Investing in LGBT Leaders or Burning Them Out? The Choice Is Clear

It is the perennial challenge facing social change movements around the world: how to create the biggest impact with limited resources. The challenge becomes even more daunting for movements in which activists and nonprofits find themselves hugely out-funded by their opponents and fighting on ever-shifting terrain.

A case in point is the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality. For many on the outside, the gay rights movement looks like a well-oiled and well-funded machine, making huge strides and delivering big wins. From the inside, however, it's a completely different reality. The overwhelming majority of organizational leaders feel besieged from all sides, including the demands of fundraising, managing personnel, keeping up with new technologies, and handling hostile media. Oh, yes, and then there's the actual mission -- fighting for equality against opponents with deep pockets and a seemingly bottomless bag of ugly tactics and attacks. It's little wonder there is so much burnout and leadership turnover in the movement.

At the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, we've had a firsthand view of how one LGBT organization has responded to these realities -- and grown its impact -- through a determined effort to strengthen its leadership, staffing, and organizational infrastructure. Before you stop reading this post at the mere mention of the words "organizational infrastructure," please check out a new video that tells the story of one organization's transformation in much more compelling and human terms.

The video was created by my colleagues here at the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund to show how the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) used a Flexible Leadership Award to address some very real and urgent challenges it was facing.

Here's the story: since its founding 35 years ago, NCLR built an astounding record of success in securing equal rights for and combating discrimination against LGBT people through the courts. Its Executive Director, Kate Kendell, and its Legal Director, Shannon Minter, are arguably the gay community's most respected and beloved leaders. Like virtually every other movement organization, however, NCLR put all its energies and money into this work, with little going into investing in the people who actually do it.

Beginning in 2004, the pressures and demands on NCLR started escalating, beginning with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordering the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Almost immediately, the organization found itself at the center of a raging national debate over marriage equality. That peak was followed by a historic NCLR victory in the California Supreme Court striking down anti-marriage laws as unconstitutional. Then came the campaign to defeat Proposition 8, an ugly, exhausting, expensive, and ultimately losing campaign to preserve the freedom to marry in NCLR's home state. Throughout it all, NCLR was attracting a surge of attention, support, and demand for its legal and policy work while its leaders were struggling to hold on and address all the challenges and opportunities presented by an ever-changing political environment. Put simply, they were stretched thin and weren't sure how to fix the situation.

"We were worn down, and I didn't think I could keep on going, as much as I truly loved my job. There were obstacles standing in the way of our success that we couldn't see," Kendell says in the video. "We now have the tools and resources to truly empower ourselves as leaders in the LGBT equality movement."

Thanks to consulting and coaching help supported by the Flexible Leadership Award, a senior team now works collaboratively to set strategy for NCLR, with team members playing key management roles that previously might have fallen exclusively on Kendell and Minter. As a result, NCLR has strengthened its fundraising operations its and communications with media, supporters, and donors, and the organization has maintained -- and grown -- a strong base of funding, even during the economic downturn. And last but not least, NCLR has developed a pipeline to nurture future leaders of the organization -- and of the LGBT movement in general.

The NCLR story is an important one not just for the LGBT movement but for all social change movements. The reason: it shows why special attention needs to be paid to developing and nurturing the leadership that organizations and movements must have to be successful. At the same time, we need to be real. In these hard times, nonprofits will inevitably choose to cut these kinds of investments rather than lay off program staff. That means it's up to philanthropic foundations and private donors to add dedicated support for leadership development to their grants and donations, recognizing that relatively modest investments can go a very long way in ensuring that the movements and the organizations they care about are able to meet new challenges and succeed.

When you watch the video, you'll also meet former NCLR Deputy Director Kris Hermanns. Just a few days ago, she became the Executive Director of the Pride Foundation in Seattle, one of the LGBT movement's largest and most successful community foundations. This is exactly the kind of growth and upward mobility we need in the movement. Hermanns will surely be missed at NCLR. But while several years ago this type of transition might have shaken the organization, now NCLR has built a strong foundation that can weather these changes that benefit the larger movement.

The Haas, Jr. Fund, through its Nonprofit Leadership Program, has invested more than $11 million since 2005 to support a culture of shared leadership among its grantees. And the results are clear: these investments produce significant returns in the ability of movements to advance fundamental rights and create opportunities for all.

For more on the Haas, Jr. Fund Flexible Leadership Awards, see my colleague Linda Wood's recent post on Beth Kanter's blog.