Centering Equity and Justice in Philanthropy with Melanie Brown

In this episode, Melanie Brown offers advice to nonprofits and funders on how they can address racial injustice and inequity, within their organizations, the sector, and society. You’ll hear Melanie share her thoughts about Black women being the vanguard of philanthropy and the need to center Black women in philanthropy’s response to the moment.  

Melanie shares so many insights for nonprofit leaders who are ready to listen, have honest conversations, and are ready to do the work. We encourage you to not only listen carefully to Melanie’s advice and insights, but to also ACT on that advice and her insightsThey will change the way you show up in the sector. 

Listen to the podcast here:


About Melanie Brown

Melanie R. Brown is a speaker, writer, strategist and advisor on race, gender, inequality, global philanthropy, and social investment. She is a Senior Program Officer for Global Policy & Advocacy- North America at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Her research on activism and social change among youth and women has been featured in scholarly and trade publications such as the Journal for Applied Developmental Psychology and Alliance Magazine. Melanie has developed multimillion dollar strategies to accelerate Black and Latinx student achievement, disarm deficit narratives of Black men across social and traditional media, advance Black women’s reproductive rights, and bolster engagement and organizing on a variety of issues across rural and queer communities. Melanie has been invited to speak and advise on these issues throughout the United States, as well as in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Cuba.

Melanie is a Senior Atlantic Institute Fellow at the London School of Economics, a 2020 BMe Community Vanguard Fellow, an adjunct professor at American University and is Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for the Women’s Funding Network, the largest philanthropic alliance in the world dedicated to advancing gender equality and justice.

Melanie earned degrees from American, Harvard and Carnegie Mellon universities. She is a native of Pittsburgh, PA and resides in Washington, D.C.

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. Over the past couple weeks of women’s history month, we’ve shared inspiring and insightful conversations with leaders and today’s episode is no exception. This week we’re sharing my conversation with Melanie Brown, Senior Program Officer for global policy and advocacy in North America at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Melanie works with key constituencies across the United States and Canada to build public support for the foundation’s education, economic, and health priorities. Melanie is a speaker, writer, strategist, and advisor on race, gender, inequality, global philanthropy, and social investment. She has developed multi-million dollar strategies to accelerate black and Latin X student achievement, disarm deficit narratives of black men across social and traditional media, advanced black women’s reproductive rights, and bolster engagement and organizing on a variety of issues across rural and queer communities. This conversation was recorded late last year and it’s so interesting that during the time of this conversation, and currently, people are still seeking resources and direction to help them see their way through social justice, racial justice, and global health crises.

Nicole Campbell: And in this episode, Melanie offers advice to nonprofits and funders on how they can address racial injustice and inequity within their organizations, the sector, and society. You’ll hear Melanie share her thoughts about black women being the Vanguard of philanthropy and the need to center black women in philanthropy’s response to the moment. Melanie shares so many insights for nonprofit leaders who are ready to listen, have honest conversations, and are ready to do the work. I encourage you to not only listen carefully to Melanie’s advice and insights, but to also act on that advice and her insights; they will change the way you show up in the sector. And with that, here is Melanie Brown.

Nicole Campbell: Hi Melanie, I am so excited to have you joining us today and to get us started, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, your role there the work that you’re focused on, and what the foundation’s immediate priority is, particularly given our current environment.

Melanie Brown: Sure, and thank you, Nic, for the opportunity to be here, to chat with you today. As you said, I’m Melanie Brown. I am a Senior Program Officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. I’m based in the foundation’s Washington DC office. Most people of course know of our headquarters in Seattle. I sit on what we call our public engagement and insights team, which is part of our larger North America portfolio. In our conversation, I’ll be able to go into that a little bit more in depth, but we focus on engaging constituents across North America in the issues that the foundation names as priorities.

Melanie Brown: And so the work that I lead in particular is engagement with communities of color and engagement with constituencies across rural America women of color, and that has shifted over time, but that is the work that I’m focused on right now. And I would say like most foundations and most people, the foundation is very focused on COVID. And I would not say that we are singularly focused on COVID, as you know, we do many things and did not feel the need to…I shouldn’t say not feel the need, I would say felt the responsibility to still focus on all the other things that we focus on and while also paying attention to COVID.

Nicole Campbell: So, I know you talked about not being singularly focused on COVID and it’s really interesting because this situation that we’re in right now with the pandemic with the social justice unrest, the protests that have been happening, and it seems like you are likely in the center of all of that, right? Because you’re talking about engaging with communities of color focusing on rural communities, and focusing on women of color. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the work that you’ve been doing in this current environment with those particular communities and what you’ve been seeing?

Melanie Brown: Sure, and you’re exactly right; when we think about COVID, if we think back to February…January and February, even very early March before the shutdown, this idea was that COVID was one this very equalizer, right? That all of a sudden it put all of us on the same playing field. And likewise, at least within the black community, there was, you know, jokes about: “Oh, well we’re not going to get it.” Right? And what we found out to be true is the exact opposite, right? COVID is not the great equalizer, if anything COVID like other pandemics actually exacerbates inequality and helps us see even more who is suffering. And we see that African-Americans – and this is, again, just speaking from the U S perspective – are more likely to suffer the serious effects of COVID.

Melanie Brown: So long-term hospital stays, visits to the ICU, and even death. And we see that replicated in other communities of color. And so I think a lot of the work when COVID first hit was, of course, responding to it, right. And just, what is this new reality? Everyone’s at home, we’re not traveling, we’re not engaged in the work in the same way. And then also, how do we sound the alarm on what have been some of the disproportionate impacts of this disease, excuse me, of this virus. And so that is the work that I’ve been doing in my engagement with communities of color in rural America. And it’s not surprising, I would say, what we’re seeing. But it just is a stark reminder of how much work we need to do.

Melanie Brown: I think about my rural partners, we talk a lot about infrastructure. You know, kids are at home and they are learning remotely well. If you have internet, that’s good, and if you have a reliable internet. But if you don’t have internet, it’s not reliable, if your device that you’re using is in fact not a laptop, but it could be a cellular telephone. Think about all the challenges that that creates for you as a student to do your work, to survive and to thrive during this period. And so that’s what I’m seeing is that the challenges that the communities of color are facing, which that work tends to be more urban focused and the rural work, which tends to be focus on low income whites in the country, and neither one is exclusive. But if we were to make generalizations, you know, what we see is that there are a lot of challenges and failures of systems over long periods of time that have left these groups in particular, extremely vulnerable. And I haven’t even talked about the health impacts, right? These are all the other things that make living in a COVID world challenging, not to mention access to good doctors and, you know, testing – all of those things that we really saw a lot of us struggle with is a lot of what I’m seeing.

Nicole Campbell: So how are you finding that you can be most helpful in the situation with the communities that you’re working with? What kinds of resources are you providing, are they requesting, and where are you finding that you could add the most value?

Melanie Brown: Sure. So one of the things that’s really helpful, and this goes without saying right now, is to listen. I think people are in situations…and I’m working with organizations and heads of organizations, so it’s not the same as being on the ground in communities, but our grantees are on the ground. Our grantees are in the community and they are hearing firsthand what many of those challenges are. And we need to be in a position, we the Gates foundation, we philanthropy in general, to listen to those things and to understand what it is actually like. I also don’t want to ignore the fact that we are living in the same COVID world. I found out two days ago that my grandmother has COVID. And she’s in a facility in Birmingham, Alabama. And so this is not just something that that I have to read about or study.

Melanie Brown: This is something that the people who I hold very dear are dealing with. So one of the things that we’re doing right now is listening. The other thing is being really flexible when it comes to deliverables. So understanding that what you may have had planned in 2020, just isn’t going to happen. Right? It could be delayed. There could be factors, clearly many factors that are out of your control. We’ve had grantees that have major conferences and convenings that bring in revenue for the organization and those things cannot happen. I would say the organizations that are doing the best are those who’ve been able to pivot, but being able to pivot is also a reflection of the resources and the capacity that you have, and not all of our organizations are well-resourced quite frankly. So that’s a lot of what we’re doing is listening supporting organizations to perhaps be more flexible on deliverables and outcomes and goals.

Melanie Brown: And then really talking to them about, you know, let’s have an honest conversation. And I try to build these very honest, very open, transparent conversations with grantees anyway, but if we didn’t have that, we need to have that now. Right. We need to understand what are the real pressures that you’re dealing with and help me understand how I can support. And to ensure that our grantees are not making short-term decisions because of this moment that will impact their ability to have long-term impact. So how do we help people not panic from an organizational perspective and handle this moment such that they can still be partners and continue to do the work that we know is so needed, be it education, be it economic opportunity work, be it health work. You know, this moment will pass, right? That is not to minimize it, but it is to state effect. But how we come out on the other end of it matters and we’re supporting organization in that process.

Nicole Campbell: And, you know, when you talked about all of this is looking at long-term impact, and so you don’t want organizations to have to make these like immediate decisions that then have long-term implications on their work. And so serving as a resource and being there for them, and what you said that really resonates with me is about listening, right? Just being there, being present, and listening. And it’s really important, particularly in the moment that we’re in, when there’s so many different groups that are saying “I have voice, I want to be heard.” And so along those lines, I know that you do a lot of work and writing and thinking about black women in philanthropy. So if we’re talking about listening, we’re talking about different groups having a voice, and we’re talking about philanthropy, I’d love to hear how all of this sort of sits with you when you think about the work that you’ve been doing around black women in philanthropy.

Melanie Brown: Sure. So first of all let me say this, and my research backs this up and I believe it fully, that black women are in the Vanguard for social justice in philanthropy. At least when we speak of this country, and I think you could gesture to say in the world, that we are in the Vanguard, right, we are pushing for changes that, from what I have seen, are some of the most progressive policies. I think we saw that reflected in this most recent election and, you know, not to take sides on whomever you support, but it’s clear that when black women support a candidate or candidates agenda, their impact is felt. And we are tending to support more progressive policies and therefore candidates who run on those policies.


Melanie Brown: What I would say about this moment and about listening is that many of the things that we are experiencing right now is people of color, women of color, specifically black women, have told us we’re already going on, right? If you were to pull out COVID and talk about all the things that are going on, how much is actually new, right? And we have to humble ourselves to understand that while this moment does feel different because it is different, the issues that this moment has raised for us are actually not new. And it’s black women who’ve been sounding the alarm about what is happening in their communities, in their homes – when we think about gender based violence -, what is happening in their States, and in their countries. And so I think a lot about this moment, I think a lot about my work around black women and their leadership, I think about what does it look like for philanthropy to center not only the experiences of black women and girls, but also the leadership of black women and girls.

Melanie Brown: And I’ll never forget, I had a conversation…I did a piece of research where I interviewed 25 black women working in philanthropy across seven different countries. And one of the earlier interviews that I had, a woman said to me that philanthropy, as a sector, wants black women’s labor but doesn’t want black women’s leadership. Right? So when I think about this moment, I think about how philanthropy responds in this moment, it’s actually that, right. It is no longer giving our labor and not taking our leadership. When I think about what foundations can do right now, you know, we need to respond to the moment differently. What was once the ceiling is now the floor. And black women have been saying that and have been pushing that. And so it’s on us, as funders, to respond.

Nicole Campbell: Okay, that is really powerful.

Melanie Brown: You know, it’s so funny, as I was speaking, it was like: “I think I’m just talking, I’m not sure that I’m answering her question.”

Nicole Campbell: No, you definitely are, and it’s putting you on a path now to ask more questions and to push along the lines of what can philanthropy do. What should philanthropy be doing at this point based on exactly what you just described and the situation in which we’re in – which, as you pointed out earlier, COVID didn’t create the inequity, right. Just exacerbated it. So what can and should philanthropies be doing at this point?

Melanie Brown: There’s so much that we can be doing, and it always goes to money and I think that’s important…that’s what we have. That is not the only value, of course, that we provide, but give more money, right?

Melanie Brown: There’s so much that we can be doing, and it always goes to money and I think that’s important…that’s what we have. That is not the only value, of course, that we provide, but give more money, right? We’re in a position where we can give out more money, pay out can look different than it does. We can give more than the 5% minimum. I won’t have all these statistics, so I’m not going to try to get it wrong or try to get it right. But we know that the rich have gotten richer in this moment, right? And so there are opportunities to give more, but we don’t just give more to the existing people, the existing organizations for the existing issues, and assume that something will be different. We also have to give differently, so it’s not just giving more, but it’s who we give to. We know that we need to give money to…or that we’re not giving the same amount of money to organizations led by people of color.


