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The Thrive Effect: An Interview with Executive Director Sonya Shields

Dark blue background with small blue and green lights connected by fine lines. The words The Thrive Effect in white at the top left and the Cause Effective logo in white at bottom right.


In July, Sonya Shields stepped into the role of Executive Director and President of Cause Effective. We asked her to reflect on her role and the future of the organization.

Why be an Executive Director now? Did you always see yourself as an Executive Director?

My journey to becoming an Executive Director was organic. I didn’t initially aspire to this title or to lead a nonprofit. My perspective changed when my former boss at Brooklyn Community Services suggested I'd make a great Executive Director. I hadn’t considered it before because, within the nonprofit sector, development professionals are not traditionally viewed as Executive Directors or CEOs.

But seasoned development professionals are strategic thinkers, innovative, creative, raise money, work closely with finance and Boards, serve as ambassadors, promote programs, liaison with community leaders, and more. I had done all of those things and helped to build programs, led marketing and communications, and helped to strengthen cultures and the infrastructure of organizations.

I realized that I was doing so much of what it takes to be an Executive Director, and I was often working with Executive Directors who turned to me all the time for counsel. So an internal lightbulb went off when I began to think about the future and my career, but I took my time. I didn’t want to pursue the position. I understood after working with 14 Executive Directors, the importance of feeling deeply aligned with the organization and feeling that I’m in my purpose.

We are living in a world where we have systems, policies, and attacks that are making it harder for people to live. We have people in positions of power who work actively to ensure the wealthy continue to get wealthier, while they systematically work to oppress people. There are systemic issues around race, power, and toxic work cultures within the nonprofit sector that some people are aware of, but do not know how to address. I’ve remained in the nonprofit sector because my life’s work is social justice and human rights, and it was never about a title for me.

Becoming an Executive Director now was driven by my desire to work in partnership with people who want to disrupt the systems and practices within the nonprofit sector that are holding organizations back, and strengthen the nonprofit management practices that we need to effectively address social and human rights issues, and empower marginalized people.

What do you think is the future of the sector?

I think the nonprofit sector is at a crossroads because the issues within the world are of such enormous magnitude. The world is exploding and it’s very scary. We need the nonprofit sector now more than ever in our history, but there are ongoing tensions. There are millions of people who came into the nonprofit sector because they truly want to make an impact in the world, and within communities. But as the nonprofit sector has continued to professionalize, it has replicated many corporate practices of creating oppressive systems, top-down management, lack of inclusivity, silencing and icing people out, not paying people their worth, and so much more.

At the same time, there is the serious challenge of organizations receiving the level of funding and resources needed to make a transformational impact around their missions. Whether that’s challenges to raise money because they don’t have the human resources to do so, not having access to funding and donors, or not receiving the level of funding to turn the needle. Every day I think about the fact that none of us can show up business as usual if we want the world to get better.

One of my favorite quotes is – be the change you seek in the world. I believe that leaders of nonprofits, and I’m including myself, must advocate to address the systemic issues within institutions, and we must lead and manage through core values, cultivate compassion, and prioritize integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion within management practices, as well as in fundraising, communications, and governance to make lasting social impact.

What are the needs of the sector?

Reimagining nonprofit management practices that integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion at all levels, and mutual accountability between funders and nonprofits, where systems and structures are aligned with organizational visions and missions. We need more trust and collaboration between funders and donors, and nonprofit organizations. And we need more resources directed from funders to leadership development to strengthen nonprofit management practices and equitable and inclusive board governance.  

What do you see as the future of Cause Effective?

Cause Effective is evolving in response to the magnitude of social justice and human rights issues in this country and throughout the world. We believe that social change movements must have nonprofit organizations thriving to build lasting change and empower people who are marginalized.

Our vision for the future is Activating Nonprofit Thrivability, which involves five core pillars to elevate a humanistic and DEI approach in our leadership development programs, workshop training, consulting, and coaching. The Thrivability pillars include Identity; Centering Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Fundraising, Communications, and Governance; Collaboration and Allyship to Fuel Social Justice and Equity; Philanthropic Education; and The Power of Transformational Partnerships.

The Thrivability framework that we will bring to the nonprofit sector will strengthen how nonprofit leaders manage, conduct fundraising, message, and engage with donors, funders, and community members to create organizational systems and practices to thrive.

How would you like to partner with the community and funders?

To advocate on Cause Effective’s behalf as an important and necessary resource in service of the nonprofit sector, and collaborate in allyship to build a movement to Activate Nonprofit Thrivability.