The Role of For-Profit Companies in Creating Equity with Dr. Randal Pinkett

This week’s guest on the Nonprofit Build Up is Dr. Randal Pinkett. Randal is an entrepreneur, speaker, author, and scholar, and a leading voice in business, technology, diversity and inclusion. He is the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of his fifth venture, BCT Partners, a multimillion-dollar research, training, consulting, technology, and data analytics firm headquartered in Newark, NJ.

Randal really highlights the role of for-profit companies that are focused on social impact and the role that the for-profit sector can play in building and supporting equity. He offers advice to nonprofits and funders on the role of infrastructure and how to leverage big data to better understand and support stakeholders in determining community needs.

Listen to the podcast here:

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About Dr. Randal Pinkett

Dr. Randal Pinkett has established himself as an entrepreneur, speaker, author and scholar, and as a leading voice for his generation in business, technology, diversity and inclusion.  He is the co-founder, chairman and CEO of his fifth venture, BCT Partners, a multimillion-dollar research, training, consulting, technology, and data analytics firm headquartered in Newark, NJ.  BCT’s mission is to provide insights about diverse people that lead to equity and the company has been named to Black Enterprise’s BE 100 list of the nation’s largest African American-owned businesses.

Dr. Pinkett has received numerous awards for entrepreneurial excellence including the Congressional Minority Business Award, National Society of Black Engineers’ Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and National Urban League’s Business Excellence Award.  He is an expert in several areas relating to emerging technologies, “big data” analytics, social innovation, culture, diversity, equity and inclusion, and is a regular contributor on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox Business News.

Dr. Pinkett is the author of Campus CEO: The Student Entrepreneur’s Guide to Launching a Multimillion-Dollar Business and No-Money Down CEO: How to Start Your Dream Business with Little or No Cash and co-author of Black Faces in White Places: 10 Game-Changing Strategies to Achieve Success and Find Greatness, which was named one of “The Best Books of 2010.”  He holds five degrees including: a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Rutgers University; a M.S. in Computer Science from the University of Oxford in England; and a M.S. in Electrical Engineering, MBA, and Ph.D. from MIT.  Most notably, he was the first and only African-American to receive the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship at Rutgers University; he was inducted to the Academic All-America Hall of Fame, as a former high jumper, long jumper, sprinter and captain of the men’s track and field team; and he was the winner of NBC’s hit reality television show, “The Apprentice.”

Born in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey, Dr. Pinkett is a proud member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated and First Baptist Church in Somerset, NJ, where he resides with his family, including a daughter and two sons.  Dr. Pinkett firmly believes that “for those to whom much is given, much is expected,” so throughout his endeavors, he places great emphasis on his desire to give back to the community.

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, this week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking with Dr. Randal Pinkett. Randal is an entrepreneur, speaker, author, and scholar, and a leading voice in business, technology, diversity, and inclusion. He’s the Co-Founder, Chairman, and CEO of his fifth venture BCT Partners, a multi-million dollar research, training, consulting, technology, and data analytics firm headquartered in Newark, New Jersey. BCT’s mission is to provide insights about diverse people that lead to equity, and the company has been named to Black Enterprise’s BE 100 list of the nation’s largest African-American owned businesses. Randal has received numerous awards for entrepreneurial excellence, including the Congressional Minority Business Award, National Society of Black Engineers’ Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and National Urban League’s Business Excellence Award. He’s an expert in several areas relating to emerging technologies, big data analytics, social innovation, culture, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and is a regular contributor on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox Business News. This episode was recorded last summer when the pursuit of equity moved from the margins and into mainstream conversation in the United States, and Randal talks about BCT’s work in the space, and the successes and challenges within the for-profit sector as a black owned business.

Nicole Campbell: Randal shines a light on what it means to be a for-profit company focused on social impact, how nonprofit and for-profit entities can build win-win relationships, and the role of technology in creating leverage, and pursuing equity. Listen to the powerful tools that BCT has created to determine community services using precision analytics. It’s incredible. Randal really highlights the role of for-profit companies that are focused on social impact and the role that the for-profit sector can play in building and supporting equity. He offers advice to nonprofits and funders on the role of infrastructure and how to leverage big data to better understand and support stakeholders in determining community needs. It’s such a thoughtful, innovation rich conversation. And with that, here is Dr. Randal Pinkett

Nicole Campbell: Hi, Randal. I am so excited to have you join us for our Fast Build Leader Series and to get us started, can you tell us about BCT Partners, your role there and what BCT Partners is focused on, particularly now given our current environment?

Randal Pinkett: Well, it’s good to be with you, Nicole, and thank you for the invitation to be a part of this conversation. I am the Chairman and CEO, and one of the Co-Founders of BCT partners. We’re proud to celebrate 20 years this year for BCT. And we were just named to the Forbes list of America’s Top Management Consulting Companies, and also the Black Enterprise list of the largest black owned businesses in the country. Our mission at BCT is to provide insights about diverse people that lead to equity. And there’s three key words in that mission: insights, diversity, and equity. I’ll begin and work backwards. Equity is our end game, and we work in a number of different sectors; housing, community development, economic development, children and families, workforce development, healthcare – all sectors that deal with healthy communities, what it means to create and foster healthy, thriving communities. That’s where we focus on achieving equity.

Randal Pinkett: From a insights perspective, historically, we’ve leveraged a lot of different tools, but more recently we’ve begun to really focus in on data analytics as a big focus for our practice. In our mission, some ways, insights to action and action to equity. The insights to action is around analytics and being data-driven. And then the action to equity is around building capacity of nonprofits to achieve equity in the work that they do. And then lastly, diversity. We’re living in an increasingly diverse society and nonprofits are all asking the question, “How do I better understand? How do I better serve? How do I better support the diverse stakeholders that are embedded within my mission?” And we’re here to work with them in that whole continuum of providing insights to be data-driven that can lead to action, building capacity that can create better action to get to equity, and supporting diverse stakeholders and diverse communities along that entire continuum.

Nicole Campbell: So, I really liked that, Randal; insights, diversity, and equity. And I particularly like how you’re talking about building the capacity of organizations to actually do the work and have the impact in the communities that they’re serving. I know that you’re a for-profit company. So why this focus on social impact and not just on profits?

