Kathy Im, Director, Journalism and Media, reflects on new models of leadership and how we can better support new cohorts of nonprofit leaders.


Over the past two years, we have watched about 20 percent of the grantees of the Journalism and Media (JAM) program experience leadership turnovers.

On the bright side, these transitions opened opportunities for other leaders to step into coveted roles at some of the best-known nonprofit media organizations. And in many cases, the new leaders have been the organization’s first woman or non-White leader and/or a person in their first CEO role.

These firsts deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated. But too often, we witness many of these leaders confronting unrealistic expectations from their boards and long-simmering frustrations from staff. Against the backdrop of a chaotic and challenging time for the media industry, along with a pandemic that has shifted work relationships and culture, today’s nonprofit CEOs appear more overburdened than ever.

Earlier this year, we started to ask our grantees, “how can we help?” In surveys and conversations, we learned that new CEOs seek coaching and mentoring, a confidential peer community, and resources and training on specific topics, like how to manage their boards or implement DEI policies. We are working with our colleagues in MacArthur’s Legal and People & Culture department to explore how we might provide some of these resources.

Some organizations strive for an even flatter, collaborative leadership model.

As part of our exploration, we were also reminded that some JAM grantees practice unconventional modes of sharing leadership that are worth considering and replicating.

For example, Working Films—a Wilmington, N.C.-based nonprofit supporting documentary films on social issues—has been led by two co-directors for nearly ten years. Similarly, Youth FX—an Albany, N.Y.-based nonprofit supporting emerging documentary filmmakers and providing media arts training for youth—is led by two executive directors. City Bureau—a journalism innovation lab designed to democratize watchdog reporting in Chicago—has a three-person executive team with distinct core priorities and responsibilities. And more recently, the Chicago Reader—an independent news outlet focused on political and cultural coverage of Chicago—transitioned from a for-profit news organization to a nonprofit with two publishers, one to manage the business side and the other to manage the editorial side.

Some organizations strive for an even flatter, collaborative leadership model. Black Youth Project—a research, education, and advocacy organization that examines the attitudes, resources, and culture of millennials and Gen Zers of color, with a special focus on Black youth—is working toward a collaborative leadership model with five young academics sharing responsibility. Similarly, the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective—a group created to share resources, create opportunities in the documentary and fiction field, and to advocate for the removal of citizenship requirements within existing film funds—has a decentralized, collective leadership model intended to foster a non-competitive culture.

We need to be more supportive and attentive to the struggles and successes of grantee leaders.

We notice that leaders who are not bound by traditional notions of organizational structure are also more likely to be empathetic and proactive about the mental health and personal well-being of leaders and staff. For example, OTV—a nonprofit platform for incubating, distributing, and exhibiting the work of marginalized artists in the commercial film and television industries —has developed a budget and human-resource related practices and policies with the goal of prioritizing the health and well-being of its staff and students. Often, but not always, these unconventional leaders are individuals with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and LGBTQ+ identities and/or lower-income backgrounds. It is their lived experiences that motivate them to pursue leadership models and organizational structures that minimize the tendency toward hierarchy, foster more power-sharing, create more accountability and opportunity, and reduce the likelihood of isolation and burnout.

Today’s nonprofit media CEOs must navigate the public’s waning trust and attention, internal and external racial reckoning, the spread of disinformation, constantly shifting and unreliable revenue streams, and the impacts of an ongoing pandemic. This is no ordinary task.

One of our big takeaways from this past year is that we need to be more supportive and attentive to the struggles and successes of grantee leaders. The Journalism and Media team invites you to share your ideas and to join us on this learning journey to imagine and implement new modes of leadership and organizational structures that foster greater collaboration, creativity, well-being, and impact.


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