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Building Resilience Through Storytelling and Innovation with Tonya Allen

Throughout her 25-year career, Tonya Allen has been a bridge-builder and a civic diplomat. She is a champion of diversity, inclusion, and equity practices, driven by her passion for justice. This passion is so clearly illustrated in how she talks about building infrastructure focused on culture as well as the importance of compelling storytelling and making the correct cultural pivots in building nonprofit sustainability. During the conversation, you’ll hear Tonya say, “It is time for us to behave differently.” And to that end, Tonya shares so many insights for nonprofit leaders and organizations looking to build differently and stronger than they have before.

Listen to the podcast here:

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About Tonya Allen

Tonya Allen is president of the McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based family foundation that seeks to advance a more just, creative, and abundant future where people and planet thrive. McKnight annually grants about $100 million in support of climate solutions in the Midwest, an equitable and inclusive Minnesota, the arts, neuroscience, and international crop research. She leads an all-women, majority people-of-color senior leadership team and a diverse staff of about 50.

Throughout her 25-year career, Tonya has been a bridge-builder and a civic diplomat. She has led successful philanthropic, business, government, and community partnerships that catalyze fresh thinking, test new approaches, and advance public policy. Tonya has been lauded for her results-driven and highly influential collaborative approach by the Chronicle of Philanthropy (Five Nonprofit Innovators to Watch), the Funders Network (Nicholas P. Bollman Award), Detroit News (Michiganian of the Year), and Crain’s Detroit Business (Newsmaker of the Year and 100 Most Influential Women).

She chairs the Council on Foundations, is co-chair for the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, and has served on many other philanthropic boards. Prior to joining McKnight in 2021, Tonya served as president and CEO of The Skillman Foundation, a private foundation in Detroit dedicated to improving schools, neighborhoods, and the well-being of families in Southeast Michigan, and as a program officer at the C. S. Mott and Thompson-McCully foundations. She is a co-founder and architect of Detroit Children’s Fund—a nonprofit that aggregates and invests capital to improve schools—and the founder and former director of Detroit Parent Network.

As a champion of diversity, inclusion, and equity practices, Tonya is driven by her passion for justice. She has collaborated with numerous cross-sector partners to advance individual, institutional, sectoral, and community-wide equity strategies. Her efforts to make institutions more equitable are considered best-in-class, and she is a national leader in the philanthropic sector on this topic. Tonya is a member of General Motors’ Inclusion Advisory Board, an independent director of Sun Communities, and an advisor to numerous corporations regarding inclusion efforts. Corp! Magazine honored Allen with a Salute to Diversity Award.

Read the podcast transcription below:

-Upbeat Intro Music-

Nic Campbell: You’re listening to the Nonprofit Build Up Podcast and I’m your host, Nic Campbell. I want to support movements that can interrupt cycles of injustice and inequity, and shift power towards vulnerable and marginalized communities. I’ve spent years working in and with nonprofits and philanthropies, and I know how important infrastructure is to outcomes. On this show, we’ll talk about how to build capacity to transform the way you and your organization work.

Nicole Campbell: Hi, everyone. At the time of this recording, we’re just a few days into women’s history month and we’re starting this month’s conversations with Tonya Allen president of the McKnight Foundation. Tonya has led successful philanthropic business government and community partnerships that catalyze fresh thinking, test new approaches and advance public policy. And in this episode, she offers advice to nonprofits and funders on how to build resilient organizations through communication, experimentation, and authentic storytelling. This interview was recorded back in May 2020 and amidst a long overdue social justice and racial justice movement here in the United States and a global health crisis. And during this time, Tonya was still the president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, a Detroit based children’s philanthropy that works to ensure the city’s youth achieve their highest aspirations. We’re now in March 2021. And as of last month, Tonya has become the president of the McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota based family foundation that seeks advancing more, just creative and abundant future where people and planet thrive.

Nicole Campbell: So, during our conversation, you’ll hear Tonya and me focus on her work at the Skillman Foundation instead of the McKnight Foundation. Throughout her 25 year career, Tonya has been a bridge builder and a civic diplomat. She is a champion of diversity inclusion and equity practices driven by her passion for justice. This passion is so clearly illustrated in how she talks about building infrastructure focused on culture, as well as the importance of compelling storytelling and making the correct cultural pivots in building nonprofit sustainability. During our conversation, you’ll hear Tonya say, “It is time for us to behave differently.” And to that end, Tonya shares so many insights for nonprofit leaders and organizations looking to build differently and stronger than they have before. I encourage you to use Tonya’s advice to create resilient, sustainable organizations. And with that, here is Tonya Allen.