Randal Pinkett: We’re big believers in being mission-driven and making a difference in society. I have three business partners with whom I’ve been in business for 27 years. We were classmates at Rutgers University, and I’m proud to say, we’re not only still business partners, we’re still friends. We still like each other. Hahahaha. But when we were in college, we sat around the cafeteria table and asked ourselves the question, “How can we make a difference? How can we have an impact?” And we were all engineers. So at the time, technology was – and still is – a core component of the work that we envisioned. But to your point, we have the entrepreneurial spirit, but it’s not just about making a dollar, it’s about making a difference. And so we are very mission-driven, it’s a part of who we are and what we do. And we believe that we’re all called to do something in this world that benefits others. We just happen to channel that energy through a for-profit that works with nonprofits. That’s how we’ve answered that call.

Nicole Campbell: I think that’s really terrific. And speaking of technology to help create leverage for organizations and pursue equity, I know that BCT has an equitable impact platform. I wonder if you could talk more about the platform, and the products, and how nonprofit organizations can take advantage of it – funders and communities that they’re serving.

Randal Pinkett: Absolutely. So we have pioneered an approach to leveraging administrative data that we call precision analytics. And when I say administrative data, I’m not talking about new data collection, but data that’s sitting in a case management system, an electronic health record system, a program management system, any system to manage the delivery of programs and services. And precision analytics is a play off of precision medicine. It’s just as medicine says: I can create a drug that is uniquely tailored to your DNA, your biology. Precision analytics says I can take your administrative data and I can give you a recommendation, a prescription, a prescriptive analytic set of insights of what’s the right mix of services to maximize success for an individual or for a community. And we do that by leveraging machine learning and artificial intelligence and predictive and prescriptive analytics. But we can be very, very precise in not only offering a prescription of what’s the right mix of services, but also what is a very granular way of thinking about that according to different demographic groups, what we call matched comparison groups.

Randal Pinkett: And the equitable impact platform takes that precision analytics engine and puts it on steroids because it takes that information and it makes it geospatial, which means we can now look at specific census tract and we can ask what’s the right mix of services – whether it’s employment, housing, education, health, criminal justice – the right mix of services for that community. And then we can do two things: offer a prescription, as I just mentioned, and if you are to follow that prescription, what is the prediction of how you can move the needle on community wellbeing. And the equitable impact platform takes IRS 990 data for all nonprofits, 325,000. It takes census American community survey data and combines that to be able to run these kinds of analyses and offer these kinds of recommendations and insights.

Nicole Campbell: Wow. So I am really excited and I want to talk more about this because I’m thinking of the executive director or the CEO of a grassroots organization – a smaller organization, a smaller nonprofit organization – who’s listening to that and is saying, “Wow, this could really help us, but we’re too small to take advantage of this.” Or, “How will we ever be able to afford this or have access to this?” And what would you say to those organizations as to how they could take advantage of this platform which sounds amazing?

Randal Pinkett: Well, the good news is that in the era of big data, these tools are not that expensive. In the era we live in, we are able to deliver some very powerful tools right to your mobile phone, right to your tablet, right to your desktop computer, at a very low price. You know, it’s the whole software as a service model, which says you have a modest subscription fee to gain access to very powerful tools. And that’s what we’ve done. And in fact, we have a free product of the equitable impact platform called the COVID-19 urgent service provider tool, which we call CUSP. So again, equip is a platform upon which we can build lots of different products. CUSP, the COVID-19 urgent service provider tool is a product we’ve built on top of equip and it’s free. You can go to and you can access a tool that can help you analyze nonprofit data, analyze communities, to determine which organizations are best positioned to address which issues juxtapose against a live feed of COVID-19 data. That’s free and available right now.

Nicole Campbell: I think that’s really amazing because, just a couple of thoughts that come immediately to mind about how nonprofit organizations in the sector could be using CUSP; and that’s one with funders who come in and say, “We have an idea of all of the different grantees and organizations that we’re working with. We have the ability to see across fields, and we think this is going to be helpful to these cohorts of organizations that they can bring together.” Organizations themselves could actually use it in their own strategic planning of the platform, as well as the CUSP tool, which is free as you mentioned. So I think that these resources are amazing. And with all of the work that you’re doing in this space, in this area, Randal, I wonder if you have any advice for nonprofit organizations, particularly in the area of technology and being able to leverage technology to get them where they want to go. What would you say to them as they’re trying to raise funds, they’re in this environment of COVID-19, they’re in this environment of social unrest; how do they step up? How do they start to fulfill their mission using or leveraging technology?

Randal Pinkett: That’s a great question, Nicole, and it’s a timely one. And here’s what I would say to that is, if I layer COVID-19 on top of civil unrest – George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor – among the many important questions that are being lifted up, is to what extent is a racial equity lens guiding the work that you do. And let’s take it a level deeper, getting back to what you said about technology and data. Every nonprofit has a set of stakeholders that they are seeking to support or issues are looking to address. And it begs the question, are you dis-aggregating your data to know the extent to which you are or are not serving different populations effectively. And more specifically, are you serving black people, African-Americans, Latinos, certain ethnic and groups effectively? Or are you not dis-aggregating your data to know the extent to which that is or is not the case? And technology and data give us the ability to slice and dice our data. Assuming we’re collecting the right data, which is a whole other conversation, to really get down to a level where we can understand which populations we serve well, which ones we don’t. And getting back to our earlier conversation about precision analytics, what’s working and for whom, and what’s not working and for whom. Because then we can be far more strategic at addressing these inequities because we have the data around where those inequities lie.

Nicole Campbell: And what you’re really talking about, which resonates, is this connection between technology and data, to getting you to racial equity. Being able to leverage those things, to have a racial equity lens to the work that you’re doing, which as you mentioned, creates better solutions, helps you become a more strategic problem solver. And you know, a lot of times, we don’t hear that technology and data are being used that way. So I really like how you talked about that. And if we look on it on the other side, then Randal, we’re thinking of the funders who are funding these organizations to do this amazing work. What advice are you offering to them?

