March 23, 2022

Three Nonprofits Share Their Approaches to Co-Leadership

More and more nonprofits are diverging from the traditional “executive director” hierarchy and exploring co-leadership as an opportunity to share power and plan for their organizations’ futures. (You can also find other insights from co-leaders at our Co-Leadership Learning Circle resource center.) 

By: Meera Chary

Co-leadership is not a new model. To the contrary, nonprofit organizations have used co-CEO and co-executive director models to divide and conquer senior leadership responsibilities and to share power for many years. For example, a common way leaders have shared power is by having one co-leader focus on internal operational tasks, while the other co-leader focuses on external-facing responsibilities, like engaging with funders and constituents. Another classic example is found in arts organizations, where one leader might take on the artistic direction of the nonprofit while the other focuses on business operations.

Increasingly, however, nonprofits are considering leadership structures that diverge from the traditional “executive director” hierarchy. The reasons vary: the pandemic has pushed–and allowed–nonprofits to experiment with new ways of working; to consider new ways to share power and to center proximate Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) leaders; and to focus on succession planning more intentionally in innovative ways in response to the “great resignation.”

Bridgespan recently sat down with co-leaders at three nonprofits to understand their motivations behind co-leadership and to learn about how they have approached their work together. Here is what we learned.

Organization: Catholic Family Service | Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Co-Leaders: Byron Chan and Jessica Cope Williams

With the goal of enhancing collaboration across Catholic Family Service, Williams and Chan embrace (and model) productive conflict with one another.

There isn’t space for big egos in a co-leadership setting, according to Jessica Cope Williams, co-CEO at Catholic Family Service (CFS), a Calgary-based organization that provides counseling, education, and community outreach in four main program areas: mental health and well-being, parental empowerment, child health, and scholastic success. Williams says that she and her co-CEO, Byron Chan, approach the co-leadership model through a lens of shared and equal power. “Neither of us outranks the other in any way,” she explains.

"The collaborative aspect of co-leadership breaks down the more traditional colonial patriarchal type of decision making."
Jessica Cope Williams, Co-CEO, Catholic Family Service

In other words, they feel free to challenge each other in ways that other staff members might be reluctant to do. “Jessica and I have intentionally normalized healthy conflict, dialogue, and discussion,” says Chan. “We don’t show up to every meeting in alignment … because we want to engage our broader leadership team to get the diversity of perspectives and opinions that will lead us to the best decisions for our organization. One way to stimulate that discussion is to model it with each other.”

Williams agrees. “That’s part of why we think two leaders are better than one–because we don’t think the same way,” she says. “I think you would lose the value of this model if you had two co-CEOs who were too alike … One point of view is simply not enough to come up with solutions for the complex challenges that we face in our organization and in the world at large.”

Co-leadership also allows CFS to model the type of collaboration it wants to see internally while demonstrating an alternative type of power structure. “The collaborative aspect of co-leadership breaks down the more traditional colonial patriarchal type of decision making,” says Williams. “Since we aspire to be a sector leader in collaboration, co-leadership gives us an opportunity to model that strategy within our own organization.”

In fact, Williams notes, that the success of co-leadership at the top of CFS has inspired similar efforts at other levels of the organization. She points to two program directors involved with service delivery that have taken up the mantle of co-leadership, aligned the work of their respective divisions, and led more joint-work efforts to advance the organization’s overall strategic goals. “In the past, most of our projects had one sponsor or one team taking the lead,” says Williams. “Now we’re seeing these dyads start to form where neither work group has more power than the other.”

Organization: East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice | Commerce, CA

Co-Leaders: Laura Cortez and Taylor Thomas

As a nonprofit rooted in community organizing, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice embraces power sharing as a part of its organizational DNA – co-leadership is just one manifestation of this value.

Co-leadership has been foundational to East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ) since its founding in 2001. “We have always had what we call a distributed leadership model,” says Laura Cortez, organizer and co-executive director at EYCEJ, which uses grassroots organizing and leadership building skills to help under-represented communities influence policy makers and agencies to implement environmental justice policies.

