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.
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.
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.
Read about co-leadership by Meera Chary at The Bridgespan Group.