Melanie Brown: Be it black folks, Latin X folks, indigenous communities, Asian communities, we need to redistribute resources, right? It’s not just a matter of putting more money to the same folks, but being more diverse in who it goes to. And then, you know, what foundations do is we provide sponsorship and cover for organizations, right. By investing in an organization, we’re saying, “Hey, this is a reputable organization. This is a reputable cause.” And so, we can do that more with organizations led by people of color. I also think we need to move money faster. I’ve been in philanthropy for 13 years. I’ve been at the Gates foundation for five. I was at the Heinz Endowments for eight years. And Gates, I think, actually moves money very quickly. But it doesn’t mean that there’s not opportunity as a sector for all of us to get money out quickly and to be more open about where those dollars can go.

Melanie Brown: I think that a lot of us toe the line a little too carefully about 501(c)(3) investments. I think there’s a lot more things that we can do with our money and be more creative. And it’s quite frankly not creative, I think it’s risky. Right. But when we think about what is at stake, it shouldn’t feel very risky to do those things. And so, those are the things that I like, that I think philanthropy needs to do, that I see philanthropy doing. And then the last thing I’ll say is actually having conversations that implicate us as a sector. And so it is true that if you amass a large amount of money in the world, that it was on – whether intentionally or not – on the backs of other people.

Melanie Brown: Right. And so there’s a reckoning I think that philanthropy needs to have about its place in whether it is a white supremacy, whether it is a U.S. Supremacy over the rest of the world, whether it’s a global North over a global South supremacy that is being perpetuated, but it’s one thing to give away dollars and invest in people of color and give out more money. But if we don’t look at ourselves, look at our very existence, like Dr. King says, not just commend ourselves for existing, but to examine why it is that we exist. And then I think we’re actually only doing half of the work.

Nicole Campbell: No, I completely agree with all of that. And I think, to your point, it’s about looking at the infrastructure of philanthropy and then going forward and doing all of these other fixes, right. Because it all stems from who are we, what did we set up to do? And having that reckoning that you talked about. So, yeah, and I really liked the move money faster, give it to organizations that are not necessarily public charities or, you know, C3’s. So this all really makes sense to me, particularly from an infrastructure point of view.

Melanie Brown: And being okay to fail. I mean, one of the things that I think I hear philanthropies say, and even what I hear like big tech or business say is, “fail fast”. And so what if we fail fast on racial justice? Right. What if we, you know, decided to say like, “Okay, we’re going to just try a bunch of things. We may not get it right. But we’re going to go to the people who are leading conversations about racial justice, who have been doing this work, and we’re going to invest in them. And if it’s a mistake, that’s okay, but we’re going to learn from it, right? Because we have a responsibility to do that.” We have no issue…not even as a philanthropic sector, we had no issue as a country, when we think about innovation or we think about technology, we want to fail fast there, right. To get to the best product, the best thing. What if we did that when it comes to thinking about racial justice, about gender justice, about environmental justice, right? What if we put that muscle into that? What could be on the other side of that? I think there’s a role for government in that, there’s a role for business in that, but there’s especially a role for philanthropy and this idea of failing fast on racial justice to get to the accelerated pace and movement that I think we really need.


Nicole Campbell: So that sounds really attractive. Why do you think that we’re in a place where this has not happened yet? Particularly on the scale that we’re talking about? So we know that there are organizations that’re stepping into this space and are challenging themselves and are doing what we’re talking about, but why isn’t that happening in the sector as a whole?

Melanie Brown: So, I think people are afraid, right? I think there’s a fear of getting it wrong. You don’t naturally…you were never taught in this country to build a muscle around racial justice, right? This is something that you seek on your own, or that your family teaches you, or you learned in college, or just through life. It is not something that…our educational system is not equipped to build the next generation of racial justice activists. Right? So there’s a fear of how do we step into this space and will we offend, will we get it wrong? There’s also, I think, you know…I understand the fear. The other side of it is, I think that that many of us benefit from injustice and racial injustice in particular, and whether or not you feel that you are making it worse, you’re benefiting from it.

Melanie Brown: And you’re not willing to give up that benefit. It is sweet, right? It is good. It feels good. And so I also think inequality is so ingrained in who we are and how we are, that I don’t know that we can see a world without it. I don’t know that people have been able to think about what is a more…and when I say people, of course, I’m not speaking for everyone. There are many people who’ve thought of this. Who’ve given us visions for what this more equal world could look like, but I think too many people feel like they won’t benefit from it. Or they know that they won’t. And so they are not invested in seeing it happen.

Nicole Campbell: No, I think when you said it’s about being afraid, so there’s the fear but it’s also that benefit, it’s true. I think when we think about what’s happening, particularly in the United States right now, you say, “Oh, look, you know, it’s built on systemic racism.” I think the sector felt like, oh, we could kind of step out of that conversation. Based on the work that we’re doing, look at the organizations and the people that we’re working with, the communities that we’re serving. But I think that that actually is not correct. And as you say, like actually lean in to are we also structured that way and to the extent that we are, then let’s talk about how we can move forward from there. So it all makes sense. And I know we’ve talked about what philanthropy can do. I want to flip it and have you tell us what you think nonprofits, fundraising, nonprofit organizations can do?

Melanie Brown: Hmm. That’s a really good question. So oftentimes people will ask me, you know, how do we get foundations to invest in us? Or how can we do this better? How do we get on a foundation’s radar? And I give advice and things that I think are helpful, but I I feel like foundations are in such a place of privilege that I don’t know what else nonprofits need to do, right? Yes, you should be a high quality nonprofit, you should have a strong board, you should, you know, be doing work that is data-driven and that you can prove is effective. Those are all things that to me are the fore of what a nonprofit should be doing. You should be partnering with other like-minded nonprofits. If you are an organization that needs to address issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, you need to be doing that work internally, but there is a power balance, right?

Melanie Brown: Foundations have the money; nonprofits need the money. The relationships should be reciprocal. I always tell my grantees, I can’t do my job and be seen as effective in my job if I don’t have good, strong, effective nonprofit organizations to invest in. So they need me as much as I need them, but that’s not actually how the relationship works. Right. Instead, it’s all the need is over there. I have the carrots, right. I have the dollars and how do I make grantees and partners bend over backwards to get those dollars? And that’s the dynamic that we need to change. So I really struggle with what nonprofits should do. I think that it’s like asking the question of, “What should black people do to advance racial justice?” I also really struggle with that question. Yes, as a society, we all need to be in this together, but these are conversations that I feel white folks and people who practice our test to anti-black racism. I think that these are conversations they need to have amongst themselves that we can’t always be a part of. And so I don’t know, I don’t think that’s exactly the answer that you wanted, but I don’t think that the nonprofits that I’ve come in contact with are doing most things right. You know?

Nicole Campbell: Yeah, and I think calling out that privilege and calling out that power that sits within that relationship, and I think we sort of talk around that a lot, but naming it and saying, “Then how do we strengthen this relationship?” And a lot of the onus is on the privileged, I think is a really important way to look at it. And I don’t think we do it enough. So yeah, so thank you for bringing that up.

Melanie Brown: Yeah, and it’s hard. And I mean, I hope I don’t sound, you know, like I’ve figured it all out. I talk often about DEI work and work around belonging being a journey. We’re all on a personal journey, right. There is a privilege that I have by working, not just in philanthropy, but at the largest foundation in the world. Right. I need to…even though I may not feel like I walked through the world with privilege as a black woman, I am an English speaking, American, you know, natural born American…all of these things that we are told give us privilege. Right. I went to university, I went to an Ivy league school. These are all things that give me privilege that, although I may not see them right away and recognize that, I have to acknowledge that that still does change how I move through the world.

Melanie Brown: And so, this idea that we’re all on a journey is one that I think we all have to embrace in order to have these conversations. I just want to give one quick shout out to The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond in New Orleans, and they do a great training. And one of the questions that they ask is, you know, I won’t get the question right, this is horrible, but it’s basically asking you: are you employed? Right. Do you enjoy the life that you enjoy because other people are poor?

Nicole Campbell: Yeah, that’s a great question, it’s really deep.

Melanie Brown: It’s deep and so the people who go there and you’re like, “I’m woke, I’m about the work, I’m doing the racial justice thing, I’m here.” And they ask all of us that same question. Right. And do you benefit from people being poor? And what does that mean for you? So it’s all a journey that we need to be on. But just to wrap up to, you know, get to your questions, I’d like philanthropy to listen to its grantees, to listen and to change what it’s doing.

Nicole Campbell: Nice, and we’re going to share the link to The People’s Institute so people can learn more about it. We’ll put that all in the show notes. So thank you for sharing that resource. So I know we talked a lot about what philanthropy could be doing more of, which is incredibly helpful. What do you think that we should be doing less of as a sector?

Melanie Brown: Hmm. What should we be doing less of? So the biggest thing that I think…so when we do a lot of navel-gazing, we’re very focused internally on getting the right strategies and the right language. And I understand why that’s important. I understand that if you’re not communicating to people what you’re doing, and more importantly sometimes, what you’re not doing, you run the risk of everyone coming to you asking for dollars. However, we spend too much time out there. You know, philanthropy is about the love of humanity and love of people. We need to be out amongst the people. Of course, that’s very hard to do right now. But philanthropy needs to do less transaction, less reliance on you come to me, you need money, I decided that you get money, and I’d give you money. Right. That’s very transactional and we need more transformational relationships.

Melanie Brown: So how do we spend less time navel-gazing, trying to craft and wordsmith language, more time out with people who are doing the work, and even letting the work of those people influence our strategies. Right? I mean, this idea that we are so data-driven and we have all the right answers. One, I’m not convinced that that’s true, that we have all the right answers. And if you haven’t brought people along with you, it doesn’t really matter if you have the right answer. Right. And you may have a solution. I would say this, you know, that we create solutions to problems that people didn’t know they have. And so they’re like, “But I have this problem.” Like, yeah, but see, that’s not part of my strategy, that problem, actually I want to help you with this problem. And you’re like, “But that’s not my problem.” And so we need to do less of that, right. Less of centering ourselves and more of centering other people, and less of believing that expertise and knowledge lies in one place, and being more open to that expertise and funds of knowledge coming from, you know, different sources. People who maybe experience the world very different than we do.

Nicole Campbell: I was just about to say that, like these different sources that are not known to you and that you may not “be comfortable with”. And so you don’t trust them and you see them as quote “risky”. Be open to that as well. So I think it’s all stemming back to what you said about listening, right? Because at the core of it all, you listen, you develop that relationship, and it becomes less transactional.

Melanie Brown: You listen and then you act, right? Because it’s one thing to listen and say, “I hear you, I got it, thanks, and now I’m going to keep doing what I was doing.” It’s another thing to say, “Well, I’ve listened and I hear you, and I’m going to take what you said and change how I show up, and change what I do, and change how I invest or who I invest in.” That is how we finish that…you know, that’s what the full action looks like.

Nicole Campbell: Agreed. So Melanie, your responses and this conversation has been so insightful, and timely, and powerful. And I want to ask you a question to help us continue to grow knowledge through books and people we should learn from or about to close this out. What book do you think we should read next? Or what artists do you think we should be paying attention to?

Melanie Brown:

Wow. I love that question. So I’m going to say Ibram Kendi, who wrote how to be an anti-racist. I have had the pleasure of meeting Ibram and being in contact with him. And I want to just…he is a gentle soul. And I think just the way that he thinks about these issues is brilliant. And so I like his work a lot. I’m reading, I’m a little bit late on this, but I’m reading Just Mercy right now, by Bryan Stevenson. I know most people have already read it, but it’s just so beautifully written. And it just tells the stories of people that I personally too often forget about. Right. When I talk about all the things that I talk about related to justice, I don’t think I’m thinking about people who are on death row. And I just appreciate mercy, right? Give people mercy, give people grace. And so I think that he is a voice that I hope we continue to elevate. Yeah, those are the two…that’s what I’m reading. That’s what I’m reading right now.


Nicole Campbell: Well, thank you so much for sharing both of these books. They are both very powerful. And I think, again, just like this conversation, very relevant, particularly for the moment that we’re in and in which we find ourselves. So we are going to include the links to each of those books in the show notes so that people can learn more and pick them up.

Melanie Brown: Awesome.

Nicole Campbell: Well, look, Melanie, I don’t even know where to start. This conversation, it really has been amazing. And it has inspired me to continue down on my listening tour, right? Listening to what’s happening around all of us in the sector and pushing the organizations and people I work with to continue to listen. So I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us about your thoughts and insights about the sector, and most importantly, to share things that we could practically be doing next, which is really important. And so you’re going to help other leaders continue to build bravely. So thank you again for joining us.

