Making room at the table

There are plenty of articles and papers that lament the lack of diversity in the nonprofit sector, especially within leadership or board positions. While I agree that these are pertinent issues that need to be rectified, I also believe that each one of us has power in the spaces we occupy.

Sometimes we don’t need to wait for someone to make space for us at their table, because we have the power to make space for others at our table. As young professionals, it can be easy to think from a scarcity mindset and to be focused on our development. However, my mentors have both taught and demonstrated the power of paying it forward.

Many of the lessons I learned came from my time as a board member and volunteer with the Minnesota International NGO Network (MINN). I’m forever grateful for having that space to experiment, grow, and learn with a team of talented professionals -- very similar to my friends at YNPN-TC.

So how do you make room at your table? Whether you are in a leadership position, working on a team, or just a friendly face to someone new in town, here are some ideas:

  1. Welcome others to share visible leadership positions with you. I recently ran an event where it was easy to be the sole facilitator because I was experienced and could do it without much preparation. However, I asked a colleague to join me. This is especially important when considering the sustainability of an organization or initiative; it is crucial to create these opportunities for others to practice leadership.
  2. Challenge people’s self-perceptions. I notice women have a particular tendency to hesitate to take on new roles until they feel fully prepared. Sometimes it requires multiple coaching conversations and time to reflect before they feel comfortable taking the risk. I once told a colleague/friend: “The only person stopping you is yourself.” Despite her hesitations about her experience and qualifications, she eventually agreed to take on the leadership role. She then led a team of volunteers over the course of a year to implement our organization’s most impactful and successful conference ever.
  3. Look beyond traditional leadership characteristics. Some people are natural leaders because of their personality or prior life circumstances. Others arrive with qualities that are under-developed or not as overtly obvious. Given the increasing need for working in collaboration and complexity, I look for people who can think at a systems-level, who are interested in the growth of themselves and others, and who can be forward-thinking, while able to bring others along. Traditional qualities of confidence and charisma are great, but they are not necessarily the most important criteria in identifying who is next in line.
  4. Create transparent pathways to leadership. When you help remove assumptions and mystery around how opportunities can be obtained, it allows a broader range of people to see how they can take on those positions. When I was preparing to organize the elections for next year’s executive team at MINN, I gave notice several months in advance so people could start thinking about it. I contacted each board member individually to inquire about their interest and made sure they knew that all of the positions were open to candidates. While some people happily jump into leadership, others need clarity on the process, time to consider it, and encouragement to see their potential.
  5. Share your resources. Sometimes, it’s a simple matter of posting jobs and opportunities that come your way. It may seem obvious that X organization is always looking for help reviewing arts grant proposals, others don’t have your networks and will be excited to learn about that opportunity.
  6. Make time. I and some of my mentors have a hard time saying no, so we take most of the coffee meeting requests that come our way (I don’t even drink coffee!). Alternatively, a busy philanthropic executive in St. Paul allocates several hours every month to networking meetings with young professionals who request time of her. You would be surprised at some of the people you could meet, simply by sending them an email. I try to be that person for others. 
  7. Help them find community. Most of the people I’ve had coffee with are in search of other people who have shared interests or goals. Whether in one-on-one meetings or casual conversations, I try to see how I can connect them with the right people, organizations, or networks.
  8. Invite them, really invite them. Growing up, my mom would always say in Hmong, “Go tell your friend to come eat. They might be too shy.” After I told them this, my mom would go  and repeat it again directly to them. It’s not enough to assume people will ask for help. I like to explicitly tell them that it is available, multiple times, and with some details. They might be too shy.
  9. See the best in people. A friend once joked about my ability to get people to do extensive amounts of unpaid work for me and MINN (a volunteer-led organization). My response, “It’s because I honestly believe that you all are so talented and underutilized. I want to ensure there are opportunities to showcase not just who you are, but who you’re going to be.” They laughed -- but because I sincerely believe this, it makes it easier to inspire others to see it in themselves. If you give people the support and space to succeed, they often generate results far beyond your expectations.
  10. Appreciate the table you’ve set. By doing all of these things, I am surrounded by immensely talented, motivated, and good-hearted people. Sometimes, it’s nice to just sit down and enjoy the company.

One of the most beneficial aspects of this approach -- is that when I am given space at other tables, it is easier for me to accept graciously. I know that I am the youngest and most unqualified person present, but I also know they see potential in me. Much like the way I see potential in others.

Do you see how it came back around?

There’s even more that the universe gives back to you, but I will let you discover that for yourself. I invite you to join me in actively paying it forward to others.



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