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It's time to value and empower the women who run Wyoming's nonprofits

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

Published in WyoFile on January 26, 2021

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By Jen Simon and Britney Wallesch

Gov. Mark Gordon in late December announced the Community Charitable Relief Program. The program “provides grant funding to nonprofit organizations that have provided public assistance or seen a decline in donations during the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the governor’s office. The program provides more than $12.1 million in CARES Act funding to nonprofits at “the local level, with county commissioners and tribal governments placed in charge of distributing the grant funds to local entities to have the most impact,” according to an official description.

The release didn’t quote a single woman (it didn’t quote anyone who actually works in the nonprofit sector, either). The omissions in the announcement reveal quite a lot about how Wyoming approaches the nonprofit sector — a sector that women, disproportionately, staff and lead.

In Wyoming, the nonprofit sector accounts for nearly 16,000 jobs and more than $2 billion (yes, billion with a “b”) in annual revenue. For context, only six of Wyoming’s 23 counties are home to more than 16,000 total workers.

And the people behind those nonprofit jobs, that revenue and the entrepreneurship that makes it possible — they are mostly women.

If you didn’t know this, you’re not alone.

Our state’s elected officials — mostly men — consistently elevate private business over nonprofits, treating the former sector as disproportionately more important and valuable than the latter. That’s not surprising as the majority of Wyoming‘s business and governmental sectors are populated by men and the majority of the nonprofit sector is populated by women.

This is yet another place where gender seems to be in our collective Equality State blind spot.

Often called “the third sector” — a slight in its own right given its role as an economic engine — nonprofit businesses stand alongside the government and private sectors as the third leg of the proverbial economic stool.

The role of nonprofits in supporting and driving local, state and national economies is absolutely essential.

Consider how nonprofit organizations stepped up during the pandemic: They’ve provided essential services and personnel across Wyoming. As residents lost their jobs and unemployment soared, the gaps in our communities widened, and nonprofits filled those gaps. The pandemic called on front-line workers and organizations to do even more with even less. Somehow, they managed to rise to the occasion when and where they were needed most.

Despite this reality, legislative leaders didn’t make relief funds available to nonprofits as readily as they did to private businesses. During the May Special Session, they even discussed leaving nonprofits out of the process entirely. Though intense pressure from sector advocates helped to ensure their eventual inclusion, nonprofits received a disproportionately small allocation of relief funds.

The “do more with less” imperative here reflects a larger demand too often made of women and rarely made of men.

In the Stanford Social Innovation Review — in a piece aptly titled Like the Vacuuming, Nonprofit Work Is Women’s Work — Kristin Joiner writes, “I believe it’s likely that the power dynamics at play between the nonprofit and private sectors reflect the gender dynamics of our larger society.”

How can that be in a field where women comprise the majority of the workforce?

While women may make up the bulk of the workforce, they aren’t the bulk of the power structure. Even in “the third sector,” the more powerful the position, the more likely it is to be held by a man.

Nearly 80% of all major nonprofit CEOs are male; only 21% of large nonprofit CEOs are women. Nationally, women represent fewer than half of all board members and approximately 40% of all board chairs. The nation’s largest nonprofit organizations are run by men.

There is also a pronounced gender wage gap. The Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University puts it this way: “Women are 74% of the nonprofit workforce and are often paid 74% or less to do the same job as a man.” The National Council for Nonprofits goes a step further, saying that it considers the gender wage gap “the sleeper threat to nonprofit effectiveness and sustainability.”

As Joiner writes, “If we want the nonprofit sector to innovate as necessary, we need to acknowledge the gender gap between nonprofits and the private sector. If we are ever going to stop climate change, cure cancer, educate girls, or end homelessness, then we have to create a new model of philanthropy that … leaves paternalistic thinking behind.”

The gendered subtext minimizes the work of women and privileges the work of men.

Our policymakers expect the nonprofit sector to do the heavy lifting for our communities. Address society’s ills. Fill in the gaps for the government. Solve a broken tax policy. Preserve our cultural heritage. Entertain and enrich our lives. Remedy the mistakes of businesses. Provide food, housing, healthcare and safety to underpaid workers damaged by systems built to exploit them.

And it is largely women who are called upon to deliver these services. Which is why the sector is teeming with brilliant and creative women; skilled improvisers who are highly accustomed to and comfortable with risk. Women who are capable of creating, adapting to and deploying solutions to solve complex and urgent needs across Wyoming.

Politicians, donors and corporate interests — in Wyoming three groups that are predominantly male — still dictate the availability of resources and the likelihood of success. Joiner explains it this way: “Corporate representatives sit on the nonprofit boards, hiring and firing leaders and funding the women’s work. This creates a have-and-have-not situation, where one side holds the money and power, and the other side asks for an allowance to do their ‘good work,’ trying to get traction but more often getting stuck in a rut created by this dysfunctional dynamic.”

The message is clear: Be happy for what you get and let the “real” business minds solve the “real” problems.

Meanwhile, Wyoming is facing a plethora of very real problems. And the nonprofit sector has very real answers. It is time for our policymakers to include nonprofits — and the women who lead them and are their heart and soul — in the state’s most critical conversations.

Because in a state with a robust and thriving third sector overflowing with talented women, we have to ask the central questions: How long will we let a gendered dynamic cripple a force for innovation and economic growth? How much do we lose when leaders relegate women’s voices and expertise to the sidelines? How quickly could we find groundbreaking solutions for the state’s most intractable problems if we used all the talent we have available?

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