Nicole Campbell: Hi, Tonya. I’m excited to have you join us for our Fast Build Leader series.

Tonya Allen: Oh, thanks for having me, Nic. I’m really excited to talk with you today.

Nicole Campbell: Of course. To get us started. Can you tell us about the Skillman Foundation, your role there, and the Skillman Foundation’s immediate priorities?

Tonya Allen: Sure. So, the Skillman Foundation is a 60-year-old foundation in the city of Detroit. We focus primarily on young people. Our agenda is what we call the opportunity agenda. We’re trying to make sure that young people have opportunities in Detroit, particularly as we are navigating our economic recovery and post pandemic, how we navigate that recovery as well. So, we focus particularly on education, making sure that young people are ready for work or for post-secondary careers or school. And making sure that young people have high quality youth development opportunities to help them engage in their own interests and be inspired.

Nicole Campbell: And can you talk about your role there and what the Skillman Foundation is focused on particularly now? I know you mentioned what you’re doing within the pandemic, but what is the foundation looking at now and, and what role are you playing?

Tonya Allen: Sure. So, I serve as the President and CEO of the Skillman Foundation. And the work that we’re doing today in response to the pandemic is basically trying to figure out where there were gaps with our partners, listening to our partners, hearing where there might be gaps, and providing that support, not only to our partners, but also to our other funding colleagues as well.

Tonya Allen: The things that we’re focusing on right now, related to the pandemic, is we spent quite a bit of time thinking and working on how we help prepare our state and prepare the city for school start in 2020. And then, how do we facilitate high quality summer activities for young people, particularly when you think about one that meant pal care needs that are going to be required for lots of families who are considered essential workers and they need some place for their kids to go. Two, thinking about the COVID slide and how do we provide remediation in a way that is supportive of those students? And then, the third is that even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic, we still believe that kids need to be kids and we want them to have some fun this summer, too.

Nicole Campbell: Well, that’s great. And I know that part of what you’re doing, that you explained, is listening and providing support to your partners. And so what’s your advice to nonprofits that fundraises a significant part of their budgets? What should be top of mind for them particularly now?

Tonya Allen: Thank you for that question. I really think that nonprofits need to be focusing on their communications. I think right now is an important time for us to actually tell stories about what’s happening with our clients. What’s happening with the issues that we care deeply about how we are actually having an impact, how we’re pivoting and creatively and innovatively responding to those needs, what the gaps are. So, the people that nonprofits are going to be fundraising from actually have a pretty significant privilege over the people who they’re likely serving. So, take this moment to really articulate what that privilege difference is and how they can use their privilege to do good. I think if we can communicate effectively, make the language plain, get out of the kind of nonprofit-ese and really tell stories that inspire and tell stories that are asset based and asset focused. I think that nonprofits will do well as they fundraise.

Nicole Campbell: I really liked that. I liked the term, “Get out of that nonprofit-ese.” I have heard illegal-ese, but this first time I’ve heard nonprofit-ese. But, I hear you on the storytelling. A follow up question I would have on that is, how do they communicate? Like how do they get their message out effectively? If they’re small organizations, if they’re grassroots organizations and they want to impact their fundraising budget, how do you suggest that they get that message out effectively to different audiences and particularly to funders?

Tonya Allen: Well, I think to funders, you have to use personalized electronic letters. Newsletters are fine, but I would make it more personalized. But if they’re looking for broader grassroots funding, I think that social media is a good pathway to communicate their messages. And then I think there are some other ways that they can introduce themselves to different audiences. I think there’s an underutilized tool, which is op-eds. The people who read op-eds tend to be influentials. So, it’s a great way to bring your message to a broader different group of people and give your point of view.

Tonya Allen: I think that that’s what we need to hear from nonprofit leaders, not just what they’re doing, but how they’re thinking about these issues and what their unique perch provides. What kind of vision it provides. And then you can use that to advance in your electronic newsletters and your social media, et cetera. But I would think a lot about using the same message and tweaking it for different audiences, but being really clear about which audience you are focused on and sharing that appropriately.

Nicole Campbell: I really liked that. And I liked the op-ed piece, particularly when you’re thinking about who reads op-eds, the different audiences and how diverse they are, right? To be able to get that message out. And like you said, it’s about storytelling and just thinking differently as to how to get that message to different people. So, if we were to look on the other side of this conversation and we talked about what nonprofits can do, we’re looking for the other side at what funders can do. What would be your advice beyond give more money to your fellow funders to support nonprofit sustainability, both within and beyond this crisis?