Randal Pinkett: Another great question, Nicole. And here the advice is, the needs of communities lead the way, as we think about how we make investments. Not necessarily the needs of the service provider, meaning: let’s look down to the community level and ask the question, “Are there communities that aren’t getting enough services? Are there communities that are getting too many services? Are we over-investing in certain areas or under investing in others?” An organizational lens won’t answer that question, but a racial equity lens will give us the tools to know which communities are not getting what they need and therefore we can drive our investments to address the need. And again, big technology and data are one of the tools that give us those insights, but then it’s of course, incumbent upon us as funders to make sure that we’re partnering with the right organizations that have proven and have evidence-based programs and services, and a demonstrated ability to achieve impact with the communities and populations that we endeavor to serve.

Nicole Campbell: I really like what you’re saying, Randal, and the reason that it’s resonating so much with me is that the conversations that I’ve had in the sector around data and technology have been separate from racial equity. I mean it’s sort of, you use the data to come up with some numbers, and then you go into the strategic planning process around racial equity. And what you’re really talking about is no, it’s partial of the same thing. You actually cannot come up with a comprehensive solution using a racial equity lens unless you’re really leveraging technology and data. So I just like how you’re about that strategically and putting them together. You’re a for-profit organization that is focused on having social impact and is mission driven. I usually ask the question to nonprofit leaders about what they think the sector should be doing less of, but I want to twist that question a little bit for you and ask, what do you think for-profits should be doing less of and what should they be doing more when it comes to working with nonprofit organizations, working with communities that are vulnerable and marginalized, knowing that they do have a business model to maintain, but what are you seeing based on what BCT partners is doing, that you think that organizations for-profit organizations on the whole should be doing less of, what they should be doing more of?

Randal Pinkett: We’ve never been busier than we are right now when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion work. We do a lot of work around DEI strategic planning and assessments and training. And our phone has been ringing off the hook, Nicole, and that’s a good thing. And if you’re listening, call us, we don’t mind more calls. Hahaha. But having said that, when we think about DEI, we think about it in four domains. We think about the work force diversity – who you hire, who you recruit – the workplace diversity and inclusion – who gets promoted and how do we treat each other in the places that we work – we think about the marketplace diversity, equity and inclusion – who are you serving as a for-profit, to your question – and how do you best understand and are most responsive to the needs of those marketplace stakeholders. But the last one really gets at your question, which is community.


Randal Pinkett: And I would argue that it’s probably in that last domain that companies aren’t doing enough. Meaning, most are doing workforce and workplace if they’re doing anything at all. Some of them feel like multicultural marketing might be thinking about the diversity of their customers. But when we think about the community, when I think about Minneapolis, Minnesota, when I think about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and all of what we’re seeing with the civil unrest in our country. Now, of course, we’re seeing companies making statements and making commitments to investments because now this issue has been lifted up so sufficiently that it’s higher on their radar, but before George Floyd, it was completely off the radar to the same extent that it is now. So I think we need to be doing more to put some real teeth behind these commitments and investments that are really going to address systemic and institutional racism given the moment that we’re in so that that moment can become a movement. And I think we need to do less of talking the talk. And I’ve seen organizations make statements, Nicole, and I’ve seen their employees called them out, saying, “You’ve done nothing up until now.” So let’s do less of the talk and more of the walk so that we can really, finally get at what’s under the hood on systemic, institutional racism, so that we’re not in this place a year from now.

Nicole Campbell: I like that, less talk and more walk. And along those lines, let’s say you have a corporation who says, “You know what? I agree, Randal, I’m going to do more walk. And I want to fund an organization, or I want to enter into a partnership with a nonprofit organization because I’ve identified a community that needs the help. And I’m coming with resources and funding.” How do you think about structuring that partnership between the for-profit and the nonprofit? What are the things that we should keep in mind? And when we’re thinking of funding relationships, where the for-profit says, “We want to fund a nonprofit that’s doing great work.” What advice are you giving to that for-profit and even to the nonprofit as they enter into that sort of relationship that might be brand new?

Randal Pinkett: My advice is to really seek out relationships that are win-win; it can’t be a for-profit coming in feeling like they are doing the nonprofit a favor by supporting them – like this is purely charitable, unidirectional in its relationship. Nonprofits bring a lot to the table and have a lot of value to offer to a for-profit in a partnership. So let’s think about how this can be structured as a true win-win where everyone sees value in the relationship and there’s no paternalistic fantasy that this is a one directional street. And more specifically, as a for-profit, there’s a certain set of products and services you’re looking to offer to the marketplace. How can a partnership help to amplify? How can you add value? So if you’re a for-profit that is doing work around technology, great example, then is there a way that through your technology, you can amplify the work of nonprofits? Can you bring your talents, your treasure, and your time that can add value to a nonprofit? And then can the nonprofit, therefore, also add value back to you in terms of how that is informing your community engagement, your agenda for how you engage diverse communities, how you think about your diverse marketplace, how you think about diverse customers and communities in which they’re already engaged? So that it really is symbiotic in how both organizations benefit. And that’s going to make the partnership that much more real and that much more sustainable, that much more lasting.

Nicole Campbell: I think it’s so important, what you’re pointing out, that nonprofits to think and realize that they have a lot of assets that they’re bringing to the table. They’re bringing a lot of resources. They’re also bringing value to that partnership. Because I think often, at least from the conversations I’ve been having with a lot of leaders of nonprofits, particularly the smaller organizations, they don’t think they have a lot of leverage when they’re coming to the table, so to speak, with a for-profit partner. And so to hear you say that, I think it’s just important to really reiterate that it is not, as you said, a one-directional type of relationship and that each party is receiving something of value from the other. So, you know, Randal, a lot of what I do, all I do, is really focus on infrastructure. And that’s building the framework of an organization to support its programmatic work and the programmatic outcomes that it wants to have.