Melanie Brown: Thank you, Nic. Thank you for this opportunity. 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.

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Achieving Sustainability by Being a Global Connector with Amanda Haynes

This interview is a must-listen for leaders who want to build robust organizations carefully and are interested in seeing the global perspectives that are present within the sector in order to build big-bet organizations that are community-led and focused. Amanda has a strong track record for the successful development and implementation of new business and project ventures. You’ll see this expertise, her deliberateness, and thoughtfulness come through in our conversation as well. Her responses will make you rethink value and appreciate the importance of reflection in your work.

As Amanda shares in our conversation, let’s reimagine what’s possible.

Listen to the podcast here:


About Amanda Haynes

Amanda Haynes is a founding member and former CEO of ASPIRE Foundation (Barbados) Inc.

ASPIRE is an initiative focused on accelerating local solutions to priority socio economic issues through support to innovative nonprofits, corporate citizen engagement and an enabling environment for the third sector.

As a management professional and writer, Amanda’s expertise includes corporate social impact, venture philanthropy, change management, cultural policy, design thinking and emerging Caribbean sectors (third sector, creative industries). She has a strong track record for the successful development and implementation of new business and project ventures. In 2019, Amanda was invited to be a member of the African Diaspora Philanthropy Advisors Network (New York) and Global Advisor to Kingston Creative (Jamaica).

She graduated with an M.A. (Distinction) International Cultural Policy & Management from the University of Warwick in 2018.


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. We’re entering the second week of Women’s History Month. And this week, we’re sharing a conversation with Amanda Haynes. Amanda is a social sector, leader writer and creative. Her expertise includes corporate social impact, venture philanthropy, change management, cultural policy design thinking, and emerging Caribbean sectors. At the time of this interview, Amanda was still the CEO of Aspire Foundation, Barbados, Inc. An initiative focused on accelerating local solutions to socioeconomic issues, through support, to innovative non-profits corporate citizen engagement and an enabling environment for the nonprofit sector.

Nicole Campbell: As of January 2021, Amanda is no longer the CEO of Aspire, but that’s why you’ll hear us reference Aspire and talk about its work during our conversation. Amanda has a strong track record for the successful development and implementation of new business and project ventures. She’s helped to stand up a capacity building program in the nonprofit sector in Barbados, where I’m from. Pay attention to how we talk about the nonprofit sector in Barbados, which sounds quite similar to the U.S. non-profit sector, and possibly the nonprofit sector where you’re sitting if you’re not in the United States or Barbados.

Nicole Campbell: That’s the global connection of the sector. I’ve had a chance to work alongside Amanda on strategy development, and she is so thoughtful and practical as to how she approaches capacity building. You’ll see this expertise, her deliberateness and thoughtfulness come through in our conversation as well. Her responses will make you rethink value and appreciate the importance of reflection in your work. This interview is a must listen for leaders who want to build robust organizations carefully and are interested in seeing the global perspectives that are present within the sector in order to build big, bad organizations that are community led and focused as Amanda shares in our conversation. Let’s re-imagine what’s possible. And with that, here is Amanda Haynes.

Nicole Campbell: Hi, Amanda. I am so excited to have you join us today for our conversation about leadership within the nonprofit sector and to get us started, can you tell us about Aspire Foundation, Barbados, Inc., your role there and Aspire’s immediate priorities.

Amanda Haynes: For sure. Thanks so much for having me, Nicole. So, as you said, I am Amanda Hanyes and I am the chief executive officer of Aspire Foundation. We just call it Aspire for short. And what Aspire is about is really building up the sustainability of what we call the civic sector. We can also call it the nonprofit sector and nonprofits that change lives. And we do most of this organizational development support, so infrastructure building, certifications, match funding connections with social investors, and increasingly our work is prioritizing advocacy because really it’s that behavioral change that drives long term sustainability.

Nicole Campbell: And so, talk to me about your role within Aspire. What are you doing on a day-to-day basis?

Amanda Haynes: Okay, so day to day, it varies. Of course, with any executive role the is the mundane business operations. So, you know, just making sure bills are paid, making sure all the systems are running effectively, et cetera. And then increasingly, and more excitingly, is engaging partners in the private sector and the public sector to really raise that awareness about sustainable development and the important role that nonprofits, particularly in social leaders, have in that space especially within the event of COVID. So, my work varies day-to-day, just the strategic direction of the company to general management of the company, fundraising, of course. But a lot of partnership building. And yeah, that’s mostly what I enjoy the most.

Nicole Campbell: So, you have said a lot of good things about the work that Aspire is doing, and I want to dig deeper into that and how you’re showing up in different parts of that work. But I do want to take a moment to talk about the fact that Aspire is in Barbados, and a lot of the leaders that we’ve been talking with and having conversations with are based in the United States. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about some of the differences you might be seeing within the sector within Barbados versus the United States, because I know that you focus your work in the Caribbean specifically, but also pay close attention to what’s happening in the United States and around the world. I’d love to get your thoughts on the philanthropic sector in Barbados and then how that’s comparing to the United States and other countries generally.

Amanda Haynes: Yeah. And in terms of the, that’s a big question, number one, but I’m just thinking the the difference and immediate easy difference between Barbados and U.S. would be of course the size, but maybe a level of professional understanding of the sector are really seeing this whole philanthropic and space as a sector in and of itself.

Amanda Haynes: And I think that, you know, because that recognition is now emerging, we are really in a different phase of development. Again, it’s almost emerging here, whereas I feel like it’s becoming more well, there’s a push to make philanthropy more equitable in the U S and in the UK. And maybe in spaces where this is already a recognized sector, in and of itself, beyond those just within the sector. Whereas, here, it’s really, not starting from scratch, but moving from an informal understanding of the sector to something that’s more formal. And what makes it exciting is because we’re in a phase of change globally, it means that maybe we can really get it right, and maybe create an infrastructure that is even more sustainable from the beginning, because we’re now putting those infrastructural changes into place. So, in addition to that, I would also say the, the financial context is very different.

Amanda Haynes: So, of course, you know, if we think about statistics, I believe it’s up to maybe a third of social leaders, in what we would call developing countries, don’t really access the level of funding someone from the outside may access to come into the same region and implement social change work and activities. So, when we think about the investment in sustainable development at the community level, the context of what is available there is also vastly different. And part of the law of advocacy is really about saying, “Hey, we’re part of that global philanthropy movement. We’re part of that map and we need to be more visible.” So, I would say in terms of visibility, in terms of size, and perhaps in terms of formal understanding or recognition of the sector. Of course, I’m not erasing the challenges and the morphing challenges, especially in, you know, in Latin America, et cetera, politically, that a lot of civil society spaces are facing. However, there definitely is a different level of public recognition and understanding in other jurisdictions. I rambled a bit there, but I’m here trying to organize thoughts.

Nicole Campbell: No, it’s all really clear because what you’re pointing out are some really critical issues that exist within the civil sector, within the nonprofit sector. And you’re talking about nonprofit organizations, right? Those organizations that are fundraising and trying to get resources to do their work. And so, a question that’s coming up for me in all this is yes, those are really critical issues you talked about such as having the need to raise advocacy and become more visible and receive more resources. How do we professionally recognize the sector more? How is Aspire showing up? Because not only are you a nonprofit in that space, but you’re a capacity builder, so you’re the ones that actually are coming in and helping with encouraging advocacy, raising visibility, providing resources and building that infrastructure.

Nicole Campbell: So, I’d love to hear how Aspire is showing up to provide support and resources to these organizations, and then the unique challenges that you all might be facing, given your role as that sort of intermediary capacity building organization.

Amanda Haynes: Yeah. I mean, how we’re showing up over the last four years has really been directly reaching out to existing nonprofit organizations. And, you know, our main program is the Aspire Incubator Program, which is really a 12-month business development program for nonprofits. So, what that does is connect nonprofits to the resources around business planning governance, which is really core financial management communications as well as fundraising and human resources. And what we do is say, well, we take what you do seriously. And with that approach, we’re here to help in your really key administrative functions. So, the support that we provide through that program is incredibly practical and it really is designed to help organizations make it through their day to day more efficiently.

Amanda Haynes: In addition to that, a lot of that work in governance, specifically, is about making policy kind of more understandable. So, really breaking down regulatory requirements into what exactly organizations are expected to live up to and to do in order to build the type of partnerships that they want to. And finally, another part of the role within that program, is really acting as that bridge between people who want to help and people who, perhaps, do want to develop into that role of social investor, but don’t quite know where to start or who to connect with. So, by working with, rather than trying to go big and work with every organization, we kind of focus more on depth rather than skills. So, we work with seven potential, big bet organizations every year, really help and work help them strengthen their internal infrastructure, make really targeted connections to exist in a local funders and also, really help them get on top of the regulatory requirements.

Amanda Haynes: Because quite a bit is shifting policy wise here. So, a lot of organizations do need that direct support. Beyond our programming, now though, we realize that, yes, it might be great to focus on depth, focus on working with these organizations on an annual basis. But we spoke to that wider story of the sector of really untold stories of social innovation that need to be illustrated. So, what we have really gone into is film, short film and that hasn’t come out yet. And I mean, it’s, it’s very simple. It’s very, very obvious, but the truth is, is that there’s not, again, there’s not a lot of visibility around these stories of social innovation on the Island and often, it isn’t framed within the understanding of innovation.

Amanda Haynes: It might be framed within the understanding of just helping out or just doing good work rather than really saying, well, this is immense value that’s being contributed to the society and you know, these are effects, et cetera. So, our work is moving from just that one-on-one and very direct infrastructure of building within organizations to also expanding that story around the worth and the value of the sector. And that’s so important because that’s what really helps people to understand and reframe any misconceptions about charity that already exists, especially even understandings about philanthropy as well, because they’re preconceived ideas of what philanthropy is and what it can be. And the truth is, you know, every place has a different culture of giving and we have a very strong one. So, we’re really moving more into promoting and building awareness around that.

Nicole Campbell: I think the work that Aspire is doing is not only critical, but it really is innovative. I had the opportunity to meet the leaders that were a part of that incubator. And I was just so blown away when they were telling their stories about their organizational development from where they started, when they first entered the program to where they were when they were graduating. And it was just amazing to see the level of support and resources that you provided to each of those organizations. So, I’ve been talking about business planning and governance support and communications help, all of those ways to build up the infrastructure of those organizations, which I think is just incredible. And when you’re talking about expanding to look at storytelling about the sector itself, again, that’s something that I saw coming through in the stories that were being told by those leaders that were sitting within the incubator, right.

Nicole Campbell: They had a real understanding of the role that they themselves could play within the sector. So, I just think that you’re doing such incredible work. And I’d love to hear, I know you talked about serving in this role of connection, right? Being a connector for these organizations and leaders and you mentioned the, the for-profit sector as well. What does that connection look like? How are you going out and forming those connections? How are you thinking about connecting the civil sector with the for-profit investors?

Amanda Haynes: Yeah. So, right now, if I’m thinking just practically, how it looks is that the entire program, you know, before we talked about the financial contexts that we exist in and how that is really a key barrier to sustainably implementing some of these types of programs. And the truth is the only way that this is able to work is because up to 60% of the program are the business support services. All of this is volunteered by professionals from the private sector or from the for-profit sector.

Amanda Haynes: And before, actually, we were able to do that because one of our founders is very much from that sector and he leveraged a lifetime of relationships to really encourage individual professionals to be a part of the program. Now, what we have is rather than just having individuals signing up to the program as a way to give back, we’re having private companies sign up to the program really is like a corporate volunteer program and it’s skills based. So, they’re able to volunteer their skills in kind to these organizations to help them become more sustainable. Now, of course, the master plan is beyond just a corporate give-back program or corporate volunteering is really about rethinking the creation of value and moving beyond just thinking financially, just trying to see, okay, where does the expertise lay within different sectors and within different segments of our community overall. How do we actually strengthen that ecosystem and how do we align our individual goals with sustainable development?

Amanda Haynes: And in doing that, how do we then advance society overall to operate more collaboratively and, you know, there is the achievement of the UN 30 sustainable development goals. But even if that didn’t exist, the question is, how do we move from those silos to closer knit and more interconnected community, especially when it comes to the use of resources. So, now we’re moving from that very practical, direct support from corporate volunteers being a part of the program, we’re actually seeing that translate a bit to persons forming relationships, and then maybe actually joining nonprofit boards. So, you do see the transfer of that knowledge and that relationship kind of living beyond a program and beyond the formal Aspire space, which is amazing to see and we’re really excited about moving to another phase, which again, is rethinking what other types of value can we help to connect organizations to.

