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Women Leading Change: Perspectives from Nonprofit Trailblazers

Contributors: Adrienne Brown, Emily Kernan, and Mo Cotton Kelly

Women Leading Change

Three remarkable women, Adrienne Brown, Vice President of Donor Operations & Services at National Public RadioEmily Kernan, CFRE, Executive Director of The Penn Fund at the University of Pennsylvania; and Mo Cotton Kelly, Chief Operating Officer and Senior Vice President for Stakeholder Engagement at The University of Connecticut Foundation, share their collective wisdom and experiences working in nonprofit leadership. Each has navigated unique paths, transcending challenges and championing inclusivity and equity in their roles. Their journeys underscore the vital role of women in shaping the nonprofit sector. Together, their insights offer a rich leadership, resilience, and advocacy tapestry.


Please share a bit about your journey and experience as a leader in the nonprofit sector. What inspired you to pursue a career in this field?

Adrienne: I started in the for-profit, corporate sector, working primarily in events, marketing, and advertising. While I worked for some very familiar brands and learned some fantastic skills, at the end of the day, I wanted my work to have more of an altruistic purpose. Higher Education resonated with me, and I knew that SOMEONE was creating their marketing materials. After much research, I found an opening at NYU for a Marketing Coordinator in their development office. I stayed with New York University (NYU) for 12 years and made the leap to non-profit media about a year ago. Like NYU, National Public Radio (NPR) has a tremendous mission of informing the public for the sake of the greater good of society. In addition, I grew up loving NPR. So, I was truly excited by the opportunity to combine my skill set with a new mission at an organization. I was inspired by the ability, in my small way, to make an impact.

Emily: I was a student caller for my alma mater and an English major without a clear vision for my career. After attending a CASE District Conference as a student delegate, I was inspired by the professionals I met in our field. My leadership journey has been predominantly informed by those I have worked for and with. However, I also continue to explore how my values and passions lend themselves to my leadership vision.

Mo: I began my career in higher education as an Admissions Counselor at my alma mater, Bowling Green State University. I loved every aspect of working to recruit students to BGSU. I worked in that office for three years, mainly visiting high schools in Ohio and Michigan and planning one of the big visit days. The President's Day Open House was one of the most significant lifts and took so many people to make it work. I recruited faculty and staff to help, and it was amazing. One key person who participated in the visit day was Larry Weiss, then Executive Director of BGSU Alumni Association. After my engagements with him, he recommended that I apply for the assistant director position with the Alumni Association. The rest, as they say, is history. I spent 15 years in the alumni association, seven as the Executive Director, until I was recruited to come to the University of Connecticut in 2014. 

I have been at UConn for nearly ten years, and it has been an absolute ride. It has been amazing starting as the Executive Director and AVP for Alumni Relations and moving up to my current role as COO and SVP. 

The world of nonprofits is small. How do you approach building and nurturing collaborative relationships?

Adrienne: No matter your level in your career, you need to make time to nurture relationships. It's also important to understand power dynamics at your organization to see who may become strong partners for potential collaborations – and make sure you bring those folks in. It's not always someone sitting at the leadership table – honestly, it's usually not. Smart, engaging, collaborative-minded folks are at every level. Make sure you sit back and allow those voices to rise to the surface. Lastly, raise your hand to get involved. There are typically opportunities to be a part of collaborative projects outside your area of expertise. Again, this is a great way for you to understand how your specific line of business may fit into the larger picture and learn from folks you may not usually have the chance to work with.

"Smart, engaging, collaborative-minded folks are at every level. Make sure you sit back and allow those voices to rise to the surface." -Adrienne Brown.

Emily: I am an extrovert, so love interacting with people—it genuinely fills me up. I actively seek out colleagues who are also looking to innovate and understand what it means to keep striving to improve. Then, I try to find natural and manifested ways where our strategies or processes overlap to maximize our partnership—such that all boats rise together. Relationship-building--both internally and externally--is pivotal to our field, and requires--in the best possible way--constant attention.

