Speaker & Educator Kishshana Palmer Helping Women Of Color Fundraisers Adapt Their Businesses During COVID-19

Kishshana Palmer

Today more than ever, we are grounding our platform in the mission that if we want to see a new model of leadership that is innovative, inclusive and representative, look to women of color. As more cultural awareness grows around the need to see more black and brown women in positions of power and leadership, whether it be in business, education, movement-building or politics, it is clear that society is ready for a new way of looking at the future. Black women are rising up to these positions and empowering communities alongside them. One of those women is Kishshana Palmer.

Kishshana is a speaker, educator, and fundraiser who landed her first management role at the age of 22, fresh out of grad school and was put in charge of handling a $12 million dollar budget. She is also the founder of The ROOTED Collaborative, a global community focused on the growth and development of women leaders of color in the social impact sector.

From July 22nd – July 24, 2020, Kishshana will host UPRooted: The Stay At Home Retreat for WOC Fundraisers and Social Sector Professionals. It’s no secret that COVID-19 has changed the way we are able to be together and build community.

Now more than ever, leaders like Kishshana believe that gathering in community will ground women fundraisers of color in best practices in development, leadership, management, life, and wellness – so she’s taking it online.

This event is for:

  • A mid-career professional thinking about “what’s next” and craving connection with other women who understand your lived experience.
  • A seasoned executive hopeful about the future and excited to create more opportunities for young professionals.
  • A young professional fundraiser hungry for community and professional development tailored to your needs.

Speakers include Karleen Roy, CEO of The Vanity Group, Janeen Uzzell, COO of Wikimedia Foundation, Anita Kopacz, award-winning writer and activist, and more. We had the opportunity to speak with Kishshana about leadership, how women can tap into the power that already exists inside them and what the future of leadership is going to look like.

Kishshana Palmer

Tell us about The Rooted Collaborative ™  and how it all came about? 

Honestly, it was kismet. I was headed to speak at a conference in 2018 when I heard a voice, clearly and crisply, tell me that I needed to ‘create a gathering for Black female fundraisers’ – just like that! At first, I thought I was tripping, but soon after, I was sitting around the table with a dynamic group of Black women powerhouses, who were also in fundraising. So I shared this revelation with the women at the table and right there, in that moment, The Rooted Collaborative ™ was born. 

Originally, the idea was to host a retreat for Black women fundraisers, but it quickly evolved into a global community specifically for Black, Indigenous and women of color in the social sector. Our focus is on the holistic development of BIWOC female leaders by creating space to amplify our voices, which are traditionally excluded. Some of the ways we do this is by creating engaging content, offering programming that optimizes success and wellness and encouraging mentoring relationships between seasoned and emerging professionals in the industry.

Our work really focuses on, not just on empowering women, but really about creating the conditions for women to uplevel their personal and professional brands while showing up and thriving as her full, unapologetic self.

Today you are a sought-after speaker, educator and leader. What pearls of wisdom do you share at your speaking events and workshops?

When I give keynotes or teach, my goal is to speak to the whole professional. One of the main messages I speak on is about the talent we have within us to go after what we want. This is different from “You have everything you need to be successful.” Because sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you’ve got to go get some stuff. This often ties into my conversations about equity and equality in the social sector and what navigating the industry landscape looks like as a person of color, particularly a woman, as opposed to our counterparts. 

I often share about how to take care of ourselves at home so that we can bring our better selves to work. What’s clear is that many of us are leading, what I call, double lives. We have our home life — which could be hell, heaven or somewhere in between — then we have our work life. It doesn’t matter if you’re an executive, a socialite, active in your social or faith based institutions, or volunteering for organizations – there’s a high probability that you’re juggling two lives – and most times, unsuccessfully. 

Another notable topic I speak about is the power of transformation. Oftentimes, I share my story of when I was a little girl and how literally the only thing I wanted to do in life was be a wife and a mother. Well, I became a wife and a mother and now, I’m only a mother. Being a wife, at that time, was not the design that God had for my life. There were other things that I needed to be able to do in the world and so I had to open myself up to that shift and what was for me. 

When audiences hear me speak, they get vulnerability, openness and honesty. It’s that realness, the baring your soul just enough so that people can see beyond the storytelling and begin to view themselves in your story because, ultimately, that’s what it’s about. 

Why is the focus on women of color so important to you personally? 