Tonya Allen: I think that’s a great question. I mean, obviously we need to support organizations financially, but I also think that we need to help ensure that organizations are actually making the right pivots culturally. So, one of the things I’ve been really struck by in the nonprofit sector is the number of organizations who think, “I’m either going to do this remotely, virtually, or I’m going to do it in person.” And so, they think there’s a deadline, then they’ll come back and everything will be the same. And I just don’t think that the world is going to be the same. I think one of the ways that foundations can support nonprofits is to really push them a bit. Push them to really think about what are the structural changes that are coming as a result of this and how we respond to those, or how often nonprofit respond to it.

Tonya Allen: The second thing I would ask funders to do is to help our grant partners and our nonprofit colleagues to really think about hidden opportunities. I think that, you know, we’ve all heard the saying about don’t let a good crisis go to waste or opportunity existing in crisis. And I think that that’s true. So, there are some structural changes that organizations probably need to have made a long time before this crisis. And so, how do you help them understand what that is and help them think about how they might accelerate some of those changes right now in these moments. And also thinking about how you balance the short term with your long-term needs and how do you create the appropriate balance? I think those are the kinds of things that funders could be great thought partners with nonprofits on those issues, because there are not a lot of safe places for them to have those conversations.

Tonya Allen: Of course, you want them to have that with their boards, but I think you need external partners to be thinking with nonprofits. The last thing is this notion of peeking around the corner. I always say that strategy is only as strong as your context. I would say for funders, we need to be asking our nonprofit partners and helping to inform them about what’s coming around the corner. What’s the new context and how are they going to pivot and respond to that? Not just in their programmatic work, but just actually thinking about it in every aspect of their organization. That’s what I would say. I think we need to be good thought partners. We need to be good listeners. We need to push them to think about it because just as we’re talking about, lots of businesses are going to go out of business. Or lots of entrepreneurs are going to go on a business because of this crisis. I think that is also true for nonprofits. And unless we are really prepared and equipped to answer those hard questions and really make the changes that are required for this new environment.

Nicole Campbell: And so, what I’m hearing you say that I really like is to show up as a thought partner and really encourage experimentation, right? So, we talk a lot about innovation, but just having that room and space to experiment and try things and see what works and be able to peek around the corner. So, with all of that, Tonya, you have provided advice for nonprofits or funders. And with all of that in mind, what do you wish we did less of as a sector? What do you think we should do more of? I know we talked about lessening, the nonprofit-ese that each would speak, but what are some things that you think we should do less of as a sector? And what do you think we should be doing more of?

Tonya Allen: You know one of the best stories I ever heard about or definitions of innovation I heard was that we often confuse innovation as always doing something new or like this, you know, very smart, new idea. And I often think about innovation as how do you do lots of smart things at scale. And so, I think that in the nonprofit sector, we forget about the scale part. We think a lot about like, “Oh, these are these great ideas.” It’s kind of like the MP3 player. There were so many MP3 players on the market many years ago, but the big differential was when Apple decided to create the platform where you could get music seamlessly, right. And all of a sudden it changed the game. I think that we lose that opportunity a lot of times in the nonprofit sector, be it funders or nonprofits. I think we’re often driven by our passion to do what matters and what works.

Tonya Allen: I think we also sometimes prioritize who’s the smartest, who’s the most savviest in terms of how they describe their work. I think we would be so much better off if we focused on how we collaborate, how we align, how we create platforms for scale. I think that’s what I would say to the sector. And particularly for philanthropic organizations, it is time for us to behave differently. And I think that that’s the hidden opportunity in this pandemic. We should be behaving differently, partnering, talking with colleagues, aligning our resources and effective ways, so that we’re lifting together rather than doing it independently.

Nicole Campbell: I like that. And it’s both thinking about doing more collaboration and doing less of saying, let’s just focus on that as innovation. Right. Thinking more about it in terms of sustainability and doing things at scale. I don’t know how many of you are hip hop fans and I don’t know Tonya, if you are, but there’s a really famous line from a Jay-Z song, right. It goes, “Grand opening, grand closing.” So, it’s that idea of not having all of that infrastructure, not having the capacity to sustain, right. And not build as scale. That really resonates.

Nicole Campbell: So, I know that the focus of many nonprofits, this is given the time we’re in, is on programmatic strategy. How are they delivering services and how are they actually going to raise funds, right, to keep their doors open. I want you to know, that during this time as a funder, are you thinking about building infrastructure for yourself, for your grantees? And if so, how are you doing that? Both thinking about this moment of crisis that we’re in, but also beyond that.

Tonya Allen: So Nic, can you ask what do you mean when you say infrastructure?

