This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking with Ricardo Castro, the Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary of the International Rescue Committee. This conversation was recorded last year in 2020 when we were at the height of an international health crisis…that we’re still finding our way through. Ricardo is captivating in how he speaks about IRC’s work and how IRC is responding to yet another crisis and helping countries around the world. He also talks about how essential it is for nonprofits to share their stories and to consider and illustrate the impact of their interventions. He also points out how funders need to be more flexible and adaptable in what they require of grantees in moments of crisis and how the sector should focus less on process and more on support.

Ricardo also discusses the importance of funding infrastructure development to ensure that all organizations, including grassroots organizations, can share the important stories of marginalized communities. This conversation encourages us all to reflect on how we can adapt to the needs of the moment and how we can thoughtfully build more resilient organizations.

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About Ricardo Castro

Ricardo Castro possesses that rare combination of legal background with solid strategic and operational organizational leadership. He has an extensive knowledge of the successful development and management of mission-critical NFP organizations serving a diverse global constituency. In his current position as General Counsel and Secretary of the International Rescue Committee, he is a member of the senior leadership team and is responsible for the legal affairs of the organization both domestically and internationally. In his immediately preceding position as General Counsel of the Clinton Foundation, he was also a member of the senior leadership team and was likewise responsible for the Foundation’s global legal affairs.

As Executive Vice President of Consumer Reports, also a blue chip not-for-profit organization, he was a member of the senior leadership team with the mandate to establish the strategic direction for all Business Development, Change Management, IT, Development, Customer Care, and HR endeavors. In that position, Ricardo took the reins of managing a comprehensive change management process involving seven teams dedicated to defining implementable strategic recommendations in areas of critical importance to the transformation of Consumer Reports. And as he proved at Open Society Foundations and at the Ford Foundation, his strengths also include strategic analysis & planning, US & global regulatory compliance, legal & international negotiations, and NFP start-ups and restructuring.

Ricardo has developed a reputation in the NFP field as an expert in philanthropy, particularly as it pertains to international activities — he has been regularly asked to speak at the Georgetown Continuing Legal Education Conference relating to Managing Tax Exempt Organizations, and recently completed his term on the Board of Advisors of the National Center on Philanthropy and the Law.

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 Ricardo Castro, the Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary of the International Rescue Committee. The IRC is an international organization that responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover, and gain control of their future. Ricardo Castro possesses that rare combination of legal background with solid strategic and operational organizational leadership. He has extensive knowledge of how to successfully develop and manage mission critical nonprofit organizations serving a diverse global constituency. Ricardo has developed a reputation in the nonprofit field as an expert in philanthropy, particularly as it pertains to international activities. He’s regularly asked to speak as an expert at conferences and international meetings, and recently completed his term on the Board of Advisors of the National Center on Philanthropy and the Law. Ricardo and I recorded this conversation last year in 2020, when we were at the height of an international health crisis that we’re still finding our way through. Ricardo is captivating in how he speaks about IRC’s work, and how IRC is responding to yet another crisis, and helping countries around the world.

Nicole Campbell: He also talks about how essential it is for nonprofits to share their stories and to consider and illustrate the impact of their interventions. He points out how funders need to be more flexible and adaptable in what they require of grantees in moments of crisis, and how the sector should focus less on process and more on support. Ricardo discusses the importance of funding infrastructure development to ensure that all organizations, including grassroots organizations can share the important stories of marginalized communities. This conversation encourages us all to reflect on how we can adapt to the needs of the moment and how we can thoughtfully build more resilient organizations. Now, we had a few audio issues in this conversation, but please ignore them. This conversation is that insightful. And with that here is Ricardo Castro.

Nicole Campbell: Hi Ricardo, it is so great to have you joining us for our Fast Build Leader series.

Ricardo Castro: Hi Nic, it’s really good to be with you.

Nicole Campbell: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to our conversation. To get us started, can you tell us about the International Rescue Committee, your role there, and IRC’s immediate priority?

