Nonprofit Podcast

Shifting from Charity to Justice with Dr. Dorian Burton

Dorian Burton’s passion for shifting the conversation in the sector from a deficit-based framework to an asset-rich framework comes through so clearly during our conversation. He shares practical advice for nonprofits and funders on how to begin the shift from charity to justice.

In this episode, Dorian focuses on how funders can and should listen to, work alongside, and partner with communities they’re serving in order to problem solve and also about how to ensure that those communities can create ways to be self-sustaining. This conversation inspires us to reflect on sustainability models, how we can create them on our own, and community partnership in order to change the way we address the root causes of inequity.

Listen to the podcast here:




About Dr. Dorian Burton

Dr. Dorian Burton, Ed.L.D., is currently the Chief Program Officer and Assistant Executive Director at the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust in Chapel Hill, NC, a foundation that supports building healthy and whole communities. He was formerly the Co-Director of The TandemED Initiative for Black Male Achievement and Community Improvement at Harvard University Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and was the Wasserman Foundation Fellow in the Doctor of Education Leadership Program at Harvard. Prior to Harvard, Dr. Burton worked as an independent consultant with various non-profits and school districts between Harlem, NY; Houston, TX; and Newark, NJ. In his role as a consultant, Burton worked to provide strategic support to Newark Public School principals in the launch of their Renew School Turnaround initiative. In addition, he worked in a special projects role to develop external partnerships for the Harlem Children’s Zone College Success Office.

Dr. Burton started his professional career working for the National Football League and also served as the founding Program Director of the Education Pioneers Houston Office, the Houston Director of Stand for Children, and the Chief Strategy Officer for TandemED. In addition to his doctorate degree from Harvard, Burton holds a Master’s degree in higher education from the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University and a Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Pennsylvania State University, where he also was a member of the varsity football team.

During Dr. Burton’s tenure at Harvard as a Wasserman Family Fellow, he was selected to the Dean’s Committee on equity and diversity, served as a Teaching Fellow for Lani Guinier at Harvard Law School and was awarded the International Marshall Memorial Fellowship from the German Marshall Fund. Additionally, Dr. Burton was a Gordon Ambach Fellow with the National Governors Association Education Division and The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, as well as a non-Resident Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University.

Dr. Burton currently resides in Durham, NC. He is deeply driven by his faith and is the proud son of two wonderful scholarly parents, the father of four great children, and brother to three older sisters who serve as his inspiration, comic relief, and confidants.

Online: In 2019 Dr. Burton was selected as one of the 2019 Black Enterprise Modern Man of Distinction, and honored by The Root 100 as one of the 100 most influential African Americans in the country. Dr. Burton was also selected to the the Boston Business Journal’s “40 under 40.” list. He has his own blog on Huffington Post and tweets frequently @Dorian_Burton. He has also been published in the Boston Globe, and Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Read podcast transcription below:

-Upbeat Intro Music-

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

Nicole Campbell: Hi everyone, this week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking with Dr. Dorian Burton. Dorian is currently the Chief Program Officer and Assistant Executive Director at the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a foundation that supports building healthy and whole communities. He was formerly the Co-Director of the Tandem ED Initiative for Black Male Achievement and Community Improvement at Harvard University Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, and was the Wasserman Foundation Fellow in the Doctorate of Education Leadership program at Harvard. Prior to Harvard, Dorian worked as an independent consultant with various nonprofits and school districts in Harlem, New York, Houston, Texas, and Newark, New Jersey. Dorian has provided strategic support to Newark public school principals in the launch of their Renew School Turnaround Initiative and he’s developed external partnerships for the Harlem Children’s Zone College Success Office. Dorian’s passion for shifting the conversation in the sector from a deficit base framework to an asset rich framework comes through so clearly during our conversation.

Nicole Campbell: He shares practical advice for nonprofits and funders on how to begin the shift from charity to justice. This conversation was recorded last summer at a time of immense uncertainty and which in April, 2021, still largely remains. He focuses on how funders can and should listen to, work alongside, and partner with communities they are serving in order to problem solve, and also about how to ensure that those communities can create ways to be self-sustaining. This conversation inspired me to reflect on sustainability models, how we can create them on our own and community partnership in order to change the way we address the root causes of inequity. I can’t wait for you to hear the tremendous insight Dorian has to offer. And with that, here is Dr. Dorian Burton.

Nicole Campbell: Hi Dorian, I am really excited to have you joining us for our Fast Build Leader series today. To get us started, can you tell us about the Kenan Charitable Trust, your role there, and the trust’s immediate priority, particularly given our current environment?

Dorian Burton: Absolutely. Well, thank you for having me, super excited to be here. So I’m the Chief Program Officer at the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The trust is about 50 years old. We focus on roughly four program areas. So higher education, the K through 12 space – which are the early childhood through the K through 12 space – arts and culture, and I would say our most evolving portfolio is whole community health. And that ranges from everything from affordable housing, food security, to the justice system. 98% of our funding goes into four States and that’s where the families have some type of personal or professional input.

Dorian Burton: So, North Carolina, New York, Florida, and Kentucky. As I think about our work and really thinking about pressing needs and how we think about our day to day, it’s really focused on how do we get proximate to community? How do we reposition? I think the narrative in philanthropy from one that is rooted in charity to one that is rooted in justice. I would say, you know, charity makes you feel good around a dinner table. I think justice is really about riding along. And so our grant making is really targeted to that. Thinking about leaders of color, folks that are doing amazing work on the ground and that are leading the charge around change. So that’s us.

Nicole Campbell: And I really liked that shift that you’ve described; moving from charity to justice and framing your grantmaking around that. And as Chief Program Officer, what role are you playing in that shift and how does that show up for you on a day to day basis?


Dorian Burton: Well, I think there’s a few things. I think first, just coming into philanthropy…and I’ve been in the space about six years now. I think one of the things that I first came across, one was the governance structure. It was a space that was largely governed by 65 year old, white males. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with 65 year old white males. But I think when you think about the decisions that they were making or where they were choosing to place resources, often it was from communities that they weren’t from or had never really stepped foot into. And so as you think about leadership and the governance of philanthropy, there needed to be and there needs to be a fundamental shift. So you have organizations or institutions that are 90% to 100% white making decisions for communities that are 100% of color.

Dorian Burton: And I think if you look at the reverse, in no other place would you have that, right? So you would never have a space where you had institution that was a hundred percent black or a hundred percent Hispanic making decisions for institutions or communities that were a hundred percent white. And so really thinking about one, how do we start to make that fundamental shift around how we think about leadership and then also, how do we deploy resources? Another…I think you’ll find as we continue to have this conversation, that I think I’m very critical of the space, but critical in the way that I think is also very helpful for the work that we can do. Deploying resources in a way that was not perpetuating the inequalities that we were trying to solve for. So, for instance, if you’re giving…there was huge disparities between how we would and whether organizations would fund white led institutions versus communities of color, or institutions of color, or that are led by people of color.

Dorian Burton: You would find that money that was tied to organizations of color was often very much so program-restricted, in smaller amounts, and that was really kind of coded in a way that said, “Well, we have to wait until they grow. We have to wait until they get to pass.” On the flip side, I think you would find that organizations that were led by white leaders would get much bigger grants. The grant dollars would be around general operating costs but not be restricted in that same way. And I think what is ironic is that you would usually have those institutions sub granting the smaller institutions that we said didn’t have the capacity to actually hold that type of grant, but these are the people that are actually doing the real work. And so I think trying to flip the paradigm and the hierarchy, get onto the ground and get proximate to the folks who are leading the change and say, “Well, what are the things that you want to do?” As opposed to, I think us mapping our own reforms on to communities and on to organizations, I think which has dire consequences.

Dorian Burton: Second part of that is also thinking about how do we change the narrative of the communities that we’re responsible to and that we’re serving? One of the big things I also noticed when I stepped into this space is that philanthropic institutions were rewarding individuals that told the worst stories the best about communities that they serve. And my mom always told me, you can only treat somebody as good as you talk about it, right? And so pushing these deficit based narratives in order to build resources was counterintuitive to the work. And so how we think about framing the communities that we serve and how we understand the assets that are within those communities is key. One of the big folks that is driving that work is Trabian Shorters. I’m sure you familiar with Trabian and the work that he does BMe and has been doing for a long time.

Dorian Burton: They’re really starting to shift to an asset-based frame in this work, because it really changes the questions that you ask and the outcomes that you’re looking to achieve. So for example, a very small change, but I think it leads to a very different set of outcomes, was in our application process. You know, we changed the question from, “What is the problem that you’re seeking to alleviate?” To “What are the aspirations that you have for the community that you serve?” That switch and the questioning might seem like a small thing, but it really moves the conversation to not looking at communities as problems, as opposed to…there are deep assets there, there are leaders that have been on the ground before we ever decided that we want to be involved. There are people that were driving change. There are fully capable individuals on the ground moving this work that we can get behind, and that we can dream together and aspire for something better for communities as a whole. And so those are some of the things that I think we work on and that we’re trying to change in our own internal process, but also trying to rethink how we put resources in all of that as well.

Nicole Campbell: I think that’s really powerful. Like, particularly when you’re talking about these shifts, right. And you’re talking about the leadership shift with the way we look at governance, organizations, and how that then translates to programmatic outcomes and supporting of those outcomes. And also particularly, when you talked about shifting that narrative from deficit-based to really asset-based, asset rich narrative about the communities that we’re serving. A lot of the work that I do around infrastructure is saying, “How do we take these frameworks and how do they then show up in our processes and our policies within the organization?” And so when you’re talking about shaping that question in your application, for example, I think that that has huge implications about the kind of outcomes you’re then looking for, and supporting, and able to create. So I think that is all really powerful. And building on that, because you are engaging with nonprofits, I would love to hear what kind of advice would you provide to nonprofits that fundraise as a significant part of their budgets? In other words, what do you think should be top of mind for them right now, during this time, particularly during this time of uncertainty?

Dorian Burton: Yeah. I’ll answer that in two ways. Because I think the first is that, you know, folks that were charged with serving the nonprofits will always ask, “Well, what do we need to do to get funding into and to push?” And I think that power dynamic is the wrong dynamic. It really should be: what do our philanthropic institutions need to do to reform our space to better serve the folks that are on the ground? There is no way that executive directors need to be running around, chasing dollars, going from institution to institution. If you invest in somebody, get behind them, find a way to help them gain funding. This is not a job that you can do behind a desk. You really have to get out and into community. You have to work alongside the folks that you’re charged with serving, and it is not their sole responsibility just to raise money, right?

Dorian Burton: Because if they’re just raising money, they’re not on the ground doing the things that they’re passionate about doing, and they’re not effecting change in a way that they can be. So the first is, philanthropic institutions need to reform how we do our grantmaking process. It also can’t be this space where we are pitting nonprofits against each other in a Thunderdome, winner takes all type of mentality. So in that, it is really on us to think about, you know, how do we deploy resources? How do we convene, but also how do we help them to garner additional resources? On the nonprofit side, to get more so to the question that you asked, I think making a space where you’re not tied to philanthropic dollars, right? And that’s not that large of a piece of your capital stack.

Dorian Burton: So, what are the different ways that you can generate revenue? What are the ways that you can move effective programs into effective policy that are tied into hard dollars, right. If you are fundamentally changing the way that we think about housing and the way that we think about education through your program, that needs to be moving to scale. And to think about how do our cities adopt that, how do our States adopt the work that you’re doing, to scale it towards larger change. And that also ties it to harder dollars that I think are not as fickle. Philanthropy and the dollars…every three or four years, a new report will come out. And then all of a sudden, I think folks want to move and change into that space with the kind of changes or the wind. And so philanthropy has historically been a very fickle space around funding. And so it is not one that I wouldn’t depend on. I think it is one that can be risk-capital or innovation can help to see work and can help to create Brightspot’s models, but it is not built for, I think, that long-term pool of resources.

Nicole Campbell: And so, you’re talking about diversification of funding sources and not being, you know, 100% reliant on philanthropy, which makes complete sense to me. So I’m thinking of the nonprofits that I talk with and run into, and they’re saying, “Well, how do we do that?” So what’s their first step? How do you get to the point where you have diversified funding sources, you’re not 100% reliant on philanthropy for your revenue. But what’s their first step? Because right now they are. And so for those organizations, what do you suggest?

Dorian Burton: I think understanding what are the models that can help to pull in revenue into a space? So an example would be…and I’m not saying that this is right necessarily for everyone, but I think that I would like to see more of our nonprofits institutions, the ones that are doing really good work, being able to be adopted or to pulled into really changing systems at a larger scale. Let’s say our education partners, for some of our education partners, you know, they will come to us and say, “Hey, you know, we’re doing really good work. Can you fund us to do work in, let’s say, a school district, right?” We’ll say, “Yes, of course, because that’s what we were supposed to be doing.” Right. But at the same time, there is a very clear value that that nonprofit has to the school district.

Dorian Burton: The school district has funding that might not always be allocated in the right way. And that nonprofit is changing the way that the organization is doing work. There’s a clear value towards what their outcomes are. There’s these shared values. And so thinking at the district, or as a very clear partner as opposed to something that is transactional and only dependent on the philanthropic dollars. So removing, kind of, us from that space where they have a trusted partnership and that they are thinking about their funding and the resources, and building the capacity around them to do that. And in some cases that is using philanthropy for the first two or three years. And then that model switching, giving the district enough time to reform what they might be doing with dollars that they might be spending. I think that there is a lot of money that is out there, right?

Dorian Burton: Philanthropic dollars are a very small part of that. I use the Gates Foundation, for example. Gates Foundation is one of the top four, if not the biggest foundation in the world, right. They spend about $400 million a year, roughly, I think around that, on education and other things. When you think about one school district, let’s say the Houston independent school district, it has, you know, a multi-billion dollar budget and employees of about 29,000 people. And that’s one school district. So Gates $400 million might seem like a lot. But if you think about the total budget of one district, one large urban district, I mean, it trumps that, right. All of the spending that they do here. And so, like I said, I think philanthropic dollars can be the catalyst for change, but we have to figure out ways to support our nonprofit leaders on the ground to find more stable pots of resources and revenue. And also thinking about our government institution, how they can reallocate those dollars, how they can spend those to really adapt and bring in effective programs and turn those into corporate policy. Does that make sense?


Nicole Campbell: No, it makes complete sense. And you know what you’re seeing and what I want people to hear, is that you’re not saying don’t rely on philanthropy at all, but it’s like, use that as part of your model, but then expand. And I think that that second piece is what nonprofits need to hear and actually look at themselves and say, how can we use our leverage and expanding that way so that we are not just holding reliant on philanthropy. So it makes complete sense to me. And I think, you know, I want to circle back to something that you said when we were talking about how philanthropy needs to start to change that whole power dynamic and stop with this Thunderdome sort of pitting nonprofits against each other. Why do you think that happens?

Dorian Burton: So I think that there is a misconception that when folks walk into philanthropy, their IQ goes up 40 points, right? All of a sudden now that you’ve given out money, you’re the smartest person in the room, your jokes get a lot funnier and everything like that. I think that there has to be a shift between behind what we want to do versus what is already been done on the ground. And how do we get behind folks that have already created the tables to do that? So, you know, you might have a grandmother who has been running an amazing literacy program in the bottom of a church for 40 years. Why don’t we find an opportunity to get behind her and scale her work, as opposed to say, “Oh, well, we’re coming in with this brand and literacy initiative and we’re going to build this table. And then we’re going to invite you to a seat at the table in your own community.”

Dorian Burton: That doesn’t make any sense. Or we’re going to ask a focus group opinion on something that we want to do, knowing that we’re already going to do it anyways. Right. And so it’s using community as more of an insurance policy than actually valuing them as a partner or understanding that people on the ground know what they need better than we know. Right. And, you know, I know what I need in my household better than anybody else. Right. And so understanding that there is a true partnership on there. I don’t think that folks that have been in leadership fully understand and appreciate the brilliance that’s in the community. I think you put it into that, there can only be this silver bullet type of solution for work.

Dorian Burton: So let’s say, okay, well we’re only going to fund third grade reading and all of a sudden that’s going to change institutional racism and poverty, or the institutional racism and how that is created poverty-stricken situations in our community. As opposed to looking at things in a more comprehensive way. So an example would be, you know, when I bet on the things that happen or on my family, thriving, it’s not just one thing, right? I’m looking at their school for my kids. I’m looking at housing, making sure they have a safe place to live. I’m looking at their healthcare, making sure that my kids are healthy. I’m looking at my job to make sure that they have a stable financial structure. We need to make the same type of bets on our communities that we’re making in our own household.

Dorian Burton: For some reason we think because communities have not been served well by systems that all of a sudden, we can just do this one thing and it will change. And that’s not true because that’s not what we believe in our own house. And so I think it creates this ‘there can be only one’ type situation in our communities that does not serve them well. That often leads to nonprofits having mission creep and trying to do everything, because we have not properly funded the organizations to partner and find ways to collaborate, and really shine towards the things that they are really good at individually. The time to come together towards a collective action, I think would be lead to better outcomes for the community.


Nicole Campbell: And what I’m hearing from what you’re explaining, which makes a lot of sense, right? Is this idea that philanthropy comes in, can observe, can understand what’s happening, be more relational, and then trust the people and organizations that are already doing the work and find out how they can support them to do their own work. And so I’m going to ask the same question that I raised around how nonprofits get started making a shift. How do funders start to make that shift? Because we all talk about doing that. You know, we talk about having trust and being a partner with grantees, but how do you get started if you’re a funder that knows these things, but hasn’t historically acted that way.

Dorian Burton: Yeah. So I think one, understanding the history behind the work that you do, right? And so institutions making that organizational shift to really build it. You know, when we are going into communities and we’re trying to walk alongside them, what is the history that has created the inequality that we’re seeing? Right. You know, if you’re going to talk about affordable housing, you better know what’s going on with redlining or what has happened with redlining, right? If not, I think you walk into a space and assume that a community is inherently deficient, as opposed to there has been a set of systems that have been placed in this community over decades to be in the space that they’re in right now; that that is not just in the history, that’s happening in the present. So it’s one thing, that how you think about your work and how you think about the history behind what you’re working in and or on. Two, thinking about your staff and is it reflective of the community that you’re aiming to serve, right?

Dorian Burton: Not just your staff, but your Board. And I think what I see in a lot of institutions is that they will create a diversity and inclusion role with no real power. Right? So is your staff diverse, but do the folks on your staff have decision making power, right? Do they have power within the organization to really move money and resources in ways that they feel necessary and to be responsive to community. And the same type of diversity on your Board; in ways that I think again, will build bridges across lines of differences and that help us to see our blind spots. Third, I think, are you guys proximate to the communities that you serve, right? Are you moving to really understand and be present? Because what you can think at your office behind your desk might make complete sense until you actually get on the ground.

Dorian Burton: And so, working with folks that are on the ground, and do you value their leadership, right? Is it a space where you are creating where you’re the hero of the story versus getting behind individual being responsive in your philanthropy to help them be the heroes and the heroines of their own story. Because they’re fully capable of that. And then again, I think shifting real dollars, right? If you show me your budget, I’ll show you what you care about. Right. And I think for us at the trust, that is something that I think we can do better. Right? These are…note that when I’m being critical, I’m also being critical of ourselves, right? There’s still changes that we need to make, as we think about our Board. And we think about who we hire. And we think about our history and our paths. What does that mean? How we, in some cases, perpetuate the inequality that we’re trying to solve for. So when I’m being critical, note that I’m being critical of myself as an actor in this space, as well as the organization that I work for.

Nicole Campbell: So, Dorian, we have great advice now for nonprofits and funders, and on top of that, we have the practical next-steps. So I think, these are the things that nonprofits can do, that funders can do, to get started on that critical shift that we’re talking about. With all of that in mind, what do you wish we did less of as a sector? And what should we be doing more of?


Dorian Burton: Less of? We talk a lot. You know, I think we convene a lot. If you’re at a convening and it is just funders in a row, and there’s nobody from the community that you serve, then you’re in the wrong room or you’re wasting your time, right? It’s a space where, you know, you’ll find that we’ll pat each other on the back around the good work that we’re doing. Or we get in a room, we won’t bring the folks that were truly responsible to serving and getting behind into that space, because they’re scared that they’re going to ask us for money. And that’s your job. They should be asking you for money. They should be. If I get a call, I know what it’s for. Right. But that’s my job. And so I think we need to need to think about less talk.

Dorian Burton: I think that we need to also not be scared. So I think to be innovative in this work, looking at our past and looking at where this has come to, where we are now, it has come a long way. Don’t lose hope in that, we still have a long way to go and I think you have to work with the people you serve. You think about the work that Aaron’s doing at Ford, and La June and Joe Scantlebury are doing at Kellogg, and a lot folks move in this work. Melanie Brown at the Gates foundation and William Buster, all those folks that are really in there. Tonya Allen, the Skillman, that have been doing this and really driving it. Those are folks that I think that we can look towards. It’s not like we don’t have people that are doing it. I think being able to move it with a quicker sense of urgency and urgency that our communities deserve.

