Your Group Wants to Become a Nonprofit — What Now?

It’s one thing to have hobbies and interests; parlaying them into a nonprofit organization is another leap entirely.

Expansion is an easy concept to imagine but a difficult one for most of us to execute.

In a hobby or interest group’s case, it’s tough to identify the right time to venture into nonprofit status. For molecular biologist Nina Dudnik, her epiphany started when she was studying rice in Ivory Coast. Conducting research in a developing country without enough equipment proved challenging, so after she began her Ph.D. program at Harvard University, she and a few fellow students collected extra supplies and equipment to send to labs in developing countries.

From that effort sprang a nonprofit venture that eventually became Seeding Labs, a firm that trains scientist and provides equipment to developing nations. Dudnik’s idea sprouted from a cause she had personal experience in, and she quickly found a way to translate it to a broader scale.

So how can an interest group widen its scope into a serious nonprofit? It starts with identifying the desired end goal and detailing the steps necessary to arrive there.

What Giving Gets You

When looking to invest more time and effort into a cause, going the nonprofit route makes sense. Nonprofits are highly credible entities that can exert social influences on broader audiences because a nonprofit donation elicits a stronger emotional response in the giver than spending money at a for-profit, even if the end result is the same.

Nonprofits are also eligible for certain federal tax exemptions. Provided they agree to be audited, corporate income tax is waived, and that money can be reinvested into the organization. Additionally, state and federal governing bodies and some private groups also offer nonprofit tax credits for nonprofits, so even if a nonprofit owes some taxes, these credits give organizations other options to stretch their operating budgets.

When homing in on a nonprofit cause, start with pinpointing a mission that’s the company’s sole focus. You’ll be fighting for a share of limited charitable giving, so don’t make your efforts more difficult by taking up a cause that another group has already embraced. Both the group and the cause itself would likely suffer.

Next, make sure interest is sufficient and funding is locked in. Ensure that the resources and support for your initiative are in place and that your plan of action is clearly outlined. This will help convince potential donors you’re a good candidate for their contributions, which most people don’t give out easily. In the long term, nonprofits need business plans that minimize operating costs to ensure sustainable organizations. Getting your group to that next step isn’t easy, but the benefits are tangible.

Make a Nonprofit Pivot

If transitioning your group to a nonprofit seems like a good fit, these to-do items will help make the process as smooth as possible.

1. Network as much as you can. Your nonprofit’s effect is only as strong as the people advocating for it. Make sure as many influential people know about it and talk it up as possible.

Take an active approach to networking. If you attend an event such as an NGO conference, think of questions ahead of time and share your plans with your organization. Whenever possible, get feedback from people who are already well-established in your group’s field of interest to figure out the best course of action.

2. Research regulations. Regulatory requirements may sound like a chore, but you’ll need to know how they work to understand the legal side of the transition to a nonprofit. Regulations are not only complex and different from state to state, but they’re also constantly changing.

Even though you’re passionate about your group’s subject matter, consider taking a class at a local college to get the most up-to-date guidance on your specific situation and how to get any compliance issues squared away. Setting up your nonprofit only to find it doesn’t comply with certain legalities isn’t the best way to get it off the ground.

3. Work with an accountant. Embrace the first lesson of nonprofits, and get ready to get lean. Utilize an accountant or financial advisor, and make sure that person has experience working with nonprofits.

These professionals identify specific steps a nonprofit will need to take in order to best protect itself financially. For instance, not-for-profits should create a statement of financial position instead of a traditional balance statement, or a statement of activities detailing revenue and expenses instead of an income statement.

Fundamentally, nonprofits are created to meet specific societal needs. If your group has the drive and resources to merit pursuing the advantages afforded to a nonprofit, take these steps to heart and take your cause to the next level.

How to Grow Your Nonprofit With Little Budget

It should come as no surprise that devoting time to a cause can be fulfilling. When you start one of your own, you will transform your life.

But establishing a nonprofit to take up said crusade comes with lots of barriers, namely financial. Traditional businesses often must figure out where the money will come from to make their vision a reality, and nonprofits are no different.

For nonprofit leaders with know-how and ideas but scarce financial capital, it’s an uphill battle. But it’s those who recognize their new nonprofits’ non-monetary value and how to translate that into viability who can bring those causes to fruition.

A Little Marketing Goes a Long Way

What nonprofits lack in budget, they more than make up for in positioning and branding. Organizations can mask their financial shortcomings by properly marketing each themselves and spotlighting who they are and what they can do.

That starts with communicating your purpose or company “brand.” Identifying your brand lets people know who you are and what you can do for others, which can go a long way in creating long-term relationships. From there, you want to avoid potential conflicts of interest or even the appearance of one: As owner, officer, or director, you should never personally profit from any transaction with your organization.

Once you’ve settled those things, you can market your nonprofit to its fullest potential. The next step is to take those attributes to events and platforms that feature opportunities to rub elbows with financiers with values similar to your own.

For nonprofits with limited funds, I suggest looking to corporations to sponsor a campaign. Dress for Success, for example, held a “clean your closet week” by asking professionals to donate clothing, and the campaign generated $400,000.

And when you find an actual sponsor, it can be a useful way to find other organizations that align with your mission. Let’s say you connect with a corporation known to work with homeless youth. It’ll have relationships with many other corporations that work with this same service sector, which can establish a ripple effect.

Do Good on a Discount

Outside of knowing how to sell your cause, the following tips are useful to help your growing nonprofit continue to scale:

1. Think intangible. When you’re on a tight budget and don’t have money to involve your nonprofit in initiatives requiring a cash investment, start off by marketing non-financial resources, such as your time and industry knowledge.

Not only will it provide your organization some much-needed exposure, but it’ll also give you and your other teammates a better idea of the work involved and a brief overview of your chosen nonprofit sector. Plus, it’s not a bad way to make connections.

2. Give in to the youth movement. Look for volunteers at area high schools. Talk with the local school councils and ask whether it’d be possible to create a partnership that would allow teens to volunteer for a school credit or as an extracurricular activity.

Position the volunteer opportunity as a way for teenagers to prepare for the future. After all, volunteering improves not just communities, but also participants’ social and communication skills. In fact, they often reap better advantages at college and on down the line.

3. See how the pros do it. Follow the activities of larger nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations. Check with international organizations like the United Nations; you may find opportunities for involvement and gain access to their funding pool.

Take NeedsList, for example. The online platform was created to help small grassroots groups connect with NGOs across the world in need of shoes, SD cards, and other supplies. Donors can choose to donate goods, money, or time, which brings us full circle.

As the adage goes, it’s not what you know but whom. No other sector exemplifies this more than nonprofit. For foundations on a shoestring budget, make connections, think about what you have to offer, and deliver on your purpose each step of the way. Then, you can let your personal transformation begin.

How to Get Rid of Your Student Loan Debt While Working at a Nonprofit

student loans

All across the country, graduates are taking advantage of various loan repayment programs to help lower their monthly payments and improve their lives. If you plan to work for a nonprofit or in the public sector, it’s smart to explore all of the loan repayment options in front of you – including loan forgiveness.

When Michelle Argento graduated college with $25,000 in student loans, she knew the path forward wouldn’t be easy. As a music education major with little earning potential, she was right to worry about her new $290 monthly payment.

Fortunately, Argento started learning about the federal income-driven repayment programs available right away. And once she qualified for Income-Based Repayment (IBR), she watched her new payment shrink to just $27 per month.

While Argento’s situation has changed over the years, she still benefits on a sliding scale. A marriage and a toddler later, she and her husband pay $350 per month towards their $40,000 in combined student loans. If the couple were on the Standard Repayment Plan, she would owe more like $690 per month, she said.

Instead, the $340 per month they save has meant less stress and more opportunity.

“Having been on IBR for now six years, I have never, ever felt crushed or overwhelmed by my loans,” said Argento. “That flexibility also means being able to take risks in my career by moving to owning my own business, being able to splurge a bit on experiences such as traveling to Europe, and considering going back to school while continuing paying down debt.”

The icing on the cake, however, is that income-driven repayment plans like IBR will forgive any remaining after 20-25 years of payments (assuming there’s any debt left over). The only downside is that once the debt is forgiven, you’re on the hook for income taxes on that amount that same tax year.

Of course, IBR isn’t the only income-driven plan out there. Borrowers can also benefit from plans such as Pay As You Earn (PAYE), Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE), and Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR). While each plan works in its own unique way, they all base your monthly payments on your discretionary income and eventually lead to student loan forgiveness.

By and large, income-driven repayment plans were created for graduates just like Argento – people with large amounts of debt and lower-than-average earnings. That’s why many people who work at nonprofits flock to income-driven repayment plans; instead of struggling to afford huge monthly payments, they can enjoy reasonable out-of-pocket expenses and continue working in jobs that let them give back.

Another Option: Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)

In addition to income-driven repayment, students interested in working for the public good can look into Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).

With PSLF, graduates can have their student loans forgiven after working in a qualified public service position and making 120 consecutive payments on their loans. Payments made after October 1, 2007 qualify and the first round of PSLF participants will receive forgiveness beginning this October.

Ginger, a psychotherapist who blogs at Girls Just Wanna Have Funds, uses PSLF to make her student loan payments bearable. Thanks to the reasonable loan payment she has achieved through PSLF, Ginger figures she’ll save 15 years of payments and at least $100,000 on interest if she sticks with it.

And she should. Unlike other income-driven plans that require you to pay taxes on forgiven debt, PSLF wipes your slate entirely clean. If Ginger is able to stay on her current program for 10 consecutive years, she’ll have zero debt – and no trace of a tax bill – once it’s over.

Although she’ll need to work in public service the entire time, this is a huge benefit for her and others like her to look forward to.