Ricardo Castro: Sure, sure. So the International Rescue Committee, or IRC for short, has been around since the 1930s, it’s one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations. It was established originally at the urging of Albert Einstein to help Jews escaping Nazi Germany at the time. And since then, it has grown to quite a large organization. It’s probably around 14 or 15,000 employees and volunteers around the world. It operates in over 30 countries and it assists people who are impacted by conflict or natural disaster or a crisis of some sort, providing humanitarian assistance. And it also is the largest refugee resettlement agency in the United States. So refugees who resettled in the United States are resettled by a number of different agencies. There are nine, IRC is one of those nine resettlement agencies. And in fact it’s the largest of the nine. So it’s a humanitarian organization and a refugee resettlement agency that’s been around for quite some time, has a very large operating budget, this current fiscal year over $800 million operating budget. About 75% of the funding is from governments, U.S. Government, UK government, Swedish government, others as well. And the other 25% private fundraising.

Nicole Campbell: Can you tell us a little about what you do there? What’s your role?

Ricardo Castro: Oh, sure. I’m the Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary, that’s quite a mouthful. So I run the legal department, the office of general counsel. There are five lawyers and myself makes six. And I also provide executive oversight over two other units. One is called the Ethics and Compliance Unit, which among other things, investigates allegations of misconduct throughout the organization, and the Internal Audit Unit, which audits our internal controls around the world and our operations around the world.

Nicole Campbell: And in light of COVID-19 and just what’s going on in the world, what is IRC’s immediate priority?

Ricardo Castro: Well, the immediate priority is the safety and security of its personnel around the world. We operate in…obviously we operate in the United States and in Europe, but most of our country programs are in Africa, and Asia, and Latin America. And so first and foremost is the safety and security and well-being of our own staff and volunteers. And then of course, to try to ensure business continuity. Our sort of lifeblood as an organization is to provide assistance to people in dire circumstances, ordinarily due to conflict or natural disaster. And what that involves is providing for people’s basic needs, either in refugee camps or outside of refugee camps, in communities that involves providing public health and medical care services to people in need, education, cash assistance, all the sorts of things that people need to survive under difficult circumstances. So we’re trying to ensure that that work continues during this crisis and preparing for COVID-19 to impact those countries in which we operate. Because as we all know, the global North has been hit much more, at least currently, much more significantly by the virus, and the global South, we are beginning to see COVID-19 cases be reported in increasing numbers. But we work in many countries where the reporting systems are unfortunately unreliable. So we believe that unfortunately, the numbers are probably at the moment understated, even as it just begins to take hold there. So we’re very concerned about the potential impact in countries that have much weaker public health systems than we do. So it’s quite concerning.

Nicole Campbell: So, you’re doing critical work with a significant global footprint. And you’ve also explained that, you know, essentially you’re also fundraising, right? Although 75% of your budget does come from governments, the other 25% is coming from somewhere else. And so a question I have for you, particularly now in this environment that we’re in, what’s your advice to nonprofits that fundraise as a significant part of their budget? So in other words, what do you think should be top of mind for them right now during this time of uncertainty?

Ricardo Castro: Yeah, no, I think that’s a great question. And by the way, the government funds that we raise require a lot of work as well, to raise those funds. So the government funding is a separate animal, but it requires a lot of work, both to obtain those awards from governments and to manage them and to report on them. There’s a whole infrastructure that’s needed to carry out that type of work. But on the private fundraising side, which I assume your question is addressing probably primarily, private fundraising, and I think the key is to tell stories. I think storytelling about what your organization is doing that’s consistent with its mission, why it’s critical, and being able really to point to evidence, and sometimes that evidence is in the form of stories. To be able to point to of why what you’re doing is making a difference and why the interventions that you’re choosing to pursue in whatever your mission is, why those interventions are worthy of someone’s hard-earned money.

Ricardo Castro: And I think that there are many ways to make that case to the public, but I think stories are very compelling. So if you are helping immigrant families in low-income neighborhoods, I think allowing the voices of the people you’re helping to shine through in your appeals is very, very important. There are other ways, of course, as well as we all know, everyone, funders particularly these days, are very concerned about data. So this can be tricky because if you’re a small organization that is community based and doesn’t have a lot of resources, you may not have a lot of funds or means to collect data and evidence in ways that some funders require. And so you have to be creative and find other ways to provide the evidence that what you’re doing matters and makes a difference. And again, I go back to the issue of storytelling. I know that just merely as a citizen, if I receive an appeal that contains a really compelling story, I will be more apt to support that effort. So I think storytelling is really critical.