Focusing on women of color, and Black women in particular, is so important to me because for the majority of my career, when I walked into a room, whether it was to raise money, to work with a board member, to talk with a donor, or even in my own consulting practice, I was the only one. I served as Senior leadership of almost every organization that I’ve been a part of within my career, and it was personally exhausting to constantly be the “good Black girl”. I even remember saying, “You know I’m black, right?”, quite a few times in conversation. Over time, I began thinking, “if I’m having this experience, I wonder who else is going through the same?” As my career flourished and I started to speak at more conferences and engage with more Black and brown women, I realized that so many of them were having a similar experience and it compelled me even more. 

It was extremely discouraging to know that so many of us were dealing with the microaggressions, internal politics, and institutionalized racism that was happening at our everyday work, not to mention in our efforts to  raise philanthropic revenue. It was really important to me to focus on women of color because these types of conditions not only ostracize us, but they also begin to contribute to the deterioration of our health, which is heartbreaking. I felt that if I could focus on the whole woman, our physical and mental health, our professional and personal development, and create a community that allows us to be fortified, then I knew that I would be able to help create a sea change for women who are doing such transformative work. 

Kishshana Palmer

Tell us more about the work you do empowering women of color leaders in the social impact space, and why we need to see more WOC in this area?

I want to do more than empower. I want to provide access. I want to create scenarios, conversations, and opportunities for women to access the part of their expertise that encourages them to create a skill or tap into their personal development.

For the past 17 years, I’ve met women who say things like “I want to start my own business” or “How do I begin building my nonprofit?” and even “How do I scale in some of the work that I’ve been doing?” Through those interactions, we realized that although you can go to groups for professional development that have really good webinars and professional learning communities, there was STILL something missing. The missing piece was: what happens when they get back home to their hectic, everyday lives? How are they managing that AND this new venture that they’ve started? How are they holding space for themselves and others? This is why have such a focus on wellness, making sure folks are taking care of their mental health, and speaking on the importance of undoing internalized racism, tackling issues like colorism, and making sure that we are getting to the heart of what really drives us internally, in good and bad ways, and in our careers. 

We also speak to our physical health. It’s no secret that Black women are plagued with some of the most easily preventable diseases and health conditions. Part of that is because we are so busy taking care of everyone else that we are not taking care of ourselves. Our goal, and my personal goal, is to really make it sure that women put ourselves first. The next tenet that is so critical to this empowerment word is that we are armed financially to be able to live the lives that we want. There is nothing that says that we have to work in the sector and not live well. Living well today, preparing for your retirement, leaving a legacy for your family. When you think about communities of color, these are things that are so important to us and yet for many folks in the day to day joy in living, we are not able to make space for that. Either because we don’t know how, or we think that we don’t have enough to make that work, or other things take immediate priority, preventing us from taking care of ourselves.

All of this, combined with the fact that women of color are some of the most amazing beings on earth are why we need to be in the social impact sector. Our lives, experiences, challenges, and victories enrich who we are and everything that we touch and the industry needs that. We’ve seen C-suite positions in our industry held by white men. We know what that looks like. We’ve seen organizations led by white women. We’ve experienced that. Now it’s time for the industry to hear our voice, feel our experiences, and watch us work!

Rewinding a little, at the age of 22 fresh out of college, your first major job saw you in charge of a $12 million budget! Can you tell us more about this and what you learned from the experience? 

Talk about insanity! I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing, not so much about the money, but moreso about managing people. The idea that I was on the hook for such a large amount of money and such a large budget was really, really foreign to me.

It pushed me right into the zone of imposter syndrome. I would spend hours at home, toiling over books and reading and trying to figure out how to do the work that, obviously, I was trained to do. It became so easy to forget that I was a natural born leader, until it clicked that everybody else is figuring it out – SO I CAN TOO! I remember an incident with one of my chief leadership team members and the CEO, where he turned to one of our partners and said, “Just talk to her, she can handle it.” What I remember about that was that he didn’t hesitate whether I could or couldn’t handle the project, which was a multimillion dollar project that we were taking on, he just believed in me. He had confidence in his own decision making and the people he picked, therefore he had confidence in me.