Picking a Repayment Plan

With the right plan, you can settle on a monthly payment you can actually afford and move on with your life. Here are some steps that can help:

Step 1: Explore loan forgiveness options. While we touched on the main loan forgiveness programs in this article, you should research more on each before you sign up. There are also many state- and school-based repayment and forgiveness programs. Check out this comprehensive guide on forgiveness programs to find the right fit.

Step 2: Consider your long-term career plans. While income-driven repayment and PSLF can drastically reduce your monthly payments now, that can change quickly if your income surges or your career changes course. Before you sign up, consider how your future decisions might affect your loan payments.

Step 3: Determine how comfortable you are with debt. While loan forgiveness programs can lower your monthly payment and lead to total debt forgiveness, they also leave you in debt for a longer stretch of time. If you don’t like the idea of debt, you might be better off making extra payments and paying off your loans early instead.

Step 4: Sign up for a plan and stick with it. If you decide you’re okay with debt as long as it’s eventually forgiven, you’re a good candidate for loan forgiveness plans. To get the most out of them, however, you should stay the course and see them to the end. Ten to 25 years might seem like a long time, but it will be worth it when you’re finally debt-free.

If you’re worried how you’ll handle your loans as a non-profit worker, it’s smart to explore all of these opportunities to see if one might fit your needs.

With the right repayment plan, you could score an affordable monthly payment and complete forgiveness in the end. If you’re in debt and struggling, that’s the best thing you can hope for.

Youth in View: Providing An Engaging Continuum of Care

Youth in View is a not-for-profit child-placement organization dedicated to promoting the well-being of youth by providing a continuum of care through foster care, adoption, post-adoption, unplanned pregnancy intervention and residential treatment services. Located in Texas, founders Sandra and Doug Umoru opened Youth in View in an effort to assist parents in residential treatment facilities who children entered into the foster care system.

Over 3 million reports of child abuse are made every year in the United States with 1 in 4 girls being sexually abused before her 18th birthday. These statistics highlight the severity of abuse facing young people and the need for a proactive intervention to deal with the impact of abuse.

Image Credit: Youth in View
Image Credit: Youth in View

Youth in View bases itself on partnership working to share responsibility and accountability for those who cannot take care of themselves. With four main goals at its center, Youth in View help prepare youth for permanent placement, provide positive family environment encouraging growth and development, provide opportunities to participate in activities outside of an institution, and carefully matching families with children in order to maintain stability.

In some aspects of social work and other fields, reaching people can sometimes be challenging. With first-hand experience of what fostering is like, Sandra and Doug found compassionate and creative ways to work with parents who had no idea what was happening to their child in the Child Protective Services system.

As a plan of care, Youth in the View involve service users in the process while allowing their children to contribute to the policies impacting them. This element of social justice and personalization on both the macro and micro level is often overlooked within the child protection system.

While Youth in View aims to prevent child abuse, it is sometimes difficult when there is not as much support as hoped. Sandra feels there is not enough attention given to child abuse, with it instead being just something that people talk about on banners of campaigns. There needs to be a more practical and engaging intervention in order to support organizations like Youth in View which are not supported by the broad Child Protective Services system. Despite the difficult barriers, Sandra are Doug are determined to make a difference even more so since opening the doors at Youth In View in 2000.

Saundra and Doug Umoru, Founders of Youth in View
Saundra and Doug Umoru, Founders of Youth in View

This positive and heart-warming approach to practice shows that change can be accomplished in even the hardest of circumstances. Sandra and Doug are committed to making a change even with sometimes minimal support from the wider system. Social networking is filled with photos of abused children with the only message being ‘Share if you think this is wrong’. Whilst this increases awareness, a more practical proactive response is needed in order to tackle child abuse but also to help empower children.

Youth in View host training each month in order to provide parents with the right resources and support to raise a child.  Sandra and Doug argue that buying a child toys or being a consistent and caring adult in their life can make all the difference to a child.

The transformation of a child from someone who is withdrawn to someone full of happiness is the best reward any service provider could hope for. Any progress helps to show them that they are one step closer to seeing the light at the end of a very dark and scary tunnel.

Empowerment is a key value promoted at Youth In View, and it is important to provide opportunities for growth. ‘The Lab’ is a space for children to talk about any issues or abuse, and it teaches children how to use their pain positively in an empowering way rather than succumbing to the instinct to run from their experience. By encouraging children to deal with the abuse they suffered, it reduces the negative impact it could have on their adult life.

As a result of Sandra’s own childhood experiences, she empathizes with children in her care by helping them to walk into empowerment and embrace the moment they stopped running. Sandra says that she wants ‘for them to leave Youth in View knowing they’re not victims, but they are victors.

10 Rules for Dating in the Nonprofit Sector

love

Dozens of people have asked me to address dating within the nonprofit sector, and by dozens of people, I mean one drunk single person at a fundraising gala. This is not a topic that we talk much about, but it is important, because of self-care and blah blah, so I asked the brilliant and attractive people in the NWB Facebook community to help create a list of rules. Here is the list below. Please keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list. Rules may be changed, and new rules may be added.

10 Rules for Dating in the Nonprofit Sector

Rule 1, the Cardinal Rule of Dating in the Nonprofit Sector: Do not date other people from the nonprofit sector*. Yes, proximity is powerful, especially when so many of us work ridiculous hours and see each other all the time. But resist the temptations. First, because we deserve a decent car and house and occasional access to organic blueberries, and the chances for those things greatly decrease if we only stick with each other. But more importantly, our work depends on the rest of society understanding and appreciating the role that nonprofit plays, so we have to marry outward. It’s not gold digging, it’s thinking of the children.

Rule 2: No matter how radiant they are, never ask a program officer out who may fund your org. Sure, you may have kickass pickup lines like, “Does RFP stand for ‘Really Fine Person?’ You’re definitely an RFP to me” or “So, you’re a program officer, huh? Well, you better arrest yourself, officer, because you just stole my heart” (#nonprofitpickuplines, go make that trend on Twitter). But, you’ll only come off as creepy, and worse, you will jeopardize funding for your organization.

Rule 3: Hell, don’t date current coworkers, clients, donors, board members, auditors, and volunteers. Past volunteers are OK, but make sure they don’t work for a nonprofit, so you don’t violate the Cardinal Rule. Past coworkers may be OK, but only if they have moved outside the sector. Remember this phrase: “When in doubt, don’t ask ‘em out,” which has served me well and saved me from many, many dates throughout my life.

Rule 4: Weigh the potential benefits to your organization when choosing whom to go out with. Consider factors such as donation potential, skills that could benefit a committee or project, and whether the person works at company that matches donations or provides event sponsorships.  Remember, you’re not just dating for yourself, you’re also dating to make the world better. Don’t even consider dating someone who won’t likely volunteer at your organization.

Rule 5: Wait until at least the third date before asking someone to volunteer at your fundraising gala. To do so on the first or second date is ungentlemanly or unladylike. When it is the right time to take your relationship to this level, be respectful, thoughtful, and generous, especially if this is your date’s first time helping out at a gala.

Rule 6: Do not schedule dates on important days at your organizations. Avoid scheduling dates when grants are due, grant reports are due, there’s a board meeting, or it’s the monthly potluck karaoke teambuilding dinner at your ED’s place, since he has spent a lot of time practicing Foreigners’ “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

Rule 7: Ensure your date has been trained on racial equity, gender identity, disability, heterosexism, cultural competency, privilege, power, and intersectionality beforelove2introducing them to your teammates. Don’t even think about inviting them to a team happy hour unless they’ve had time to reflect on their identity and role in undoing the dominant systems of oppression.

Rule 8: Take time for your romantic life. Sure, you’re committed to your work, but find time for yourself and your current or potential relationship. As a colleague puts it, “You are allowed date nights and the occasional missed morning…sheesh!” I agree. Get a romantic life! Sheesh!

Rule 9: Keep your romantic life off social media. Ew! Gross! Who wants to see you holding hands and leaning on each other’s shoulders and stuff?! Gross! Besides, it may decrease the morale of your single coworkers, and we need morale to be high, because thefundraising gala is coming up.

Rule 10: Consider the ramifications to your organization when considering breaking up with someone. If you’ve done a good job, your partner should be well invested in your organization. They’re probably even a donor by now. It is important then to consider the effects this may have on your org if you break up with them. If they don’t give much, then sure, whatever. But if they’ve become a major donor, and especially if they work at a place that has a really strong matching program…are they really all that bad? Come on, no one is perfect.

Send in your thoughts and other rules you think should be added.

*If you’re thinking, “Oh crap, I am with someone from the nonprofit sector, I’ve violated the Cardinal Rule,” well, calm down. You didn’t know. But now that you do know, there is no other choice: One of you has to quit the sector and become an engineer, doctor, lawyer, business owner, marketing exec, software developer, model, or oil tycoon. That’s the only way you can stay together.

Why Organizations Should Discontinue Newsletters

Portfolio-newsletters

Obviously, if you do not have a website at this point in your organization’s history, we should talk about that first. More often, I encounter organizational clients who are not sure how to best utilize the resources they have which especially when it comes to their website and how to increase their visibility on the web. My first presentation is to let them know that they have been focusing on the wrong resources especially as it relates to distributing information to their readers using newsletters.

Rather than lamenting the lack of capital and financial capability, I scaffold and help them construct a translation process to change content into capital. One easy example of content that is not being used to its potential as a translatable commodity is the traditional newsletter. Allow me to use this old-school social media platform as a case in point.

Rather than the traditional print and distribution model, I suggest that your organization switch to a blog powered by a content management system (CMS). CMS is typically described as a way to organize and produce content on the web. Its less-hyped function is as a traffic magnet. Its power in this area depends on the CMS you choose AND the most important and abundant resource you have: Content. Your monthly newsletter is an important source of content. You may be wasting this resource confining it to 20th century methods of dissemination. The switch I propose will result in at least 3 key capabilities that aid the translation of this content into capital: Search, Sharing, and Marketing.