Nicole Campbell: I really like that answer Ricardo, and I really agree with you. I think that a lot of our efforts, if not all of them, should be going towards telling our story, how loud we were telling it, who are we sharing that story with, who else is picking up that story and telling it to others. So I really liked that response, and I also agree with you about the involvement of fundraising from governments and working with government funding. So even having worked with you on a lot of those cases, I know how involved it can be. And I know you also mentioned funders when you were explaining what nonprofits fundraisers should be focused on and what funders might be looking for at this point. So if we were to look on the other side of that conversation, what’s your advice to funders, beyond give more money? What’s that advice for them to support nonprofit sustainability, both within and beyond this crisis?

Ricardo Castro: Yeah, I think that for funders, I think my pitch to funders, frankly, would be to be more flexible and to adapt requirements accordingly. I think that in a moment of crisis, particularly, donors need to show some flexibility to allow the work that’s mission critical to be accomplished with perhaps some lightening of reporting requirements and things that frankly add a lot of burden and work to organizations that are maybe actually not even sufficiently funded to cover a lot of the compliance aspects of the work and really have to stretch. At a lot of the smaller organizations, people are wearing multiple hats. And if you can lighten up a little bit on some of the reporting requirements, or maybe even show some flexibility in terms of how funds can be used within an already pre-approved budget. I think that would be very helpful at this time, just to show some flexibility, be a bit agile, allow people to adapt a little bit. I think that would go a long way and would help people.

Nicole Campbell: So, we have advice for both nonprofits and funders, and I think your response is touching on this, but what do you wish we did less of as a sector and what you think we should do more of?

Ricardo Castro: So, I think that what we should do less of as a sector is probably place a little bit less of an emphasis on process and what, for some organizations really feel, like a lot of bureaucracy, if that can be minimized, I think that would be very helpful. And the thing I think that we can do more of, I think is to, for funders particularly, to fund infrastructure development a bit more. So for instance, I go back to this issue of data and evidence. A lot of funders want organizations to provide all sorts of data and evidence about the efficacy of their work, et cetera. And the impact, impact is the magic word, and I get that. I think that’s valid, but I think that perhaps I don’t quite understand what that means for an organization in practice – that is short-staffed, that does not have the technology perhaps to gather data and to report on metrics in the way that might be desired by the donor.

Ricardo Castro: So, I think it’s very important in those cases for donors to pay for that infrastructure that’s needed to meet those demands. So, I mean, I have seen many occasions where there are requirements imposed on organizations and they really have to spend their own unrestricted funds in order to comply with requirements because the grants received don’t have budget lines to support the people needed to generate that type of reporting, let’s say, or that type of data. So it really cuts into their unrestricted funds in a way that is not really intended, I’m sure, by some donors. So I think it’s important for donors to be very mindful of what requirements they’re imposing and fund the ability of the organization to meet those requirements.

Nicole Campbell: You are speaking my language, Ricardo, and it actually takes me into my next question for you, which is how is IRC thinking about these issues? How is it thinking about building infrastructure, particularly during this time when a lot of nonprofits are focused on programmatic strategy or on fundraising, which again should be important and at the forefront, but how is IRC thinking about building its infrastructure now during this uncertain time during the pandemic, but also beyond the pandemic?

Ricardo Castro: Yeah, that’s a very good question. I think IRC is fortunate because it’s a very large well-established humanitarian organization that is well-funded and has developed over the years, a significant and effective infrastructure. So for IRC, it’s not so much the question of building infrastructure, it’s actually adapting the infrastructure to new circumstances. So I’ll give you an example. We have a very sophisticated Ethics and Compliance Unit that looks into any expressions of concern by members of the public, staff, vendors, whoever, and part of what they do is to conduct reviews of situations in country. Well, in a circumstance where travel is off limits, our issue is not developing that infrastructure because we have it, It’s how does it get differently deployed and utilized in a new set of circumstances? How do you leverage technologies in a different way to permit you to carry out those same sorts of investigations and activity without the need to travel?

