Untold Stories of Female Leadership
Part III: Fostering the Next Generation
We were so inspired by the remarkable leaders we interviewed for parts I and II of this series—“Untold Stories of Female Leadership, Part I: Big Leaps,” and “Untold Stories of Female Leadership, Part II: Intersections of Identity,” (Advancing Philanthropy, July 2019 and January 2020, respectively) we decided to bring it to life by facilitating a panel discussion at the 2019 AFP Greater Toronto Congress.
The panel included three bold, diverse leaders who are all at different stages of their careers:
- Rea Ganesh is the vice president of philanthropy and strategy at North York General Foundation in Toronto, Canada. She has spent the last 20 years in health-based charities, raising funds to improve the lives of patients and their families.
- Nicole McVan is the director of corporate donor relations at United Way Greater Toronto. Nicole leads a team of 50 fundraisers who raise in excess of $100 million through strategic partnerships, workplace giving, employee engagement, volunteering and events.
- Amy Soden is a development writer for the Donor Relations and Stewardship team at Ryerson University in Toronto. She has more than five years of major gift and capital campaign experience and currently leads impact reporting for major donors giving from $100,000 into the millions.
The panelists spoke candidly about identity, facing discrimination, leading from where you are and finding your champions. In this article we present some of the highlights and most poignant issues from our discussion.
Identity and Discrimination
We first asked the panelists to discuss the multiple identities and perspectives they bring to their work. Amy shared that having a disability (she is legally blind) allows her to connect with donors from a place of empathy. She can meet donors with openness, active listening and a genuine curiosity about the person who is giving. Her disability has also allowed her to understand the importance of helping donors see their values in action, communicating on a very human level, and demonstrating impact through both numbers and meaningful narrative.
The panelists all shared times when they have had to address discrimination and incorrect assumptions about their identities in a professional setting. They stressed the importance of being true to yourself, speaking out against injustice, and as Nicole put it, “Being vocal, understanding and patient can help people learn how to be better allies.”
Nicole, a transgender nonbinary person, talked about an experience they (the pronoun Nicole uses to identify themselves) had where, despite being introduced as the more senior person in the room and despite leading the conversation with a donor, they were not looked at in the eye or responded to for most of the meeting. After the meeting, when they brought this up to their colleague, he was embarrassed to say that he didn’t notice. The two had a meaningful discussion followed by a broader one with the full team: How could he have redirected the conversation? How could he have made more space? The discussion gave him the opportunity to appreciate how he could use his power and privilege in influencing the discussion and demonstrating that he valued Nicole’s experience and perspective. In the end, it was an incredibly powerful learning moment that propelled them both forward.
Rea has had to deal with the stereotype that “all brown people look the same.” In her previous role, Rea’s co-workers mistook her for the only other woman of South Asian descent in the organization—despite the fact they looked nothing alike and worked in different departments—and mixed up their names on many occasions. There were even times Rea received confidential information because the other woman worked in human resources. It was insulting and challenging to address without getting frustrated with the situation.
Amy discussed a time she experienced ableism (discrimination against people who are disabled or perceived to be disabled) when she was denied advance access to print and visual materials for a professional development workshop. Despite disclosing her disability and advocating for her needs, the facilitator denied her rights. Amy chose not to attend the workshop on principle—she didn’t feel she could learn from someone who wasn’t willing to acknowledge who she was. To deny her disability is to make her feel unwelcome. But it’s a very personal choice. As Amy so eloquently put it, “I draw a hard line between ignorance and ableism so my dignity and personhood remain intact—especially in the emotionally demanding work that we do in a profession like fundraising.”
Leading from Where You Are
When asked what “inclusive leadership in action” means, they all agreed it’s about leading from where you are and inspiring others to feel safe and empowered to make a difference. As Amy said, “Leadership is about raising my hand or showing up in different spaces—even when it’s uncomfortable.”
Amy believes it is crucial to show up and share her story of being a young woman in fundraising with a disability in order to empower other women in philanthropy who are in a similar situation. “It isn’t always easy being the ‘first’ or the ‘only’ person in the room with this lived experience of an invisible disability. The silver lining is that I have a real opportunity to exercise servant leadership and help open doors for others to succeed in our industry by showing up as my whole self.”
Nicole elaborated on this further from their own experiences, “Unconscious bias will rear its ugly head in all of us and will create barriers for people, especially more vulnerable folks. You have to advocate for yourself and others. I have had to fight for myself and others. I am proud of the times I have fought—sometimes won, sometimes lost—for equal pay, for overdue promotions, for flexible working arrangements and for gender-free washrooms. I’ll keep pushing, advocating and being that squeaky wheel to make our work environment safe, fair and inclusive.”
Finding Your Champions
We asked the panelists what they felt their responsibility was to create opportunities for others and where they had found their own champions.
Rea said she has often found champions in unlikely places: “This was a huge lesson for me. There was a time in my career where I thought other women of color would be my biggest champions. But experience has shown me that this isn’t always the case.
“However, two of my biggest champions were women who look nothing like me but who gave me opportunities to excel in my career because they could see that I had the experience, drive and passion to succeed. This has allowed me to look at people for everything they can offer. Although my aspiration is to provide women of color opportunity and mentorship, I hope I can do so by demonstrating that I’m part of a diverse group, but more importantly, a good fundraiser.”
Nicole added, “It is up to each of us to decide when and how we want to fight for more inclusivity. It will ebb and flow depending on the situation at hand and how resilient you feel. That said, I think it is incumbent upon all of us to identify and use any privileges we have to stand up for and make space for others.”
Although our interviewees and panelists come from unique backgrounds and have varied life experiences, their collective wisdom and guidance can hopefully serve as an inspiration and a call to action for all those who want to work to make our sector more diverse and inclusive. While their stories may be different, what we have learned from them couldn’t be more similar:
- Be true to yourself. Be honest with your organization (and the sector) about who you are and what you need to be successful.
- Lead from where you are. Not only will you make a difference, you will inspire others to stand up for what they believe.
- Pay it forward. No matter where we are in our careers, we all have opportunities to support and mentor others.
It is imperative that our individual identities not be divorced from our professional identities. After all, fundraising and philanthropy are about humanity.
As we conclude this three-part series, we hope that we have been able to shed light on some of the challenges faced and lessons learned by diverse leaders in our sector. We further hope that these lessons and experiences are only the beginning of the dialogue.
Tanya Rumble and Hava Goldberg met in 2016 as fellows in the sophomore class of the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy—Canada’s Fellowship in Inclusion and Philanthropy program and collaborated on an analysis of diversity and inclusion in Toronto-area nonprofits. They have continued their exploration of equity, diversity, and inclusion through the lens of fundraising and philanthropy in a number of forums. Tanya and Hava invite you to continue the dialogue at @rumbleth and @havagoldberg.