Calling All Phoenixes
This moment requires a new kind of leader. Here’s how to find them.
Thoughts on recruiting the nonprofit leaders of the future
“Dear Nina, We’re contacting you about a special opportunity.”
What is it?, I wonder. A line of artist-designed protest masks? A global coalition to reimagine the cultural sector? An unrestricted grant?
Nope. It’s a recruitment email for a nonprofit executive director search. Another one.
I used to engage with these emails. I’d write long responses sharing bios of brilliant Black women and women of color. But after a couple years in which these potential candidates were either ignored or dismissed as “not ready,” I gave up. I started hitting delete.
I’m still getting them every week. And in the past month, I can’t bring myself to look away. It’s not that the emails have changed — it’s that they haven’t. No mention of COVID-19. No mention of anti-racist uprisings. No mention of a cultural sector on the brink. It’s a rare form of doom-scrolling to read these sunny, formulaic emails seeking candidates for an “exciting opportunity to build on our organization’s history and redefine its future.”
As far as I can tell, these executive job descriptions are constructed from a single set of Mad Libs, passed around from board to board, like fraternity brothers sharing xeroxed answers to the chemistry final. Everyone is looking for “strategic, visionary leaders,” “experienced managers,” and “passionate fundraisers.” A few might sprinkle in “a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion” or a nod to “these strange times,” but beyond that, nothing says 2020. No mention of slashed budgets and uncertain futures. No need for collective care or rebuilding trust. No request for a reckoning with the past or unwinding legacies of white supremacy. Not even a wink at “leading through change.” Nothing is being toppled, nothing needs to be righted. It’s bold futures all the way down.
This is a serious problem — not just for the boards recruiting new executives now, but for the future of the cultural sector. There are estimates that as many as one-third of museums¹ and cultural institutions may shut down in 2020. Another third will likely be seriously unraveled by the pandemic. My guess is that we’re going to see the most dramatic turnover of executive leadership in the cultural sector ever in the next two years. Who will we choose to replace them?
We don’t need pre-pandemic leaders for these roles. We need phoenixes. We need leaders who can survive in the hottest part of the fire and shape a future of liberation from it.
I firmly believe these leaders exist. I also believe our current recruiting systems aren’t set up to find or fully see them. If we don’t change our approach, we’ll reproduce the inequitable and often inadequate leadership that preceded this crisis. So I write this essay, in hopes that board committees and recruiters will embark on a new kind of search for a new kind of leader.
Hire the Leader for this Moment and the Future You Want to Build
When I was applying to become the director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) in 2010, the organization was in urgent need of a turnaround. The organization had been losing money and shrinking for years. I got a call from the board halfway through the hiring process informing me it might be shut down before the new ED was in place. From my own experience as a county resident, I felt the museum was not relevant to the very people who could make it strong. The MAH seemed to me like a reverse magnet, repelling the creative life of the city — the buskers, poets, protestors, and culture-makers — and clutching a more formal, refined vision of art and history.
The MAH needed a turnaround leader. And I thought that might be me.
I’m a big believer in Susan Kenny Stevens’ theory of nonprofit lifecycles. The idea is that most nonprofits go through stages of development, from idea to startup to growth to maturity. Mature organizations might slide into decline and death, or they might launch a turnaround, rebooting a new iteration of the startup stage.
As Stevens’ book lays out, different stages call for different leaders with different skills. The leader of a mature organization — the person who can ably build consensus, raise endowment funds, or bring coherence to scattered programs — is not the same as the turnaround leader who can envision a new path, move aggressively, and build momentum.
I didn’t have the experience the MAH board sought — but I did have the skills, vision, and chutzpah to lead a turnaround. I told the board committee, “I may not be the right director for this museum in normal times. But at this time, when the museum is in need of reinvention, I think I’m exactly what you need.”
What exactly does your organization need right now? What stage of development are you in, and what kind of leadership does this moment require?
If you can answer these questions, you’ll likely come up with a fresh, distinctive, honest set of skills to seek in your next leader.
And yes, even today, it is different for different institutions.
An organization that has just slashed its budget by 75% might need a scrappy, entrepreneurial leader who can do a lot with a little.
An organization that has pivoted to rapid response community service might need a systems thinker who can convert short-term commitments into a long-term strategy.
An organization that is being called out for racist practices might need a leader skilled in reconciliation and healing justice.