Gain: Search Capability
Archiving is an obvious feature in the digital space. Many organizational newsletter producers save a copy for download in PDF format from their websites. What is lacking in this is the ability of web users to query or stumble upon each individual article through search engines. Foregoing this wastes valuable potential connection points with your target audience.

A blog provides the enhanced ability to search or stumble based on actual content, organizational tags, categories, and concepts. The author of the piece may be a draw, not to mention the author’s own incentive to popularize the article. The references may be a draw. It is a common practice to mingle current events in your articles. People searching to learn more about a particular event will find your blog (or digital newsletter if you prefer).

Gain: Share Capability
Another important feature of a blog is the ability to add social media sharing tools automatically to each article. You can also add plug-ins that make logical and word-based relationships between your articles. This supports the linking and threading of content shared to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

An effective CMS like WordPress can allow your content to be seamlessly and easily viewed on multiple screens and multiple platforms to increase engagement. This means that those who like and share an article or picture share it to viewers who can join the experience on whatever device they choose. The addition of social media links means that any device becomes another distribution point. Your reach becomes exponential, not only because of its digital nature but also because of its convenience.

Gain: Marketing Capability
Consistent posts and new content on your site is a key to Google rankings. 500 words a day could increase your visibility and may make yours an attractive location for advertisers, partners, and your target audience. To accomplish this consistency, a CMS can be pre-loaded with articles that post each day. You already have a newsletter with multiple articles. Post them on a schedule. If you have themed or topic-based sections, set the Political posts to occur on a specific day and the Culture posts to occur on another day in the same pattern each week. Train your readers to expect a certain theme or topic on certain days.

If you are an association, this increases your ability to tell your story, promote events, and disseminate resources. If you are an educational institution, CMS allows you to continue educating, informing, and connecting your students while they study and your alumni after they graduate. If you are an enterprising individual, your “authority” and “klout” as an author may be bolstered solidifying your expertise.

For Readers Who Like Print
The beauty of CMS and plugins that are available is that you are able to present the content in different ways. Readers who are only interested in print can be supported to print an aggregated version themselves. Alternatively, the content creator can use plugins or code a “newsletter” creator that mimics the .pdf download option. In addition, individual articles can both be presented with multimedia bells and whistles AND printable stripped of graphics and menus. Moving to a blog from a traditional newsletter provides the most flexibility for traditional readers, new readers, and those yet to stumble upon your great content.

Are You or Your Nonprofit or Foundation Being an Askhole?

ACE

You may have read my previous article about Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE) ,which is a frustrating phenomenon that each year causes many executive directors (EDs) of grassroot organizations to daydream about abandoning civilization to live with adorable woodland critters, foraging for grubs and berries. (Note to self: Stop writing blog after watching Disney movies with toddler). Today, I want to touch base on a related phenomenon called Askhole Community Engagement (ACE). TDCE and ACE are connected, like two peas in a dysfunctional pod.

So what’s an askhole? Here are some Urban Dictionary definitions. Basically, you know that one friend who keeps coming crying to you about something, asks you for advice, and so you hit pause on Netflix, listen to them attentively, empathize, and give them reasonable suggestions, and then later you find out that they completely ignored you or did the opposite of what you recommended? That’s an askhole. Or someone who keeps asking for advice until they get an answer they agree with. That’s also an askhole.

In the nonprofit field, just like anywhere else, we have a lot of askholes. At the individual level, it could be coworkers or supervisors who ask you for feedback on their performance or quality of work, and then basically disregard everything you say. Or someone who recruits you to join a committee and then scoff at your brilliant suggestions. If you are not going to take my ideas seriously, annual dinner decoration committee, then stop asking me! People would love glowsticks and a fog machine at our annual fundraising dinner!

Askholism is very annoying, but at the community level, it is dangerous. Now that diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competency are as popular as quinoa and coconut water, we have a lot of “Let’s ask the communities of color for their input on stuff!” “Yeah, it’ll make them feel important that we’re listening to them!” If I get invited to give my opinion on one more thing that I know from experience is going to go nowhere, I am going to lose it. And by “lose it,” I mean “drink at work.”

All right, listen, it’s very sweet, but we communities of color are getting tired of being “listened” to:

First, it’s insulting to assume we haven’t already done our own “listening.” A year ago, I was asked to join a committee to figure out an effective information delivery system to be implemented among the Vietnamese community during weather and other emergencies. The organization got a grant and wanted to do some focus groups, surveys, and interviews. Problem was, my previous organization three years ago had already done a lot of that research and came up with this beautiful report. They could have called us up before writing this grant, got that information, and focused the grant instead on actually piloting a communication system, which would be a much better use of funding and would waste fewer people’s time. Save yourself some time: check to see if the communities you want to listen to haven’t already listened to themselves.

People are sick of all listening and no action. “Listening” is not an outcome. It is a required component, the first step, to effectively achieving outcomes. And yet, irritatingly, the session itself is touted as some amazing accomplishment. A shiny report or plan may come out, with lots of pictures of the diversity of the attendees present. Then everyone feels good and goes get some organic ice cream. These reports and plans are then usually placed on a shelf, sad and lonely, until people have forgotten about them, and then they rally to do another listening or planning session, which was the original plot for the movie Groundhog Day.

It raises false hopes and makes people jaded. These sessions are often high energy and very kumbaya. They give people a sense that their voices really do matter, that things will change. When there is no follow-through, it is very annoying and disappointing. I’ve seen passionate community members leave inspired after a summit or community forum, only to become jaded later when they see little follow up. Worse than doing nothing is raising people’s hopes and then doing nothing. And we community organizers who bring people to these events bear the wrath of our communities when these things end up being pointless.

Only ideas that organizers and funders agree with are implemented. If you’re just going to cherry pick the ideas that align with your organization or foundation’s priorities, then stop wasting people’s time. If you just need community support for a particular priority that is unchangeable, just be transparent. Don’t give people false hopes when you have no intentions of changing your agenda.

We’ve been giving the same answers for, like, forever. Communities have been asking for these things for years: General operating support, funds for direct service, catalytic grants and not just tiny amounts, funding for grassroot efforts and not just bigger organizations or collective impact efforts, multi-year funding, full-time staffing, capacity building support, leadership support, closer and more equal partnerships with funders, streamlined grantmaking and reporting processes, etc. No matter what topic you plan to address—the environment, homelessness, mental health, economic disparities, education, or whatever—communities will always need these above things in order to carry out whatever priorities are identified at these listening sessions.

Community Engagement can be powerful when the right people—the communities most affected—are doing it, and it is done right and has support. For example, I learned of a community engagement effort rallying Latino parents around education. Parents of a particular low-income school were asked what their top priorities were, and their answer was school uniforms. This is a public school, so the concept of school uniforms was interesting, but that’s what the parents wanted. The school and the District listened and negotiated. Now, all the kids at that school wore uniforms. It was awesome. To come together, to have your voices heard, to have your suggestions implemented—what something like that does for a community’s morale cannot be overstated. They felt hope and they wanted to work harder and to be more engaged civically.

So, in summary, if you or your org or foundation do listening sessions or community forums or summits or whatever, raise people’s hopes, then don’t follow through, or only follow through on the crap you like, you’re an askhole. Luckily, it’s preventable and treatable. Here are some recommendations:

First, admit to times when you and your team have acted like askholes. The first step to not being an askhole is to admit that we are capable of being an askhole (This should be on a t-shirt somewhere). Don’t feel ashamed. We’ve all done it. I’ve been an askhole on many occasions, both personally and professionally. It’s important for us all to reflect on listening processes in the past and analyze where we screwed up. Did we include the right people? Did we follow through? Vow to not make the same mistakes.

Second, before launching some listening forum, check around to see what work has already been done. You may think it’s brilliant to get diverse people to come together to determine a “policy agenda” or “community priorities” or something, but chances are, they’ve already done that, and the plan is just sitting on some shelf waiting for funding. If a plan exists, fund the implementation of that plan instead of another exhausting input process.

Third, be where people are; attend existing community processes. Communities by their nature usually already have gatherings where they discuss concerns and solutions. And most of the time, it is like pulling teeth to drag funders and leaders of large organizations to attend them. It’s frustrating when you don’t attend when people ask you to come to their things, and then you turn around and expect people to show up when you call. Take time to build those relationships.

Fourth, if you insist on doing a listening process, get your org or foundation mentally ready and committed to trust the community’s feedback and act on it. If you are not willing to change your priorities or strategies based on what you hear, there is no point wasting your time or the community’s time. Be prepared to hear stuff you may not want to hear and do stuff you may not want to do. Within reason, of course.

Fifth, get your org or foundation committed to providing funding to act on the feedback you receive. Don’t raise people’s hope if you have no funding set aside and don’t plan to work on securing funding. Funding is what is required to implement ideas, and if there’s no plan to secure support somehow, or at least the commitment to searching for it, again, don’t waste everyone’s time.

With that, I’m going to go research fog machines. I don’t care what the decoration committee says, I’m the ED and I want a thick layer of fog on the ground at my next annual fundraising dinner. And, I want some woodland critters.

The Problem with Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

The people of color that I’ve been talking to are getting kind of sick of the equity, diversity, and inclusion terms use by nonprofits. We love them, but the dissonance between their usage and actual practice is like getting poked in the eye on a daily basis. Case in point, at a panel I was on recently, a colleague of color told me that someone contacted her, saying, “Can you help us spread the word about this new job position? We want to diversify our pool of candidates.”