This commitment to distributed leadership is reflected in EYCEJ’s horizontal structure, with all staff being paid the same. “White supremacy has looked at different jobs as expendable or less-than. By contrast, we feel that every role and job has value,” declares Cortez. “We can see this even more during COVID with grocery workers and farm workers at the center of keeping the whole system going.”

The shift to co-leadership may be just the first step in what Co-Director Taylor Thomas says is a part of a larger plan to extend leadership and continue flattening the organizational structure at EYCEJ. “Part of that involves everyone being trained on how to do everything in the organization,” says Thomas. “We’re learning from each other, learning each other’s skills, and learning each other’s roles.”

In fact, EYCEJ had considered going beyond co-leadership and taking the radical step of becoming a leaderless organization. Ultimately, the organization determined that the legal and financial duties associated with its 501(c)(3) status precluded it taking that step. Given that, at EYCEJ, Cortez focuses on leading organizational development and Thomas focuses on leading policy development.

"We care about each other, and I think it’s because we invest so much time in our team … I’m hoping we can be a model for shifting nonprofit culture to be more holistic and supportive of the people who are doing the organizing."
Taylor Thomas, Co-Director, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice

Thomas says that the co-leadership model enables her and Cortez to give their team members plenty of support and guidance. “We’ve found that prioritizing regular check-ins, trouble shooting, conflict resolution, and wellness creates a more holistic environment where people can really thrive and achieve their best work,” Thomas says. “We don’t believe in micro-managing, punitive actions, or being driven by funder demands,” she adds. “We’re human beings who are living under and fighting against oppressive systems—it doesn’t make sense to recreate systemic harm on a micro-level with your team and is completely contrary to our efforts to achieve justice.”

What does this all amount to? Operationally, EYCEJ has little turnover in staff. Externally, Thomas hopes the organization becomes a model for others. “We care about each other, and I think it’s because we invest so much time in our team … I’m hoping we can be a model for shifting nonprofit culture to be more holistic and supportive of the people who are doing the organizing.”

Organization: ProInspire | Washington, DC

Co-Leaders: Bianca Casanova Anderson and Monisha Kapila

For ProInspire, co-leadership started as part of a plan to support a new leader as she steps into the CEO role while providing the founder with an off-ramp that feels right for the organization. The co-CEOs feel this model has been transformational and are planning to keep it beyond the founder succession.

The seeds of co-leadership at ProInspire, a nonprofit that helps social sector leaders accelerate racial equity, began when founder and then-CEO Monisha Kapila took a sabbatical after nine years at the helm. When she came back from sabbatical, Kapila told the board she would be ready to move on in a five-year time frame. “I didn’t want to be one of those founders who stays past 15 years,” says Kapila.

More on co-leadership
How to Make Co-Leadership Work >>

With the encouragement of ProInspire’s board chair, Isabelle Moses, Kapila evaluated senior hires to see if any of them had the potential to be her successor. From the moment she hired Bianca Casanova Anderson as director, she was impressed by Bianca’s strategic vision and understanding of how to apply a race equity analysis from self to systems. Anderson started working at ProInspire in January 2020, right at the start of what Kapila calls the most challenging year ever for the organization due to impacts of the pandemic on staff, financial uncertainty, and racial justice awakening that led to a huge interest in the organization’s work. Amid the turmoil, Kapila says, Anderson demonstrated her capacity for leadership. “I felt that I would want to work for her!” exclaims Kapila.

Kapila broached the topic of succession with Anderson, who expressed her enthusiasm, but also her reluctance to serve as sole CEO. Anderson shares: “I wanted a more humane and caring leadership experience—to be a leader and have a life outside of work—than I had experienced in executive leadership before.” They discussed the potential of co-leadership to align with a vision for a more equitable and supportive model.

Moses, who had experience working with co-leadership models, supported the model, and they took the idea to the board. The board was open to the idea, but some members expressed concerns based on experiences at other organizations where challenges had arisen when co-leaders disagreed on strategic direction.

“I was clear with the board that I was planning to leave before Bianca, so that if strategic differences did arise, the board should coach me to step back and follow Bianca’s guidance,” recalls Kapila. “Since I’ll likely be leaving the organization before Bianca, we’ve structured our co-leadership around finding ways for me to support her vision going forward—even in cases where I might have different ideas about how to proceed.”

