When Vu Le, Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), graduated from college, he underwent what he calls the “experience paradox”: he did not have a job in the nonprofit sector because he did not have experience in the nonprofit sector, and he did not have experience because he could not find a job.
The experience paradox is one that those in the sector know well, and it’s one of the major contributors to why the development of nonprofit leaders is so difficult. For people of color entering the sector, the paradox is even more pronounced: only 18% of nonprofit professionals and 10% of nonprofit leaders are people of color, a data point that is especially significant given that communities of color are often disproportionately affected by the issues that nonprofits address.
Why is it difficult for people of color to get involved? What does it take to build leaders of color for nonprofits who work in communities of color – organizations that are often already in need of resources? More importantly, if we are set on developing leaders from within the communities that we serve, how do we put those values into practice?
Le began to explore these questions while involved at the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA), where he received mentorship, coaching, and leadership support and where he later became Executive Director. In 2014, he began oversight of Rainier Valley Corps, a pilot organization under the sponsorship of VFA that seeks to cultivate leaders of color for nonprofits who are working in communities of color.
RVC hosts two-year-long fellowship programs for nonprofit leaders, which allows individuals to train while working full-time at a partnering organization. Throughout their fellowship, leaders train in 4 key areas: nonprofit management, leadership (both adaptive and collective), community mobilization and advocacy, and cultural and community dynamics. Some of the areas explored are specific to a given cultural group – how to address elders, for example, or the historical trauma that a community has faced. Fellows develop a work plan in conjunction with their work site, attend retreats, and participate in an end-of-year evaluation to reflect on the lessons they’ve learned.
One aspect of RVC’s programming that is most intentional and effective is its cohort-building initiatives. The fellowship program begins with a four-day retreat where fellows spend time getting to know one another before beginning their work. They share stories and build trust from the beginning of their program so that fellows feel that they have a strong system of support to fall back on. In developing cohorts of leaders, RVC operationalizes the values that they hold in developing nonprofit communities of color: trust, time, and the capacity to do meaningful and intentional work.
This year marks the end of the first fellowship experience, and as RVC reflects, they are identifying the things that worked and the things that didn’t. Organizations find it incredibly helpful to have a fellow who is connected to the community and has the knowledge to be a leader. Communities really value the small things that fellows offer their work site like a sense of welcoming and family. Additionally, RVC has connected different organizations and communities to one another through the fellows. These connection further increase organizations’ capacity to help their individual communities.
While there have been many successes, RVC recognizes that for future cohorts, they will need to focus more on developing relationships with community-based organizations (CBOs). While on the one hand, intentional cohort-building has been incredibly effective in supporting fellows, organizations need support as well in finding out the best strategy for both fellows and organizations. Le says that in hindsight, a CBO coach in addition to leadership training is necessary for both parties to gain from their experience.
RVC’s approach to leadership within communities of color invests time and resources into fellows that they know will build a better sector. While funders have been giving small amounts of money for nonprofits to hire consultants or for individuals to go to workshops so that they might increase their capacity, Le argues that capacity building is much more complex. “Sending in a brilliant fellow is not enough. It has to be holistic: staff, support, time for building trust. There’s a lot at stake.”
The solution is not more data, more workshops or conferences, but more people who understand and can assert their own value as members and leaders in their communities. In an increasingly business-minded sector, nonprofits often attract humble people who fall into that same old paradox: we don’t know our own value and have few avenues to develop it. “We have to start owning our power more,” Le says. “We have to assert our knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.” Through comprehensive leadership programs for nonprofit leaders of color, RVC is setting an example for the kinds of claims and impact we in the sector have the potential to make.
Vu Le is the Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps and the former Executive Director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association. He currently chairs the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition and is the author behind the nonprofit humorblog, nonprofitwithballs.com.
Krystin Gollihue is a current doctoral student in the Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program at NC State University.