Nicole Campbell: And so we look at things like governance and organizational development within the organization itself; how is its teams set up, how…are the people in the right seats? And then even external structuring, do you have the right vehicle to do the kind of work that you want to do? If you’re engaged in grant making, what does that grant making process look like? So with all of those things in mind, when you think about building the infrastructure of an organization, how does that then play out in ensuring the sustainability of programmatic outcomes? You talked about equity being a key focus of what you do. How does the infrastructure of BCT Partners help create that sort of sustainability and help you deliver on that promise?

Randal Pinkett: You’re going to appreciate my lead-in to my answer, Nicole. I believe the work you’re doing is critically important, and I believe one of the greatest tragedies of how the nonprofit philanthropic sector has evolved over the past 10 years, is this idea of program grants. This idea that I can only fund the program and not fund the infrastructure. You have got to be kidding me. You cannot have the orange without the peel. I’m going to say that again, you cannot have the orange without the peel. So if you want to just strip out the orange and not fund the peel, you’re not funding the orange. So your points and your work, Nicole, I told you, you’re going to appreciate my lead-in. You know, your work around infrastructure is the foundation of how the work gets done. And so for us at BCT, for you in your organization, for any nonprofit listening, for funders and philanthropists who are investing, infrastructure is the beginning and the end.

Randal Pinkett: So it’s critically important for us. When we think about our back office, our accounting, our systems, our human infrastructure, our processes, our policies, like all of that stuff is what powers our enterprise. And if we don’t get that right, we can’t scale, we can’t achieve efficiencies, we can’t achieve economies of scope. I mean, it undermines everything that we do. And so I credit our President, my business partner, Lawrence Hibbert, who’s the equivalent of our Chief Operating Officer. He’s our President, I’m the CEO. I handle all of the outward facing stuff, marketing, sales, customer relationship management. I get to do webinars with people like Nicole Campbell and Lawrence handles the back office. He handles the infrastructure and making sure it’s an efficient, well-oiled machine, so we can build a successful enterprise.

Nicole Campbell: I really like that Randal, you cannot have the orange without the peel. I’m going to use that, because when you’re talking about infrastructure powering the enterprise, it really resonates. And to hear you say, “Listen, without infrastructure, without strengthening it, we cannot scale. And it really will undermine everything you do if you have a weak infrastructure.” So I did really appreciate that response. So Randal, your responses have been so insightful, so thoughtful, and I really like the perspective that you brought, being not within the nonprofit sector as a nonprofit organization, but as a for-profit company that’s mission driven and really focused on social impact. I want to ask you a question to help us continue to build knowledge through books and people we should learn from or about 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?


Randal Pinkett: I’ll give you two answers in the book. One that is wholly self-serving and the other that actually probably gets to the spirit of your question. So we’re talking a lot about civil unrest and racial equity. My last book was ‘Black Faces in White Places’, which looks at the experiences of African-Americans’ industries, including the nonprofit sector, where we are underrepresented. And I interviewed dozens of African-Americans across multiple sectors; entrepreneurs, nonprofit executive directors, foundation executives, corporate CEOs, and distilled what had been the strategy that they used to navigate environments where we’re underrepresented, but still maintain a sense of self. I think it raises up a lot of important questions and conversations that we’re having right now about racial equity. I’d also add to that, another book I found to be fascinating is a book called ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’. And the simple idea is if you’re competing in the marketplace, you can either compete in the red ocean where there’s existing competition and it’s crowded and you can get real bloody, hence the red ocean, or you can look to establish a whole new marketplace where there is no competition, an uncontested space.

Randal Pinkett: A great example from the book is Cirque du Soleil. You know, you ask the question, what is Cirque du Soleil? And the answer is Cirque du Soleil. There’s nothing like it. It’s not the circus. It’s not the movies. It’s not theater. It is Cirque du Soleil. They exist in their own space. They have no competition. I mean, they do but they don’t. And so for any nonprofit leader, for-profit leader, civic leader, government leader, you have to ask the question, “What are the uncontested spaces that I should be exploring?” Because it doesn’t currently exist. You know? And there’s a time when things like big data didn’t exist, when things like case management systems didn’t exist, and somebody created it. And that’s the kind of innovative thinking I think we need to apply to all sectors because that’s where innovation really does get fostered.

Nicole Campbell: So, thanks so much for both of those recommendations, Randal, I think ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ is a great recommendation, particularly for the reason you stated, to think about the uncontested spaces that you as a nonprofit organization should be exploring. And I think that’s really pushing organizations to think outside the box and think outside of the status quo. And of course, I really appreciate the recommendation of ‘Black Faces in White Places’ that you have written.

Nicole Campbell: And you know, Randal, one last question on that. Because I do want to raise this and give you the opportunity to talk about your experience. Because I do think it is amazing that you have a black-led organization that is doing extremely well. That is mission-driven, focused on social impact, and doing such amazing things, particularly in the technology space and managing space. And you even talked about the work that you’re doing around diversity, equity and inclusion, and I’d love to hear from you about how that experience has been. How has it shaped you into the leader that you are today, your role within the organization? How does it allow you to show up in different spaces, particularly when they are not as welcoming as you would think they should be? I’d love to hear about your experience within all of that. And just any sorts of words of wisdom or advice that you might offer for other CEOs of organizations that are in a similar space.

Randal Pinkett: I appreciate the kind words, and I genuinely appreciate the question. You know, I’ve been an entrepreneur for 27 years and as an African-American man in business, I say this very humbly. So take this in the way it’s intended. You know, I’ve been extremely blessed, as have you. I mean, you know, MIT is our common thread. I’ve gone to Oxford, I’ve won a Rhodes Scholarship. You know, I’ve got five academic degrees. In that regard, I consider myself a bit of a litmus test. So what if you sent a highly educated, highly credentialed African-American out into the business world? What would that experience look like? Well, I have the experience and despite all of what I bring to the table, it’s been rough. It’s been a tough road. It’s been a very difficult road and for a variety of reasons. Among them, you know, the difficulties in getting access to capital as an entrepreneur, the difficulty in fostering relationships to more powerful, influential individuals that make the real decisions of who gets the deal and who doesn’t get the deal. The perceptions almost implicitly of what we can and can’t do as a black owned organization and constantly having to dispel the myth or the perception or overcome the stereotype that we can’t compete with the likes of a Deloitte or a McKinsey or a Boston Consulting Group, or the list goes on.