Mo: First, you have to believe that building collaborative relationships is important. I could not do my work without it, and I spent time building those internal and external relationships. Building relationships is vital for nonprofits, but it also takes time, which is always fleeting. You also have to put in equal time building those relationships and nurturing them. The other challenge is that there is no quantitive way to calculate ROI on relationship building. Therefore, many organizations move this down the list, especially if you are expected to generate revenue or show value.

What advice would you give aspiring women leaders looking to make a difference in the nonprofit sector?

Adrienne: It sounds simple, but finding your "core team" is essential. People always say, "It's who you know," but it's also "who knows you." I call my "core team" my "Board of Trustees." They are a group of women I have connected with over the years, with whom I am intentional about maintaining a friendship and professional mentorship. One way to make a difference is to lean on those connections to help guide you to great opportunities and help you see how you can grow and professionally mature. That's the internal, just for you. Externally, finding and aligning with the mission or purpose of the nonprofit is essential. It makes the work meaningful, especially if you are specifically working in development. You must convince people to make your mission their "why"…their reason for giving back. It's easier to do that when you align with that mission. 

Emily: Manage with both your head and your heart. Remember that we are all complete humans, and not everyone separates their personal and professional lives at the same rate. The more we can approach our colleagues with empathy and understanding, the more flexible we choose to be, and the more we lean into people's unique strengths, the higher the motivation and likelihood for the entire team to thrive.

Mo: Find your allies in the field regardless of gender. I know this may sound off-putting; however, the power dynamic in most organizations is still very male. There are great male leaders who can bring you around the table and sponsor you when you are not around the table. Also, ask for truth as it relates to your strengths and your blind spots. Get some training if you need to become more adept at public speaking. If you could improve at budgeting, ask to be at the table with those who are.

How do you prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in your leadership approach and organizational culture?

Adrienne: First and foremost, when searching for a job opportunity, you need to ask if DEIB is central to their work. Is it a priority to THEM? Depending on how they answer that question will give you insight into whether this is even the organization for you, let alone one that will support you in centering this as part of your work. For me, NPR calls this our "North Star," we constantly ensure it guides our work daily. In addition, my supervisor has invested in leadership training that centers on DEIB. I incorporate this into our goal structure to help with shared accountability. I also work closely with our employee relations team to ensure we hold to diverse hiring practices. Again, NPR is extremely focused on this, so some things happen without my prompting….as it should! The biggest challenge is inclusion. Working in a remote environment poses some barriers to making folks feel as included as possible. That said, I am dedicated to work-life flexibility and continue exploring ways to create inclusive opportunities. Some of these are in the day-to-day; for example, if I notice someone has been quiet in a meeting, inviting them to step forward. Or, are we creating different types of moments in team meetings to accommodate a variety of learning and engagement styles? 

Emily: We have started by creating a safe space for thoughts, opinions, and feelings across all backgrounds and also continue to think outside the box as it pertains to hiring--not requiring a specific employment history, instead thinking about the foundational skills needed to be successful in each role and how many different lived experiences could have either instilled or enhanced these skills. We also strive to include every community within our greater community at the table on volunteer committees and potential donor conversations, adding extra emphasis on these values in our plans for each fiscal year.

Mo: Besides managing people, this is the most challenging part of my job, especially as a woman of color in a high-level position. I constantly have to reposition my cultural lens. Sometimes, I expect staff to understand what I mean by leading through their diversity and equity lens. Sometimes, we have to redefine these terms beyond the basics of their definition. When I say "diversity," I do not just mean gender, race, or ethnicity. I am speaking about diversity of opinion and thought and how you navigate those when discussing with colleagues, donors, and other constituents. I often have to continue explaining my intentions before they click. This is not the fault of any one person; we are all busy, and sometimes, this gets lost.

What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced as a woman in leadership, and how have you overcome them?

Adrienne: I sit at a variety of cross sections in my leadership identity. I am a woman, yes. I also identify as Black and came into leadership early in my career. Chronologically, I was at a different life stage than some of my peers in similar roles. This created the perfect environment for imposter syndrome to step forward and play a big role in my internal dialogue. My Core Team also played a HUGE role in overcoming this challenge. They reminded me that I deserved to be "at the table" and needed to be there! It's taken a lot of work, but consciously working on my professional confidence, believing in my choices, learning from my mistakes, and pushing forward – even in the face of doubt – have been instrumental in overcoming this very personal challenge.