Amanda Haynes: And a lot of that, again, is really around knowledge. Our economy, as you know, would have taken a huge hit after the pandemic and that really impacted or has impacted the ability of the private sector and individual organizations to give when it comes to monetary donations and maybe the level of giving that was there before. On the flip side, it has really just reignited a spirit of giving. And so, we found even more individuals and companies and professionals really flocking to not only the program, but any opportunity to help create value that translates to the community level. So, right now we’re actually, re-imagining where all that would go. And when I say we, I don’t necessarily just mean Aspire, but also our other peers within the space. Because we, you know, we are aware of what each other are doing and all of those things, but we need to work more intimately to build that bigger picture of a collaborative ecosystem.

Amanda Haynes: So, for part of your question, I should say we have to plan, but we’re also kind of reimagining what’s possible on the context of COVID-19 and how that accelerated the inequalities that exist, but also the opportunities for collaboration and change.

Nicole Campbell: Yeah. I think the concept that you were talking about, like rethinking value is, is really complex. And I like how clearly you articulated, this is how we are doing that. We are focusing on, you know, and asking ourselves the question of where does the expertise lie? How do we strengthen this ecosystem to make sure that we’re all working collaboratively so that we can ultimately help vulnerable and marginalized communities? So, it really resonates with me. And you mentioned a term earlier, big bet organization, which is something that I talk about a lot, like how do you place these big bets on smaller organizations, on grassroots organizations, that are within the community, but definitely huge players within this ecosystem.

Nicole Campbell: And I love Aspire’s focus on it. And so with that in mind, were you going to say something, Amanda?

Amanda Haynes: Yeah. Yeah. It was because you did ask originally, you know, you asked also about challenges, and I kind of jumped over that. When you said that it kind of jogged my memory. I did want to say that one of the biggest challenges right now, honestly, is because the needs are so visceral and real when it comes to just being able to, whether it’s losing your job or being able to access food and what we were talking about, those very visceral effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, because the program is designing, or even our vision that we’re talking about is very much about the long game, is very much about making an investment to see something that lives on for generations, that is difficult to not only hold fast to at this time, but is a difficult one to push at a time when needs are so immediate. Yet, at the same time, we have to think beyond this moment.

Amanda Haynes: So, that has been a challenge trying to strike that balance and not wanting to lose sight of what is really needed right now. But also, what we need to do now to kind of future proof our communities, really. In connection to that, that question of social investment and being able to make a big bet, it has been harder to really try and find those types of funders or more flexible philanthropists or social investors, those people who are willing to make those bets and partner with an organization like Aspire to bridge that gap and connect people who want to make that investment in the organizations and the leaders that need it. So yeah, that’s definitely been a huge challenge. And one intensified by the pandemic, I would say.

Nicole Campbell: Yeah, I’ve seen that come up in so many conversations I’ve been having with leaders in this space, right? This question about how do you respond to the immediate needs, but also keep in mind that your response should be setting this community up for sustainability, right? And longevity. How do you do that and balance those two things? So, with that in mind though, a question that I have for you is how can nonprofits that are trying to fundraise and receive resources to do their work, what should they, what should they be thinking about at this point? What should they be focused on and doing during this time, particularly with that balance in mind?

Amanda Haynes: I would say one of the number one thing based on all of the non-profits that we’ve been working with over this year and ourselves is actually making time to reflect on what is a priority. What is the priority now and what do your beneficiaries, or your partners need right now? And what will they need three years from now? And I know that may not be popular because a lot of people are advising to focus on this moment and on the immediate need. But, I’m saying of course, that we’re living in a highly unpredictable context, more or less. I think reflection is probably the most important because I feel like a lot of us really did going to overdrive and have been tending to very much to the immediate needs of those we exist to serve just on the ball, almost like a knee-jerk reaction.

Amanda Haynes: But I think taking a step back and reflecting and kind of having a feel of, okay, there have been changes, where have those changes happened, what is different know that I would never have imagined before. And who else can I talk to about this as experiencing the same thing? Let me just take a step back and kind of relook at my context. And even so, take a step back and re-look at the resources that I was using to do what I have to do. The way I was doing what I had to do. How has our reality changed and maybe, how do we know how to change to respond to it? So, I think at the core of all the other advice that is out there, or the core steps that we know we have to take, reflection for me is probably the most important of them all.

Nicole Campbell: I like that, you know, to focus on taking that space and time to be introspective reflective, and thinking about how can I show up in this space? What do I need? So, I think it’s a really important point. And it’s something like, again, I agree with you, it’s not being pushed, right? It’s a time to be still, you’re not being told that.

Amanda Haynes: I do think it is incredibly important because I feel like even something as simple as this zoom, this podcast, there’s some practices I think that were not as normalized before the pandemic that are now. And what that means on the level of, are the actions or the activities that we choose to take up, to execute whatever our individual missions are and various things, that does have some implications. And I think it does present new opportunities about what was possible as well. And it, it really is a time, I think, a rare opportunity to reimagine what we can do and how we do it.

Nicole Campbell: And do you have that same advice for philanthropies and philanthropists?

Amanda Haynes: Of course. Yeah. Even more so. I think it’s a lesson in the importance of flexibility and equity as well. Like when we look and see how many, how many organizations have been bottlenecked, in the midst of an emergency, because of the fundraising policies or practices, it really is an opportunity to kind of think, to look back and see, okay, how am I actually approaching the process and management of fundraising? How am I actually setting my priorities? Are those priorities really what the society needs or is it just what we think is needed? And how do we assess that and how do we test that and how are we accountable for it?

Amanda Haynes: So, I think it is a rare opportunity to actually achieve a level of change that creates the sustainability that we love to talk about so much. And yeah, I do think it’s an invitation to change and to reflect and be real. And that is the truth. And just to be real, I mean, it’s well known that a lot of philanthropic practices have been top down for a very long time. And there needs to be more of the community voice in the decision-making processes of boards, et cetera. So, I don’t want to yap on about that because I think that that’s very clear and is there but now, we just have the opportunity to act and make those changes, and I’m really happy to see those changes starting to be made in a way that they really haven’t been a priority for the last five years.

Nicole Campbell: So, you talked about this need to take some time and create the space to be reflective. And it ultimately to think about sustainability, longevity, and how you’re going to show up for the community’s interests. And when I think about sustainability, and I know you think the same way or a similar way because we’ve had lots of conversations about infrastructure and capacity building. And I want to ask you how is Aspire taking that space? How are you all looking inwardly and thinking about your infrastructure and building out the organization, so that you can show up for the communities and organizations and leaders that you’re serving. And I know that this is a really rare moment because I’m asking a capacity builder how they themselves build capacity, but I’d love to hear how you all are thinking about this and, and what your priorities are, particularly when it comes to building out your infrastructure and taking that space and time to be reflective.

Amanda Haynes: Yeah. So, there are different levels to that. So, first we internally as a team, we had to block out time. I mean, it just ended up being a week, which I don’t think is long enough, but, we’re planning for the next program and we actually had to take a step back for a week and re-look at all of our programming and how it works and compare that to all of the qualitative, as well as quantitative experiences of the 14 organizations who just graduated the program that we’ve been providing support to throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Look back at that again, look at the lessons learned over the last four years, and really from the ground up question most of the features of the program. Did it do what it was set out to do? How was it successful? How was it not?

Amanda Haynes: We had a couple of framing questions. I wish I had them immediately, you know, just in front of me, but we did have framing questions for assessing the impact of the program to date. And also looking at the experience of each of the organizations within the programs, as well as the feedback from our core funders and whatnot. So, we were evaluating and assessing the program over this time. Including the goals and the founding assumptions. So, there were a few things we identified that would have been even unsaid, founding assumptions of the program that we now completely don’t agree with, which is actually why advocacy has been pulled out as a core program moving forward, because so many of the sustainability issues within the sector are tied to misconceptions, whether they are misconceptions within the sector, misconceptions in the public sector, or just public understanding of philanthropy and charity.

Amanda Haynes: And we also realize that there has been a lot of work that we started to do that wasn’t really formally accounted for in the everyday. So, we had this one program that we’ve actually now split into four different streams. It is just doing stuff like that reflects on things that we assumed in the beginning. What did the research see? What did reality see? How do we now address this moving forward? Another priority for us is capacity because the biggest lesson is that it is great to do these things, but we have to build our own capacity as well. So, for us, fundraising is a top priority and we’re aiming to meet our fundraising goal by December next year. And we had to really look again at what our on sustainability model is, what our own sustainability model is for our organization.

Amanda Haynes: Because currently we are 100% donor funded and we operate kind of on a project basis, we see each phase of our business plan as a new project. And internally, we are looking at that and saying, okay, we actually have to set a pathway to being more self-reliant over time. So, looking at what components of our programming should really be project based versus how can we actually implement initiatives that are revenue earning? So, really looking at that whole model. So yeah, it is both program redevelopment in light of the lessons learned and change context on what our nonprofits and the civic sector actually needs. And also, what role we play best versus what our peers do best and identifying what we were doing that maybe perhaps doesn’t sit best for this.

Amanda Haynes: So, for example, if we were talking about the enabling environment and advocacy, there is another organization here whose expertise is policy development, and they do incredible work in that space. The gap that we feel is there is translating, being able to talk different languages, being able to speak to government, to the private sector, to nonprofits. So, what we can do is advocate for the enabling business environment, specific sector organizations, and the aspects of policy associated with that. It’s been kind of refining what we do, how we fit in the space, where we can partner, and then also being more real and hardcore about our own sustainability and capacity, because we’re really adamant about not, not rolling out something that we can’t sustain. So, next year is our test to build part of that and, and see where we go from there.

Nicole Campbell:

This approach is great, right? Because it has all of the elements of just being an evaluative type of approach, where you’re seeing that we are building capacity, but we’re going to challenge the way we’ve been thinking, we’re going to challenge our assumptions. We’re going to look at our infrastructure. We’re going to think about how we might restructure programming to make sure that we are having the most impact that we can have, and even looking at how you’re generating revenue and diversifying those sources. So, I think it’s the way you all are approaching this is so thoughtful and so deliberate and really are walking the walk, right. You’re not just talking about it, you’re actually doing it internally as well, which is amazing. One thing I’d love to hear from you is what are you most excited about for this coming year?

Amanda Haynes:

Oh gosh. For Aspire, there are so many things. I literally was just talking to my colleagues about this. I’m really excited for what we call the third cohort, but next year is going to be, I would say almost the final phase of our pilot and we’re going to be working with a new group of seven organizations next year. I am really excited to see how that goes because of all the changes and, you know, everything that we’ve been doing and working on with the organizations that have passed through the program and all of the volunteers and everything. I’m really excited to see how the program rolls out with the changes that we’ve been making and tweaking and everything. So yeah, I really want to see what experience the organizations and social leaders participating in the program is going to be like. Because I think its going to be awesome.

Amanda Haynes: In addition to that, I’m really excited for our building role in advocacy because the real long-term change will come from helping or contributing to that mindset shift about charities, about nonprofits, about philanthropy, but about what giving really means and the transformative power of it. So, I know that that is going to be really exciting to see. I feel like technically I was supposed to say, I look forward to fundraising and making sure we are good for another 10 years. I look forward to everyone that says, yes, I am pledging three to ten million, you know, all of those things are there, too, logically. But I really am looking forward to see what happens from all the changes and improvements that we’ve been making and really getting our word out there.

Amanda Haynes: And when I say our, I don’t just mean Aspire, but these stories of social innovation, it’s so simple, but it’s so transformative and so inspiring and kind of reframes. I think it will give all of us a new lens on our everyday and the things that happened that we know nothing about. And that’s really what I am I’m excited for.

Nicole Campbell: I’m excited as well to see how you all use your voice within the sector, how you raise your hand and raise your voice within the sector over the next year or so. I thank you for sharing that. This conversation has been incredible. I really like how you are really, you know, pushing the sector organizations, leaders to rethink value and reimagine what’s possible. I want to ask you a question to help us continue to build knowledge through books and people we should learn from to close us out. What book do you think we should read next? Or what artists do you think we should be paying attention to?

Amanda Haynes: What type of artists? I should have asked you this first.

Nicole Campbell: Any type of artist. Any type. Musician, visual art…

Amanda Haynes: And I would say, I’m going to cheat and not pick one artist, but a lot of them. So, Fresh Milk Barbados and Kingston Creative just had a Caribbean arts grant. And as part of that, on YouTube, they had this salon series that features, I can’t remember how many, it may be 25, but they’re really just some of the most visionary contemporary artists across the Caribbean, all linguistic territories. And there’s just so, so much richness coming from the conversations that they’ve been having, conversations like this, that are about art and creativity and philosophy, but increasingly about social impact as well. So, I think from the perspective of kind of re-imagining, just going into that archive would be phenomenal.