Nicole Campbell: Yeah, that’s a good question because infrastructure has so many meanings. But when I use it, I really mean organizational infrastructure, the foundation within the organization to support all of its operations and to support its programmatic work and looking at things like governance structuring like externally, or how are you set up to do your work? And also internally, do you have the capacity and the team set up to do your work appropriately. And then, for foundations and grant makers, what is your grant making process look like? Are you examining it? Are you trying to streamline it? Those kinds of things.

Tonya Allen: Yeah. No. Okay, great. So, I would say in terms of infrastructure, the things that I’ve been thinking about as a philanthropic leader, is focused on culture. How do we come out of this pandemic stronger than we ever were before? How do we really focus on the things that we believe that that are part of our magic or special sauce as an organization? The second thing that I would say is, do we have real capacity to do scenario planning? I find that in foundations, what we spend a lot of time doing is designing strategy and then defending our work in alignment with that rather than really pushing ourselves to think about these various scenarios. And I think that was a place where we were weak as a foundation. Lastly, we have streamlined our grantmaking processes.

Tonya Allen: The way I think about it is how are there opportunities to advance or accelerate efforts, looking for things you knew were gaps, and can you fill those gaps and as well as looking for change conditions that actually allow you to move forward. Such as some aspirations or some internal strategy so that you can get it done now because those conditions have changed so significantly. That’s how we’ve been thinking about this work, thinking about it through this hidden opportunity lens. And so, it’s good for us at the foundation, but we also are encouraging our partners to think about that from a civic approach, like how do we get people to think and work collaboratively across issues and take advantage of those hidden opportunities because the conditions have changed to move, something that they’ve had a broader communal aspiration around.

Tonya Allen: We also believe that that is true for the nonprofit organizations that we are partners with, that they too can take this moment to help advance their infrastructure, build their infrastructure, to be more resilient and more opportunistic in this moment.

Nicole Campbell: I really liked that because it really makes you think about how you move into this space and think about being nimble and being flexible, and being able to take advantage of those opportunities that you pointed out. You know, Tonya, your responses have been so timely and relevant. I really like how you’re able to talk about how the Skillman Foundation itself is looking at that. I’m going to ask you a question to help us continue to build. What books do you think you should read next, or what artists do you think we should be paying attention to?

Tonya Allen: Oh, that’s a great question. I’ve actually been reading a lot about social, emotional health. I think that we cannot make assumptions about the impact on organizations and individuals and people, our ability to do teamwork and the like. So, I’ve spent some time reading, um, My Grandmother’s Hands, which has been fundamentally about like how we trap generational trauma, and what are the ways that we actually need to release that and how that happens in a racialized way. Also, The Body Keeps the Score. I’m blanking on another book that I’ve just been reading about. But part of this kind of social, emotional to me is about, I mean, I think this moment right now in the pandemic is really interesting because what it does. It forces you to bring every disparate part of your life together.

Tonya Allen: It forces you to acknowledge that it’s all interconnected, it’s all collective, that you cannot isolate and separate. And we’ve tried to do that in so many forms or fashions, even professionally, when we think about social change work. I think what this pandemic is forcing me to think about is you cannot separate them, that they are all intertwined and intertangled, and that you cannot separate the social emotional from the physical from the social from the economic. And so, I think I’ve always been a little bit weaker on the social emotional. So, those have been the books I’ve been reading and thinking about how you take that social emotional, and push it through your theories about organizational development, push it through your theories about social change and strategy development. So, those would be the two that I would lift up.

Tonya Allen: Oh, and Leaders Eat Last. That’s the third book that has the social emotional analysis in it. So, either Leaders Eat Last, Your Body Keeps Score, and My Grandmother’s Hands. I think those three would be powerful books to help you understand how you begin to move in a more holistic way to create change that’s sustainable or resilient.

Nicole Campbell: I really liked that. I’m going to add them to my reading list because it’s just another reminder of how we can bring healing-based practice and focus into our work, particularly social justice work. So, thank you for those recommendations. You have shared so much insight and so much knowledge, Tonya, that leaders can practically use in their own organizations to help them build bravely. So, I want to thank you so much for joining us today and just using storytelling to really get across the super powerful point that I’m glad that you were able to share with us. So, thank you.

Tonya Allen: Oh, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

-Upbeat Outro Music-

Nic Campbell: Thank you for listening to this episode of Nonprofit Build Up. To access the show notes, additional resources, and information on how you can work with us, please visit our website at buildupadvisory.com. We invite you to listen again next week as we share another episode about scaling impact by building infrastructure and capacity in the nonprofit sector. Keep building bravely.