Not your mother's sector: How young changemakers are shaking up the nonprofit world

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Over the last few years, a number of people in the nonprofit sector have started to question how the sector has always operated, wondering if things could be done differently. Some are even trying entirely new approaches to typical nonprofit work. We spoke with a few of these emerging leaders to get a sense of what they think is going well, what’s wrong, what’s changing, and what they’re personally doing to create this change.

What we found was in some ways surprising. Although vibrant changemakers with dynamic ideas and insight, the people we interviewed were quicker to value face-to-face meetings or honest dialogue than they were to rely on technology or the latest trends. Like everyone who has chosen to work in the nonprofit sector, they want to make a difference in their communities, and also to help the sector itself make the biggest possible difference to the challenges facing our world.

In putting this article together, we spoke with Rory Green, fund development professional, speaker and “fundraiser grrl”; Sheena Greer, nonprofit consultant at Colludo and workshop facilitator for The Colludo Playdate; Vu Le, blogger and executive director of Rainier Valley Corps; Samuel Ramos, Community Engagement Specialist at YWCA Metro Vancouver and instructor at Langara College; and, Kristy Rempel, Donor Services Manager at the Saskatoon Community Foundation.

Set the table differently

Nearly every person we talked with believes the sector needs to be transformed by bringing more diverse and representative voices to the table. Vu Le, whose organization focuses on supporting people and communities of colour, notes that people in the nonprofit sector are “kind, well-intentioned and caring about communities” and that “there is significant talk about equity” and yet the implementation of this falls short. The danger for the sector occurs when we believe talking about diversity and equity – or even inviting token representatives from diverse communities to have a voice — is enough, lulling us into believing that we’ve done our part. Sheena Greer notes that historically the nonprofit sector has been based on what she calls a “prescriptive approach” where those in the sector solve problems for people. She says, “Look around the board room: are the people there representative of the people we’re serving? Are our policies? Are our practices?”

Generally this is still not true — women are under-represented at senior leadership and board levels and only 8% of staff of US-based nonprofits are people of colour — although change is coming in this regard. Samuel Ramos, who works with the YWCA, says, “The fact that I as a male have been welcomed with open arms and have been empowered is great.” He also reports being welcomed as a straight male ally at LGBTQ+ events. In Saskatoon, Greer sees organizations collaborating with people who live with firsthand experience of issues such as homelessness and illness. She says, “I’m really hopeful that people with a different perspective will be able to step out and use that divergent or subversive form of leadership to come together and tackle these problems in a different way.”

Le believes the entire system needs re-evaluation to include all voices — which might mean, for instance, changing a granting process that rewards those who know how to write proposals and leaves behind those for whom English is not a first language. He also believes the sector needs to focus on the supply of diverse voices rather than the demand — that we need to find ways to enable more and different people to enter and find a place within the sector.

There are, as Greer says, “lots of tricky bits involved in doing this.” In a blog post where Le suggests specific ideas for nonprofits to diversify in meaningful ways he notes that “in the short term [marginalized communities] may fail more often” but adds that “it is inequitable to use short-term success as the only rationale for how to allocate funding.” Greer observes, “We need to listen to more voices which will create more friction — but I believe we solve the biggest problems best when there is that friction.”

Do the unsexy stuff: get back to basics

You might expect movers and shakers to focus on the latest trends but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, Le says, “Innovation has been such a buzzword that it’s getting irritating. Some of the best innovation is in doing stuff that isn’t sexy at all.”

Rory Green says, “When we talk about the future and trends, people race to technology and the need to embrace it— but this is a sector based on people who want to help people. Focusing on basics like keeping staff and donors happy will serve you better in long run than chasing whatever is new. It’s vital to focus on what matters rather than on trinkets.” Greer agrees. “Technology allows us to connect with different audiences but at the end of the day it’s about how we can best use technology to foster quality relationships. Figure out what channels work but don’t forget that technology is just another tool in your toolbelt.”

Rather than pouring energy into getting an organization’s message out on every social media platform, many innovators suggest going back to basics. Greer quotes Steven Shattuck of US-based nonprofit donor management firm Bloomerang as saying that rather than spending twenty minutes crafting a Facebook post, fundraisers are often better off making an old-fashioned phone call to five donors.

Ramos also believes that “face-to-face is essential to building partnerships” as it enhances sharing of knowledge and resources but also encourages sharing of human experiences. While technology has improved communication at a distance, Ramos strongly believes that regardless of personality, people who meet together come away inspired.

Celebrate and connect

Too often, says Kristy Rempel, charities don’t have fun because we’re busy saving the world. She points to the contrast between the experience of going to a conference — where people are inspired by wonderful new ideas and colleagues — and the reality of day-to-day work with piles of paper and inboxes full of urgent messages. Rempel (whose business card actually says Vice President of Immortality) believes that the sector needs to have more fun and celebrate more often. “We talk a lot about where we need to get better but we need to get better at celebrating our successes.”

Greer agrees, saying, “We’re so afraid of failing and we don’t talk about that, but we also need to celebrate together and be supportive of one another. A healthy sector has partnerships and a network where these kinds of conversations can happen.”

Ramos has experienced this kind of network through UBC’s Centre for Community Engaged Learning, which recently decided to be a “web of support” for the nonprofit community, bringing organizations together instead of working individually with each organization. Connecting with other nonprofits has changed Ramos’ view about his own organization. “Two years ago, I felt frustrated in terms of recruiting and retaining volunteers but after coming out of our own silo and meeting people at other organizations, I realized we were doing well.” Ramos points to CharityVillage and LinkedIn groups as other webs of support for the sector.