Amanda Haynes: I could always send you the link as well, but that was really great. And in terms of a book, I would say The Post Development Reader. I am horrible because I am not remembering the names of the authors at this moment, but The Post Development Reader is really great. It has a lot of ideas, suggestions, and outlines about reframing our thinking and the words that we use within this space, because they always say, you know, words are very, very important because it frames our understanding and then later our actions. So, on that whole theme of re-imagining social impact, re-imagining value creation, just reimagining giving out what it means to be human. The Post Development Reader is stellar for sure.

Nicole Campbell: Well, thank you so much for sharing both of those. And what I’ll do is put the links to everything that you mentioned in the show notes, so that people can go take a closer look and check it out and learn more.

Nicole Campbell: Amanda, thank you. You have shared tremendous insights incredible knowledge with us that I think leaders can actually use within their own organizations to help them go bravely, which is really important and just reiterating the power of storytelling, right? The ability to tell a story out loud, use your voice and really engage in advocacy within the sector, which for a long time, I think advocacy, a lot of organizations have shied away from, and I think particularly in 2020, it’s reiterating and reinforcing how important it is to make sure that our stories are being told. So, I want to thank you again for taking the time to talk with us and for joining the conversation today.

Amanda Haynes: And thank you as well. I like these conversations to learn, also. So, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.

Nicole Campbell: Of course.

-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.

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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:


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.

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The Power of Being Responsive to the Needs of the Moment with Sherrilyn Ifill

As nonprofits, we need to be responsive to the people’s needs at the moment while tackling the bigger structural issues as well. This is a powerful message that this episode’s guest can never overemphasize. Nicole Campbell brings in Sherrilyn Ifill, the seventh and current President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the nation’s premier civil rights legal organization. In this conversation, Sherrilyn talks about the work they are doing at LDF and how it is transforming the lives of countless discriminated and disadvantaged members of the black community. She also shares her advice for nonprofits and philanthropies to build better. Listen in and learn about the immense power of being responsive and other lessons and information born out of decades in service of the people.

Listen to the podcast here:


About Sherrilyn Ifill

NPDU 1 | Legal Defense Fund

Sherrilyn Ifill is the seventh President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), the nation’s premier civil rights legal organization. LDF was founded in 1940 by legendary civil rights lawyer (and later Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall. Ifill served as an Assistant Counsel for LDF from 1988-1993, litigating voting rights cases. She left LDF to teach at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, where in addition to teaching in the classroom, she litigated civil rights cases alongside her students for 20 years. Ifill returned to LDF to lead the organization in 2013 and has emerged as one of the nation’s leading voices in the struggle for racial justice and equality.

Under her leadership, LDF has intensified its litigation challenging voter suppression, racial discrimination in the criminal justice system and housing discrimination, and has taken a leadership role in resisting federal efforts to roll back civil rights gains in areas such as affirmative action, employment discrimination and school discipline policies. The organization is at the forefront of civil rights organizations challenging unconstitutional policing practices in cities around the country.

A critically acclaimed author, her scholarly articles and her 2007 book “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century,” reflect Ifill’s lifelong engagement in and analysis of issues of race and American public life. Ifill graduated from Vassar College in 1984 with a B.A. in English and earned her J.D. from New York University School of Law in 1987. She has received honorary doctorates from New York University, Bard College, Fordham Law School and CUNY Law School. In 2019, Ifill was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. She serves on the board of the Learning Policy Institute and on the Advisory board for the Profiles in Courage Award. She is a past chair of U.S. board of the Open Society Foundations, one of the largest philanthropic supporters of civil rights and liberties in the country.

Read 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.

Nic Campbell:     This is such a phenomenal way to start a podcast, having Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, be your first guest. Now, this a win any way you look at it. But what was especially incredible about this conversation is that the way Sherrilyn spoke about the transformation work of the Legal Defense Fund, the moment we’re in as a society, and her thoughts about how we should be responding in this moment, all spoke to the ethos of this podcast.

Nic Campbell:     Sherrilyn is the seventh President and Director Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the nation’s premiere civil rights legal organization. LDF was founded in 1940 by legendary civil rights lawyer and later supreme court justice, Thurgood Marshall. Sherrilyn served as an Assistant Counsel for LDF, litigating voting rights cases.

Nic Campbell:     She left LDF to teach at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, where in addition to teaching in the classroom, she litigated civil rights cases alongside her students for 20 years. Sherrilyn returned to LDF to lead the organization in 2013 and has emerged as one of the nation’s leading voices in the struggle for racial justice and equality. LDF is at the forefront of civil rights organizations challenging unconstitutional policing practices in cities around the country. She’s also a critically acclaimed author and serves on many nonprofit boards.

Nic Campbell:     This interview was recorded back in May 2020, when we were buried in the social justice and racial justice movement along with the pandemic. Which, I would argue, we’re still in now. Sherrilyn does such a masterful job of talking about the work of LDF and the work that’s needed now more than ever, particularly in the United States. Sherrilyn is very clear that LDF is unapologetically and intentionally focused on race; recognizing that race has many other intersections. She also shares her advice for nonprofits and philanthropies to build better. I really want you to listen and absorb all of the information that Sherrilyn shares about the state of the sector, society, and the immense power of being responsive. I think that this is an episode that should be required listening. And with that, here is Sherrilyn Ifill.

Nic Campbell:     Hi Sherrilyn, it is so great to have you joining us for our Fast Build Leader Series. I am really excited about our conversation today.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I am thrilled to be here. Thank you so much for reaching out and I’m looking forward to our talk.

Nic Campbell:     Okay, to get us started, can you tell us about the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, your role there, and LDF’s immediate priority?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Sure, so the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was formed by Thurgood Marshall in 1940. This year [2020] is our 80th anniversary and we had planned a big gala, by the way, at Lincoln Center that had to be pulled down because of the pandemic. But we were originally part of the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund was created to do the kind of litigation work that, you know, we’ve become known for – for 80 years. It’s an extraordinary organization if you think about it being founded in 1940 and what it meant to create an organization of black lawyers in 1940; for the purpose of addressing civil rights and for black people.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Of course, the organization is multiracial and has been almost since its beginning, but at its core, it’s an African American legacy institution. That institution being comprised of lawyers with the intention of using the legal system as a way of dismantling and undermining Jim Crow- “breaking the back of Jim Crow”, Thurgood Marshall would say – it was an extraordinary undertaking.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      This is an organization that has, over 80 years, hired the best and the brightest; the most brilliant law students from the finest law schools in the country who have committed themselves to doing this work. As a result, it has become the incubator of so much talent. Many of the people leading the nation’s civil rights organizations today are LDF alumni. On my second go-round, I was an LDF attorney from 1988 to 1993; I was a Voting Rights Attorney. Vanita Gupta who heads the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is a former LDF Attorney. Kristen Clarke, who heads the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is a former LDF Attorney. Christina Swarns, who’s the new Head of the Innocence Project, a few years ago was our Litigation Director. People like Alan Jenkins, who was the Founder of The Opportunity Agenda, was an LDF attorney when I was at LDF. And then people who are just influencers out in the world: Maya Wiley was at LDF when I was a young lawyer at LDF, Kirsten Levingston who’s at Wellspring, and Todd Cox.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      It really is the incubator for generations. Deval Patrick, the former Governor of Massachusetts and for a brief period, a former presidential candidate. Eric Holder was an intern when he was a student in law school. It’s extraordinary, the roster of people who have been trained at LDF and that’s really what we do. We train leaders who are deeply grounded in the Law of Civil Rights and in the Constitution, and who have the highest level of skill. So, that’s the organization I’m privileged to lead. LDF separated from the NAACP in 1957. We’ve been entirely separate organizations for a very long time, although people continue to confuse us. I returned to LDF in 2013 to lead the organization.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I had been away for 20 years, teaching law school, starting law clinics, and being a Civil Rights Lawyer in Baltimore – which was an extraordinary and important experience for my return. I was doing a lot of communications work as well. I had a regular column in The Root. I joined the Board of the Open Society Foundations and then Chaired the Board of the U.S. programs of the Open Society Foundation. I was spending a lot of time in the foundation world as well.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I brought all that back to LDF at what I thought was a critical moment. I recognize the need for LDF to refresh itself in many ways and to be responsive to what, I think, had been seismic shifts that happen in this country in the ‘80s and the ‘90s that had never really been attended to by civil rights organizations.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I was quite intentional about intending to lift the narrative on race and civil rights in the country and to be there to shape about race and not just to do the work of civil rights litigation and policy work. It has been successful at a very, very difficult time in this country. I’m very proud of the role that LDF has played and the kind of leadership that people expect from us when there are police killings of unarmed African Americans, when Donald Trump describes people marching in Charlottesville as “good people on both sides”, when Ben Carson really turns his back on the very poor of the Fair Housing Act, when Betsy DeVos turns her back on the core of public education. People expect to hear from us, and we have a voice, we have a platform. That platform, however, is just the thinnest part because underneath it is this extraordinary litigation work that we’re doing in the courts where we’re trying to make seismic structural change.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Our work is focused almost entirely on the South; I would say 90% of our cases are in the South. Although, we’ve got housing discrimination cases that we’ve done in Detroit. We have a case right now that we filed in Cleveland, challenging water tax liens. We do a lot of work in Baltimore, though many people think of that as the South. We were part of the team that sued the NYPD for stop and frisk. We do things around the country, but the core of the work remains in the South rally because, first of all, the majority of black people still live in the South. And we are quite intentional that we are a racial justice organization. The term ‘civil rights’ is quite expansive now. We are quite unapologetically and quite intentionally focused on race. Recognizing that race intersects with many other things so, at the intersection of race and gender, or race and sexual orientation, or race and poverty; all of those things are intrinsically part of the work, but we lead with race because we think it is critical to continue to have that very intentional and clear conversation.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      With the recognition that that focus of our work has over 80 years, cascaded in such a way as to support the advancement of civil rights for all racial minorities, but actually not just racial minorities; for women, for members of the LGBTQ community.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Everything that we do is to create a vision and an understanding of what rights and justice means in a way that recognizes the full humanity and dignity of every person.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Our work is never exclusive, but the people that we represent and the communities in whose voice we speak and whose history and reality we try to bring into those courtrooms every day, are African Americans. We’re at trial right now, as a matter of fact; the first virtual trial…maybe, the first virtual trial in the country but certainly the first major civil rights trial that’s a virtual trial. This is the case in Florida trying to vindicate the rights of formerly incarcerated people to vote. It’s all being done remotely and it’s quite extraordinary. Our lawyers have been preparing and they’re working with lawyers from the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Brennan Center. The voice that we bring is always quite unapologetically on behalf of African American communities whose experience is particular, who suffer from the long history and contemporary reality of anti-black racism that continues to be a part of this country.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      You asked also about, kind of, what the areas are where we work. We work in four principal areas: voting and political participation, economic justice – which encompasses our work in housing and employment -, education, and criminal justice. Those are the four pillars. We often are doing work that’s very particular within those areas – so our Policing Reform Campaign is obviously very much part of our criminal justice work but in that criminal justice work, we do a lot of work challenging jury discrimination, challenging the death penalty. We have a number of clients on death row. We filed suit challenging conditions in the prisons in Arkansas on behalf of inmates who were exposed to COVID. But we also do other things that then we feel are relevant to all those areas. We’re really leaned into and trying to think through various ways to attack algorithmic bias, for example.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Algorithmic bias shows up in criminal justice through risk assessments and gang databases. It shows up in employment. It shows up in housing and lending. It shows up in all kinds of ways. There are lots of things that we do that we feel touch each of those areas of work and don’t fit neatly into any one category. They are truly intersectional and draw on all of the different pillars, but those four pillars are the ones that we think are the ones that potentially unlock the door to equality and opportunity for African Americans.

