International Women's Day-Celebrating Women in the Nonprofit Sector

On March 8, the 44th annual celebration of International Women’s Day set the scene for our fifth announcement ceremony where we welcomed our new Core and Associates organizations. When planning this event, we were struck by the realization of how many of the nonprofit leaders we work with are women of color.

While it is not wholly unusual for women to make up a significant portion of the nonprofit workforce, they are not necessarily leading the organizations. When the leadership is as diverse as we see in the Accelerator, what are the implications on the organizations and the work that they are able to accomplish?

For the women we spoke to for this article, it seems as though working in a mostly female workforce has supported their own interests in professional growth. For almost 45 years, Mary Anton has served as an administrator for the business school at UChicago, as a board member for several Hyde Park organizations, and as a non-profit consultant. She noted that during the early part of her career, training for the nonprofit sector, particularly the individual roles within an organization, was not formalized, but she learned the skills she needed for the different roles that she would take on throughout her career by working with and being mentored by others who were already in this field, particularly other women. It is this skill-set that she learned from others that she credited for her success in her expansive nonprofit career by helping her maintain motivation and drive.

Working closely with women has also inspired Stacey Anewishki, who for more than 25 years has been on staff at Featherfist, an organization her mother Melanie founded. When discussing women of color leaders, Anewishki said, “I try to be a constant example and I try to constantly teach them things,” in the hopes that, “I’ll train some great leaders.”

However, in the nonprofit sector, with its long hours and high demands, motivation can be really difficult to sustain and burnout always seems to be lingering on the horizon. This can be especially true when the work of an organization is particularly personal but also extremely high stakes, which is often the case in nonprofit work. While it is important to remember the importance of the work, “in this job, you can get lost helping others and it can wear you out and you can get compassion burnout,” Anewishki said. “Don’t forget about yourself while you’re helping everybody else.” Mary Anton echoed this, stating that maintaining a work-life balance has been another significant factor in staying in the sector for so long.

    For both these women, it was key that they did not underestimate their abilities and their qualifications in order to advance in their careers, and they hope that by continuing to inspire other women to be confident in their abilities, the diversity in nonprofit leadership will continue to increase. Anton recalled how when her organization would call for resumes for a leadership position, she found that not only were about 80 percent of the applications sent in by women, but the women were often more qualified and experienced than the men who had applied for the same position. However, this did not always mean that a woman was chosen for the position. But, both Anton and Anewishki seemed hopeful women of color are beginning to be chosen more often for leadership positions. As Anewishki stated, “women, especially women of color, are just as skilled and as educated as men and should be regularly considered for leadership positions because why not?”

So why not? With 73 percent of nonprofit sector made up by women, the same amount of gender diversity is to be expected at the top. Anton said she is optimistic and that this diversity, “is coming faster [and] that women will take more leadership positions. Although women have not cracked the ceiling in all parts of the nonprofit sector, interesting things are happening in the foundational world.” Now it all seems to just be a matter of time. And a matter of asking, ‘Why not?’