My friend said, “I wanted to ask, Are you trying to just diversify your POOL of candidate, or ACTUAL hires?” We both sighed; thankfully, the wine was plentiful that evening.

equityThis has been happening a lot recently, the usage of these feel-good and trendy terms without serious consideration for the challenging and time-consuming changes that we need to undergo to actualize them. Equity requires the embrace of risk and failure. True equity, and diversity and inclusion, cannot exist without them.

Unfortunately, our field is often frustratingly and ineffectively risk-adverse, paralyzed by thoughts of failure. So yeah, we’ll “diversify the pool of candidates” and then, most likely, select the “most qualified” person anyway, who is often White. I know many organizations who tout equity and inclusiveness whose staff and board are mostly White. They are highly qualified and awesome, but it is jarring when most of their clients are people of color.

Or we’ll “work with communities of color” and then, most likely, select mainstream organizations because these ethnic-led organizations “don’t have the capacity” or “didn’t put in a strong enough proposal.”

The voices of communities of color have been struggling to be heard on almost every single issue. And to everyone’s credit, I don’t feel like people are actually being exclusive. This recent trend of diversity, equity, and inclusion is a testament to the fact that we all recognize both the importance and the lack of engagement of these communities. However, recognition of the problem and talking about it are necessary but not sufficient elements to solving the problems of inequity. We have to be willing to try different stuff, fund differently, and accept a few failures.

Unboxing equity

By now, most of us have seen this graphic above, which displays very clearly the difference between equality and equity. But after we think, “Aw, that’s so cute; all these kids can now watch the game; equity is so magical,” how does it actually translate within our field? Let’s unpack this.

First, I’m not always a big fan of this image, because to the less wise, the short kid is obviously deficient and needs some serious help. The short kid represents entire marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ community, communities of color, poor communities, etc. But this kid can also symbolize individuals such as professionals of color, as well as nonprofits such as ethnic-led organizations. These communities and individuals have plenty of strength and assets and is not always just the baby in the group.

But anyway, let’s continue with the metaphor. Since my experience is with communities, people, and nonprofits of color, I’m going to hone in on that for this post today.

Regardless of who this little kid represents, the point is that we are always struggling to see over the fence. We’ll be lucky to get a two-by-four to stand on, much less a whole box, much less TWO boxes. In the case of ethnic-led nonprofits, the argument against giving a whole box to them has always been, “You’re cute, but you guys just don’t have the capacity. If we give you a whole box to stand on, you’ll probably just fall off of it. We can’t give you a large grant. Here’s a small one. Sure, all these problems we’re tackling disproportionately affect your communities, and you have the best connection to them. But come back when you are more organized.”

At a recent conference I attended, funders were congratulating themselves on capacity building around collective impact work. As much as I like collective impact in theory, the reality is that it has more often than not been screwing over communities of color, who cannot access funds to be significantly involved and thus are unintentionally tokenized. (See “Collective Impact: Resistance is futile,” where I compare ineffective CI efforts to the Borg from Star Trek).

“Collective impact has been leaving behind many communities of color,” I said from the audience, “how are you addressing building capacity for organizations that are led by these communities so that they can be involved?”

A funder took the microphone to respond. “I wish my organization was one of those with the flexibility to give $5K or 10K grants,” he said, “but we don’t do that. We give larger grants.” And of course, these ethnic-led nonprofits would never be able to compete for one of these larger grants. They are stuck in the capacity quagmire like college grads who can’t get hired because they have no experience.

The importance of risk and failure

Look, I’m not advocating for people hire staff willy-nilly, or for funders to be throwing money around at random. But the status quo is not working, and holding hands chanting “equity, diversity, and inclusion” without actually doing stuff differently is dangerous because it makes us feel like we’re making progress when we’re not.

Here’s the reality: If we hire less experienced people from communities of color, yes, they will likely require more support, and they may fail more often. If we fund small ethnic-led nonprofits, yes, they will likely require more support and may fail more often. That kid has not had much experience standing on two boxes. His balance is being tested. He may fall down a couple of times.

But here’s another side to that reality: Those staff from communities of color are critical when working with communities of color, and our field does a lot of work with communities of color, to put it mildly. You can hire a less experienced staff of color and train them on technical skills. But you cannot teach someone to be a person of color. Believe me, I tried it; it was uncomfortable for everyone. So if your org works with clients of color, take some risks in your hiring. Don’t just “diversify the pool.”

Ethnic-led nonprofits organizations are the most effective in connecting to their communities, and they do it on shoe-string budgets. Since they have the strongest relationships, they are constantly asked to help with outreach, to sit on advisory teams, and to do other stuff for free. Then when they try to get more significant support, the response has historically been, “You don’t have the capacity” followed by “but why don’t you join the Cultural Competency workgroup of our awesome collective impact effort!”

Let me know your thoughts, and also check out my previous article on building capacity for communities of color.

What Social Workers Can Learn From Mahatma Gandhi

Social workers can learn from Mahatma Gandhi on how to step into the light. How to raise your voice and still be modest and a servant to humanity. This is what all social workers want. Right?

Although Mahatma Gandhi was very modest man and a great leader, he was also someone who wanted to be seen and heard. His mission for peace empowered get over his fears, stand up, and step into the light in order to deliver his message of service to the people.

social workersThe fact that social workers know their place in the shadow of their clients comes from a good and serving heart. I understand that because I have been there too, but how would it be if we stand with our clients and share the light?

When I was walking with my puppy Sas the other day, I was surprised by a blackbird singing his best song ever. I looked around to see him and there he was at the top of the roof of the highest building. To be visible and heard, the blackbird found himself a beautiful spot to sing his lovely song. The blackbird was on a mission is not modest at all!

A friend of mine named Charlotte told me how she once spoke to the local council: “we, social workers, stand in the shadow of our clients”. I reacted with a quip and said, “It can be cold and dark in the shadow. Standing together with your client in the light seems more attractive.”.

However, Charlotte was very serious. She explained: “Social Workers don’t position themselves in the spotlights. We are here to help others to solve their problems. Being in the shadow, we are not always visible but at least we know our place and many can learn from that. If it is cold in the shadow, just put on a warm coat. As long as we keep telling others why we stand there!”

Now, I don’t agree with Charlotte. If your voice is coming out of the shadow and no one sees you, will you be heard? I don’t think so. In my opinion, this is exactly the reason why the modesty of social workers can be fatal.

When you are in the shadow no one will hear you, so step into your light. You don’t have to search like the blackbird for a spot on the highest roof! Just do it in your own modest way. Let your mission guide you, and if you need help, just let me know!

Capacity Building for Communities of Color: The Paradigm Shift and Why I Left My Job

When I first got out of grad school with my Master in Social Work, I was a bright-eyed kid full of hopes and dreams of doing my part to make the world better. Completely broke and desperate to find work before the student loans people released their hounds, I applied to countless jobs and found that no one would hire me because I had no experience, a vicious “Experience Paradox” that many young grads go through each year.

Frustrated and dejected, I secluded myself in my room (in my parents’ house), sending out my resume all day, coming out at night to raise my clenched fist to the dark skies and screaming “I may be inexperienced, but I am still a human being! A human being!!!” Then I would eat some ramen and watch Spanish soap operas on Univision.

building-capacityWhat is the point of that story? The point is that communities of color, and the organizations led by these communities, often feel like these recent grads. We are stuck in this debilitating and demoralizing “Capacity Paradox” where funders do not invest sufficient funds in our organizations to build capacity because we don’t have enough capacity. Yet, we are constantly asked to do stuff, to sit at various tables, to help with outreach, to rally our community members to attend various summits and support various policies.

Everyone seems to be in agreement that major efforts to effect systemic change are missing the voices of communities of color and would benefit from having those voices. Everyone also seems to be in agreement that communities of color that have strong organizations behind them are much more involved and effective at all levels of service and policies. Building the capacity of these organizations, then, is critical to all systems-change efforts: Housing, homelessness, climate change, education, neighborhood safety, etc.

What many of us fail to recognize is that the current efforts to increase the capacity of nonprofits led by immigrant, refugee, or other communities of color, which I call “nonprofits of color,” are not sufficient. Funders who provide significant, multi-year, general operating funds—the holy grail of funding and the thing that will help any organization develop its capacity the fastest—operate under systems that leave most nonprofits of color behind. These significant capacity building grants are almost impossible for nonprofits of color to attain. We usually don’t have the same relationships. Or grantwriting skills. Or board members who can strongly articulate the vision. Because we don’t have capacity, we can’t get support to develop capacity.

With significant, catalytic funding out of the question, funders provide small grants to nonprofits of color so they can do things like hire a consultant to facilitate a strategic planning retreat, or to send them to workshops on board development, fundraising, personnel policies, or myriad other capacity building topics. These grants can be very helpful to keep an organization going. But in the long run it doesn’t work because there is a critical missing element. Staffing.

You can send an organization to a thousand workshops and do a thousand strategic planning processes, but if they do not have staff to implement their learnings, they are not going to build significant capacity. We have many, many nonprofits that are doing good and much-needed work, that are constantly asked to do more work for free, without receiving any of the trust and support to hire qualified staff to sustain and grow their operations.

The paradigm has to shift. I don’t say this lightly, because there are few things I hate more than jargons like “shifting the paradigm.” But the reality is that what we are doing is not working, and we have to change our mindset completely and do things differently. If we value the voice of our diverse communities, we must build the capacity of organizations led by those communities. But we must do it differently than how we’ve been doing it. We must invest strategically and sufficiently. We must take some risks. It to society’s benefit to help these nonprofits break out of the Capacity Paradox.

For the past couple of years I have been working with a group of brilliant and passionate people on a project called the Rainier Valley Corps (RVC), a model designed to increase the capacity of immigrant/refugee-led nonprofits by providing this critical missing element of staffing. The project recruits emerging leaders of color from within immigrant/refugee communities, trains them in a cohort on capacity building and nonprofit management, and sends them to work full-time at nonprofits of color to help those nonprofits develop their infrastructure and effectiveness.

Now, we can send these nonprofits to workshops and do strategic plans, because now there is staffing to implement stuff. These emerging leaders get a stipend, healthcare, and a bonus to support paying back student loans or furthering their education. They will get mentorship and support and encouragement to stay in the nonprofit field and rise up to become leaders within their communities.

RVC addresses several needs, among them the vital staffing that is required for capacity building to be successful. But it also addresses a scary challenge that many of us are not even talking about: The gap in leadership among the immigrant/refugee communities will widen further because kids are not entering the nonprofit field. Most immigrant/refugee kids are pressured by their families to go into jobs with higher pay and prestige.

Many nonprofits of color are currently led by elders, who will in 10 or 15 years retire, and if we don’t start to develop the pipeline for new generations of leaders of color soon, we may not have many in the future. This will jeopardize all sorts of systemic-change efforts.

So, Rainier Valley Corps will increase capacity of nonprofits of color, improve services to immigrant/refugee communities, build up new generations of leaders of color in the nonprofit field, and foster collaboration between diverse ethnic groups to address inequities. If we do a good job, lessons can be learned that can be applied to diverse communities all over the US.

The project itself is ambitious with nearly $700,000 per year for seven years to support cohorts of 10 to 18 emerging leaders/organizations each year, but if we genuinely want to build the capacity of nonprofits of color, then we must be willing to invest sufficient funds to make it work.

This year, RVC received some start-up funding, enough to hire a full-time Project Director who will focus on raising the $700K/year, develop the infrastructure and curriculum, and strengthen relationships among the various nonprofits, funders, and capacity-building organizations. I firmly believe this model holds promise to greatly increase our immigrant/refugee communities’ effectiveness and voice which is why I left my job as executive director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) to become RVC’s project director.

It was bittersweet leaving an organization that I love and one that has given me so much in terms of skills and connections as well as relieved some existential angst about the meaning of life. But, VFA is doing great, with an incredible board, amazing staff, and dedicated supporters. I have nothing but gratitude and pride for VFA and all we achieved over the last nine years. I still remember when we had an operating budget less than $20,000, no staff, and one program. I remember staying at the office until midnight to get work done, and then come to my car to find it had been broken into. VFA have grown a lot. We strengthened our capacity. We now have several staff, many great programs serving thousands each year, and we’re being more and more involved in cool stuff like working with other ethnic groups to push for education equity.

VFA is why I so strongly believe that Rainier Valley Corps holds the key to capacity building for immigrant/refugee communities. Ten years ago, when I could not find a job because I had all this passion and no experience, I was accepted into a unique program. It recruited us emerging leaders, trained us in a cohort on capacity building and nonprofit management.

Then, it sent us to work full-time in small Vietnamese-led nonprofits across the US to help those nonprofits develop their infrastructure and effectiveness, and I was sent to VFA. I know this RVC model and how effective it can be because I personally went through it and have seen the results. The program drew us inexperienced-but-passionate grads into the field, and many of us stayed and continue to contribute. Several of us became leaders of our organizations and within our communities, which is great.

Without this program that kept me in the nonprofit field and inspired Rainier Valley Corps, I probably would have ended up on another career path: Writing for Spanish soap operas.

Are You or Your Org Guilty of Trickle-Down Community Engagement

A while ago, I was talking to a friend, another Executive Director, and he said, “Have you noticed that everyone is getting paid to engage us communities of color except us communities of color?” Sigh. Yes, I have noticed. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and have come up with a term to describe it. Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE). This is when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.

In Seattle, if you’re a person of color and you walk down a dark alley late at night and you feel like you’re being followed, it’s probably someone trying to do some community engagement.

“Psst…hey buddy—Go Hawks!—you want to attend a summit? It’s about economic inequity. We need your voice.” “Daddy, I’m scared!” “Stay calm, Timmy; don’t look him in the eye.” “Come on, help a guy out! Here, you each get some compostable sticky dots to vote on our top three priorities! You can vote on different priorities, or, if you like, you put more than one dot on—” “Run, Timmy!”

This is why you should never take your kid down a dark alley in Seattle.

Needs Assessment, Ownership and Community Engagement

There are several reasons why TDCE happens. First, the nonprofit sector has all sorts of unwritten rules designed to be successfully navigated only by mainstream organizations (See “The game of nonprofit, and how it leaves some communities behind.”) Second, 90% of funding in the nonprofit world is relationship-based, which screws over marginalized communities, who have much fewer relationships with funders and decision-makers. Third, due to existing definitions, many organizations led by marginalized groups “don’t have the capacity.” They’re “small and disorganized,” they are “not ready to be leaders in these efforts.” Fourth, community engagement has been seen as the icing on the cake, and not an essential ingredient, so it is always last to be considered. Fifth, many funders and decision-makers focus on sexy short-term gains, not effective long-term investments.

Look, I’m not saying anyone is intentionally trying to discriminate against certain communities. Everyone is well-intentioned. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competency have risen to the front of people’s minds. Organizations are scrambling to talk about these issues, to diversify their board, to get community input. That is all great and all, but it has only been leading to marginalized communities being irritated and frustrated. Every single week, we leaders of color get asked to provide input, to join an advisory committee, attend a summit, to fill out a survey. Because of this well-intentioned mandate to engage with communities, we get bombarded with requests to do stuff for free.

Trickle-Down Community Engagement is pretty dangerous, for several reasons. When people who are most affected by issues are not funded and trusted to lead the efforts to address them:

It perpetuates the Capacity Paradox. The Capacity Paradox is when an organization cannot get significant funding because it has limited capacity, so it cannot develop its capacity, which leads it to not being able to get significant funding, which means it can’t develop its capacity. This greatly affects organizations led by communities of color and other marginalized communities. And then they can’t be as involved, which leads to ineffective efforts to tackle issues. (See “Capacity building for communities of color: The paradigm must shift.”)

It’s annoying as hell. In every single issue, I keep seeing larger, well-connected organizations getting significant funding but are not effective at engagement. So they pester us smaller ethnic-led orgs to help. I was asked by a collective impact backbone org to be involved with planning a summit to engage communities of color. I advised them not to do it, and told them that I’ve been to far too many summits that suck (See: “Community Engagement 101: Why most summits suck.”) Next thing I knew, they organized the summit anyway, asked my organization to help with outreach, and asked me personally to translate their outreach material into Vietnamese! All for free, of course! (“Run, Timmy!!”)

It’s intrinsically wrong. We, above any other field, must act on the belief that people most affected by inequities must be leaders in the movement. It is the right thing to do. Imagine a group of men leading an effort and making important decisions on women’s issues like reproductive health, and then asking women to come give feedback at a meeting. Or a bunch of idiots who don’t know anything about science leading a committee on climate change and asking scientists to come testify about global warming. These scenarios are ridiculous, which is why they happen in Congress.

Most importantly, it doesn’t work and is even counterproductive. If TDCE actually works, then we’d have little to argue about. But it does not. Well-intentioned but useless and sometimes even harmful stuff get voted on and implemented. For example, at a meeting I was invited to someone said, “We need to put 100% of funding into early learning instead of splitting it among early learning and youth development” and I had to remind them that “Many immigrant and refugee kids get here when they’re older than 5, so they’d be screwed if you only invest in early learning. We need to support the entire continuum of kids’ development.” (See “Youth Development, why it is just as important as early learning“) Unfortunately, by the time a mainstream organization finally gets to that community feedback forum or summit to get feedback on their well-intentioned but crappy plan or policy, it is too late.

Trickle-Down Community Engagement sucks and is insulting. The sector needs to stop only supporting major organizations and hope that magically the people disproportionately affected whom we don’t fund will join in. Or at the very least, we should stop whining about it when they don’t. We organizations led by marginalized communities are tired and irritated at excuses like “We can’t invest in you guys because you’re too small,” coupled with the constant requests for us to be involved. Don’t just give three drops of water to your rainbow carrots, wonder why they aren’t growing, and then whine about the lack of color in your salad.

As I said, everyone is well-intentioned. But Trickle-Down Community Engagement is harmful, and we need to all be aware of it and put a stop to it:

Funders: Review your investments for every priority. Are the issues you are trying to address disproportionately affecting some groups? Are those groups getting equitably funded and supported or are you just giving them token funding? Are they leading the effort or just playing bit parts on the side? If you are funding mainstream organizations to address challenges affecting marginalized communities, look at their budget request to see how much of it is to be shared with partner organizations that are led by affected communities. Stop being fooled by well-intentioned mainstream efforts that claim to represent marginalized communities but that are only tokenizing and using them. I’ve seen a well-funded coalition list over 80 diverse organizations as member, but on closer examination, several of these groups aren’t aware that they are members, or they no longer even exist!

Donors: See above paragraph. In addition, know that organizations led by marginalized communities tend to be smaller, so they need your support more. Unfortunately, they don’t have the same relationship with you or the same marketing and development capacity as bigger and better known organizations. Seek them out. Your support matters.

Mainstream organizations: Sorry, it seems like I’ve been beating up on you a lot. That’s not my intentions. You guys do awesome stuff and play critical roles. But review your projects and budgets, and examine your role and the dynamics you are contributing to. Are you building in funding to share with community partners, or are you just asking people to do stuff for free in the name of “community engagement”? Are you siphoning funding to address issues that other nonprofits should be tackling but they don’t yet have the capacity? Are you mentoring smaller nonprofits through strategic partnerships? Are you serving as an advocate for these groups, since you have better relationships with funders?

Organizations led by marginalized communities: Learn when to say yes and when to say no. I’ve seen too many small nonprofits agree to do outreach, to be partners, to even run programs for tiny amounts of funding. I’ve done it myself. My last organization, when it was much smaller, partnered with a bigger org who could not reach students of color. They asked us to organize a 2-hour workshop for over 100 diverse kids each month for a year. You know how much we got to do that? $2500 total, and we had to itemize and have receipts for every pencil we bought! The big organization who “partnered” with us got all the credit, of course. All of us can be so naïve, signing on to coalitions without researching first, lending our names to summits without due diligence, doing outreach and translation for free. It just perpetuates a terrible and ineffective system that continues to leave our communities behind. Learn to say no, to give feedback firmly, and to build strategic relationships.

Equity, diversity, inclusion, community engagement, etc. those are all good, but they can also be irritating, misleading, and even harmful if not done right. Trickle-Down Community Engagement is an example of good-intention poorly executed. If we want marginalized communities to be engaged, we need to fund and support them directly to be engaged. Community Engagement cannot be the icing on the chocolate cake of equity and social justice. It is the chocolate!

What Else Can I Do With My MSW?

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They say unemployment is on the decline, but I can tell you as a recent graduate with a Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) from a top rated school that it isn’t low enough! Many from my cohort are still unemployed, and many who expected to be employees by their second year practicum were disappointed!

The University of Southern California, my Alma Mater, spent a great deal of time asserting that your MSW was more than just a degree for therapy and could be used as training for multiple work force sectors. By receiving your MSW, you learned skills needed to go into consulting, human resources, and any number of nonprofit sectors. In addition, combing these skills with other talents will create a variety of new and interesting opportunities

Though I remain unemployed, I am still using my MSW, and the skills I have gained are being used in way I would never of expected. Here are a few ways I am using my MSW that might surprise you and more importantly might give you ideas on new ways to use yours!

Documentary Interviewer:

Every single MSW had to take classes on how to interview clients and most have done many interviews themselves. These skills lend themselves directly to interviewing people for documentaries. You can interview patients at a hospice, creating personal histories of these peoples lives so that their families have something to remember them by!

Consulting:

What is a needs assessment? A systematic process for determining and addressing needs, or “gaps” between current conditions and desired conditions or “wants”.  Doesn’t that sound like a skill that might be useful in the work place. Working as a consultant allows you to put those strong assessment skills into practice in combination with your other skills to better understand what your client needs rather than what they might want.

Not only will you have the necessary skills and abilities, but you will already have experience working directly with difficult populations. A hyped up lawyer in a suit is nothing compared to staring down someone who is suffering a psychotic episode, and sometimes you still have to deal with a hyped up law in a suit when you go to court. Most people have little idea that a MSW has a backbone made of steel!

Data analyst:

Though it may require that you have some experience with statistics, a MSW’s eye for detail is important. In addition, social workers have a strong knack for understand both Qualitative and Quantitative statistic after reading over the tides of research papers during your program.

Many of you who have “Macro”  specific MSW degrees concentrated your course work with data collection and program evaluation which are both skills data analysts use on a regular basis.

One challenge that social workers face is convincing others that their degree is for more than just a clinical position, I know because I face that challenge in showing others my skills translate. Unfortunately, to do this, we have to pick up other skills and certifications along the way.

If you are using your MSW in interesting ways, let us at Social Worker Helper know in the comments below.

Voluntourism – How to Find an Ethical Project?

“Voluntourism” is a portmanteau of “volunteer” and “tourism”, describing tourists that combine a trip abroad with volunteer work. The idea is often met with scepticism and has caused a lot of controversy. One reason for this is that researchers have found that some of the companies involved with voluntourism are misrepresenting their products, i.e. trying to make a profit out of volunteers that come to help. But with hundreds of opportunities offered by agencies, charities and grassroot projects, how does a potential volunteer know which organisations are ethically a good choice and which ones are unhelpful to the very communities they claim to help?

During my bachelor’s education, I considered volunteering abroad. However, I was overwhelmed and shocked by how difficult it seemed to find information on projects. Much of the international volunteer industry seemed ethically ambiguous to say the least. Most projects I found charged thousands of dollars which in the end discouraged me from joining any program at all. Nevertheless, there are many ethical options out there for everyone interested in volunteering, however finding them is tougher than it should be. It is the very nature of this dilemma that motivated me to join Team Social Work, a social enterprise dedicated to making the voluntourism market more transparent

Step One: Be realistic

Make sure you have realistic expectations about what to expect to experience on your trip and what you can accomplish

  • You came to help, keep that in mind throughout your stay. This does not just mean that first you have to think about the beneficiaries of your stay first and put the community needs ahead of yours, but also remember that your efforts are ultimately for the community you’re serving, despite the pivotal role you can play. Your ultimate goal should be to to assist them with their vision, whichEducationh ever part you may play in it.
  • Remember that change takes time. If you’re only going to be there for a short period, then the chances are that you won’t be there long enough to witness the impact your efforts will have on the community that you have elected to h
    elp. Nevertheless, consider the bigger picture to appreciate that your contribution has made a significant contribution and indeed a difference.
  • Last but not least – don’t underestimate the importance of a smile or other acts of kindness. They can have a bigger impact than you might realise.

Step Two: Choose a Good-Fit Type of Volunteering

A lot of volunteers have only a few weeks of their time to donate to a project and are worried that they can’t make a difference in such a short period. So how can you make short-term voluntourism worthwhile?

Short-term voluntourism isn’t necessarily bad. It really depends on the project that you want to volunteer for. As a general rule of thumb, you should always ask yourself whether or not your position at the project is effected by a personal relationship. E.g. within a conservation project, your duration of stay will have limited impact on the animals or biodiversity; often these projects need an extra hand, so it won’t make so much difference if you are only there for a short period. If you want to volunteer with a project that involves community development or working with children, carefully evaluate whether your short term stay will be useful to them or if you will do more harm than good. You might help to build a school in a few weeks, but you won’t become a counsellor for traumatised children. In any case, be sure that you are matched according to your skills.

Step Three: Ask the Right Questions

To ensure that you are joining an ethically sound volunteering project, the organisation should be able to provide you with answers to your questions. But what are the right questions to ask?

Before getting in touch with someone at the organisation, think about the following:

  • Many projects will provide you with a great vision of what they are trying to achieve, but only genuine projects will be able to provide you with details of how to get there. Ask whether or not there has been a needs assessment establishing exactly what help is required. Only projects that plan ahead will be able to make a lasting difference, so be sure to enquire about specific goals and why these are of importance in advance.
  • Take careful consideration over how the communities and projects are talked about by their relevant organisations. If they are degrading the locals they claim to be helping and belting their situation, then this should be sending you warning signs – taking advantage of their poverty to market the volunteering project in question is not respectful in the slightest.
  • Furthermore, every project should break down where the money you pay will go, and how the money from past volunteers has made a difference to the community they are working in. If they don’t, I recommend reconsidering your choice.

Get in touch with someone who has volunteered there beforehand: 

  • We live in the age of social media, so make sure you use it to your advantage. Sincere organisations should provide links to their social media sites. Use them to get in touch with former volunteers of the projects and ask them for their personal experience.
  • Make sure to ask what the exact nature of their volunteer work was, and what level of volunteer support they experienced. If the program description doesn’t match what former volunteers describe, you should be cautious and ask the project why this was the case.

Have you been on a volunteer holiday? Share your views and experiences in the comments below.

5 Ways to Help You Segment Your Communications

Why Segmentation is Important

The whole idea of market segmentation is to attract the right customer (or donor) using the right methods. When you send out that annual appeal, you’re targeting a large number of individuals who have different reasons for supporting you. You can’t use the same message and same images for all of them. They want to see a buy-in that fits their expectations and reasons for supporting you.

Case Example: No Kid Hungry

NoKidHungry
No Kid Hungry uses statistics to identify the problems.

For example, it might be helpful to target new donors using the statistics on the number of people you’re serving, and how that looks in their community. This first No Kid Hungry ad campaign is targeting people who need to be aware of the problem in their community, so that they have a reason to support it. Using statistics and ‘sad children’ pictures works well for this initial buy-in grab.

When targeting existing donors, however, you have a bigger challenge. They’ve heard your pleas. They know that children are hungry. They know that $1 will buy 10 meals at the local food bank. Why should they keep donating to an organization that isn’t solving the problem? That’s where segmentation comes in.

This second photo is one of many visual and text-based stories that show how donated funds were directly used to improve the lives of children and communities across the US. It’s important that they focus on a broad range of topics, and use a broad range of mediums to disseminate this information. It’s attractive to a wider audience.

No Kid Hungry Impact
This photos shows a direct impact that No Kid Hungry has had on a community.

No Kid Hungry’s entire website is built so that it tells the right story for the right supporter. It’s separated into 5 categories- The Problem, The Solution, Our Impact, Take Action, Give. I use this organization as an example because their marketing campaign is effective and easily recognizable. They even have a privacy disclaimer on their site that tells you how they track your personal information when browsing the site- talk about keeping up with the times!

There are plenty of other organizations who do a great job at this, as well. Even small organizations can use these methods to increase visibility and have a stronger call to action.

5 Ways to Make it Easier

There is a lot of software that will make your segmentation process simpler. Here are a few that are commonly used in the nonprofit world (in no particular order):

MailChimp

MailChimp allows you to segment your campaign lists so that you can easily send the right communications to the right people. You can even do this with the free version.

SPSS

SPSS is a common evaluation software that lets you put your data collection to work for you. It even helps you segment that data to look for common threads and characteristics. While not directly a communication’s based tool- the information should be used to inform your marketing.

