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Women in Nonprofit Leadership

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking at Independent Sector’s annual conference in Miami, where I was invited to be the “young professional voice” on the panel, Gender Inequity in the Charitable Sector. When preparing for the panel, I reflected back on my own career, within and out of the nonprofit sector.

women in nonprofit leadership

L to R: Janine Lee, Mizmun Kusairi, Grant Oliphant, Peggy Outon during the panel

I’ve worked in investment banking in New York, investment management and foundation work in Malaysia, youth development in California, and now in nonprofit infrastructure at GuideStar. Each of these experiences informed my perspective on how to navigate the workplace as a “young” woman of color (to clarify, I am a proud Gen-Xer!) And while I am not an academic or gender equality expert, over the years, I’ve benefitted greatly from the advice of others, including my own trusted mentors, as well as reading Anne Marie Slaughter’s latest book, Unfinished Business, to name a few.

A simple yet key model I’ve used to help both myself and hopefully other young women advance themselves early on in their career is the SOS model.

Here’s how it works:


We’ve all seen the studies: Women are less likely to advocate for themselves in the workplace than their male counterparts.

I’ve seen this in my own work. When I worked at a small nonprofit in Oakland, I ran the annual 360 performance evaluation process. Every single female rated herself lower than her manager rated her, and every male rated himself higher than his manager rated him.

We can chalk up the lack of promotion to two factors: A lack of self-confidence, or a general dislike of self-promotion. In either case, women must find ways to promote themselves. There is plenty of great literature on this topic, but I also suggest looking at the women (or men) within your own office. Who displays confidence? How? While you can’t mimic a role model’s every movement, you can observe them to learn tactics on how to better develop your confidence and promote yourself.


To be successful in any workplace, you need to create a network to support you in professional endeavors. Find managers and leaders who value your career development, promote your ideas, and create a safe space for you to take risks. GuideStar CEO, Jacob Harold, is exceptionally good at this role. He has been my champion and confidante in big public settings (cheering me in the audience at IS and more recently my session at the Board Source Leadership Forum in New Orleans) as well as internal meetings, and even when it’s just one on one over a meal. In addition to leadership support, find allies at your level and/or below who are willing to provide candid but supportive feedback to you. Often, the “on-the-ground” staff have a different perspective than leadership, and keeping a pulse on how you’re perceived within the organization is critical to your professional development.

Don’t forget to provide the same support system for others! Find ways to promote good ideas from people less willing to speak up for themselves. Formally or informally, be a mentor or sponsor to other women. Most of us remember someone whose smallest action (a humorous comment to deflect tension, the “good job” after a tough meeting, or the candid conversation over coffee) was instrumental to our own careers.

And don’t neglect your personal support system. Friends, family, and partners can all act as your biggest cheerleaders. They can also provide much-needed perspective about how your work aligns (or doesn’t align) to your values. While my high school, college and business school friends are now spread out around the world, we still regularly text and call each other with our professional questions. While we aren’t in the same sectors, we have surprisingly common experiences and challenges in the workplace and have leaned on each other for support.


Finally, consider the sector or even stage of the organization (also an “s”) that you’re working in and how that fits into your life plan. Many of us go through seasons of intense work and then seasons of family or personal focus. When considering a new career opportunity, examine where you are in life, then spend time researching the culture and ethos of the field and organizational stage for which you plan to work (start-ups are likely to be more demanding than established organizations).

Becoming aware of where you are in your career and personal life before deciding on your next career move will serve you well in the long-term. Personally, when I graduated from college, I was in “career-development” mode. I was able and willing to work long hours to advance my career, so investment banking was the right field for me. I spent a lot of time in the office, and acquired skills that have served me well during the rest of my career. Now, nearly twenty years later, I am dedicating more time to my personal life. While I still work hard, I am no longer willing to commit to 100+ hours of time in the office. I took this into consideration before accepting a position at GuideStar, an organization with a heavy respect for work-life alignment.

I’ve found that the SOS model helps myself and others take the time to self-reflect on professional development and long-term goals. Most importantly, the SOS model helps in prioritizing where you should spend your energy in order to achieve your true personal vision.

What do you think of the SOS model? What tools and resources do you use to navigate today’s workplace challenges, gender-related or otherwise? Leave your comments below!

The preceding post is by GuideStar’s Vice President of Strategy, Mizmun Kusairi, in collaboration with Strategy Manager, Anisha Singh White.

Women in nonprofit leadership

Miz brings 15 years of international cross-sector management experience across the philanthropic, nonprofit, and financial services sectors. She leads GuideStar’s strategic planning, special projects, and monitoring and evaluation systems. Before joining GuideStar, she served as vice president of operations, strategy, and talent at Global Citizen Year, a fast-growing and acclaimed nonprofit social enterprise in youth leadership development. Miz also managed nearly $1 billion in investments and served in the chairman’s office at Usaha Tegas, a $10 billion business conglomerate in Malaysia, and spent time at the Fannie Mae Foundation, Citigroup, and social investing firm Acumen Fund. She holds a BS in Commerce from the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce and an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

Women in Nonprofit LEadership 

Anisha Singh White is Manager of Strategy at GuideStar. She splits her time between the Strategy Team, Finance Team, and Office of the President/CEO. Anisha is a graduate from Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in International Studies and Economics. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, finding the best restaurants in town, and annoying her brother with her philanthropy chatter. You can reach Anisha at

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice