5 Women Leaders in the Nonprofit Sector to Watch
International Women’s Day (IWD) is a day set aside to celebrate the vast social, cultural, economic and political contributions of women worldwide. Their strength, resilience, and achievements are being felt in every sector and aspect of society. But perhaps none more than the nonprofit sector.
With women making up 73% of the nonprofit sector, their contributions to the communities they serve cannot be understated. From organizing grassroots fundraising efforts to leading global movements, women are showing us what it means to be leaders and pioneers in the third sector.
This year, International Women’s Day falls on March 8, 2022, and has been themed #BreakTheBias.
To celebrate this day, we spoke to 5 women nonprofit leaders who have risen above bias and stereotypes and inspired many nonprofit professionals to imagine what’s it like to lead in a gender-equal world. These are thought leaders, founders, and entrepreneurs in the nonprofit sector, and this article highlights their impact and includes words of advice from each of them.
1. Dr. Ijeoma Kola, Founder and Executive Director of Cohort Sistas
Dr. Ijeoma Kola is a Historian of Public Health and an entrepreneur. As a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Notre Dame, Dr. Kola studies the intellectual and cultural history of racial health disparities, particularly asthma in Black urban communities. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Cohort Sistas, a nonprofit organization that supports Black women and non-binary people pursuing doctoral degrees.
Dr. Kola is also the founder and CEO of Safe Journey Media, a digital media company producing content and experiences that champion the health, education, and empowerment of Black women worldwide.
Sandwiched between two brothers, Ijeoma spent her whole life seeking out sisterhood. This led her to female-led initiatives, including serving as the president of the Black women’s student group in college. It seemed inevitable that no matter what career she pursued, it would involve primarily working with women. Her search and perseverance led her to run an organization that centers on the needs of women and non-binary people at Cohort Sistas.
“Cohort Sistas is the community that I wish I had when I was completing my doctoral degree,” Dr. Kola said, “On many occasions when I considered quitting, I felt this push to continue my Ph.D., not for myself, but for the example, it would be for others. Normally I advise people not to make decisions solely based on the needs of others, but the work and mission of Cohort Sistas were placed on my heart years ago, and it is an absolute joy and honor to be able to serve others in this way now.”
Founded in 2020, Cohort Sistas is a digital network that supports Black women and non-binary people pursuing doctoral studies by providing resources, mentorship, and community to improve academic, professional, financial, and emotional outcomes. In just two years, Cohort Sistas have welcomed over 1,600 members from all over the world and has been able to directly support over 2,000 Black women in pursuing doctoral degrees.
But Dr. Kola is just getting started and she hopes her work will encourage other nonprofit professionals to keep making an impact in their communities.
“The nonprofit world can sometimes feel strangely transactional, as you’re constantly seeking out donations or grants to propel your work.” Dr. Kola said, “[But] keeping the mission top of mind at all times helps me to not only put the needs of the community first but also eases the ick of fundraising. […] You can only move your mission so far by yourself. Surround yourself with advisors, board members, and team members who fully believe in the mission and are willing to help you do the work.”
2. Heather Forbes, Director of Development at Bridges for Women Society
Heather Forbes serves as the Director of Development at Bridges for Women Society, where she bridges the gap between funders, supporters, and community members in support of at-risk women in and around Victoria, BC, Canada.
Heather always knew that she would work in the nonprofit sector. Her time in the sector started early on when she attended University and landed her first co-op position with an Indigenous family services agency. She then went on to work in housing, poverty alleviation, and food security before working with Bridges for Women.
“It is about creating a world where all women are free to make choices about their own lives,” Forbes said, “I understand that I have the immense privilege, and I want every person to know and experience that baseline freedom.”
Founded in 1988, Bridges for Women provides trauma-informed counseling and healing-focused pre-employment programs to self-identified women, non-binary, and two-spirit people who identify with the women’s community. They support clients to identify and overcome the effects of trauma and work towards personal and professional goals.
When asked what advice she has for female leaders in and around the nonprofit sector, Forbes emphasizes the importance of pay transparency and better compensation for nonprofit professionals.
“Pay people well.” She said, “Understand how your compensation structure may exclude people and work to dismantle those barriers.”
3. Angela Scott, Executive Director at MEDIAGIRLS
A lifelong advocate for women’s rights, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management from Bentley University, Angela Scott always wanted to use her business acumen and skillset to make a positive change in the world. This goal manifested itself when Angela began volunteering with MEDIAGIRLS in 2016.
She went on to secure a Master’s Degree in Nonprofit Management from Northeastern University and has since assumed the role of Executive Director at the Boston-based nonprofit organization.