Salesforce

Salesforce lets you run all kinds of reports on your donor, consumer, volunteer, or whatever person-type you track. You can use this information to create segmented lists to target the right people. You can run a report with the correct parameters, export those addresses/phone numbers/emails into your mailer of choice-and bam. You’ve got a campaign. Here is one method of doing this (Warning: non-Salesforce site)

Raiser’s Edge

Raiser’s Edge is well known for its use in donor management in the nonprofit world. It can also include targeted marketing analysis to help you identify donors who might give more with the right kind of messaging. Bonuses include integrated direct mail, email, and social media resources.

GiftWorks

Giftworks is another popular donor management platform that includes targeted analysis, segmentation, data importing from other platforms, and communications tools. It can be a little pricey, starting at $90 a month.

Next Steps

You’re probably wondering what is this segmentation thing and how do I even start using it? That’s a whole other topic that has been talked about by people much smarter than myself. Here is some good reading material:

The Accidental Fundraiser – Roth & Ho

The Nonprofit Marketing Guide: High-Impact, Low-Cost Ways to Build Support for Your Good Cause – Kivi Leroux Miller

Crowdsourcing for Nonprofits: What You Need to Know

Crowdsourcing can be defined as enlisting the services of a number of individuals for a particular cause usually via the internet. It is also very reflective of common community organizing techniques where you trust the established network or community has all the experts it needs to accomplish a goal. Additionally, crowdsourcing, as with community organizing, allows a community to come together for the purpose of working towards a common goal using their own skills and their own ideas. Most importantly, it can be a method of empowerment, albeit a digital enfranchisement.

You’ve probably heard of ‘Crowd funding’, a fundraising side to crowdsourcing. Websites such as Kickstarter, Crowdtilt, IndieGoGo, and others exist to pool funds from many people to create something- a new product, a realized idea, t-shirts for a community center, or whatever else. There are even nonprofits that exist solely on this crowdfunding model: Benevolent,  Watsi, and others.

How Does this Apply to Nonprofits?

Nonprofits use crowdsourcing in many ways to accomplish the same goals in the digital world that they would have otherwise used in more traditional methods. The upside of crowdsourcing is that it’s free and requires much less time and effort to track down the experts or resources you need. The only requirement is that you must have access to an online community infrastructure ready to call upon. In this digital age, many (should be all) nonprofits have some sort of online presence. Websites such as VolunteerMatch or Idealist also help with gathering people who have very particular skills and knowledge.

How Can You Start Using Crowdsourcing?

The simplest way to get what you need is to ask for it. The fundraisers in the audience will know exactly what I’m talking about. If you want people to donate $500, you don’t have a default option on your mailing cards to donate $5. You start at $500 and work your way up. You have to ask people for exactly what you want if you want to get it.

In order to ask for what you need, you must have a way to communicate with people. Email campaigns or social media are the correct venues to do this. But, in order for those to work, you have to know who your supporters are and why they support you. This will require data gathering and analysis. In addition to spending face-to-face time with your supporters, you will also need to study their online habits. When are they most likely to donate? Is it after a press release, or during the holidays? How should you word your emails in order to get the best response? You need to connect increases in exposure to tangible events that you can test by repeating. Mention is one great way to practice some online- listening for free.

This online listening infrastructure will be the most difficult task for you to complete. Not because setting it up is hard, or because understanding what you’re looking for is difficult. It’s easy to see a sharp spike in website page views and know that something good happened. The hardest part of this is the discipline that it will require in order to be effective.

You cannot just set this stuff up and leave it alone. You have to spend a few hours a month making sure that what your supporters found interesting before is still interesting. Or, if a new social media platform comes out, you’ll have to adapt. You’ll have to pay attention to the news and respond if relevant media coverage might affect you or your services. These things are not difficult to do, or overly time-consuming. It’s much easier to check your Google Analytics page once a week than it is to keep pumping out press releases and social media posts that have zero views and get you nowhere.

In a nutshell, the steps to beginning crowdsourcing are:

  1. Establish an online presence.
  2. Establish data collection and analysis tools.
  3. Get people to look at your stuff and sympathize. (Get more people using step 2.)
  4. Ask them for something.

Examples of Successful Nonprofit Crowdsourcing:

Any volunteers can be found through VolunteerMatch, Idealist, or any other online platform.

A community center needs its roof repaired. It asks its newsletter subscribers.

A New York radio host wants to know the cost of food in different neighborhoods across New York City. It asks its listeners to comment with the prices and where they live.

A Charter School attempts to raise enough funds to open.

The American Red Cross uses digital volunteers and social media to talk to and track disaster victims. Learn more from Amanda Palmer’s Ted Talk – The Art of Asking.

5 Charities That Help Fight Global Climate Change

The fight to prevent climate change is a big part of the consciousness in modern society. The recent extreme cold weather conditions are causing more people to be concerned about the effects of global climate changes. As we all try to implement changes to make our society greener in smaller ways, there are few organisations doing real work towards improving the environment. Despite these worthwhile efforts, much of the fight against global climate change falls heavily on the charity and nonprofit sector. Getting involved in charity work is a great way to help fight against climate change and make a real difference to your children’s future. It can also help to improve your chances of finding environmental work in the commercial sector, and here are five charities to consider supporting.

Greenpeace

Greenpeace.org
Greenpeace.org

It’s just about impossible to talk about charity work in the climate change sector without talking about Greenpeace. Greenpeace is a huge international charity which works around the world to help protect and conserve the environment. If there is an environmental cause, Greenpeace are likely to be involved in finding a solution. The charity works to protect the worlds oceans and ancient forests, campaigns against toxic waste and works to promote green energy and sustainable agriculture.

Renewable Energy Foundation

It is hoped that renewable energy will be able to meet our energy needs and reduce the harm done to the environment by the use of fossil fuels. The Renewable Energy Foundation is a charitable organisation which works to promote green power as well as energy efficiency. It is privately funded, with no affiliations to any major commercial organisations. The charity works to provide accurate reports on environmental data as well as consultancy services on renewable energy.

The Global Cool Foundation

The Global Cool Foundation is another charity which works towards a greener and more sustainable future. The charity runs an online magazine which works with celebrities to promote green issues and green trends. The foundation also works with large organisations such as Vodafone and Eurostar to help promote a sustainable lifestyle around the world.

The Woodland Trust

Whilst some charities operate on a global scale, some focus on a particular region and issue. This can help them to have a bigger impact on a smaller scale. The Woodlands Trust is a UK based organisation which works to help preserve, restore and grow the ancient forests and woodland across the UK.

The Canal & River Trust

The Canal and River Trust is another UK based charity, but this is focused on preserving and protecting rivers and canals across the UK and the wildlife they support. The organisation takes on the responsibility of looking after 2,000 miles of waterways, maintaining bridges, aqueducts, reservoirs and more. There are a huge range of opportunities for volunteers all across the UK to get involved in the work they do.

Careers in Charity Work

Charity work is a great way to get involved in protecting our environment and fighting against climate change. It can be a hugely rewarding career and requires a wide variety of skills and talents. If you are interested in finding work in the environment and climate change sector, working with a charity is a great place to start.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCAfHHntQ34[/youtube]

Reach Out Worldwide: ROWW Fulfilling the Unmet Needs of Disaster Victims

Reach Out Worldwide (ROWW)
Reach Out Worldwide (ROWW)

What started out as a group of friends traveling to exotic locales and their desire to help people struck by tragedy, Reach Out Worldwide (ROWW) was born. Founder, Paul Walker, created the organization in 2010 with the mission of providing relief to victims of natural disasters.

Two weeks after a fatal car accident, Paul Walker was laid to rest on December 15th, 2013 at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in a private ceremony with friends and family. Although Paul is no longer with us, his legacy will live on through ROWW as they continue to fulfill the unmet needs of disaster victims.

Reach Out Worldwide (ROWW) states on its website,

Natural Disasters don’t give us much warning. Our mission is simple, use our network of professionals with first responder skill-sets to fulfill the unmet need in times of chaos, tragedy, and destruction. Paving the way for long term disaster relief, leaving it better than when we got there. ~ ROWW

As a self-professed adrenaline junkie, Paul Walker was not as public about his charitable and philanthropic work with ROWW. Many people may be unaware that Paul was in the process of getting his First Responder Certification in order to be more field ready with the medical professionals on his disaster relief teams.

In a touching video recently released by ROWW, a tearful Paul Walker can be seen talking about meeting fathers holding their children asking for help to survive. As he recounts these experiences, you can see the deeply felt compassion and empathy for the hurting families they served.

If you are interested in helping  Reaching Out Worldwide continue their work, there are two ways that you can help support them. You can donate directly at www.roww.org/donate, and/or you can purchase a copy of the Fast and the Furious 6 where a portion of the proceeds will be donated to ROWW.

[youtube]http://youtu.be/FxU4kDmRzIw[/youtube]

Paul was only a couple of months older than me, and I know that feeling of not being afraid of anything. Remembering when the first Fast and the Furious came out, I was living the fast and the furious lifestyle with a 92 Honda Prelude Si. After too many brushes with death, I got scared that I was running out of chances, and the reality of my mortality set in. The Fast and the Furious franchise will never be the same, and you will truly be missed. View this fitting tribute to the life and legacy of Paul Walker.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8UCI7r1Aqw[/youtube]

Using GIS Mapping to Tell a Better Story

Social Workers and other nonprofit professionals are regularly called upon to improve transparency and prove that their work is having some effect on the communities that they serve. It is also important that nonprofit professionals understand the needs and influences of those communities. Gathering this data can be tedious ,and analyzing it can be even more of a challenge. Once you overcome those hurdles, it creates a pathway to reporting the information in a way that tells an effective story, and GIS mapping is one of the tools that can assist you with this process.

What is GIS Mapping?

