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Creating Sustainable Social Change: Step 1

Courtesy of Maria Ramos-Chertok
Mayacamas Ranch, Calistoga, CA October 2013
Rockwood Art of Leadership: Women in Racial Justice

A subgroup of these women worked on the Charter for Humanizing the Social Sector

At the end of October, I participated in the Rockwood Leadership Institute’s Art of Leadership for Women Leaders in Racial Justice and Human Rights, in Calistoga, CA. Twenty-seven women (including myself) and two facilitators learned, laughed, and connected deeply during a weeklong training. I participated to learn more about leadership development in practice, as well as to take a moment for self-reflection and evaluation. I can feel the change in myself and have been able to see others through a very different lens; having a deeper understanding of what impact leadership development can have on people and their organizations. There are countless moments of learning, but one particular conversation struck me very deeply. It was a collective conversation in a small group looking for long-term Personal Ecology strategies to maintain a lifetime of commitment to the social sector.



The social sector prides itself in fighting for the betterment of people. Regardless of mission, strategy, and scale, people tend to be the focus of the work. At the same time, there is a gap in the way the sector functions; where people working in this sector are not being taken care of completely. This gap exists in the high burnout rates of staff, or when organizations cannot afford full-time employees therefore denying some of their core members benefits and paid holidays.

The list can be long, but these were the most common although not universal gaps:

●       No retirement plans for some, or plans that are not going to meet all of their basic needs

●       None or very short maternity/paternity/family leaves. If offered, they may not be comprehensive and may require some financial loss during that time.

●       Some organizations cannot offer sustainable and competitive wages

●       Lack of timely and fair pay increases

●       No time or money for professional development

●       Flexible schedules not available

●       No time for vacation and holidays. Many working in this sector work even during their “time off”


This has come be to expected from the social sector. I remember as a senior in college hearing that working in the social sector does not pay well and that the individual is left with the personal costs of carrying this movement. It has become a common expectation and yet many organizations are not talking about this.



Rockwood Leadership Institute Personal Ecology

During this collective conversation we identified the following challenge: The social sector  primarily funds this work through grants and donations. Most foundations and private corporations are willing to fund direct programmatic expenses and may not see the value of the internal costs that allow the work to happen sustainably, or may just not have that type of funding available. As such, it can be challenging for some organizations to balance between the needs they see in their communities and the organization’s internal needs. Although many executive directors would really like to provide more support to their people, they are also looking at that bottom line and are keenly aware of the untracked costs of fundraising (i.e. time for cultivation, proposal development, financial and time costs of traveling, on top of their other work). EDs often place the organization’s survival over their staff hoping that the organization can endure just a little longer. We concluded that it is a systemic problem; much larger than organizations.


What now?

The group then collected their “dream list” and began thinking of solutions to how to make this a possibility. The immediate challenge was “how can our organizations afford any of this?” The reality is some organization can, but most cannot until foundations and private corporations begin to understand some of the financial strain caused by funding only certain expenses. However, there is a fear that if these financial partners knew the whole truth, they might not contribute at all. Therefore, organizations (not just executive directors)  would need to be courageous and consciously keep their staffs’ sustainability at the forefront of their fundraising strategies. During our conversation we realized that although our list would be a step forward in creating a healthy personal ecology, some of these were even greater than the social sector and therefore should, at some point, be proposed to state and federal legislators for a greater shift.


Charter for Humanizing the Social Sector[1]:

●       Promote shared leadership models

○       Professional development for all staff (without exception) with flexibility and capacity for evolution

○       Shared fund development among all staff

■       For example, cultivating a culture of fund development

●       Representative leadership

○       Promotions from within

●       Sustainable wages based on description of labor

○       Fair, comparable wages, benefits, and increases for all staff

○       Including additional personal holidays, additional family days, and pensions

●       Transparency

○       Organizations should provide and maintain an operations manual with all of the organizations policies

○       All staff should have full knowledge/access to the organizations’ operations and its progress

●       Flexible schedules that optimize performance

○       Instead of 40+ hours work weeks, 32 hour weeks should be the norm with occasional fluctuations based on need

○       Organizational culture that values personal priorities and responsibilities

●       Family Support (Potential State and Federal Policy)

○       Auxiliary programs that attend to circumstantial needs
         (i.e. day care, out of pocket health care reimbursements, transition coach for laid-off/retired employees)

●       Humane lay-offs/firing and severance packages that can prevent financial gaps for families and individuals (State and Federal Policy)

○       For example, 30-day automatic extension of benefits, transitional resources, etc.


I share this because major shifts start with small ones. We can all exhibit compassion and humanity by being aware of each other’s well-being especially of those we work along side with. If we see that our partners in this work are tired, we can lift them up and promote each other’s personal ecologies to ensure the sustainability of this sector continues. Without people, the sector loses its essential mission. The work must start within our organizations before it projects to the communities we aim to build.


[1] Drafted by a subgroup of Rockwood Leadership Institute’s Art of Leadership for Women Leaders in Racial Justice and Human Rights October 2013 Cohort
A big thank you to these women for bringing their stories, ideas, and creativity to the conversation. 


Your comments are always welcomed. Contact Miriam Persley via email and Twitter @MiriamPersley!