In March 2017, Community Foundation Sonoma County hosted the second annual Women’s Leadership Circle Retreat for Sonoma County nonprofit executives. The retreat is designed to support leaders through networking, self-care, and mutual support and expertise.

Beth Brown, President and CEO of Community Foundation Sonoma County facilitated the retreat and has generously offered to answer a few questions about it.


Why is there a need for the Women’s Leadership Circle?

I am so impressed and inspired by the executive directors in our county.  They are tireless in their dedication to the programs they provide and clients they serve. They are also charged with running a business. Whenever a group of nonprofit leaders get together, I’ve noticed that they compare notes and strategies on programs and community needs which is great, but they speak less about what keeps them up at night in terms of the business aspect—management, operations, finance, and human resources. I saw a need for leaders to get together to talk more about their role as directors and the challenges, both personal and professional, that come with that role. And while there are great opportunities and paths to leadership for women in nonprofit organizations, there are still unique challenges women face as leaders and really benefit from the support of one another. I know “it is lonely at the top” is a very cliché saying but it speaks to the truth that when you are leading an organization, you do not have a peer group on your team because you are the boss. The Women’s Leadership Circle provides such a peer group and an annual convening in a retreat setting accelerates connection and trust that builds the foundation for all kinds of support and collaboration.


What has changed over the past year for women leaders in the group?

For the women in the group, it has been a year of ups and downs.

To a person, these women can give examples of how they’ve relied on one another for support which has been a big plus and empowered them to be bolder than they might have otherwise. At the same time, the national policy environment and  changes are of big concern to their organizations as they wonder if government funding will shift and how the issues their organizations champion, from arts to homelessness to support education and immigrant families to health and child care—may be impacted. But hope, resilience, innovation, and good humor are in strong supply with this group. Their boards and donors should feel proud and confident about how these leaders can handle change and challenge.


What is the value of building networks and community for these leaders?

By being curious about how others are running their organizations and by being generous in sharing their approaches,  they are raising the standards for their own work and that of their organizations. We can’t have thriving organizations without thriving leadership. As one of our participants noted, if we spend too much time as leaders working “in the business” and not enough “on the business” then we never get to the next level or organizational development. As a foundation, it is critical that we invest not only in direct service but in all of the resources required to make the organization hum. Giving leaders the resources, including that of time and connection, that the need to reflect and improve and even give themselves permission to take a victory lap is key.

There are so many practical ways these women are helping each other from volunteering at each other’s fundraising events to reviewing development plans to applying for grants together and the list goes on and on.

Here’s a quote from one of the women that is indicative of what others have shared:  “It’s very hard to put into words but I simply feel more supported, more resourced and more nourished. I’ve reached out to the group multiple times over the past year to confirm ideas, gather information about how other organizations do things, and generally help me make better and more thoughtful decisions. The trust we’ve built, which I think really went to another level after this year’s retreat, means that I know I could reach out to anyone in this group if I needed to.”


You have been privy to exceptional growth and support between these leaders. How has this impacted you personally?

I created this group because I wanted to give these leaders an experience of reflection and connection. I did not anticipate how much I also needed to reflect and connect and I am honored and touched by the trust the group has given me which is not always the case when you represent a foundation because of the power and privilege you represent. I now consider these women colleagues,  friends,  and mentors. I learn from them and laugh with them. I can think of no greater gift.


Where will these retreats take you and the other participants next year?

Sea Ranch is a really magical place because the beauty of the setting immediately transports you. I can feel a collective exhale when the group arrives and even the drive, windy as it may be, is part of the process in terms of having space between the demands of the job and the experience of the retreat.  If all goes well, we’ll return to Sea Ranch once again in 2018.

Read input from some participants after last year’s retreat.

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