Laura Deaton: Transparent and Curious Leadership for a Better World

Editor’s Note: This edition of our Feminist Giving IRL series features Laura Deaton, Executive Director of Multiplier, a nonprofit working to accelerate impact for initiatives focused on health, sustainability, resilience, and equality.

  1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

I landed my first leadership role in the nonprofit sector in my early 30s and still had much to learn. I wish I had known from the start about the immense role that transparency and curiosity would play in helping me lead effectively. The power of those traits helped me design and better chart a course for impact.

Laura Deaton, Executive Director, Multiplier

First and foremost, transparent communication—executed well and with compassion—is a fundamental leadership skill that is integral to earning respect and trust. Curiosity and inquiry open doors and dialogues about truly discovering the best path forward by learning more about people, perspectives and processes before advocating for change. 

  1. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

Multiplier recently expanded its portfolio of projects to include innovative work across all 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which jointly tackle our most entrenched global challenges like poverty, hunger, gender inequality, racial and economic injustice, and the climate crisis. Finding ways to continue to inspire our teams and partners to stay adaptable, relevant and resilient through the current global health crisis and rising political unrest is what keeps me up at night.

I believe that my team can handle the challenge. Since 2013, I have worked hand in hand with Multiplier’s incredibly dedicated staff and board to rearticulate our mission and redesign our services so that we can better accelerate initiatives that conserve and protect a healthy, sustainable, resilient and equitable world. As a result, we’ve grown and matured as an organization and have become a true impact partner for social change agents and for funders.

  1. What inspires you most about your work?

I am honored to spend my days surrounded by teams of forward-thinking entrepreneurs, scientists, advocates, philanthropists and investors who are working to enable strong stewardship of our planet.  Not surprisingly, my days are far from boring. Our projects range from reef-building with baby corals to helping new low-income moms receive breastfeeding and parenting support; from preserving the Amazon rainforests to ensuring that workers can earn living wages and provide for their families. Every project we support is integral to our collective success, not only in the nonprofit sector but also together with the for-profit sector and government. How could I not be inspired?

  1. How does your gender identity inform your work?

Although this myth was more widespread when I was a child, I still think there is this culturally imbedded belief that men are better at science, math, managing money and leadership and thus they are deserving of high-paying executive jobs and fancy sports cars. I realize that’s both a generalization and a simplification, but I believe it’s the reality that women still face. For example, when I graduated from law school in the late 1980s, women in the legal profession faced bias and tremendous barriers in what was still a predominantly male-dominated field.  Today, although women enter the legal profession in numbers roughly equal to men, only 1 in 5 of law firm partners are women, and those numbers are even worse for women of color. 

  1. Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?

Absolutely. When I transitioned from law to the nonprofit sector, many of my mentors and role models were women in leadership roles. Opportunities to serve, coach and mentor other women were (and still are) much more available than in the practice of law. I found my village and my people in nonprofits. Everyone I work with is passionate about serving the greater good, so I lead in a way that respects and honors their commitment to make the world a better place. 

The skills I leverage most often are rooted in traits traditionally considered feminine: empathy, intuition, caring communication, transparency, collaboration, creativity and optimism. I’m also decisive and impact-focused, but I’ve intentionally cultivated a leadership approach that weaves in values, compassion and caring as the basis for team connection. As a result, I don’t have to be dictatorial or commanding because my team is inspired and motivated to create the future together.  

  1. How can philanthropy support gender equality?

First and foremost, philanthropy can fund forward-thinking initiatives that elevate women as their core mission. It is critical that they focus on the intersection of our identities and understand that there are very specific opportunities to lift Black, Indigenous and other women of color who often face compounding oppression and inequality. Specifically, I’d like to see donors and funders supporting initiatives that cultivate next-generation female leaders and help women develop and build their policy-making skills.

Funders can also imbed more tactical approaches to eliminating bias and fostering equity in their own giving practices. For example, they can work to ensure that program officers and grant applications ask targeted questions about how grantees build gender and racial equity into their programs, factor those responses into grantmaking decisions, and hold them accountable for reporting outcomes in these areas.

  1. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?

This is a difficult and frightening time to answer this question. The Senate has just approved federal appellate Judge Amy Coney Barrett to serve as the next Supreme Court Justice, replacing one of my idols, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. During her 27 years on the high court, RBG advanced gender equality at every turn, affirming protections against gender discrimination, helping women make strides toward equal pay, protecting pregnant women in the workforce and preserving a woman’s right to choose. Her advocacy also played a key role in ensuring that same-sex couples have the right to marry and protecting gay, lesbian and transgender workers in the workplace. Now, I think the movement needs to be prepared to fight fiercely to preserve these rights.  

I believe that a fast path to gender equality in the US can be achieved if we join forces in sisterhood and become much more civically engaged.  Before we go to the polls, we need to do our research and steadfastly and solely support candidates who have a track record in advancing equity. We also need to really lean in and put ourselves on the ballot by running for office – not just at the federal level, but everywhere we turn – on school boards, city councils, state commissions and in all levels of government service. And we need follow the same advice I gave for funders and look for every opportunity we can find to lift women of color so their voices are heard, respected and represented. If we collectively take these steps, we can seriously accelerate equity over the next decade and beyond.

More About Laura Deaton 

Laura Deaton takes the word accelerate seriously—especially when it comes to solutions to the world’s  intertwined social, environmental and economic challenges. As executive director of Multiplier, a nonprofit  accelerator that helps social entrepreneurs get on the fast track to impact, Deaton has an insider perspective on the new generation of entrepreneurial nonprofits, the rise of collective action initiatives,  navigating cross-sector innovation and other trends reshaping the social sector.  

A hands-on leader who can shift from strategy to operations in a blink, Deaton shepherded Multiplier through a period of unprecedented growth, more than doubling the number of projects in its portfolio and  increasing annual revenue from $6 million in 2013 to over $22 million in 2019. Day to day, Deaton advises Multiplier’s 40-plus projects across four program areas and oversees a team of nonprofit  development and support pros. She’s as committed to Multiplier projects’ missions as the founders are and  throws her considerable energy into helping them turn big ideas into even bigger results. 

Before joining Multiplier in 2013, Deaton racked up years of senior leadership experience in strategy,  operations, program and fund development, communications and investor relations. She directed national  policy research for a “think tank” project of a large private foundation; led the formation of a nonprofit  focused on breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty; served as managing director of a women’s  healthcare center; developed and headed marketing and communications for a Silicon Valley tech start up; and served as executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the East Bay.  

Deaton holds a law degree from Duke University and is a former adjunct faculty member at Duquesne  University’s School of Leadership and Professional Advancement. She earned the NonprofitPRO 2020 Lifetime Achievement award and received a 2018 Social Impact Award from the Harvard Business School  Association of Northern California. She was inducted into the Boston University Collegium of Distinguished  Alumni for outstanding national service in the nonprofit sector. She’s a published academic author and a  member of the Forbes Impact Council. She has written for Nonprofit Quarterly, was interviewed for  Authority Magazine’s Social Impact Heroes series and has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The New  York Times and Chronicle of Philanthropy. 

Learn More About Multiplier

Related:

Laura Dern Backs Gender Parity with Code-a-Thon, $350k in Scholarships

The Domino Effect of Women Leaders: Fern Shepard, Rachel’s Network

Expanding the Ripple Effect: Giving Circles Convene on Equity, Inclusion

The Butterfly Effect: Tracking the Growth of Women’s Funds

Kiersten Marek

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work in Cranston, Rhode Island, and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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