An organization that has gone adrift might need a focused leader with deep integrity who knows how to rebuild a team.
The most important first step of any hiring committee is to develop a clear, focused list of skills and assets you most need in your next leader and build alignment around that list. If you can get clear, focused, and aligned, you’ll be able to put down the Mad Libs and instead write a job description that powerfully describes what YOU need.
If you can get clear about what kind of leader you seek, it won’t just help your team get aligned. It will help the right kind of candidates see themselves in the role. You’ll be more likely to attract potential leaders who can actually help you. You’ll stand out meaningfully from the pack, so people like me will spread the job announcement around rather than shaking my head and hitting delete.
And then, that takes you to the next challenge: recognizing a great candidate when they knock on your door.
Hire for What You Need, Not the Patterns You Are Familiar With
We know a rabbit by its ears. A wolf by its howl. But how do you spot a leader from miles away?
Recruiters tend to pattern-match by looking for attributes they already believe to be successful. I say “believe” because this kind of pattern-matching is rarely based in evidence. It’s based in familiarity, and often, in well-worn biases and prejudices.
91% of board members of American cultural institutions are white.² The leaders they know are white. The leaders they see in media are white. The leaders they imagine are white. The stories they tell themselves about who might be a sure thing — or who might be worth taking a risk on — are woven in whiteness.
For most board members of cultural organizations, “viable” candidates fit the pattern of white and well-educated. Or, they fit the pattern of something seen as desirable and faux-exotic, like a tall man with a European accent. It’s as if boards were picking out who they’d most like to get trapped in a ski chalet with during a snowstorm.
I remember applying for that executive director job at the MAH and knowing I didn’t match the pattern. All the prior directors were white men 30 years my senior. Even though I had a strong pitch, I knew it would be an uphill battle to get hired. I was a woman. I had no management experience. No fundraising experience. No graduate degree. I had a “2” in front of my age.
I didn’t match the pattern of what an experienced cultural leader is supposed to look like. But I was still in the running because I fit another stereotype: that of the young, white, tech-y maverick. I was an engineer who’d worked at NASA. I had a popular blog and an international network. I was a “proven” innovator. I was the kind of rebel some board members were willing to take a risk on. As one board member apparently asked, “Are we going to pass up the opportunity to hire the Mark Zuckerberg of museums?”
I’m no Mark Zuckerberg — not even circa 2010. But I fit a model for acceptable deviance from the pattern. I might not have been an alpha candidate, but I was a version of the nerdy underdog who maybe — just maybe — could be a winner. And frankly, given their financial situation, they may have been more risk-tolerant (or more desperate) than in normal times.
So they hired me. And I played my part. I shook things up. Experimented a lot. Sold bold new visions to donors. Brought tons of energy. I may not have been the kind of leader they felt most comfortable with. But I was a kind of leader they could imagine and believe in. And by the time we’d had huge success and growth, everyone wanted to claim they’d “discovered” me first.
I was lucky — and white. I was able to break in the door. But I’ve watched too many brilliant colleagues of color get stopped before they even hit the welcome mat outside.
It’s not that they are not qualified. It’s that they don’t look like executives. Or rather — they don’t fit any of the stories that board members tell themselves about what leadership looks like.
Particularly at this moment, it’s critical for boards and executive recruiters to take the time to unlearn their biases about who can lead. Pattern-matching is most pernicious when you are face to face with another human being, wondering, “could this person be the one? Can I see them as our leader? Can I tell myself a believable story about the future of our organization with them at the helm?”
If you want to find the most talented potential leaders in your midst, you have to break your biases and expand your imagination. Here are a few ways to do that:
Make a list of the leaders who most inspire you. What do you notice about those individuals? Do they have backgrounds in common? Skills in common? Liabilities in common? This kind of exercise can help you get a sense of how ingrained your biases are. It can also help you note blind spots that might prevent you from seeing some kinds of leaders fully.
Look for leaders who embody the job criteria you agreed on as a committee. Can you name any leaders — living or dead, famous or otherwise — who fit this criteria? If not, go out and find them. These leaders exist. They must! Otherwise you would declare your search a failure before you start. When you have real examples of your criteria in action, you may be surprised by ways their identities and resumés defy the patterns for leadership you carry with you.
