National Center for Youth Law

Impact Story

Serving as an executive director of a national organization isn’t for the faint of heart. The role requires immense poise under pressure and the ability to handle an array of challenges. Executive directors wear many hats, from fundraising and public relations to leading staff and steering programmatic work, an effective executive director must possess a broad skillset. While this position may be overwhelming at times, it can feel especially daunting for new leaders who are stepping into this role for the first time. So where can new leaders turn for support?

Quick Facts

Mission: to center youth voices and experiences through impact litigation, policy advocacy, collaboration and research that fundamentally transforms our nation's approach to education, health, immigration, foster care, and youth justice.

Location: United States


Sectors/Tags: Youth, Advocacy, Nonprofit

The Challenge

Shakti Belway has had a career dedicated to supporting youth and families across the United States. She has worked as a civil rights attorney, policy reformer and litigator, as an educator, and as a child and youth advocate. Belway has seen, from many angles, how public systems are too often failing youth and families, but she has also been inspired by the steadfast dedication of colleagues along the way.

In late 2023, after serving as the Deputy Director of Litigation, Policy and Program for National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), Belway was appointed its newest executive director. While NCYL has been advocating for youth and young people for over 50 years, Belway brings a fresh perspective as a first-time Executive Director. Like many of her peers, she has struggled with matching her organization’s capacity to the immense needs and injustices youth face, the inequitable funding in different jurisdictions, as well as how to manage a large staff (over 100) in multiple states.

The Solution

While being a new leader is intimidating and comes with challenges, there’s a lot that a new executive director can learn by embracing their own experience and applying personal learnings to their role as a leader.

Lived experience is invaluable in nonprofit work and can serve as an essential tool for new executives. While Belway may be new in her role as executive director, her previous experiences—personal and professional—continue to guide her growth. “I know what grounds me and I go back to the ‘why’ from my personal life. Also, in my background in international human rights, to a teacher at HeadStart, to a civil rights lawyer, the hope held by the children and families I have had the honor of working for is what I connect to.” Whether she’s drawing from her direct service experience working with youth or relying on her organizing and litigation roots, Belway sees her role as supporting the entire organization and each teams so our collective work more is impactful as she weaves all of her combined experiences into her executive role.

Part of Belway’s journey as a new leader has been engaging in the development of a strategic framework with La Piana to clarify the organization’s vision, mission, work, values, and core premises. As a result, NCYL clarified its role in the civil rights movement and re-committed to centering youth and impacted communities in all that they do. This applies not only to programmatic and content-based work, but also to how NCYL chooses to operate. Belway embraces this value and continues to pull lessons from the community into her own learning.

Belway points out the “professionalization” of nonprofit executives has not always benefited outcomes for youth and families as leaders can become distanced due to the intense management, financial and administrative demands pulling one away from the day-to-day work with communities that have been marginalized. Centering the experiences of impacted youth and communities while honoring the contributions of all team members is the key to Belway’s success and approaching a leadership position with humility is an insight all leaders should consider emulating.

Community and coaching can also be powerful tools for those new to their leadership role. La Piana is proud to have worked with NCYL and Shakti prior to her transition, setting her up for success. We’re also pleased to announce a new offering – a Curated Conversation for new leaders. While executive directors often have the tools they need, it can be helpful to receive guidance, feedback, and support from peers and mentors alike. If you’re interested in receiving support from La Piana, use the link below to connect with our team.

Are you a new leader in the nonprofit sector?

Connect with a consultant to discuss how La Piana can support you!

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