“Running a women-led organization is an honor,” Scott said, “I am grateful for my role to lead a team of smart, talented, and compassionate women.”
Founded in 2014, MEDIAGIRLS is a nonprofit that teaches middle-school girls & young women to become critical media consumers on social media. The organization empowers young women by teaching them to analyze and reject sexist media messaging and harness the power of media for positive social change. Through these opportunities, these women can grow to understand how to leverage their online activity and engagement to inspire action in their communities.
Scott knows how challenging the sector can be for female leaders, so she’s dedicated to helping women find their voice and work fearlessly for the good of their communities.
“We need [female] leaders with bold visions and goals who aren’t afraid to just go for it.” Scott said. “Do not be afraid to take risks.”
4. Itse Hesse, Founder and President of Black Girl Collective
Itse Hesse is the Founder and President of Black Girl Collective, a Vancouver-based nonprofit organization that connects Black Women in British Columbia through mentorship and events aimed at fostering community.
With a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications from Simon Fraser University and motivated by her desire to be the change she wants to see in the world, Hesse is committed to creating a safe and inclusive community that celebrates and empowers Black women.
“Growing up in Nigeria, I saw so many successful Black women around me. However, that changed when I moved to Canada,” Hesse said. “After finishing [University], it seemed impossible to find a mentor in the Black community, and when I started applying for jobs, I never came across any Black women during my interviews.”
“This was a motivating factor behind starting Black Girl Collective for me. I wanted to create a community that gave Black women the opportunity to not only see people who look like them doing amazing things, but also one where they can be vulnerable, cared for, and do not have to be a victim of the “strong black woman” archetype.”
Since the organization launched in 2020, Black Girl Collective has hosted over ten sold-out events, doubled the size of its book club, and is now preparing to launch a Black Girls in Tech program.
“Just start,” said Hesse, when asked if she had any advice for women looking to start a nonprofit “Be prepared for a lot of hard work, but it is always worth it.”
5. Constance Karvelas, Executive Vice-President of Hellenic Community of Greater Montreal
Constance Karvelas is the Executive Vice-President of the Hellenic Community of Greater Montreal (HCGM), a Montreal-based nonprofit that has served the Greek community of the Greater Montreal area since 1906.
Growing up, Karvelas was inspired by her parents, who became active members of the Hellenic community in the ‘80s. They were committed to preserving and ensuring the Greek cultural identity, language, and beliefs were passed on to the next generation. When she turned 15, she decided to follow in her parent’s footsteps and got involved with HCGM, where she now serves as one of the female leaders pushing the organization’s mission forward.
Karvelas is incredibly proud to be a female leader in the nonprofit sector. She believes having a diverse team has been crucial to the organization’s success.
“Out of the three most senior executives on the HCGM team, two out of three of those positions are held by women. Of the five of the vice presidents, three of those are women.” Karvelas said, “When we look at the entire HCGM executive committee, half of them are women. This has allowed us to have a balanced approach when it comes to planning and decision-making within the community. Tapping into the potential of our diverse team […] has driven change and empowered those within the organization to succeed. Diversity makes a big difference!”
Today, HCGM provides educational opportunities, in three languages, to more than 1,600 children. Through its network of churches, schools, cultural and social services, community members, and volunteers, the organization continues to find new ways to enrich and unify Montreal’s growing Greek community.
Karvelas believes that by investing in genuine partnerships and building solid relationships, female leaders can support each other to meet their individual and collective goals.
“The demands and challenges [in the nonprofit sector] are high, many of which simply do not exist in a corporate world.” Karvelas said, “Don’t ever let budget constraints dampen your enthusiasm. Look for partners, programs, platforms [that can] support your organization’s objectives. […] Be creative, resilient, and steadfast, always acting, reacting, and believing wholeheartedly that what you do matters because it does!”
These are just a few of the incredible female leaders who are making a difference and paving the way for other women in the nonprofit sector. If you look around, you’ll find even more women doing amazing work in your community. On this International Women’s Day, let’s appreciate the talent and contributions of the women pushing for change and social good in our communities and the nonprofit sector. Be inspired by their commitment and keep working together to make our sector more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
Together, we can all #BreakTheBias. Happy International Women’s Day!
About the author:
Taylor Palmer, Marketing Coordinator at KIT
Taylor has always believed that knowledge is power, and the pen (or, in this case, keyboard) is the sword. Philanthropy and human rights are at the core of her ethos. When she is not engaged in friendly debate, you can find Taylor training in the boxing ring, snowboarding on the mountains, or running on Vancouver’s seawall.