Randal Pinkett: And I don’t say that as a complaint, I say that just to keep it real; that I’ve enjoyed every single step of this journey. I love what I do. I love the mission-driven. I’ve loved the partnership that I’ve had with three other black men, Lawrence Hibbert, Dallas Grundy, and Jeffrey Robinson. I mean, we are like new edition with no Bobby Brown. Hahaha. And it’s nothing but love amongst the four of us. I mean, I have deepest respect and admiration for those gentlemen and for our executive team at BCT, which is predominantly African-American. But I can’t ignore the fact that it’s been a very difficult road and that I see it as my responsibility, my obligation, to make it easier for the next generation of social entrepreneurs, social innovators who follow in our footsteps. You know, BCT has been an experiment with the double bottom line, making a profit and making a difference. You know, financial return on investment and social return on investment. And we’ve learned a lot that we hope that our example, to your opening question, can be a light for others that say, “You don’t have to just go for the money. You don’t just have to go for the social impact. You can do both and you can do it with dignity, honor, and respect. And you can do it as an African-American and still be successful, despite any challenges or obstacles that may come your way.”

Nicole Campbell: Thank you so much for sharing that, Randal. I’m talking about that double bottom line. Again, Randal, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and your insights that are not only just visionary, from where I’m sitting, but they’re also practical. You’re sharing steps, what leaders themselves can do to be successful in their own organizations and in spaces in which their organizations work. And you’re allowing them to help build their organizations bravely. So I just want to thank you again for joining us.

Randal Pinkett: Thank you, Nicole, for the invitation to be a part of the discussion, and also thanks to you for all of what you’re doing to lift up diverse voices, to lift up important topics for the nonprofit community. We appreciate you for what you do. Thank you.


-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 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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Rewriting the Narrative for Community Investment with Susan Burton

Susan Burton’s life story is incredibly powerful. She is a leader in the criminal justice reform movement, the founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, and an outspoken voice to end mass incarceration. And in this episode, she shares why she founded A New Way of Lifeshines a light on the policies and practices that encourage mass incarceration, and offers advice for leaders and organizations for building infrastructure and investing in their communities. 

Susan’s advice is so incredibly transparent, honest, and powerful. It encourages us to rethink what it means to have vision, how to invest in marginalized communities, and how to build sustainably. We encourage you to listen and absorb all of the information Susan shares about how we can each write and appreciate a new narrative. 

Listen to the podcast here:

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About Susan Burton

Susan Burton is a leader in the criminal justice reform movement, founder of A New Way of Life, and outspoken voice to end mass incarceration. Following the tragic accidental death of her five-year-old son, Susan’s world collapsed. Her loss snapped the final tether of resilience burdened by a past of pain and trauma. She descended into an emotional abyss of darkness and despair, but living in South Los Angeles, Susan didn’t have access to the resources she needed to heal. Without support, she turned to drugs and alcohol, which led to nearly 20 years revolving in and out of prison.

Drawing on her personal experiences, she founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project (ANWOL) in 1998, dedicating her life to helping other women break the cycle of incarceration. ANWOL provides resources such as housing, case management, employment, legal services, leadership development and community organizing on behalf of, and with, people who struggle to rebuild their lives after incarceration.

Susan has earned numerous awards and honors for her work. In 2010, she was named a CNN Top Ten Hero and received the prestigious Citizen Activist Award from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is a recipient of both the Encore Purpose Prize (2012) and the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award (2014).

In 2015, on the 50th Anniversary of Selma and the Voting Rights Act, Susan Burton was named by the Los Angeles Times as one of 18 New Civil Rights Leaders in the nation. Released in 2017, her memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton, received a 2018 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in the category of Biography/Autobiography. Becoming Ms. Burton is also the recipient of the inaugural Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice. She holds an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from California State University, Northridge.

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 in the final week of Women’s History Month. And we’re talking with Susan Burton; a leader in the criminal justice reform movement, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, and an outspoken voice to end mass incarceration. Susan’s life story is incredibly powerful. And in this episode, she shares why she founded a new way of life, shines a light on the policies and practices that encourage mass incarceration, and offers advice for leaders and organizations for building infrastructure and investing in their communities. Following the tragic accidental death of her five-year-old son, Susan’s world collapsed. Her laws snapped the final tether of resilience burdened by a past of pain and trauma. And she didn’t have access to the resources she needed to heal. Without support, she turned to drugs and alcohol, which led to nearly 20 years revolving in and out of prison.

Nicole Campbell: Drawing on her personal experiences, she founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project in 1998, dedicating her life to helping other women break the cycle of incarceration. A New Way of Life provides resources such as housing, case management, employment, legal services, leadership development, and community organizing on behalf of and with people who struggle to rebuild their lives after incarceration. Susan has earned numerous awards and honors for her work, including being named a CNN Top 10 hero, receiving the prestigious Citizen Activist Award from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the Encore Purpose Prize, and the James Irvin Foundation Leadership Award. Susan has been named by the Los Angeles Times as one of the 18 new civil rights leaders in the nation. This episode was recorded weeks ago, and I’m still feeling the effects of this incredibly moving conversation. It has helped me rethink what it means to have vision, how to invest in marginalized communities and how to build sustainably. Susan’s advice is so incredibly transparent, honest, and powerful. I encourage you to listen and absorb all of the information Susan shares about how we can each write and appreciate a new narrative. And with that, here is Susan Burton.

Nicole Campbell: Hi Susan, I am so very excited to have you join us today and for our conversation. To get us started, can you tell us about A New Way of Life Reentry Project, your role there, and A New Way of Life immediate priority?

Susan Burton: So, A New Way of Life is a growing organization located…it’s based in South Los Angeles. It is an emerging, what I would call, an emerging model for this nation to create, what I would call, sustainable passages and openings for people who are coming back from incarceration, but it’s also a way to divert people from incarceration to positive lifestyles and influences within the community. So when I think of what a new way of life stands for, it stands for the ability for communities to go from being oppressed, to surviving, to thriving in a way that we, as I can say, black people, have always struggled to, and for, you know, thriving in this country. And some might make it out to a place that they feel like they’re thriving, but so many more are left behind to deal with oppression, suppression, and just surviving the racism of this nation.