Deliberately seek out stories of non-white, non-male leadership. There are podcasts hosted by activist leaders of color, like Sunstorm with Alicia Garza and Ai-jen Poo. There are documentaries like Knock Down the House, about women running for Congress for the first time. There are profiles of nonprofit CEOs of color like Sylvia Acevedo (Girl Scouts), Christy Coleman (American Civil War Museum), and Chevy Humphrey (Arizona Science Center). The more diverse stories you consume, the more different versions of leadership you’ll be able to imagine and believe in.
Involve others in the recruitment process who see things differently from you. You can overcome your blind spots with others who see more clearly. If you need a leader who can help your team heal after trauma, invite a community health leader to join the recruitment committee. If you need a leader who can radically re-envision your institution, pay an artist to design the interview process. If you need a leader who deeply understands equity, give the power to green light candidates to QTBIPOC staff members.
Agree on rules or practices to help you stay accountable to diversity in the recruitment process. You can commit to working with a recruitment firm that has a track record of placing (not just sourcing) leaders of color. You can commit to keeping the application process open until you’ve had a specific number of applicants from priority groups. You can commit to interviewing at least one person from each of those groups. And so on. Using a quantifiable rule can help you avoid sliding into “well, we tried.”
Remember: the leader you are seeking is out there. You may not be equipped at this moment to fully see them. But if you are clear on criteria and expand your imagination, you’ll see them popping up everywhere.
Embrace the Phoenixes All Around You
You don’t have to look far to find the cultural leaders of the future. While the phoenix might be a mythological creature, it has very real human cousins who walk among us. They are boldly reimagining in times of crisis. They are calling others in to hope and accountability. They are helping us feel safe, supported, and worthy of a brighter future.
There’s a phoenix everywhere you look these days, and they hit every leadership competency your organization might seek.
Want a visionary scholar? Chaédria LaBouvier was the first Black person to curate an exhibition at the Guggenheim in their 80-year-history. She delivered a groundbreaking Basquiat show — and relentlessly fought for the dismantling of racist institutional practices. Her activism helped inspire the open letter trend moving through the art world, paving the way for meaningful change.
Want a creative systems thinker? Many cultural workers are creating powerful visions of a brighter future right now. As one example, Bradley Powell laid out a new path forward for North American orchestras with equity and community engagement at the center.
Want a proven fundraiser? Paula Santos spearheaded the Museum Workers Relief Fund, raising over $70,000 in small gifts to date to redistribute to struggling museum staff around the US. Museum Workers Speak is a model of collective leadership in action — a blueprint for the type of leadership Paula sees as being necessary in cultural organizations.
Want a strong manager? Get in touch with any one of the people organizing mutual aid efforts or protests — or perhaps that staff member who convinced colleagues to sign on to a statement demanding change. You may notice that many of these efforts are led by coalitions that resist putting forward a single leader, like the above-mentioned Museum Workers Speak, or We See You White American Theater. If you get to know the folks involved in any one movement, you’ll find leaders all around.
I’m not suggesting that any one of these individuals is interested in responding to your particular invitation to consider becoming their next chief executive. But I’m guessing that right now, you aren’t even sending them the invitation.
It’s time to change that.
The cultural leadership crisis is coming for us soon. The organizations that win will be those that rethink what they need, unlearn biased patterns, and relentlessly pursue the leaders of the future. Successful recruiters won’t just send out formulaic pap to the same old list. They’ll source, cultivate, invite, and woo the leaders of the future with honesty, transparency, and respect.
The leaders of the future don’t look like the leaders of the past. But that doesn’t mean they are the stuff of fairy tales. They are speaking up at work. They are fighting for what’s right. They are resigning in protest. They are creating new visions of what is possible.
These future leaders will need our support. They’ll need our help. But most of all, they need us to fully see them for what they are — the phoenixes with whom we might gratefully rise to meet another day.
¹ The 1/3 figure is based on this American Alliance of Museums survey of museum directors. The global figures may be slightly better (see https://hyperallergic.com/565254/covid-19-unesco-icom-study/)
² The 91% figure comes from Dr. Francie Ostrower’s comprehensive research on US arts trustee demographics, based on 2005 data. More recent studies (like this one in museums) show that if anything, boards are getting less diverse.
Thanks to Elise Granata for editorial guidance, and to Bradley Powell, Paula Santos, and Chaédria Labouvier for fact-checking.