Emily: I believe sometimes we diminish ourselves as women in ways that men simply were not "trained" to do. This can lead to less self-advocacy and/or lower pay, title, or job responsibility, which can ultimately lead to women potentially falling behind in what our profession considers the "hard skills" needed for top leadership positions--thus, we lose out on them (or don't have the confidence to apply in the first place).

Mo: There have been many times in my career where I was overlooked for a particular position because of my perceived lack of skills in a specific area. I have been asked to take on more work than my male colleagues too many times to count. Sometimes, I have challenged the decisions; other times, I move on. Understanding the culture of the organization is key when making these decisions. I come from the "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me" philosophy. I assess when and where I want to have my emotional fortitude tested. Overcoming these challenges continues to be a work in progress. Over the years, I have leveraged opportunities to push back on specific requests for my skills. I have also made intentional decisions on which opportunities I will go after and which I won't. It can be easily flattered to be asked to apply for positions that one is qualified for; however, you have to take a deep dive into how you are being positioned and what additional work you will have to do once in that position.

Looking ahead, what are your hopes and aspirations for the future of women's leadership in nonprofits, and what steps do you believe are necessary to continue advancing equality in the sector?

Adrienne: I hope that women continue to find ways to advocate for themselves and each other. When you find yourself at the leadership table, it's critical to use your voice and your position to help create space for other voices of those who identify as female. We need to have each other's backs. We need to also be self-reflective at all levels. Are we creating internship opportunities, and are our applicants diversely represented? Are we partnering with diverse/female-led vendors for 3rd party collaborations? Are we, ourselves, getting in our own way somehow? We can't be afraid to ask the tough questions and to course-correct when we are falling behind. 

Emily: I would like to see more emphasis on the "soft skills" needed to succeed in our field--in any field--throughout the hiring or promotion process, too. In addition, I hope that women might continue to stay away from the idea of competing with each other as a means to be successful. We can elevate each other and ourselves together in meaningful ways. Seeking to understand intrinsic motivation when hiring/promoting people is also something I have been thinking about----valuing the total or whole team/project/process as much as any individual strength or outcome is often a way women stand out as leaders, too.

"I would like to see more emphasis on the "soft skills" needed to succeed in our field--in any field--throughout the hiring or promotion process, too."-Emily Kernan.

Mo: I hope that we stop having to have these types of conversations. There is so much work to be done regarding having women in leadership roles and keeping them there. Inclusion and Belonging are critical steps to advancing this. Many times, women are set up to fail (see Glass Cliff). They are brought in to handle complete disasters of organizations yet are not provided adequate resources (money, people, and time) to change the direction. Providing women, as well as people of color, with all the tools for success would be a big step forward. Organizations have to be real about the problems and the solutions.

"Providing women, as well as people of color, with all the tools for success would be a big step forward." -Mo Cotton Kelly.

Can you share a mentorship or support system that has been instrumental in your career growth and development? How have these relationships impacted your leadership journey?

Adrienne: Your network is everything. Networking is a critical part of any professional role you decide to undertake. As I mentioned, nearly every large-scale professional decision I have made has been shared with my mentors. They are foundational to my success. Almost all of my mentors identify as women. Their perspective-taking is so meaningful to me. Like anything, you get out what you put in, so making time is essential. I do my best to stay in touch with my colleagues and connections from my previous positions. I am also a part of professional organizations that allow me to network across industry verticals. Lastly, I always keep an eye open for opportunities.

A funny example is when I was on jury duty in September and was chatting with a fellow juror who mentioned that his wife was the chief community relations officer at a large nonprofit. I took a leap and asked him to connect us. Being open to building your network at any moment is key to making sure you're laying the foundation for potential collaborations. 

Emily: I have taken something from every manager and leader I have worked with or observed in the workplace over the years--sometimes, what not to do as much as what I choose to do. My true support system has been peer directors in annual giving across higher education. We share experiences and stories, lift each other up, and never need to compete--it's wildly refreshing that everyone comes to the table wanting to help in groups that bring us together. All meaningful relationships throughout my life- professional and personal- have impacted my leadership journey, too.

