other.
Outsider Executive Directors should label all of your services. Since you are not operating for scale, you need to be unique. Nonprofits are terrible at branding in general. Are you one more daycare and every family will compare by price or convenience? Or are you Aunt Adeline’s SafePlay Space? Your new label immediately appeals to parents who want a trusted caregiver in a safety proofed area.
Your outsider credentials and your struggle to survive and thrive have added to your competencies. You understand the challenges of some of your clients much better than city departments and nonprofits of privilege set up to serve them. How can you set up programs that use your competencies?
Build your own network or join one. Networks are good institutions. If you offer childcare, find other needs that parents may have to build convenience. With my kids, I always wanted to drop off my child and dry cleaning in the same stop. Convenience for stressed families is a great need of an unfair market system.
If you acquire government contracts, be aware that they are biased towards undifferentiated offerings at scale. 34% of all funding is from government, but the cash that really helps many outsider directors is the Fee for Service and Unrestricted Charitable Gifts. Unrestricted cash empowers the struggle to jump the fence into the Nonprofits of privilege.
Let’s end where we started. If you are feeling that there are fences to keep out leaders like you, that’s more likely true than paranoia. Outsider Executive Directors are directors who have to jump fences built of societal barriers. We have discussed two fences of networks –Direct Network fences and Indirect Network fences.
You need not be a victim. Learn how to build outside the fences. Learn how to jump higher. And Cyndi Suarez mentions one more domination technique that will help you – Tolerance. NonProfits of Privilege always like to showcase one leader who jumps the fence to prove to themselves that there are no fences. 😊