Nicole Campbell: I think that is all so needed. And I know we were talking right before we started recording about your work and I wanted to dig into the model, the immersion model, that you talked about, and the work that you’re doing. Can you talk about, first, your role there and your connection to A New Way of Life?

Susan Burton: Yeah, so I am Founder and President of A New Way of Life Reentry Project. And I founded A New Way of Life based on my own experience of being re-incarcerated and re-incarcerated and re-incarcerated. Of being a person that this nation or its justice system did not want to make a positive investment in. They would invest in chaining, caging, incarcerating, and exploiting my labor as a prisoner, but they wouldn’t invest in the possibilities of me getting the opportunity to correct my behavior. And my behavior was in response to a LAPD detective killing my five-year-old son. After his accidental death – the policemen ran him over – and after his death, I began to drink and I drank alcoholically. I drank to drown the grief and that escalated to drug use. It was during the war on drugs and people were being demonized.

Susan Burton: Wow. You know, people would be demonized by this nation’s leaders. Wow. The same leaders were saturating our communities with crack cocaine, and I became a victim and the prey to the systems…to our nation decimating us black folks, brown folks, in our communities with this substance. You know, and I think of that period as chemical warfare on black poor communities, brown poor communities. And I think of the attack on us as a continual way of oppressing us, a continual way of criminalizing and demonizing us. What it also did, Nicole, was it drove women into prisons in huge numbers and it left our communities so crippled. And that’s why I feel like my work at A New Way of Life is so important to rebuilding and stabilizing our communities, the mothers of our communities, the women, the workers, the caretakers, the caregivers in our community.

Susan Burton: So, the work of A New Way of Life to house women, bring them back to our community, give them the ability to heal from all that’s been done to them, including the torture of incarceration, allow them the ability to build leadership skills, to get their kids back, to become, you know, forces within our community. That’s why the work of A New Way of Life is so important. And you know, I see it, I see it and I dream it, and I have a vision for it. You know, and I invest all that I have that women who people see or don’t see, you know, women who are invisible in this nation, women that have the ability to come and make changes in their community; I see them. They’re not invisible to me. They’re very, very important. And so that’s why, you know, I’ve dedicated my life to supporting the rebuilding of our communities through the services at A New Way of Life – the advocacy at A New Way of Life and the leadership development at a New Way of Life.

Nicole Campbell: I just think that is so incredibly powerful, Susan, and, you know, thank you so much for sharing your story. And the way that you described A New Way of Life, it sounds as though it is just such a necessity for society generally, but particularly for those who have been made invisible within society. To say, you know, as you mentioned earlier, to come from being oppressed and demonized, to step into thriving and being able to say, “I am a positive investment.” Right? Like, “You can invest in me.” And that’s exactly what A New Way of Life does. And so I would love to hear more about…and you started to talk through this with when you mentioned your services – advocacy and leadership – through A New Way of Life. Can you talk a little bit more about the kinds of services that A New Way of Life provides; the advocacy that you’re doing and the leadership skills that you are helping others to build? And why you think that that combination – the services, advocacy, and leadership is so important?

Susan Burton: So, the services that we provide consists of supporting women to have housing when they are released from incarceration, a place to heal, and it’s not just housing, it’s also a place to belong. So creating a community where people feel like…that the women that come here feel like they belong and it’s a place to root themselves. And in that house, we provide family reunification services, of course food, clothing, housing, social work services, therapy. And we also do some services around education and job support to get back to work; support for jobs. And we also engage in advocacy through, you know, testified…we allow people the space to understand that their voice and their life experience is important. And we create platforms for them to speak, just like I’m speaking to you today, to inform and tell people what their experiences are, but also what the possibilities are for their lives and how they’d like to work toward those possibilities.

Susan Burton: So, we go to the board of supervisors meeting, we go to Sacramento, they become a part of All of Us or None. And All of Us or None is the voices of formerly incarcerated people advocating and speaking on behalf of themselves. We also have a leadership development called women organizing for justice and opportunity, and they can participate in WOJO, which meets monthly. And we run that every year. WOJO came out of Soros Justice Fellowship. Over 10 years ago, I got a fellowship when Susan Tucker was running the fellowship program and we’ve built on and built on into that leadership development program. And we do it every year. And we create the space for people to understand what role do they have in the movement and letting them know that no role is too small, no role is too big. All of us are working together to build a movement for change and we’re bringing other people, especially women, along with us.

Susan Burton: And then we have legal services at A New Way of Life. We have six attorneys on staff. Two of them work with women who are struggling to get their children back because a part of mass incarceration is, again, a continuation of ripping our babies apart, ripping us apart from our children, taking our babies, literally selling them off, you know, creating needs where they call Child Protective Services and Department of Children and Family Services. It’s a continuation from slavery when they sold our children. That’s how we see it. Because I got incarcerated, doesn’t mean I’m a bad mom. And if you wanted to keep me with my children, it would have been much cheaper to roll out services for me and my children than to separate us and incarcerate me while placing them in the foster care system that fast tracks them into the criminal justice system. So we have four attorneys that do post-conviction relief and two attorney that do family reunification. And then we also added to there some policy work. So we want to stop the fast track adoption system that that incentivizes these places, like Department and Children and Family Services or Child Protective Services that incentivizes them to adopt our children.

Susan Burton: These agencies get paid for the $6,000 in bonus for every child that they adopt out. And that was a part of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1996 or ’94, but we’re working on dismantling that as a practice in this nation, as an incentive in this nation. And, you know, I hope the new administration looks at the harms that they’ve done, that their legislation has done, and their practices has done. And you know, puts forward what I call penance for the bad public policy that they pushed and implemented. And this is not to try to whoop them and beat them, but they have an opportunity now. I think they’ve said that maybe their approach and their thinking about how they created legislation was harmful, and so they can repair the harms now. I hope they do it aggressively. We’ll see.

