Hilary Dunne Ferrone: Gender Equity In Nonprofit Leadership

Mar 16, 2017

Last weekend I attended a panel discussion in my hometown regarding the future of our county and the role nonprofits can play in shaping that future.  We touched on many things: economics, jobs, demographics and community institutions. The conversation led to people sharing ideas as to how we can strengthen nonprofits so that they can continue to do the work that creates a sense of place and community.  Encouraging diversity – in its many forms -- on nonprofit boards was one suggestion for breaking down barriers among people, and reducing a feeling of “us” and “them.” Ironically, however, there was just one person in the room under the age of 50, the entire audience was white, and there was just one woman on the four-person panel.

Later, as I reflected on the conversation, I thought about the role of women in nonprofits.  In my many years in this industry, I’ve been in the majority as a woman -- whether on boards or as staff -- at every organization.

Nationally, 75% of nonprofit volunteers and employees are women, but only 45% of them are CEO’s or board chairs.  This gender ratio makes no sense. And, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy (April 28, 2014) the larger the nonprofit, the lower the percentage of women on staff.  At small organizations, the staff is 82% female; midsize organizations, 74%; and at large organizations only 59% of the staff is female. I’ll admit, these numbers are better than those at most for-profit businesses. Recognizing that we can make numbers support all sorts of theories, my interpretation is that once an organization seems more like a business and less like a community or cultural service, men seem to dominate.  And, the same can be said about board membership: the bigger the budget, the more men you will find serving in leadership roles.

Nonprofits need diversity in all its forms in order to thrive and to maintain a finger on the pulse of the community.  Rightly so, many boards have begun expanding board membership to include those they serve. Land conservancies want farmers and education foundations want educators. Board membership was once reserved for people who had the financial wherewithal to write a significant check; now, there is value in having people of different opinions, backgrounds and knowledge seated at the same table. The question remains as to who is seated at the head of that table. I have no argument against hiring the person deemed best for the job, regardless of gender. I simply think it’s incumbent on those doing the hiring and nominating to consider the possibility that preconceived ideas of what a leader looks like might get in the way of finding the best person. It just doesn’t seem possible that all those women who are working for nonprofits are somehow incapable of making that final leap to the top.

The good news for our community, the Greater Capital District, is that many nonprofits buck the national statistics. Women lead our chapter of the American Heart Association; the Brain Injury Association; the Pride Center; NYS Parks & Trails; Berkshire United Way; the Community Loan Fund of the Capital Region, and the Sage Colleges, to name a few. Until recently, women led both the Community Foundation of the Greater Capital Region and the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.

Kudos to the many Capital Region nonprofits for having a solid representation of women in leadership roles. I hope this inspires women and minorities in staff positions to throw their hat into the ring if they want, and I trust that hiring and nominating committees will recognize talent and potential above all else.

Hilary Dunne Ferrone has worked in the nonprofit and government sectors for the past 20 years, including serving on the policy team in the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery.  She currently serves on the board of the Fund for Columbia County and is co-chair of Berkshire Country Day School’s capital campaign.

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