The board supported it, and instead of conducting a full search, they only considered Anderson. Anderson interviewed with the hiring committee and ProInspire’s HR firm interviewed each staff member to gather feedback. The board also interviewed some of ProInspire’s funders and partners.

Throughout the process, the board focused on building a relationship with Bianca. “It wasn’t like hiring a new CEO and asking the candidate to ‘jump through hoops’ … This was more about asking what support the board could provide to help Bianca thrive. And I think there are valuable lessons there—not just for co-CEOs, but also in terms of supporting internal candidates and supporting women of color to move into leadership roles.” Kapila continues, "Instead of demanding that these candidates prove they have basically done the job before in terms of fundraising and managing a budget, the board can openly seek to identify experience gaps for the purposes of providing support.” Anderson says, “I enjoyed the process. It felt thorough—I prepared deeply and was supported. It felt like a shared decision from the team and from board leadership.”

Once they approved the model, the board offered to pay for a coach who could work separately with Kapila and Anderson, but also advise the co-CEOs on how to work best with each other.

"For me, as a woman of color, shared leadership feels like it centers my needs to be authentically a whole person and an organizational leader."
Bianca Casanova Anderson, Co-CEO, ProInspire

Kapila says one thing that has been helpful has been to set up a two-hour weekly standing check-in meeting when she and Anderson can talk through all the decisions on their plates. “I think we spend more time on decision making than when I was serving as the sole CEO,” reflects Kapila. “I think that makes the decisions better, because when you are making critical decisions, you want to make them together. For instance, we were finalizing some details of a ProInspire leadership model for racial equity that we have been working on for years. I proposed that we each work on part of the model, but Bianca suggested it would be better if we worked on the whole thing together.”

Kapila originally planned to spend just two years as co-CEO before departing ProInspire, but now she and Anderson have been revisiting the timeline. Anderson says, “For me, as a woman of color, shared leadership feels like it centers my needs to be authentically a whole person and an organizational leader. I believe we should continue this model at ProInspire and now need to figure out what needs to be in place to support shared leadership as a more permanent leadership structure.”

“I had this idea that founders should leave because it can become toxic when they stay around too long, but Bianca has asked me to rethink that. So next year we plan to explore some different models where founders stay involved in some way. Though, if she wants to maintain the co-CEO model, then we will talk about who else that person could be from inside ProInspire and the best approach to support our next co-CEO. Ultimately, we may build an internal structure so that people can rotate in and out of that co-CEO role.”

How to Avoid 3 Co-leadership Pitfalls

  1. Consider the co-leadership dynamic. Byron Chan at Catholic Family Service thinks that one reason he and Jessica Cope Williams have been able to work so effectively together is because they had already collaborated closely in their prior senior director roles at the organization. “We had already done a lot of the messy work of learning what it meant to work really closely with one another, how to resolve differences of opinion and perspectives … while still maintaining a good working relationship,” he says.
  2. Avoid rushing into co-leadership. To find its co-leaders, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice took its time identifying which team members were most interested in co-directing the nonprofit. “This was not a rushed decision for us,” says Organizer and Co-Executive Director Laura Cortez. “We proceeded strategically and intentionally while making sure we had a transition plan in place. We gave folks a chance to self-identify if they were interested, then had individual conversations with them on the duties of being a co-director. At some point, once we had identified our potential co-leaders, we stepped back to let other members of the team express any concerns or suggest professional development for skills they felt the co-leaders would need to excel in their roles.”
  3. Don’t set co-leadership in stone. The ProInspire board agreed with founder Monisha Kapila’s proposal to work together with Bianca Casanova Anderson as co-CEOs, but they did not want to commit to having co-CEOs be a permanent feature of the nonprofit’s organizational structure. The board knew Kapila planned to exit the organization in three to five years, so they told her that when she left, if Anderson wanted to continue as sole CEO, they would support her in that role. “From a racial equity perspective, we shouldn’t expect leaders of color to share leadership,” asserts Kapila. “Now that we have more leaders of color coming into CEO roles, let’s not tell them they need to have a co-leader. Because we’ve had many white leaders for decades and we never expected them to have a co-CEO.”

Creative Commons License logo
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license are available in our Terms and Conditions.