Nic Campbell:     Wow – so, as President of this iconic organization, what is your advice to nonprofits that fundraise as a significant part of their budget? In other words, what do you think should be top of mind for them now, particularly during this time of uncertainty?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Well, we’ve taken the position that we will not stop fundraising. We recognize the realities of the current moment, so I think that’s the first thing. One of the things that’s so critical and important is that you have to be…let me see if I can describe it this way: when you’re a litigator, as we are at LDF, and you’re working on a really important case, very often the core story is something that happened in the past. You were at trial, they struck all the black people from your jury, you were convicted by an all-white jury, and so forth. Something that happened in the past, we could be working on that case years later – it makes its way to the Supreme Court for five years. Or you applied for a job and another person applied for the job and it’s clear that there was racial discrimination at work. Or we have a whole line of cases in which we bring cases on behalf of people for whom criminal background screens are misused to deny employment.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      So, when you’re working on a case, although that case is really important and the relief you’re seeking is relief that will change things for the future – not just for the individuals in the case but will structurally change things for the future – the event itself happened in the past. The reality of discrimination, for example, is that there are things happening today, like right now while you and I are talking that are important. If you’re not careful, you get so involved in your litigation that you’re not responsive to what is breaking the heart of your people in this moment. One of the things that is vitally important is that every organization involved in work in this space has to be nimble enough to be responsive to what is breaking the heart of your people today. What is cutting off the opportunity for them today.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      When Eric Garner was choked on that street in Staten Island, even though we have many other cases that we were dealing with, you have to be responsive to that. And as these videos began to come out, the consciousness of the country was raised about police violence against unarmed African Americans. Even though this is work that had been, kind of, part of our docket for a long time – we actually litigated the Seminole case in that area, Tennessee versus Garner in the ‘80s – even though it was there, we had to create a policing reform campaign.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We had to decide: the time is right now, and our communities have had it. And now we have to decide we’re going to take resources from across the complex to deal with this issue. So, I think that nimbleness is what people need to see from us. We had to do it after Trump was elected. Trump was elected, we were not expecting it – most people were not – but when he was elected, we knew what it would mean. We knew a Trump Justice Department is not going to be the Eric Holder and the Loretta Lynch Justice Department. And the justice department with their tens of thousands of lawyers is still the main law enforcement apparatus of the country and the Attorney General is the main law enforcement officer, including of the nation’s civil rights laws. We knew we were losing a partner in our core work. We can never have all the resources of the Department of Justice, but we decided that we would have to become a private Attorney General. We would have to become a private DOJ.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We started fundraising from that perspective. We were right, they’re not bringing any voting rights cases. They have stopped doing pattern and practice investigations of police departments, so we had to then get into Tulsa and begin to work with that community to help raise consciousness about the need for policing reform there. We had to continue and intensify our work in North Charleston, where Walter Scott was shot in the back. That case may be over, but that community is crying out for real attention to the systemic police discriminatory issues in that. So, we’ve been working with them now for years in the hopes of putting together a case for the future. So, we knew that. COVID happens, same thing; an absolute catastrophe for our community – super catastrophe – raising issues of survival for people.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Even though we’re working on this systemic structural change that presumes there is a tomorrow, our communities are facing the possibility that for some people there is no tomorrow. We had to layer on top of our work, we had to open a new front. Focusing on the four areas that we know – that’s where we leaned in. I just told you about the case we filed in the Arkansas Prison on behalf of inmates who have pre-existing conditions; who suffered from asthma, heart disease, emphysema, who are not socially distanced, who have no masks, who have no PPE.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We really believe that what we are going to see out of the prisons is potentially the greatest catastrophe we are going to see around COVID in terms of illness, infection and death. Disproportionately, these are our people; these are our brothers, our sons, our moms, and our uncles. This is not separate from the black community.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We recognize with our education work, LDF still has about 40 desegregation cases that we monitor from the 1960s and from Southern jurisdictions. We sometimes litigate as well. Issues arise and we use those cases to fight for equity for black children in the South. Almost immediately when the school closures began, we started to inquire about a variety of things. First of all, whether schools were going to continue providing nutritional support to kids. We heard from a lot of jurisdictions, New York and others; they were going to continue to provide that support and that was wonderful. But we weren’t sure about that in Southern jurisdictions. A number of them said they were going to provide support, did it for a week, and then stopped.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      In Louisiana, we had to really lean in. New Orleans was fine, but where we work in the rural South – Saint Bernard Parish, Saint John Parish, Saint Martin Parish, Saint Mary Parish – no, no nutritional support. The schools just cut it off. You have kids who are used to getting one meal or two meals a day, and parents were relying on that for their kids’ nutrition, suddenly from one day to the next are cut off from having any nutritional support. We tried working with the school districts to no avail. At the same time, in those same school districts, many of them had just cut off instruction. Once school closures happen in early March 2020, they just decided the school year was over and there would be no instruction. We were beside ourselves; the thought that our children would have no instruction from March 2020 to September 2020.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      That’s like the old sharecropping system when these take black kids out of school to bring in the crops. This was so horrifying to us that we again began pushing those school districts around these issues without much success. Some of them agreed to do distance learning but the distance learning was all online. 18% percent of black households in Louisiana have no computer. There had to be worksheets that are mailed, there had to be worksheets that are dropped off.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      When you say distance learning, you and I know what that means, and we’re doing it right now, but that’s not the reality for nearly 20% of black families in Louisiana. So, we leaned in with all the school districts to no avail. Finally, we put the governor on blast. We did a letter that we released publicly and began to really put the pressure on.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      He agreed to “meet” with us, I’m saying this with air quotes because obviously it was virtual. We had a 1.5-hour-long phone call in the morning. It was critical. We were on the phone with the Governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, and the superintendent of schools. It was interesting because obviously they knew about our letter and they had reached out to the parishes who all told them: “Yes, we are…of course we’re providing food.”

Sherrilyn Ifill:      But we knew we had our clients. We had talked with our parents that week, and so we were able to tell them: “it ain’t happening”. Even where some places are providing food, parents can’t get to it, there’s no public transportation. The whole point is that when your kids had school, the school bus picked them up, took them to school, and that’s where they ate. How are they supposed to get the food?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We documented the percentage of black families that don’t have cars and they’re not able to get to the food. We documented the whole distance learning piece. You could hear in the phone call that the governor and the superintendent were alarmed, and it was clear that they were learning as we were speaking. That afternoon, the governor – in his announcement that the schools will be closed for the rest of the school year – issued a proclamation requiring that there be distance learning, high tech and low tech, and that every school district was expected to fulfill the obligation to provide nutritional support for children. We started to monitor that after the governor’s announcement to make sure that that was happening.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We just did it in Leeds City, Alabama where the school district was under a desegregation order, not serving food. They just announced on April 2nd, 2020, no more food will be served until further notice. We went into court…by into court, I mean, we filed papers in court. The judge held a virtual hearing on the phone, I guess 10 days ago, and last week, Friday night, said: “This violates a desegregation order that requires equity. You must begin food service again.” And it just began again on Tuesday. We use the docket that we had to address what we knew were immediate critical COVID needs for our children, which was nutritional support and education.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We have been the leading voice on the issue of ending water shutoffs and utility shutoffs during the pandemic as part of our housing discrimination work. We have been working over the years on the issue of water affordability because we did a report in which we documented the way water tax liens are leading disproportionately to loss of black homeownership.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Black people unable to afford their water bill don’t pay the water bill. The tax lien is either sold to a private party or just taken over by the city. If you don’t pay it there, your home is put up for foreclosure. We began to document the number of black people losing their homes to that process. We did a lot of work in Baltimore in ending water tax lien foreclosures and a lot of work in Detroit. Even Flint was prepared to foreclose on 7,000 families three summers ago…where there’s not even potable water because of water tax liens. They finally overturned that law. We just filed suit in Cleveland, challenging their water tax liens.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We were clear about the issue of water when the pandemic hit. We were deeply concerned. We first asked for no evictions. We knew that the federal government had said there would be no foreclosures, but many black people are renters. We still don’t have a moratorium on evictions. We’ve been working state-by-state, city-by-city, trying to put that pressure on. But we also knew that water shutoffs and electricity shutoffs would be detrimental, particularly in a pandemic in which we are asking everybody to wash their hands all the time. And in which there are school closures, so school children are at home. We’re sending children home in the condition in which there is no running water and there’s no electricity. So, we have been pushing the national conference on mayors, the National Governors Association going state-by-state. We’re actually starting and launching a shaming campaign online, going state-by-state, shaming those jurisdictions that have allowed water shutoffs to continue.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We’re asking jurisdictions to re-engage water where possible. Washington, DC is doing that, and Massachusetts is doing that. Turn the water back on if you really want people to be able to deal with this pandemic. Most of all, don’t create a public safety issue for children who you’re requiring to stay home, but you’re also not suspending evictions.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      You’re telling everybody to stay home but you’re also allowing people to be put out of their home or you’re telling people to stay home and you’re allowing them to be home without running water and without electricity. We’re still grappling with that issue and continuing to lean into that issue.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      And then, of course, voting. I gotta say, I feel forever changed by Wisconsin. It represents the failure of every level of government for African American people. I wrote a piece about it in Slate, I’m happy to send it to you, called Never Forget Wisconsin. The piece really talks about the images of people standing in line with the mask on and how it’s a snapshot of American failure. I also call it a snapshot of the deep nobility of black people who showed their determination to be full citizens to participate in the political process.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      On the theory of Never Forget Wisconsin, we sued in Arkansas, we just filed suit in South Carolina demanding the extension of absentee ballot opportunities. We’re filing another suit this week, but I can’t tell you where it is, but in another Southern state, and then in another Southern state the following week. We are looking to November 2020 and we are very clear that we want to make sure that there are multiple opportunities for voting for our people.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We’re not saying only mail-in voting because there are black people who want to vote in person. In order for black people to vote in person, we cannot have to make a choice between our health and our citizenship. So, that requires a full menu of things. First of all, we need poll workers. A lot of the reason there were so few polling places in Milwaukee on that election day is because so many poll workers called out, understandably. Those poll workers, including in our community, are elderly. We don’t want to risk their health either. That means that we need to be training additional poll workers this summer, younger poll workers. Poll workers have to be trained in how to manage themselves in this pandemic. We have to be providing to poll workers, all of the PPE they need.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      The polling places themselves have to be able to assure people that they are wiped down and fully clean. We have to be able to provide PPE at the polling place for voters who come without it, who don’t have a mask or who don’t have gloves. All of that is essential. We have to expand early voting so that we undermine long lines by having a longer voting period and more opportunities to vote.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We’re also really encouraging our community to be more prepared to vote, to not go into the voting booth, and for the first time, be reading the ballot. You’ve got to download that thing Sunday night; you’ve got to know what all the bond questions are because that’s what makes you take long standing in the voting place.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      You don’t want to be standing there for fifteen minutes during a pandemic. You want to get in, vote, and get out. But then, also, distance voting means extending the period for absentee ballot requests and extending the period for absentee ballot returns. That was the issue in Wisconsin; the Supreme Court wouldn’t allow the extended time to return the absentee ballot. It means increasing online registration so that people can register online. It means ensuring that people really know that they have to take time to do that process – to order an absentee ballot, have it come to their house, to send it back in, and have it be counted. We’re really serious about leaning into our communities in August 2020 and September 2020 about preparing to vote. You’re not going to be able to just wake up on November 2, 2020 and decide: “Hey, I really feel I want to vote tomorrow.” It’s not that kind of scene anymore, because if you’re going to vote in person, you’ve got to have your PPE and you need to be ready.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      If you’re going to vote distance, you have to have ordered your absentee ballot and you have to have send it in, and so forth. All of our voting work is really focused around making sure that that full menu is available so that we can ensure that every eligible African American voter can participate in the political process and vote. Lastly, of course, is the census and ensuring that people participate in the census online.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Everything that we’re doing about stay at home…we just did a joint statement with the leaders of every black church denomination that was released last Friday. When Governor Kim’s order came out reopening the state, basically telling our people to stay home. And it was civil rights leaders and black church denomination leaders saying: “This ain’t the time. You need to stay at home, prioritize your health and prioritize your family.” But we ended the statement by saying, “While you’re at home, register to vote, and make sure that you fill out the census.”