Nicole Campbell: Mhm. And so it sounds like A New Way of Life is doing a ton of different direct services work, but also focusing on policy change. And I have a question actually around having children being pulled away from the moms who end up being incarcerated. Is that something that’s temporary or is it something that’s permanent? So do you just lose your rights as soon as you’re incarcerated? Is that usually what happens? I’d love to hear more about that piece. And then also about the leadership support that A New Way of Life provides.


Susan Burton: So, you have 18 months to get your children back, or they can be adopted out and that is permanent. You lose all parental rights to your children. And the thing of it is, is that there’s no recourse for mothers to…after the adoption happens it’s final. So I have women come home from prison, Nicole, and they go to try to find their children and they find out that their children are gone. And you know, I mean, I saw women who had came over prison and did everything that the judge said to do in order to get reunification services. I mean, in order to get a reunited with their child.

Susan Burton: And at the end of the day, the judge will say, “Reunification denied. Child is put in placement.” And I’m like, “What is this?” And that mother has no recourse to object to that judge’s decision. And I mean, I watched a movie, I think it was ’12 Years a Slave’, and there was a scene in there where the woman was begging the master not to sell their child. And it feels like, fast forward today, women are pleading with the judge to give them their child back, to reinstate their parental rights. And he says, “no”, and they have no recourse. So I see it as a, like Michelle Alexander writes, “the new Jim Crow,” the transference of those practices and policies embedded in our judicial system and our legal systems and threaded with the practices of slavery.

Nicole Campbell: Yeah. It just renders me speechless, but it also in the same breath, I know that there’s so much that we have to say about it because it just feels wrong and it is wrong. And just even from having this conversation, this is a really, you know, heavy topic. And so you’re doing this day in and day out, and so is your team. How are you all able to stay positive? Keep hope, keep fighting on behalf of these women when you’ve seen, you know as you mentioned, like different stories where just, you know, you can do everything right and you still are not reunited with your child. Like, how were you able to keep pushing forward and how do you encourage your team to keep doing that so that they can continue to work with the women in these situations?

Susan Burton: I mean, we don’t just have the struggles. We have wins through the struggles that are very, very encouraging and, you know, wins are important; small and large. We made progress. Nicole, I started A New Way of Life from my savings from a minimum wage job over 20 years ago. So there’s been so much progress from then ’till now, but not keep fighting is to say that I’m going to surrender to what it is. And surrender would be like, you know, like death. Like an emotional death. And I guess probably depression would set in and, you know, what have you, so you keep fighting. And I’m fighting for my life, my community’s life, my grandchildren’s life, for the future that I want to see. So that just keeps you fighting. And again, we have wins…one place I walk into, one of our homes, and these little brothers that are five and three, they run to me every time and say, “Hey, Ms. Burton. Hi, Ms. Burden.” And, you know, they’re the light and the life. And those little boys have a chance, the mother’s going to school to become a healthcare worker, and she’s going to have a chance to learn, to earn a salary that will sustain her and her two boys. So it’s, you know, inter-generational change that I see it. So, I mean, that’s enough to keep me going.

Nicole Campbell: Yeah, definitely, just looking at future generations and creating that space so that they can have inter-generational prosperity, right. That they could actually be thriving for generations. Like what does that look like? So I appreciate that and appreciate the work that you’re doing. And you mentioned leadership, and I’d love to hear about what you’re doing in that space and working with people to make sure that they have the leadership skills and how they’re then employing those skills and showing up in different spaces.


Susan Burton: Yeah. So locally, we have women organizing for justice and opportunity, but nationally, we have the SAFE Project And SAFE stands for Sisterhood Alliance for Freedom and Equality. And Nicole, over the last 10 years, more than 20 years, I’ve gained a real expertise and skillset on developing, you know, reentry homes and creating leadership development, and organizing strategies that go within those homes. And so what I’ve done is I’ve created a training program for people to replicate our model. And, you know, I have a vision of a safe housing network throughout this nation that other people in their respective communities are welcoming people back into their community, and implementing leadership, and building a place for people to heal. And to walk, and stand, and work with us to change every day.

Susan Burton: And, you know, I might be way off dreaming, but, you know, I have a dream and I have steps toward that dream and a plan. And one of them is to have places for people to go all across this nation; to return from their communities, to safety, to a place of leadership, a place to belong, a place like a springboard to recreate their lives. If we don’t do it…we can’t look at, you know, this is not the work of a government. It’s the work of community, you know. I mean, I hope to build into that support from our government, but these are our community members, our people, our children, our nieces, our nephews, and they belong with us and to us. And so that’s a part of, I feel like, our responsibility during the war on drugs we’ve got. I mean our folks got brainwashed into pushing our people away.

Susan Burton: And demonizing them and finding them unworthy of investment. You know, we got straight brainwashed as a nation. You know, that tough on crime, that crack mama’s stuff, crack babies stuff, that super predator stuff. All of that, you know. And I say that there’s penance for the nation, you know, penance for our leaders, our folks at the top. There’s also penance for us to be a part of the rebuilding and re-humanizing, and we rebuilding of our communities, people…a lot of our community. What I want to say is that we kind of threw away our…I guess…In the class packing system, there was a upper class black folks that threw the lower class black folks away. Did not demand investment and matter of fact, they demanded demonizing, criminalizing and incarcerating a whole generation of people. We need to pay penance to and invest in rebuilding those people, and those children’s people, and recreating, you know, our nations communities.

Nicole Campbell: And when you talk about brainwashing, that concept, it resonates with me. And I think it’s just such an appropriate way to describe what has happened within our communities and I think just generally within society. And what I’m hearing and what I’ve seen about A New Way of Life is that it’s a deliberate model to attack that brainwashing, right? That brainwashing that has caused divestment in, in certain people, in certain communities and have said like, “You are lesser than and so we’re going to ignore, we’re going to invisibilize you.” And instead, A New Way of Life is stepping in and saying, “Actually, we are deliberately going to fight against that narrative and against that messaging.” And talking through again, the different ways in which you all work. And I know you mentioned that you all are working in an emerging model, and I would love to hear about that model in particular, why is it emerging?