That struck a chord in me, that I believe to this day –  you have got to strike out with a level of confidence that cannot be rocked. This mindset allowed me to become bold in the way that I raised money, in the way I managed money, and in the way that I managed people. I began to sharpen my leadership eye and recognized that people, by and large, just want to be seen and heard and that many of us want to be in community. What I didn’t know at 22, that I now know nearly 20 years later, are those were the seeds being planted for the harvested work that is now The Rooted Collaborative ™ and my time in that role was a dress rehearsal for the feature presentation you’re viewing today. 

What are some of the major challenges women of color face when fundraising for nonprofits? 

It’s everything from the snubbing stuff you can barely see like “Did they just call me my name…incorrectly? No, they didn’t just do that.” Or – here’s the more clear example – Being ignored when you’re in the room. I can think of an executive who used to introduce his entire leadership team and run down their entire resume and then get to me and tell me to introduce myself. Or having donors who don’t necessarily want to work with you, causing you to have to go back to the well, three, four, five, six times. But if you send one of your younger, less experienced team members who happens to be white in, you’ll find more times than not that they will be successful because they are reminded of their daughters, nieces, and friends from college.

One of the challenges is the assimilation that we have to do in order to be able to raise money. You have no idea how this eats at your spirit in ways that, eventually, eat at your health. We end up raising significantly less money relative to our white counterparts, no matter how much experience or know-how we have, because we have to fight our way into rooms. On the hiring side, you are typically an “only” at your organization and unlike our Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian peers who are taught to learn and understand that their proximity to whiteness is what’s going to help them to be successful, the weight is insufferable because you know that any little thing, even human error, closes the door for other women who look like you to be able to step into this career powerfully.

These challenges can be worse if you’re the head of your own organization, making it is even harder for you to raise money. You’re constantly told you need more data, more time, more evidence, more outcomes, and more impact. You need to be able to show all of these things, plus that you have more longevity, when all your white counterparts need is an idea on the back of a napkin, and they’ll get the money almost instantly. With us, we have to come with it already baked and proven, which is why a lot of our organizations are bootstrapping with less than $250,000 in their annual revenue. We have the capacity and the ability to raise billions of dollars, but are doing so with one hand tied behind our back.

What can people look forward to at the virtual UPRooted: The Stay At Home Retreat for WOC Fundraisers and Social Sector Professionals? 

What women can look forward to at UPRooted is restoration, revelation, and rejuvenation. What we’re trying to do is help women access and tap into the parts of themselves that unlock the highest level of agency possible, because it is critical for us to be able to have professional and personal development that is designed with us in mind. We are armed with world class speakers, amazing keynotes, and electrifying session leaders, who are not only the best in their field but amazing humans who came together and said, “We’re doing this work because it matters and we’ve got to do it for us.”

There are so many great content-focused conferences for us in our profession, whether you’re in fundraising, operations or programming, education or faith based organizations, there are a lot of conferences designed to those sub-sectors. But when you go to these conferences, and I’ve spoken at maybe 35 a year, there are one, two, maybe three (if you’re lucky!) sessions on anything to do with diversity, equity and inclusion. But even then it is, at best, skimming the surface of what’s really happening around hiring, retention, raising money, and leadership in the sector. So at UPRooted, our attendees are going to have the opportunity to learn together with other women who share their lived experience, who just get it. They will have the opportunity to experience presenters, all of whom reflect their lived experience and identity. They’re going to be able to be in community with one another, to have fun, to let their hair down, to be able to just be, and show up as their full, authentic Black and brown self…that’s it!

Our mission is that when this year’s attendees leave the virtual experience of UPRooted, they are going to be hyped for our next opportunity to be able to come together in community. A community where people who look like you say, “I see you, sis. I got you.” There are very few places that you’re going to be able to get this kind of infusion, so join us and get UPRooted!

What message do you have for women, especially women of color, in terms of tapping into their power? 

When it comes to tapping into your power, my message is simple – Keep your well full. If you know that you are operating from an empty place then make sure that you do what you need to do to keep your well full. And that looks different for each of us. For some of us that’s taking care of our mental health first. For others we’ve got to start taking care of our physical health today. For some of us, that means leaving behind unhealthy friendships, relationships, and work situations. It’s scary, but that fear is where leadership shows up. 

Stepping into your power means really understanding your WHOLE self in this season. If you’re in the social sector, and you’re looking for a safe and brave space to build your network, enhance your learning and help you step into your power as a leader, The Rooted Collaborative ™ is here for you, girl!