Sherrilyn Ifill:      That’s a long way of answering your question. What I say to nonprofits is, “You’ve got to be responsive to the needs of your people in the moment. You’ve got to figure out a way to be doing, if you’re an organization like mine that does structural change or whatever are your long-term imperatives, have to be happening at the same time that you are responsive to what your people need today.” Keep fundraising. Make sure that the work you’re doing is responsive to what is happening in the moment. Don’t give up your structural work, but make sure it’s responsive to what’s happening in the moment. Invest in your communications; this is the only lifeline we have to the people we represent, to our donors, to our supporters. This is no time to skimp on your communications.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      You’ve got to invest in your communications, you have to have the apparatus to invest in your communications. Reassure your people, take care of your staff. One of the things I’m proudest of is that at LDF, we’ve just been prudent over the years. So, we’re not facing layoffs, we’re not facing any immediate catastrophe. We have lost our major fundraising event, and like everybody else, we’re reeling. But the ability of our people to focus on their work and not have to focus on whether they’re going to get a paycheck is vitally important. Make sure that you’re doing your best to reassure your staff and your people. We have been increasing our all-staff meetings; we do them now every two weeks. We’re trying to increase that communication with the staff. I’m regularly sending emails to the staff. We created a newsletter of our COVID-19 work because our staff wants to know what we are doing in this pandemic.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      They want to feel that they are speaking into the moment. We acknowledge how frightened we all are. This is the first time that we’re doing the work in which not only are we worried for our clients, but we’re worried for ourselves, our families, our friends, our peers, and to acknowledge that reality. We have provided our staff with lots of wellness links and other resources to help, kind of, navigate this period. Keep talking to your funders. Make sure they hear from you and they know what you’re doing. If asked, they should feel that they know what you’re doing. There shouldn’t be a presumption. Ask for advice.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      When the pandemic struck and things started to close and the stock market tanked, I was calling people, not for money. I was calling foundation leaders to say, “Tell me how you’re thinking about this moment. This is a moment of crisis leadership. I want to make sure that I’m the right leader. This is what I’m thinking. These are the steps I’m planning to take. This is what I’m doing with my senior team.” This is a leadership moment also, and foundations and donors are not just about money. They’re about counsel, support, and advice for moments like this when we need other leaders to help us think through how we lead in a time that none of us have ever faced.

Nic Campbell:     I really like your response for a variety of reasons. I think, at the core, it goes back to exactly what you said which is: be responsive to the thing that is breaking the heart of your people today and be consistent in doing the work. Another reason that I really like it is that you’re providing advice that you yourself are following, examples and context behind, “This is how it’s playing out for us and here’s how we’re doing it.”

Nic Campbell:     The last piece that I really like about it is that it’s practical. When you’re talking about just picking up the phone and asking for advice, strategic counsel, and being able to partner. That is really sound advice for nonprofits, particularly those that are fundraising. If I were to say to you then, Sherrilyn, let’s look at the other side of the conversation and look at the funders; what’s the advice that you would have for funders, beyond give more money? What advice would you provide for them to support nonprofit sustainability, both during and after this crisis?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Some foundations are already doing things like providing webinars and support on various aspects of how we manage this moment, providing free social media training, or communications training to organizations that really may not be sophisticated in that area. A couple of foundations have individually done this. I love the pledge that many of the foundations took but I just think we should be freed up from reporting. It’s extremely onerous. Particularly if you’re not a first-time recipient and the foundation knows you. The time that we spend doing reports is time that we could be spending finding additional gifts. We’re all financially pressed and looking to raise more money. That means that we need to find new foundations, or we need to find new areas of work.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We are people, we cannot show our staff our own fears. We have to be reassuring. We actually need safe spaces where we can convene and talk about some of these issues. Providing a window into the things about what you know; what the financial outlook looks like, and experts who can address us as leaders, or even address our staff about COVID or other aspects of this crisis. Really providing support beyond the financial support, just recognizing that this is a moment that none of us have ever experienced before, and the expectation that leaders will walk into this with some magic ability to navigate all the aspects of it.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      It seems to me, just falls. I would say that, especially for your core donors, to just be offering that support is really important. Foundations are taking their endowments. They’re taking a hit too. I understand that. Deciding that you’re going to sustain with the organizations is absolutely critical because all of us recognize we’re not going to make it more than we made in the past. We’ve got to be able to sustain. I advise people to open up a whole other front of work to address this crisis, to be efficient, and marry it with your existing work – which is what we’re trying to do.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We’re not working less; I’m definitely working more. Everyone is working more. The courts have not closed. The Supreme Court is still deciding cases, we still have our virtual trial. We still have a brief due in the Harvard Affirmative Action case. We are still filing cases. We’re still doing all that stuff. We still got to get food for these kids. So, not one bit of the work has stopped and yet a whole other layer of work has been placed on top of it. We have to be able to hold our staff. We have to be able to just maintain.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I would really encourage foundations to bet on their grantees this year. You have to do it. I do think this is a potentially catastrophic moment, not only in terms of just survival but in terms of our democracy. Because what has accompanied the pandemic are all of the threats that always accompany catastrophes like this which is the power grab, the suffering of those who are most marginalized, and the attempt to hold on to power by those who led us during this crisis. Those are all things that always happen.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We are in a moment of tremendous democratic peril. To my mind, I call civil rights work, democracy work; that’s what we do. This is not the time to imagine for one second that we can skimp on the need to lean into not only protecting this democracy but being aggressive and affirmative in our work.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Many of the things that are happening now, we will need to think through how to maintain. People understand that people have to be released from prison. Okay, well we’ve been talking about that for years.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      How do we, post-pandemic, sustain that narrative? We’ve been talking about the need to extend voting opportunities. Many people do get why there has to be extensive mail-in ballots and more early voting. How do we carry that forward? That becomes the new normal. There’s a lot of conversation about the new normal in the context of social distancing, flying, and taking cruises but we need to make the expansion of some of these areas, in terms of civil rights, the new normal also. That’s going to take organizing, advocacy, litigation, and empowering our communities to be able to speak and demand that they want that new normal.

Nic Campbell:     You’ve provided really practical advice for both nonprofits and funders. We even talked about some of the practices that you’re recommending funders stop. With all of that in mind, what do you wish we did less of as a sector and what should we do more of?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I think that we are in so much peril that I cannot think of anything that we need to be doing less of. I would have said this before the pandemic also. Even before the pandemic, we’re not enough for the moment. That’s why we’re in much trouble right now. It’s got to be more. What do we need to be doing more of? I think people are listening right now and we should be paying attention to increasing the ability of us to touch and communicate with people, and the people we represent in communities around the country. It’s just vitally important, right now, that people feel that they are part of something. The things that we normally do where we meet, we march, and we congregate, or people knock on doors: those are not things that can happen. People also need to see that people are fighting for them. That communication needs to get to them because this can be a really despairing moment also.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      We need to be talking to people so that they can see what their own power is. The ability to move quickly…everything is going so fast that if we could just increase everyone’s ability to do rapid response, it would be awesome. We’re all sitting here, and the Post Office is not funded. Do you know what I mean? That’s a catastrophe that just has to be dealt with. New things arise all the time.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I’m very concerned about black businesses and what’s going to be happening in our community with the stimulus and how badly it has done in being assessable to small black business owners. It’s about mom-and-pop businesses. Barbershops that won’t survive, beauty parlors that won’t survive, and nail salons that won’t survive, that are in our community. What’s the plan?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I’ve talked about this in the context with black churches who are some of the biggest property owners in the African American community. Let’s leave aside the spiritual piece. I’m talking about as property owners. When the emergency is regarded as over, foreclosure crisis is over, and the forbearance is lifted, those folks are going to have money. The black church relies on people to come in every Sunday and put something in the plate. Nobody’s been coming in and every church will tell you that online does not approximate that. We’re about to see, unless something is done, a catastrophic property loss in our community, which will increase gentrification.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Think about some of these churches in the land that they sit on and where they’re located. When I think about something like Mother Emanuel in Downtown Charleston, if you’ve ever been there, where the Charleston nine were killed – it’s downtown, a huge church, right there at the beginning of the big shopping street. It’s not a black community around it anymore. That’s prime property. We need a little bit more creativity around the exercise I do, which is I try to do it in the increments of 1 year, 3 years, and 5 years. When I look back at this time, what am I going to be sorry we didn’t do? One of those pieces, I think, is to imagine what strengths will still exist, and what anchors will still exist in the black community and have we protected them?

Nic Campbell:     I really like talking about being creative and how can organizations show up in that way, because they think about their own planning and their own strategies, but also know that the focus of many nonprofits is often on that programmatic strategy and on the direct asks or the fundraising pieces. I wanted to talk about infrastructure and raise the question with you, which is: is LDF thinking about building infrastructure during this time? If it is, how is it thinking about building that infrastructure?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Do you mean fundraising infrastructure?

Nic Campbell:     I mean your organizational infrastructure or the organizational foundation that you have to do that programmatic work, to be programmatically creative. Thinking about how you’re setting up your boards, your operations, and your governance structures. If you’re thinking about that now, how does that thinking shift for infrastructure after the pandemic?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I like to say that we have the unique experience of kind of being a little bit ahead of the curve because we were talking about these very issues and really beginning to make shifts in our board. We had planned to open a Southern office, which, obviously, very few people are opening brick-and-mortar. But it may be a remote office. We understood the need to be physically closer to engage with our communities, to be able to speak more directly to them. We already understood that. We had increased our support for our internal think tank, the Thurgood Marshall Institute, so that we could do more of our own research and really disseminate direct research to our community. We just had done a big communications buildup so that we could increase our communications capacity.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      In some ways, we had kind of, not knowing that the pandemic was coming, but feeling that, for all the reasons that I told you before, we’re in this critical democratic moment. We have been talking about who we are and how we show up in the space. We’ve been thinking about our own branding because that really is important to grab the attention of the people that we represent. And just building collaborations has been really, really critical to our work. But I do think, what I was describing black businesses, that’s kind of why we have our Thurgood Marshall Institute – is because we want to spend some time learning. That’s what the Institute is designed to do. It’s to help us learn. One of the things I think is critical in this moment, is figuring out what we need to learn to be able to come up with solutions that actually work.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      That means that we need to be able to convene people to say, “Here’s what we don’t know and here’s what we need to learn in order to make this work.” I’d like to see more of that happening. The truth is this is exhausting. We’re all in this box all day. We also have to be a little bit kind to ourselves in terms of how difficult this is. I actually find that where I’ve shifted to right now, is some solitary time; to study, to read, and to write in the four waking hours that I have that I’m not working. Because I think it’s important to try to diagnose this moment and understand what it is we’re in.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      I think too many of us are doing so much that we can’t see it. I’m a big legal historian. This all happens within an ecosystem and trying to understand the ecosystem, I’m interested in what my profession is doing. That’s the kind of creative thing that we’re not talking about, about the civil rights but I’m talking about it. What has happened to the legal profession and the need to activate the profession in a way that resets some of what, I think, has been eroded over the past few months?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      That really is critical to us and the infrastructure that we need to be able to do civil rights legal work. I think, being able to have a little drawback time to see the whole instead of just seeing the pieces that we’re working on, or the pieces that are in our face, or the pieces that Trump has served up for the day, is one of the biggest challenges of this moment. The Earth is shifting beneath the ecosystem system of civil rights in this country. We need to be able to see that shift to figure out how to take advantage of it. I do think that it’s vital that we spend some time doing the intellectual work of change.

Nic Campbell:     Sherrilyn, this conversation has been so powerful, and I want to ask you a question to help us continue to build knowledge through books and people we should learn from or about. What book do you think we should read next or what artists do you think we should be paying attention to?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Well, I’ll just tell you, I’m on my own curriculum right now. It’s not one book. After the 2016 election, literally a week after, I was on a panel with the great Civil Rights historian, Taylor Branch, and with Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns. Isabel, who’s become a friend, suggested at that event – it was hosted at the University of Maryland – that we were entering the second nadir. The nadir was the period from 1880 to 1920. It is described as the nadir by the historian Rayford Logan as the worst period for black people after slavery. I resisted her a little bit but I kind of knew she was right. Since the first of the year, I’ve been really asking the question, what did they do in the nadir? Because there’s never a time where we did nothing.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      In fact, much of what happened in the nadir was the foundation upon which powerful shifts in civil rights ended up happening in this country. I’m trying to write about this now. I’ll get you my nadir reading. The first one is this one, Black Reconstruction by WEB Du Bois. That’s the most important. That’s kind of like the Bible. What other books do I find really illuminating also?

Sherrilyn Ifill:      One is Rayford Logan, the one who created the term the nadir; The Betrayal of the Negro from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson. And then, Dickson Bruce’s Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary Tradition, 1877-1915. I’m very interested in how writers wrote in that period because I’m always interested in what artists do during these dark periods. I think, these are always periods of very important high art.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      For me, it’s a bit of studying and a bit of learning. It turns out, at least from my sneak peek of the piece I’m writing, it’s about the institutions that were created in the nadir. The NAACP, the Deltas, all of these institutions that then had the platform to help advance the civil rights movement actually were created in this period, when black people were really just at the very edge and the very bottom. The question for us is, it may not be that that is what we must do, but the question is what must we do? There is a building that has to happen in this period, so that’s what I’m working on.