Nicole Campbell: And then, just hear more about your infrastructure and the way you think about infrastructure. Because you’re doing a lot of really important, critical work, and you’ve been doing it sustainably for a very long time. You mentioned, you know, starting A New Way of Life based on your savings from a minimum wage job. And now A New Way of Life is a multi-million dollar nonprofit organization, right. It’s been around for decades. So I would love to hear more about your emerging model, how you all are set up to do this work. How do you think about governance? How are you thinking about the structure of your organization to support all of the good work you’re doing?

Susan Burton: So, when I think about combating the narrative that has been set forth is that I don’t nearly have the level of ability to communicate like they communicate and just directly attack that narrative. But what I do have is the ability to not let that narrative resonate with me as true. And what I can do is invest where I can invest to create a different narrative. And the outcomes of itself will negate that narrative when there is an investment made. So maybe that’s the way that I’ve been able to combat that narrative. And then just personally, you know, standing up and showing something different; what can be when there’s an investment made. You know, what I want to say is that, you know, I don’t believe there are throwaway people. And this nation, the way it works, throws away so many.

Susan Burton: And the cost is so high, not only in dollars, but in other ways that…we could just do better as a nation. So we have the nonprofit, you know, infrastructure of a board of directors. And then we have, you know, the officers on the board. We do strategic planning. What I can say is that strategic planning, every time we do one, we exceed it tremendously. Along with the strategic planning, we develop work plans and, you know, everybody exceeds the work plan. I guess when you have such dry ground, you know, when you water it, everything comes up blooming. Even though the ground is dry, the ground is fertile – if someone would just water it. And then we have departments, we have the advocacy department, we have the housing department.

Susan Burton: We have our fiscal management department, we’re about to build a human resources department. We have, you know, different departments across the organization. Organizing the leadership department goes within the art organizing advocacy department, the legal department, and the reunification services are within the legal department. We have our development department and we have a few development people on staff, and we have our communications department, and then our administration. And you know, five years ago, did I think this was what it would be? I did not, but I did know that I deserved a chance and other women deserve a chance. I got a chance out in a white community next to the beach that didn’t throw their people away, that did invest in their people when, you know, there was a mistake made. And I took that model, and I brought it back to South Carolina and then, you know, day by day, the beat goes on.

Susan Burton: And then we have the safe housing leadership program, well I don’t call it a leadership program, I call it a replication program. And now we are in 14 States and we have replicated the model in 14 States. And what I did is I developed a training program with the support from UCLA and my communications department. We’ve trained three different cohorts, over a hundred people, with the model and out of those people, I’ve selected – I think it’s 18 people – 18 people to replicate the program. And you know, I’ve supported them, I’ve raised dollars to help them get started. And we have training modules; every month we get on call and every month we’re together sharing and taking different trainings. And what have you to support them.

Susan Burton: You know, it’s kinda like, A New Way of Life was the support I wish I’d have had when I got released those six times for prison, and it was never there. I created it. And the training program that we have for our replicators is the training that I wish somebody would have gave me when you know, when I started out. You know, I had to learn like any way that I could, how to start, grow, and sustain an organization. And I think that if we’re gonna change this, we just had to get proactive and change it.

Nicole Campbell: And I, you know, I think as you describe how A New Way of Life is set up internally, and how that structure then supports your work, the theme that just keeps coming to mind for me is deliberateness, right? You’re just deliberately building, deliberately saying, “This is the change we want to see, and this is what we’re going after.” And you’re creating an infrastructure to support it. So I hope everyone that’s listening can see that the programmatic vision is always supported with that really strong infrastructure as well, because you can’t scale the way that you have without being able to say, “We have the infrastructure to know that each and every time we show up in a different state, we can ensure it’s going to be consistent. The way we’re working is consistent, and we’re going to engage the way that we have done in previous states.”

Nicole Campbell: So, I just think, again, it just shows, and it’s a testament to how deliberate A New Way of Life is being in both its building, as well as the work. And, you know, your responses, Susan, this entire conversation has been so transparent, and so honest and powerful. And I want to ask you a question that I ask all of our guests to help us continue to build 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 artist do you think we should be paying attention to?

Susan Burton: So, I hope all of the listeners today have read ‘Becoming Ms. Burton’. ‘Becoming Ms. Burton’ is my memoir from prison to recovery, to leading the fight for incarcerated women. But I just won’t promote me. What has been such an eye opener for this nation is Michelle Alexander’s book, ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration’…what is it? ‘Mass incarceration In a Time of’…oh, well ‘The New Jim Crow’ and Monique Morris, so I just, can’t say one, there’s so many great books out there. But Monique Morris has a book called ‘Pushout’, and it’s the story of how this happened so early in black girls’ lives, young black girls’ lives, that their potential begins to be smothered and distorted just because of who they are and what color they are.

Susan Burton: I think that book really describes what happens early on and how we need to intervene. And each one of us – that’s the other thing, is that every day, every one of us can be a part of the change that we want to see. If we would act courageously on our instinct to make a better world, to give somebody an opportunity to invest somewhere and not be scared, not be frightened of the disappointment or the work that has to go into it. It’s like, we can’t afford not to.

Nicole Campbell: Mhm. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.

Susan Burton: Exactly.

Nicole Campbell: Yeah, I completely agree, and thank you so much for sharing these books. We will put them in the show notes so that people can start to read them and put them on their bookshelves as well. So thank you for that. And, you know, again, Susan, you have shared such knowledge, your own personal story, and just incredible insights that I think that leaders will be able to use going forward. Because we talked about…we did a lot of storytelling for people whose stories have not been heard as much as they should have. And I appreciate that you brought all of that to bear during this conversation. And I think that leaders will be able to hear that and take your messages away, and inform how they then build their own organizations and encourage them to build bravely. So again, thank you so much for your time and for joining us today!

Susan Burton: You are so welcome, Nicole.

-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 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

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:

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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 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:

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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.

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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 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:

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About Tonya Allen

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

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

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

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

Read the podcast transcription below:

-Upbeat Intro Music-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Upbeat Outro Music-

Nic Campbell: Thank you for listening to this episode of Nonprofit Build Up. To access the show notes, additional resources, and information on how you can work with us, please visit our website at 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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