From the Grassroots Up: Leadership Lessons From Women Community Leaders

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Women working in the nonprofit sector are not the first source that business people would look to for advice, but they should be.

Community leaders, especially women, do some of the hardest work under the least forgiving circumstances. And they get results. At The New York Women’s Foundation, we know because we’ve been investing in women-led, community-based organizations for 29 years, seeking high returns on our investments.

Our strategy for sustainable growth is successful and replicable. In 2015, we invested $520,000 in 12 women-led organizations offering training and job placement. More than 1,700 women received services with 413 gaining new employment with projected annual wages of $8.5M—a 15-fold return on initial funding.

We consider our grantees to be our partners. They are catalysts for new economy models and traditional initiatives with the power to transform communities in increments – one woman, one family at a time. They are visionaries who develop and provide services like small business development programs, workforce development training, financial literacy, worker cooperatives and more in neighborhoods that need it most.

Together, we have accumulated years of experience regarding how best to promote powerful leadership, robust entrepreneurship and wise investment in a world that does not always support women’s efforts. After nearly three decades, this is what we have learned:

  1. Take risks and take them early

The Foundation prides ourselves on being early investors. This means that we’re meeting with newly formed not-for-profit organizations that are still at the early stages of their work. For some funders, this is an uncomfortable predicament in which they are often unable to take the risk. But our ability to listen to plans forged at the grass-roots level—and to step in before other investors and before extensive advance evaluation—has invariably produced impressive results.

We know that problems and solutions are found in the same place, and we shape our grantmaking strategy from a community-driven approach. Time and time again we have seen that the most impactful and innovative solutions are born of risk-taking courage combined with ground-level knowledge of what is at stake.

  1. Start from a place of strength
Hot Bread Kitchen

Our grantee partner Hot Bread Kitchen (HBK), for instance, works with low-income, immigrant women and women of color, helping them break into the male-dominated culinary industry where they can earn a living wage to support themselves and their families. HBK asks nothing more from those women than a passion for cooking, a commitment to hard work, and a determination to help themselves and their families achieve a better life.

In return, HBK offers them training in English language, financial literacy, business planning – training in skills that can serve as further stepping stones in their careers. This training also removes an initial lack of those skills from serving as a barrier to joining the program. HBK’s approach works. It has successfully equipped cohort after of cohort of women to earn good livings, move on into new positions, and even launch their own enterprises. Their focus on the strengths that women possess, allows them to get started right away on their path to success.

  1. Embrace challenges because they lead to innovation

Among the challenges facing women, particularly low-income, immigrant women, are the poor working conditions with low wages and without appropriate protections against exploitation. In the face of these conditions, The Foundation’s grantee partner, Center for Family Life (CFL) has propelled a progressive business model, worker cooperatives, that allows for more ownership and economic independence for the women that they work with. CFL supports their community through training and technical assistance to incubate businesses such as cleaning services and child care centers.

The solution that such bold women forged proves that with grit, vision – and a willingness to listen – the most difficult of challenges can be overcome. The business model they have created holds the potential for extensive replication and has helped to shift the landscape of New York City’s marketplace for immigrant women, proving that every problem has a creative solution.

  1. Leverage your network, especially in times of crisis

Times of crisis demand quick thinking and broad cooperation. Thanks to years of working in diverse communities, we have the capacity to marshal extensive collective resources on very short notice. After Hurricane Sandy, we leveraged our network of nearly 300 grantee organizations and were able to quickly disperse funds to communities that were already facing terrible conditions of poverty and violence. These conditions, exacerbated by the storm, required an immediate response and working with our network, were able to respond quickly—already having an understanding of what support was needed and where.

Over the past nearly 30 years, astutely seeking out and funding women-generated entrepreneurial ideas has produced clear results for The Foundation – and it can for others. The lessons we have shared here are just a few examples of the power of investing in women. Their leadership is effective and meaningful because they are resourceful, innovative, and measured without being risk-averse.

When a woman is uplifted, she brings her family and community with her. It is in this spirit that we continue our commitment to the vision and leadership of women in communities across New York City.

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