Nic Campbell:     I’ve definitely added some books now to my reading list. Thanks so much for sharing them and I look forward to reading your piece when it comes out. You’ve just shared some incredible takeaways and gems throughout this conversation that, I think, leaders can implement into their own organizations to help them build bravely. I want to thank you again for your insights and your time today, Sherrilyn.

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Thank you. This was great. I really enjoyed talking to you.

Nic Campbell:     Yes, definitely.

-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.

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Welcome to the Nonprofit Build Up Podcast!

Welcome to the Nonprofit Build Up, hosted by A. Nicole Campbell. Discover insights from nonprofit and philanthropy leaders about assessing and building better organizational infrastructure, programmatic strategies, and challenging traditional sector approaches on how to support some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

A. Nicole Campbell has over fifteen years of legal and operational experience in the social sector and has worked in private practice, private philanthropy, and the public sector. Nic is currently the Founder and CEO of Build Up Advisory Group®, a global advisory firm that specializes in building the organizational infrastructure capacity of brave nonprofits and philanthropies.

Immediately prior to founding Build Up Advisory Group®, Nic was the Senior Director of Operations and Foundation Counsel for Dalio Philanthropies, the philanthropy of Ray Dalio, where she was responsible for the Philanthropies’ infrastructure build-out, management of the Philanthropies’ legal affairs, and programmatic leadership of the Philanthropies’ China portfolio of grants.

Immediately prior to joining Dalio Philanthropies, she was the Deputy General Counsel and Secretary for the Open Society Foundations, where she was responsible for providing strategic legal, governance, grant-making, and operational advice to the global network of over 35 charitable organizations and foundations created by George Soros.

Nic is frequently asked to lecture and speak at professional meetings and conferences in various regions around the world, including the Caribbean, West, East, and Southern Africa, Europe, and throughout the United States, on a variety of topics impacting the social sector, including philanthropy trends, governance, and grant making.

Nic is passionate about using her legal training, operations and strategy expertise, and knowledge of nonprofit law to think creatively to transform the way organizations work and learn from their work. Now, on the Nonprofit Build Up podcast, she brings that same dedication and passion to help nonprofits and philanthropies consistently and sustainably support the marginalized and vulnerable communities they serve.

The Nonprofit Build Up provides fundraising and development ideas, program strategy, innovative thinking, organizational structuring, and grant-making policies and practices for the sector to help you transform the way you and your organization work. For nonprofits, securing funding for work and operations, making better grants, designing stronger programs, and strengthening organizational infrastructure can be daunting while also trying to effect change in the communities they serve. And philanthropies can be challenged with how to support their grantees to create sustainable outcomes for the marginalized communities they serve. The bottom line is if you are struggling with how to build capacity and scale your impact, you are diverting your focus from the communities that need you.

Start the power shift. Here. Now. Join Nonprofit Build Up with A. Nicole Campbell today.

Listen to the podcast here:


About A. Nicole Campbell

A. Nicole Campbell specializes in creating peace of mind. She has provided strategic legal, governance, and operational guidance as a senior advisor for two of the world’s most prominent philanthropists, and has spoken on and trained senior management teams and board members in nearly every region of the world in grant making, governance, and organizational design.

With more than fifteen years of experience in the public and private sectors, Nic has deep expertise in designing and building nonprofit organizations from concept phase to full independence and designing innovative organizational, grant-making, and governance structures. For her entire career, she has been a sought-after strategist and thought partner to philanthropists, philanthropies, collaboratives, movements, and nonprofit organizations in the United States, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, and around the world.

Nic is founder of the Build Up Companies, a federated group of companies comprised of Build Up Advisory Group, The Campbell Law Firm, and Build Up, Inc. and focused on transforming outcomes for vulnerable and marginalized communities. She is Chief Executive Officer of Build Up Advisory Group, an advisory firm that specializes in improving governance, grant making, and organizational design for brave philanthropists, philanthropies, movements, and nonprofit organizations to provide them with the structural capacity to deliver on their missions.

She is Managing Partner of The Campbell Law Firm, a boutique law firm that serves as a trusted advisor to brave grant-making nonprofits, movements, philanthropies, and philanthropists to interrupt cycles of injustice and inequity. She is also President of Build Up, Inc., a nonprofit capacity builder that supports leaders of color and incubates and fiscally sponsors charitable projects and organizations that work with under-resourced and invisibilized communities around the world.

Prior to founding the Build Up Companies, Nic was Senior Director of Operations and Foundation Counsel for Dalio Philanthropies, Ray Dalio’s global, multi-million dollar family philanthropy; Deputy General Counsel and Secretary for the Open Society Foundations, George Soros’s global, multi-billion dollar philanthropic network; and Associate General Counsel for the New York Community Trust, a multi-billion dollar community foundation. Prior to her in-house roles, Nic was a tax associate attorney in private practice working with both nonprofit and for-profit clients.

Nic received her B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, her J.D. from Northeastern University School of Law, and her LL.M. in Taxation from New York University School of Law.

Read 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.

Nic Campbell: Hi everyone! Welcome to the first episode of the Nonprofit Build Up Podcast. I’m your host, Nic Campbell. Thank you so much for tuning in, I’m so excited to be launching this podcast and to be in conversation with you.

Nic Campbell: On this first episode, I wanted to do a couple of things. First, I wanted to talk about the purpose of the podcast itself; what it’s all about and what we’ll cover. I also wanted to introduce myself and share the reason why I wanted to do this podcast in the first place. So, what is the Nonprofit Buildup Podcast all about? This podcast is about hearing the diverse voices that comprise the sector – so, hearing from the people who are doing the actual work. They’re not just thinking about it and writing about it; they’re doing those things too but they’re actually in nonprofit organizations, philanthropies, and they’re in the trenches, so to speak. Why is this important? Why does it matter?

Nic Campbell: I think that this practitioner perspective is so critical, because what it does is it allows us to gain insight into things that we would have to work for years, or even sometimes decades, to understand, appreciate, or even experience. Through this podcast, we’ll be able to hear directly from people who are doing the actual work. They’re bringing a really comprehensive way to think about the questions that we’ll be talking through and the issues that we’ll be wrestling with. We get to hear their strategies, their thoughts, and their insights about the sector, nonprofits, philanthropies, and social impact vehicles.

Nic Campbell: I know that there is a lot of conversation happening right now within the sector about social impact vehicles. What are they? They’re not really nonprofits. They’re not philanthropies. How do they fit within the sector? How do we work alongside these organizations? How are philanthropists thinking about incorporating these vehicles into their ecosystem? How are social impact entrepreneurs thinking about working with and using these vehicles? This podcast will be able to tease that out a bit, and make sure that we’re having those conversations, and thinking about how we’re working alongside these vehicles.

Nic Campbell: We’ll also focus on how we can build better, stronger, and faster. I think that there is a real push in the sector to build slowly and steadily – which I can certainly appreciate. But, I think, in 2021, we should realize that we need to build better much, much, faster. I want to think about how we can build faster but do it deliberately and with integrity. I want to hear from people who can put us in conversation about this topic and have us thinking critically about ways that we can build better, stronger, and faster.

Nic Campbell: We’ll also be able to hear how we can make sure that those who have been invisibilized or silenced by the systems and society are able to be heard loudest while we’re problem-solving alongside them.

Nic Campbell: This podcast is also about sharing my experience in the sector. As a person that is exclusively focused on infrastructure, I understand and appreciate the emphasis on programmatic strategy and making sure that you have a strong programmatic strategy to create a strong organization. But I also understand, appreciate, and know that you need a strong infrastructure to support that strategy in order to create a sustainable organization. Being able to talk about infrastructure when we’re talking about creating strong organizations, creating organizations that are sustainable, and organizations that have a tremendous impact in the communities that they’re serving, is extremely important to me.

Nic Campbell: I want to make sure this podcast enables us to have those kinds of conversations and we’re not thinking about infrastructure as an afterthought.

This podcast is also about sharing my experience as a black woman in the sector – working in and with nonprofits and philanthropies – and my experience as an immigrant. All of these experiences come to bear on how I view nonprofits, philanthropies, social impact vehicles and who’s building them, who’s not building them, who’s been excluded, and how we can be more inclusive.

Nic Campbell: I want to hear from people with diverse perspectives who are not the typical voices you’re hearing all the time in the sector. That’s so that we can challenge ourselves, learn from each other, share our thoughts, and showcase best practices. I also want to focus on the nonprofit sector around the world. There is a real emphasis on the United States when you hear about nonprofit podcasts, and I can appreciate that. I am a U.S. practitioner and I work with U.S. nonprofits and philanthropies, but I also work very closely with organizations that are outside of the United States. So, I want to think about how we build organizations, institutions, practices, strategies, and capacity globally.

Nic Campbell: I want us to understand that when we are building capacity of nonprofits and philanthropies in the United States, how does that impact the building of capacity in the Caribbean, for example? The more we think about how this sector can be aligned, the stronger it can become. Capacity building within different regions around the world: when those things are aligned, when best practices are aligned to the extent that they can be – we are creating a stronger nonprofit sector, stronger organizations, and creating more sustainable impact.

Nic Campbell: So, you might be thinking: “Wow, these are a lot of topics. This is really interesting. These are exactly the kinds of things I’d love to be talking about and I’m really excited about this podcast.” But you might also be having the question of: “Well, who is this woman who will be leading this dialogue and facilitating these conversations?”

Nic Campbell: I’m the Founder and CEO of the Build Up Companies which is comprised of Build Up Advisory Group – an advisory firm that focuses on strengthening the infrastructure of nonprofits and philanthropies.

Nic Campbell: So, what that really means is that we spend all of our time focused on strengthening governance, grant-making, and structuring of organization. So, making sure that they have compliance capacity, that they’re structured the right way, and they’re set up to do their best work. That their grant-making allows their organizational values to show through in the processes that they have, money is getting out of the door really quickly to those who need it, and their governance structures – their board – is set up in such a way that they’re providing the necessary oversight for the organization’s strategy, their people, and to make sure that they’re set up sustainably.

Nic Campbell: The other company that’s within the Build Up Companies is the Campbell Law Firm, and that is a law firm that works only with nonprofits and philanthropies to make sure that they are getting the legal guidance, advice, and counsel that they need. They’re doing it in a way where they’re in partnership with their counsel as opposed to being transactional.

Nic Campbell: Then finally, is Build Up, Inc., which is a nonprofit fiscal sponsor working with grassroots projects and initiatives around the globe that are focused on supporting vulnerable and marginalized communities. So, all of these companies comprise Build Up Companies, and at the end of the day, are focused on strengthening nonprofits, philanthropies, and social impact entrepreneurs.

Nic Campbell: We essentially work with brave nonprofits and philanthropies that are trying to problem solve alongside vulnerable and marginalized communities. The concept of bravery is core to our work. Bravery, as we see it, is the ability to authentically create your infrastructure and strategy so that the voices of the marginalized communities that you’re serving are heard loudest. I’ve worked in and with nonprofits, philanthropies, foundations, public charities, social welfare organizations as that entity is known in the United States – so these are the 501(c)(4)’s. I’ve worked literally with nonprofits, foundations, and philanthropies around the globe.

Nic Campbell: I have seen the way infrastructure has been built in different regions. I have seen how strategy plays with infrastructure and understand that capacity is needed to do our best work. So, I’m on a mission to make sure that infrastructure is part of our everyday conversation when we’re talking about capacity building for nonprofit organizations. I’m also on a mission to create more general support awards.

Nic Campbell: The more flexible funding that is awarded to nonprofits, the more they have the ability to do their work. I’m also a big proponent of including technical assistance and support with that general support award. I don’t think that you just give a bunch of money to anyone – to any organization without also saying, “Here is the additional support and capacity to be able to use that money in the best way.” I think providing additional support is always a great thing.

Nic Campbell: I also want to push innovation in grant-making and structuring. Innovation is not only present or needed in programmatic strategy; you also need it in your grant-making and the way your organization is structured. I want flexibility to be a given in the sector, as you can see, and the work that nonprofits and philanthropies do. My vision is to create 100 big, bettable grassroots organizations by 2025. So, let’s start to place our bets on these organizations that are community-based, community-led, and are closest to the problem and the solution.

Nic Campbell: I believe that if we can create more big, bettable grassroots organizations – these organizations that are smaller but they get huge grant awards that are flexible, they come with technical assistance and support – that we can change the world.

Nic Campbell: Once we have organizations that are grassroots and are big bets, we can interrupt cycles of injustice and inequity. I am so excited to keep this conversation going. It’s incredibly important and necessary. Thank you so much for listening to our very first episode and I’ll talk with you soon.

-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

Read more