Calling All Phoenixes

Nina Simon
11 min readAug 5, 2020

Thoughts on recruiting the nonprofit leaders of the future

A wall mural of a flaming bird

“Dear Nina, We’re contacting you about a special opportunity.”

What is it?, I wonder. A line of artist-designed protest masks? A global coalition to reimagine the cultural sector? An unrestricted grant?

Nope. It’s a recruitment email for a nonprofit executive director search. Another one.

I used to engage with these emails. I’d write long responses sharing bios of brilliant Black women and women of color. But after a couple years in which these potential candidates were either ignored or dismissed as “not ready,” I gave up. I started hitting delete.

I’m still getting them every week. And in the past month, I can’t bring myself to look away. It’s not that the emails have changed — it’s that they haven’t. No mention of COVID-19. No mention of anti-racist uprisings. No mention of a cultural sector on the brink. It’s a rare form of doom-scrolling to read these sunny, formulaic emails seeking candidates for an “exciting opportunity to build on our organization’s history and redefine its future.”

As far as I can tell, these executive job descriptions are constructed from a single set of Mad Libs, passed around from board to board, like fraternity brothers sharing xeroxed answers to the chemistry final. Everyone is looking for “strategic, visionary leaders,” “experienced managers,” and “passionate fundraisers.” A few might sprinkle in “a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion” or a nod to “these strange times,” but beyond that, nothing says 2020. No mention of slashed budgets and uncertain futures. No need for collective care or rebuilding trust. No request for a reckoning with the past or unwinding legacies of white supremacy. Not even a wink at “leading through change.” Nothing is being toppled, nothing needs to be righted. It’s bold futures all the way down.

This is a serious problem — not just for the boards recruiting new executives now, but for the future of the cultural sector. There are estimates that as many as one-third of museums¹ and cultural institutions may shut down in 2020. Another third will likely be seriously unraveled by the pandemic. My guess is that we’re going to see the most dramatic turnover of executive…



Nina Simon

Spacemaker/CEO of OF/BY/FOR ALL. Best-selling author of The Participatory Museum (2010) and The Art of Relevance (2016).