Nov 3, 2023

An Interview with Etobssie Wako, Project Director at the LeadersTrust

Nov 3, 2023

Etobssie Wako is a Project Director at the LeadersTrust. With over $30 million in investments to date, the LeadersTrust and its partners are building a change sector where resources are invested equitably, power is shared, and leaders have the capacity, relationships, and investment they need to lead boldly and dream big.

CGRE connected with Wako to discuss the LeadersTrust, our partnership, and what we’ve learned from our grantee partners.

What motivated the creation of the LeadersTrust? Were there specific gaps or needs in the field that you sought to address? Can you elaborate on what makes CGRE and the LeadersTrust’s models compatible?

The LeadersTrust emerged out of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund’s long-standing commitment to invest in the leadership and organizational capacity of its partners. It was grounded in the understanding that organizational resilience demands deliberate and timely investments in leaders and their workplaces. Now operating independently, we partner with a range of foundations, over 200 practitioners, and have partnered with more than 120 social change organizations and their leaders across the country.

As a practice, organizational development has a long and protracted history, informed by racist and gendered ideas of which leaders and organizations merit investment. Our foundation challenges these notions and prioritizes:

  • responsive, long-term, and high-touch investments, especially to groups historically lacking such backing;
  • more values-led and community-informed practices and approaches to organizational strengthening and investing in emerging ideas and opportunities;
  • co-created spaces for practitioners with profound lived and professional experiences to connect, learn, and grow; and
  • unlocking more and long-term resources for this critical work.

We believe these priorities are underpinned by iterative, collaborative, and imaginative learning and knowledge production. Our nonprofit partners have a lot to say about what it takes to build more resilient, joyous, abundant organizations — and we want to create a supportive infrastructure to help articulate these opportunities and lessons.

CGRE firmly believes that investing in individuals and organizations forms the bedrock of strong movements and robust ecosystems of care and action. We share the conviction that transformative organizational change relies on trusting leaders to articulate and spearhead change, and is firmly rooted in intersectional racial and gender justice principles and practices. Our collective work is anchored by the idea that by “delivering responsive, long-term, high-touch investment to the people at the heart of organizations, we unlock the radical imagination and inherent power of leaders, organizations, and movements to achieve transformative change.”


Etobssie Wako, Project Director at the LeadersTrust


At CGRE, we prioritize grants to organizations that have historically lacked resources, and offer them flexible resources over extended periods, avoiding rigid project requirements. How does this approach align with the LeadersTrust’s own philosophy and strategies?

Indeed, the foundation of the LeadersTrust lies in the commitment to redistributing resources and opportunities to historically under-resourced organizations. In moving toward this commitment, we carefully consider factors such as geographical regions, organizational size, as well as leadership and team structure. We also work to embrace more liberatory organizational strengthening praxis — approaches that are partner-led, create room for high-touch accompaniment, and prioritize flexibility. Our partners possess profound insights into current gaps and opportunities within their organizations, along with the ideas and visions to transform them. What our partners need are the right resources, right partnerships, and time to move their organizations in line with their big visions.


Given the increasing concerns surrounding IT security and data privacy in the wake of the Dobbs decision, how does the LeadersTrust support nonprofit organizations in the reproductive health space in terms of IT challenges, personal and organizational vulnerability, and technology related stress? Which IT tools and security measures are nonprofit leaders finding most useful? 

Our partners are placing strong emphasis on both digital and personal security. This is particularly pertinent for smaller frontline organizations, where it’s emerging as an increasingly urgent concern. Through these resources, some partners have taken proactive steps to bolster their digital security. They’ve collaborated with experts to fortify their financial, data, and personnel management systems, ensuring they are prepared for potential risks.

Additionally, through our partnership with the Resilience Initiative, our partners have received support that includes: individual coaching provided by people who specialize in risk assessment and mitigation, and a two part training series on ethical uses of AI for Nonprofits and ChatGPT for Nonprofits. Our aim is to build offerings that are robust, adaptive to emerging needs, and provide sustainable multi-partner solutions.

"Today, more than ever, frontline organizations' ability to strategize and envision radical futures hinges on building stronger organizations and investing on their internal systems."

The demanding nature of gender and reproductive equity work often has an emotional toll on staff. How does the LeadersTrust address the mental strain and burnout experienced by nonprofit leaders, and foster organizational resilience? What are the key supports organizations need in place to sustain efforts to build power for the long term?

Emotional exhaustion among leadership and teams has been an ongoing concern. And at this stage in the collective effort to advance reproductive justice, leadership burnout is becoming a central issue. This is alarming, and comes as no great surprise, considering the micro and macro challenges we’ve faced in recent years without pause.

Our partners are actively exploring various approaches to address burnout, and we’re working to build and learn alongside them. They’re conducting internal assessments to gauge their workload and staff capacity, and working to rectify misalignments. Furthermore, our partners are leveraging these investments and opportunities to consider the conditions necessary for promoting organizational wellness. They’re reevaluating their policies regarding leave, rest, and remote work. And they’re making use of resources for team retreats and to provide support for paid leave and sabbaticals.

One of the most impactful strategies we offer our partners is the recognition that organizational strength encompasses more than just fiscal systems and back-office operations. It also involves acknowledging that rest, joy, and wellness are fundamental tools in fortifying organizations.


Looking forward, we know that organizations will continue to grapple with evolving laws, threats to abortion access, the potential resource shifts due to changing priorities from funders, and many other challenges. In light of these obstacles, how do you envision the LeadersTrust’s role in addressing these trends and challenges?

For many reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations, the past few years have been pivotal turning points. Besides contending with the challenges posed by a pandemic and an increasingly restrictive political landscape, partners are also grappling with the challenges of shifting work cultures. And our mission remains steadfast — to emphasize the importance of investing in organizational strengthening. Today, more than ever, frontline organizations’ ability to strategize and envision radical futures hinges on building stronger organizations and investing on their internal systems. We will continue advocating the importance of investing in organizational strengthening. We will advocate for more unrestricted resources, champion partner-led approaches, co-create with our communities of practice, and continue sharing our learning. Our partners rightly deserve rest, support, and joy as they undertake the seemingly impossible work of reimagining new futures.

"We share the conviction that transformative organizational change relies on trusting leaders to articulate and spearhead change, and is firmly rooted in intersectional racial and gender justice principles and practices."

As an advocate for gender and reproductive equity, what aspects of the LeadersTrust’s work resonate most with you on a personal level? Is there a success story or transformative change that stands out as particularly inspiring?

I came to the LeadersTrust having spent many years in the reproductive health, rights, and justice spaces. I came to this work with the keen appreciation that more investment is needed in leaders and the places where they work. And in my time here, I’ve had an opportunity to see the real impact that such investments can have.

I am continually inspired by the innovative approaches organizations are employing to cultivate strong and striving organizations. I’m inspired by those thinking beyond the frames of conventional organizational structure, and exploring opportunities like shared back office solutions, distributed leadership, and adopting HR practices aligned with their values. Those challenging the silos and isolation inherent in organizational strengthening approaches and creating space and opportunity to collectively learn and shape solutions. Our partners don’t shy away from the hard questions and conversations needed to anchor change. Embracing new paradigms and paths toward more compassionate and aligned organizations.

I’m equally inspired by our partner practitioners who walk alongside leaders, leveraging their rich blend of lived and professional experience to foster opportunities. Their commitment and strategies imagine new possibilities and forge new pathways in organizational strengthening practice. Through their practices, they craft the very elements, the elixir of transformation our current moment calls for.