Example of a GIS Map
Example of a GIS Map

GIS Mapping is a tool that many other disciplines use for a wide variety of purposes. Programmers use the software to develop maps for games or simulations. Ecologists use it to study plant and wildlife populations and migrations. Human service providers can use GIS maps to learn about the communities that they work with.

GIS Maps can show a great deal of data in a way that is easily recognizable and understood. You can track the number of people who live in a set radius that use your services. You can track demographics- age, race, gender, income, etc. You can even track other service providers in the area to identify assets and gaps. The picture posted with this article shows access to green spaces for minorities in LA. If it’s geographically based- you can track it and tell about it.

Where does the information come from?

Many nonprofits are already using database software, such as SalesForce or Raiser’s Edge, to track demographics and statistics of their clients, volunteers, and donors. Adding those numbers to a GIS Mapping software is as simple as exporting the file from a database (or creating your own using Excel) and uploading it. Sure, there’s more to it than that but essentially- that’s all it is. The file needs to be structured a certain way (e.g.: [street address], [city], [state], [zip]) and it has to be the right type (.csx). The SalesForce database I personally work with does this automatically. It’s likely that many others do as well.

Your agency’s personally gathered information is then layered onto a special geographical map file called a ‘shapefile’.  Shapefiles contain geocoded information including: GPS, streets, boundaries, and more. Those shapefiles are available on many government databases for free. For example, to find a shapefile for San Mateo County, a quick Google search of ‘san mateo county shapefile’ led me here. The Census hosts a large wealth of information broken down into just about any possible way you’d want it- and pretty much all of it is possible to export into a GIS Map. Data broken down into counties, cities, jurisdictional districts, and even neighborhoods is available for your use.

What Can Nonprofits Use This Information For?

GIS maps are able to show impacts, needs, and assets. They can help you answer questions such as:

  •  “What is the relationship between service provider’s locations and the population they serve?”
  • “What public transportation options are available for my service community?”
  • “Where have we lost consumers? What’s different about their locations?”
  • “What problems do people in this neighborhood report that the next one doesn’t?”

Maps are easy to understand and show more information. Showing someone a pie-chart of the cities you serve isn’t as powerful as being able to break it down by neighborhood. Readers can point to where they live and think- “Wow, people I live near need these services too”. Maps click with people in a way that graphs and charts can’t.

Where Can I Get GIS Mapping Software?

Probably the most popular and potentially most versatile platform is Esri’s ArcGIS.  You can use this on a computer or mobile device. It’s about $2,500 a year for what most nonprofits will use- discounts may be available for 501c3’s.

There are other Open Source projects that are free, and sometimes provides support through an online community of users. A popular Open Source GIS program is QGIS : http://www.qgis.org/en/site/

You can see a great comparison of popular GIS software on Wikipedia.

Shapefiles and data files are available all over the place. The Census has a wealth of information on demographics. Local (or not so local) universities collect data in their Urban Planning departments that they are usually generous in sharing. I can speak to the University of Michigan offering this information to non-students. You can usually find specific state or county shapefiles on their government websites. If the geographical file is too large, you can only find a state shapefile despite needing a county shapefile, you can cut out the parts you don’t need and use geocoded information such as census tracts.

What are the Downsides to GIS Mapping?

GIS mapping requires the ability to use a computer. It requires time and an understanding of the information you’re trying to display. Some people are turned off by having to learn newfangled things.

GIS Mapping is limited to geospatial data. If you’re trying to show an outcomes that isn’t somehow tied to a geographically based variable, GIS is not for you.

Esri has taken the time to write a little report specifically on the uses of GIS in human services. If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest you check it out.

Fast and Furious Star Paul Walker Died During Charity Event for Philippines Typhoon Victims

Paul Walker
Paul Walker in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake with his nonprofit organization (ROWW)

On November 30, 2013, Fast and the Furious star Paul Walker died in a single car crash along with Rodger Rodas who was the driver of the vehicle. Paul had just turned 40 this past September, and he had already begun filming installment 7 for the “Fast and the Furious” franchise. If you are a fan of his movies, it was no secret that Paul Walker was an adrenaline junkie whether it was cave diving in exotic locations, catching waves in Fuji, or driving fast cars, but it also gave rise to his stardom in films such as the Fast and the Furious, In to the Blue, or Bobby Z.

However, many people may be unaware of his philanthropy and charitable giving in which he also concentrated his efforts with equal measure. In 2010, Reach Out Worldwide (ROWW) was created as a disaster relief organization to assist earthquake victims in Haiti. In the photo above, this picture was posted on Pinterest by ROWW stating, “Taken in Haiti following the earthquake in 2010. Paul Walker with his nonprofit organization ROWW. org which provides aid to affected communities of natural disasters. Paul taking a moment of silence before leaving.”

Originally, Paul wanted to be a marine biologist, and his acting was an avenue to pay off student loan debt. The plan was to return back to school once his financial situation improved. However, he quickly realized that his acting career could offer opportunities to pursue other passions such as working with National Geographic and his charitable giving.

Yesterday, Paul Walker was hosting a charity event through his organization to help raise funds for the victims of the Philippines Typhoon when he decided to go on a test drive in a new Porsche with his friend as the driver. According to reports by TMZ who broke the story and was on the scene, the vehicle hit a fixed object leaving the occupants trapped inside while it became engulfed in flames.

According to Paul Walker’s PR Reps via his Facebook Page,

It is with a truly heavy heart that we must confirm that Paul Walker passed away today in a tragic car accident while attending a charity event for his organization Reach Out Worldwide. He was a passenger in a friend’s car, in which both lost their lives. We appreciate your patience as we too are stunned and saddened beyond belief by this news. Thank you for keeping his family and friends in your prayers during this very difficult time. We will do our best to keep you apprised on where to send condolences. – #TeamPW

Paul Walker made a career off of his rugged good looks, but he also often used them to do good in this world. As the spokesperson for Davidoff Cool Water, the company made generous donations to his charity ROWW which helped him to provide aid to victims after a disaster struck. To learn more about ROWW and the angel qualities of Paul Walker, you can view the interview below where he talks about his desire for ROWW to survive past his time on this earth.

The photo below is one of the last few pictures of Paul Walker before he died, and it is also a picture of the Porsche he was riding in at the time of his death. For those who would like to honor his memory, consider making a donation to his charity Reach Out Worldwide to help fulfill his vision of giving aid to those in need.

Cultivating an Effective Nonprofit Board

Just about everyone has had some sort of run-in with a Board that doesn’t quite meet the needs of the agency. Maybe they don’t meet regularly, or have difficulty making important decisions. Maybe they’re using their ‘Board Member’ status to forward their own agendas in the community. For whatever the reason, having a Board that doesn’t work in the best interests of the nonprofit is extremely detrimental to the overall success and functionality of an agency.

What does a good Board do anyways?

Empty Conference RoomSo many people have had bad experiences with Boards that they might not know what they should be expecting. Boards should be the ‘big picture’ thinkers that guide the activities of the organization so that it remains relevant to the community it serves.

There are legal reasons for having a Board. There are usually state requirements for the size and essential functions of a Board. They also serve to hire the Executive Director (ED), and sometimes other higher-ranking employees.

The Board should ensure the morale of the organization’s employees. As part of their oversight, they should be proactive in ensuring that the agency’s policies are in-line with current trends in benefits and workplace behaviors.

A Board should build relationships with the community that your organization is located in. They are responsible for cultivating a positive image and support for your organization’s activities. Sometimes that looks like media campaigns, or fundraising events. Sometimes it’s a simple coffee lunch with another Nonprofit ED.

The Board should know what your organization does. They should always have an elevator speech ready to give out to new people that they meet. This helps to cultivate support, as well as learn more about the perception of need identified by the community. If the agency is providing a service that is needed the elevator speech will prompt that feedback.

Who should be recruited to a nonprofit Board?

Board Members should have some sort of connection to the community that they serve. It’s pointless to have a Board of people who live hours away and have no true connection to the work that you do. If they aren’t local, how and when are they going to advocate for you in your community?

They should representative of your client base. That means a diverse Board. If you primarily serve Chinese Immigrants, then you should have a person on your Board who has a relationship with that community.

They should have the time to commit to the Board. Being a Board Member comes with a lot of responsibility. They have to be able to come to regular meetings and special events. They should have the time and willingness to actively talk to other people and organizations about the work that the agency is doing.

They should have a skillset that is useful to you. If you have a Board filled with lawyers, it won’t be as creative or effective as a Board with: a lawyer, the Mayor’s wife, a local activist, another nonprofit ED, and a community member.

I can’t provide a specific formula for what your Board looks like. That is dependent on your community and your goals. Define what goals you want your Board to accomplish, and fill in the gaps with appropriate people.

How to change Board Member’s behavior

The worst thing you can do is to let bad Board Member behavior continue. The longer bad habits stay in place, the harder they will be to break and the longer your agency will suffer their ill-effects.

The first thing to do is to make sure that the Board knows its responsibilities. A lot of people just assume that Board Members just know what to do, especially if they’ve been on the Board for a long time. That is not always the case. Sit down with your Board and redefine the expectations of their positions. Do they know that they’re supposed to help cultivate funding? Do they know how to do that? Train your Board to work for you, just like you would with any new employee.

Put the pressure on to work effectively. Identify a few Members who are trying to manage the Board properly and work with them to get the others on board. Be annoying if you have to. Send emails or phone calls with reminders about their responsibilities. Hold more frequent meetings. Be present in their lives as often as possible.

If they aren’t working out-tell them. Sit down and have an honest discussion about their dedication to the agency and its mission. Maybe they just don’t have the buy-in to be an appropriate Board Member.

Further reading:

National Council of Nonprofits 

University of Wyoming Nonprofit Management Resource

The Bridgespan Group

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