Ricardo Castro: How do you partner with colleagues in the field to undertake some of the activity that you might otherwise have undertaken from headquarters? So for us, and there are other infrastructural units like that, like our global supply chain team and other, our internal audit team, these are all teams that require us to do work on the ground. And in this context where travel is not permitted, where safety and the health needs of your staff are critical, for us the question is how do we change the way our infrastructure is behaving and conducting its work so that we remain effective. And so that we continue to comply with the requirements of our donors and we continue to comply with our own code of conduct and with our own standard operating procedures around procurement and things like that. All these different infrastructural functions are challenged in so far as not the number of people they may have working in those units, but the methodologies for working are challenged.

Ricardo Castro: And so, it requires us to be adaptive, to be flexible, and to be creative, actually, you have to come up with creative ways to get the same things done. But other organizations, particularly smaller not-for-profit organizations, don’t have the issue we’re having. They have the issue of actually, maybe realizing for the first time, that they need a certain type of infrastructure function and that’s a different kettle of fish. And again, it requires the organization to really assess its needs very carefully. And you also have to be careful, now’s a tricky time, because what your needs might be during COVID-19 and the pandemic may be rather different. So you have to sort of assess your needs in the immediate moment and also in the medium, and long-term, so it’s a challenging time to think about that.

Nicole Campbell: I liked that. I like that approach because it really just says, it’s not just about building once and forgetting about it and saying, “We’ve done that, it’s fine”, but it’s this continuous assessment to make sure that these powerful stories that we’ve been talking about of the communities that we’re serving are continuing to be told, right? And you have the infrastructure to support that. And for the new organizations or the newer organizations or smaller organizations that are building that infrastructure, taking that moment to say, “What do we need now and what might be needed later?” So that really resonates. Ricardo, this conversation has been incredible. I want to ask you a question to help us continue to build knowledge through books and people you should learn about or 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?

Ricardo Castro: Well, I’ll answer the artists question first, because I was just thinking about someone in the last few days that I really admire. So a woman by the name of…a visual by the name of Mickalene Thomas, who is a black, as she describes herself, a black, queer, woman, artist. Mickalene Thomas, she’s extraordinary, she produces beautiful work to look at, just really striking. And she also elevates the day-to-day existence of black women largely in really, like, home settings. But the way she depicts the people in her work…she works largely in collage with lots of color, she also does amazing installations, reproducing like people’s living rooms and things in the seventies. It’s really pretty cool. And she’s remarkable because she’s very interested in elevating stories of people that she grew up with in New Jersey. She’s from New Jersey. So I’m from New Jersey. So I like that about her as well.

Ricardo Castro: And she’s doing extraordinarily well now, she’s gotten a lot of attention, lots of shows all over. She’s worth listening to when she talks about her work, if you can catch her on YouTube, she was invited to be a trustee of MoMA. She’s quite remarkable. She was featured recently in a short video that was done about butch women in the New York times, a little video that was done about that. It was really terrific. And the other thing I really liked, the last thing I’ll say about her, is that she’s really using her own fame to elevate other artists of color. And she’s having them be part of her shows. And she’s very concerned about, I think she refers to it as community of practice, and bringing other people in her community into her work and giving them visibility as well as part of her own journey. So she’s a really cool person. So I think she’s very well worth looking at,

Nicole Campbell: I’m definitely going to check out her work. And can you say your name one more time, Ricardo?

Ricardo Castro: Mickalene, it’s M I C K A L E N E, Mickalene Thomas.

Nicole Campbell: Mickalene Thomas, okay. I’m definitely going to check her out. So thank you for sharing that. And you’ve also shared such incredible wisdom that leaders can practically use in their own organizations to help them build bravely. So thank you so much for joining us today, Ricardo.

Ricardo Castro: Oh, of course. It was my pleasure. Anytime. Thanks for the work you’re doing. I think it’s really, really, really valuable and the community’s in your debt. So thank you.

Nicole Campbell: 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 buildupadvisory.com. We invite you to listen again next week as we share another episode about scaling impact by building infrastructure and capacity in the nonprofit sector. Keep building bravely.