Mo: A person who put me on the path is Dr. Sallye McKee, the Vice Provost at BGSU. She had direct conversations with me as a 25-year-old, which I passed on to other women. She also saw more in me than I saw in myself then and used her influence to position me in meetings I would not usually be in. I have taken her advice and continue to put it into use even now, some 28 years later. I believe in sharing my knowledge and my failures with other women navigating these very real situations. I have also cultivated my own "board of directors." These women and men can give me real talk when I need it, support me, and provide the cheerleading that I occasionally need when I am stressed or leaning into imposter syndrome - yes, even I have it! I believe it is important for every woman to have a group that offers up different things at different times and that is always based on truth-telling. It can be hard to hear, but it will help.

How do you stay adaptable and resilient in the face of challenges or setbacks in your leadership role?

Adrienne: I have some non-negotiable self-care practices. I go to the gym; I spend time with family and friends. I hold strong to my work-life boundaries. As a mother of a young child, being present in my daughter's life is the most important thing. I'm happy to work at an organization that supports healthy work-life balance and allows me the time and space for my identity outside of work. I say this because these things will build the foundation of resiliency when you face an obstacle. I also remind myself that challenges and setbacks are inevitable and predictable after a certain amount of time. Taking time to reflect on what I have learned prepares me for when challenges come my way. Lastly, leaders are not meant to do everything alone. Reaching out and asking for help before things spiral too far is also a great way to remain resilient.

Emily: Communication is the foundation to staying adaptable and resilient in the face of challenges--understanding how you might approach a situation differently, the needs of your colleagues, and the domino effect that our actions have on other people around us. I am built in a way that is constantly evaluating how other people are impacted by my choices or our team's choices, and being able to think this through or share potential strategies or outcomes has encouraged both of these traits over the years.

Mo: I am so fortunate to have family and friends on whom I can lean, as well as my board of directors. Sometimes, you need someone else to let you know that you are experiencing exactly what you think you are. I am also real about my failures, successes, and challenges. It would be easy to talk only about what I perceive as my success. One must acknowledge that it is not always fun out there, and the work is truly exhausting. I also go back to the organization's mission; that is what fuels me. I love supporting UConn.

What advice do you have for organizations looking to create more inclusive and equitable workplaces?

Adrienne: It's critical to commit to a certain set of standards regarding inclusivity and equity. What are the guidelines, and how do they cascade to every corner of the organization? Also, where can employees easily find this information to ratify these practices in their day-to-day? Then, ask yourself how you are building this into everyday practice. How are you holding yourselves and everyone accountable? Also, revisit those standards when they seem not to be inclusive enough. 

Inclusive and equitable environments are ones that are built on trust, reliability, and accountability at every level. Also, do what seem to be the simple things:

  1. Listen to EVERYONE.

  2. Make sure you are adhering to best practices.

  3. Have brave, honest conversations, and don't shy away from doing better when you know you can.

Your team is depending on this approach. 

Emily: At a minimum, evaluate your job descriptions, hiring practices, and compensation packages for potential new hires. Then, think critically about talent retention and be willing to make tough decisions to keep those who want to grow within your organization.

Mo: Be intentional about it. For too long, organizations have spoken about all the things they want to do to be a more inclusive organization, but they rarely fulfill those obligations. It can be perceived as lip service, but you constantly have to prioritize and fund this work. It cannot be part of five people's job; it has to be everyone's job, and one person has to guide and direct. If the organization's leadership is not prioritizing it, how do they think things will change?

As we conclude, Adrienne, Emily, and Mo's narratives illuminate the challenges and triumphs of women in nonprofit leadership. Their journeys underscore the transformative power of mentorship, collaboration, and resilience. Looking ahead, their visions for a more inclusive and equitable sector resonate with hope and determination. In nonprofit leadership, their voices stand as beacons of inspiration, guiding the way toward a brighter, more equitable future.


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Shaff Fundraising Group is a consulting firm specializing in fundraising, marketing, and analytics. We take pride in our independent approach, free from technology affiliations with SaaS and other companies. This allows us to provide objective, solutions-oriented support to our client partners and the wider fundraising and engagement community.


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