Greer gathers nonprofit leaders for Nonprofit Playdates to “eat cookies, drink juice and have big conversations about working toward change.” While she had always advised people starting to work in the sector to develop mentors, allies and networks, she was delighted at the response to the playdates — something participants called life-changing. She says, “As hard as it’s been to take the time — we’re all busy — to have conversations that matter and spaces for those conversations to happen, every big awesome thing that has ever happened started with a conversation between people who were frustrated by something. Our frustrations can be the soil to help us grow something amazing, new and different.”

Stop it with the inferiority complex

Le says, “We have a culture that does not understand or appreciate nonprofits...we are expected to be like monks and take vows of poverty when we enter the profession. And like certain monks we are expected to wander the streets, begging for alms so we can do our work.” Further, this belief equates people doing the work with people being helped. Eventually, he adds, “we start to unconsciously compare ourselves with others and internalize society’s messages.”

Ramos has often observed this phenomenon. He says, “People in nonprofits often have a sense of inferiority because they don’t make as much money as someone in for profit, but at the same time, we often have a sense of superiority, that we’re doing better work.” Ramos approaches the matter differently. “I say we are doing necessary work — that both for-profit and nonprofit work is necessary. Our work is not legitimized by our salary but by need. That’s why both are necessary.” There was significant disagreement among thinkers about whether nonprofits should operate more like a business, but all agreed that each sector can benefit from the other. Ramos describes his role in inviting people to volunteer in the nonprofit world as being an “ambassador of contentment”, allowing people from the for-profit world an opportunity do something meaningful and satisfying.

Letting go of a sense of inferiority and valuing the role as partners with the for-profit sector may also play a role in achieving more competitive salaries and better funding in nonprofits.

Donors, we have a problem...

Rempel cites a 2012 StatsCan survey showing that 93% of Canadians believe charities do good work and are important, with 88% saying charities contributing to overall quality of life, and a BMO Harris poll of wealthy clients and financial planners who overwhelmingly said that their biggest apprehension about giving to charities was a fear that charities would not spend money properly. She concludes that “Something needs to change in terms of our education of donors.” She isn’t alone in this message. Le says “We have to give feedback more often, pushing back to funders, believing the work we do matters and that we ourselves have value in this work.”

This is especially true around the dreaded issue of overhead. Rempel says, “I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone question how much a cancer researcher is making the way they do with a fundraiser. When someone asks what your organization’s overhead is, if your answer is a percentage, you have failed that donor. The only way a donor becomes educated on better questions to ask is for the charity to educate them. Charities believe that donors are in the driver’s seat but you have to start a new conversation with donors. If you only give answers, you will always get the same questions.”

Le says, “If I had a magic wand, I would make all funding unrestricted for general operating funds. We have a lot of work to do — we don’t have time to figure out which funder paid for which pencil." Le has mixed feelings about the increasing push for big data collection, analysis and reporting by donors that comes with restricted funding, noting that he regularly sees good leaders leaving the sector because they are spending so much time applying for and reporting on funding that they are not able to focus on their mandate. Le would also ensure that donors invested in infrastructure and capacity building rather than simply programming. This is important because even in terms of program, nonprofits are significantly different from for-profit businesses: as nonprofit programs become more successful, they can become more costly and unstable. “Effective and efficient isn’t what we do,” says Rempel. “Combating major disease or taking on massive social problems just isn’t efficient.”

Le says, “If you want nonprofits to be more like businesses, you have to let them fail more often, invest significantly, and you can't restrict funds. You don't buy an Apple phone and say none of the money you spend can go to developers.”

Greer agrees. “Our sector isn’t quite as agile as the business world – there’s a lot of fear involved. People in the nonprofit world are often timid to try new things and there’s a lot of staying the course because that is what has worked in the past to get us funding. Trying something new is scary but I encourage organizations to step out, take a risk, and try something sideways.”

Invest in leaders

Increasingly,bright, passionate young people who want to try something new are choosing nonprofits as a career, not as a last resort or by accident. The problem happens, as Green says, when they “come face to face with a total lack of investment in leadership in the sector.” Le believes that “people aren’t freaking out enough about this”: that less than 1% of funds go into leadership development. His own organization is launching a fellowship program to choose emerging leaders of colour and sending them out to work fulltime to learn the skills that will make them effective nonprofit professionals and eventual executive directors.

Green blogs and speaks regularly about what she calls the leadership crisis in the sector, as well as about the strong leaders and examples of good leadership development — like the organization that deliberately hires internally for senior positions, and trains, mentors and develops young staff to become future leaders. She also notes a shift in the types of leaders who are emerging as successful: from the extroverted visionary leaders of the past to today’s leaders who listen, are curious and who understand their team’s strengths and weaknesses.

She notes the cost of the lack of leadership. “I don’t think people have seen the monetary value of investing in leadership – it saves significant money to keep retention high and to have a happy workforce.” Green believes that turnover in the sector is far less an issue of low salaries and more one of a lack of leadership. She believes that part of the reason a wide variety of young people are turning to roles as consultants or shifting to the for-profit sector is because of the leadership culture in nonprofits, one that too often fails to encourage “ownership, impact, accountability, vulnerability and a place to make mistakes and get help.” She says, “People don’t always realize the impact of leadership decisions on staff but this is starting to emerge as a conversation.”

Green says, “When I talk to young people interested in entering the sector, I say: don’t choose the cause you care the most about — passion won’t take you past the first year. Without good leadership, you will burn out and be heartbroken. Instead, work with a leader who offers mentorship, trust, honesty, accountability and vulnerability.”

Perhaps Kristy Rempel speaks for all the people we talked with when she concludes, “I love the charitable sector with all its wonderful faults. Any of my discussion points centre around wanting to make it better. I’m incredibly proud to be grouped with a category of disrupters. I love the idea of inciting change – both for myself and the sector and the people we work with.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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