Dorian Burton: Right. Do we need another study? Do we need another report? Maybe in some cases, but probably not. Right. I got an organization about six or seven months ago. It was a funder saying, you know, we do a report on the opportunity gap or achievement gap. Absolutely not. You know, that’s something that has been over studied and underfunded, right? Our communities, I think have been over studied and underfunded. And so we owe it to them to work with a sense of urgency. I think, I wish that we did more of thinking about wealth creation and ownership. You know, if you are thinking about putting money on the ground for our communities, how are you tying that to making sure our communities own their own community, right? How are we thinking about wealth creation in that way? How are you thinking about wealth creation? I think Pamela and Jolly will talk about it, that it takes three generations to really move into a place of wealth. And I think we need to be moving the conversation to really getting to the root causes, as opposed to just fixing the symptoms of what, you know, long-term, unjust racial policies have put onto our community park.

Nicole Campbell:

Yeah, and that shift to thinking about wealth creation and ownership, I think if that were really at the core of a lot of the work that we were doing, I think the way we show up as nonprofits, as funders, would be so critically different. So I completely agree with that. And I like how you just put it: less talk, right? Like, you have communities that are overstudied and underfunded. One thing that you also said in your response, Dorian, is that we should not be afraid to be innovative in our work. And so one of the things that makes me think about innovation, and I don’t know if it makes other people think this way, is infrastructure. How strong is your organizational infrastructure, your Board set up, your policies, your procedures, the way you’re structured as an organization, both internally and externally. How are those things in place to support your innovation, to support your creativity as an institution? So I’d love to find out from you how Kenan Charitable Trust is thinking about building its infrastructure during this time, and generally. And how does it think about supporting infrastructure of its grantees to promote that kind of innovation?


Dorian Burton: So, I think one, there has to be kind of a philosophy at the philanthropic institution to really think about, are they funding outputs or outcomes, right? And so what I mean by that, you know, we should be very thoughtful about the systems in which we work, who those systems serve, and then try to create, I think, a split-screen innovation within that system. And so the split-screen, I think, recognizes that there are individuals in the current system that have daily needs that need to be met, but there also a better way to meet those needs. And I think building systems that are more equitable. So I think an example would be, let’s say, gas powered cars versus electric, right? And say, if we want to get rid of gas powered cars tomorrow, the infrastructure wouldn’t allow for that. Right. There’s too many cars on the roads.

Dorian Burton: There’s too many gas stations, too many jobs, other things that are tied into that. But we do need to think about our environment and think about how do we move to, you know, cars or vehicles that are more energy efficient, right. And so phasing out the gas power while we build the infrastructure for let’s say, Lumens will likely, build the infrastructure to be able to do that. I think currently an example for us would be, you know, a shelter will come to us and say, “Okay, well we need more beds for individuals that are in-between homes.” And that’s a very real need. That’s something that we have to fund, but it doesn’t get to the root cause of homelessness. Right. And so being able to fund outputs, but also don’t lose sight of what the actual outcomes are. So the now, and then what are the things that we need to be doing upstream as well.

Dorian Burton: And so, we’re trying to be very thoughtful, I think, in our strategy for what are the immediate needs, but also what are the things that need to happen upstream and providing the funding that it’s going to take to get there. And I don’t think that, you know, there’s never a grant that I said that was enough money, right? We are a small piece of that, but it’s not enough money to actually, I think, to change or to build that type of change. It’s going to take a lot of other folks and I think it’s going to take a lot of other resources.

Nicole Campbell: So, when we’re thinking about that transition and building up infrastructure to really be deliberate about doing that and knowing that we’re in that point of transition is important. And you know, your responses, Dorian, have been really insightful, really thoughtful. And I want to ask you a question to help us continue to build knowledge through books and people we should learn from or about 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?

Dorian Burton: It’s tough. I’ll give you the two books that I’m reading right now. One is the ‘Purpose of Capital Budget’, Jed Emerson is a friend and I think has thought about impact investing in some different ways. I’m also reading ‘Medical Apartheid’ by Harriet Washington, which I think as, as we’re thinking about our healthcare system, as we’re thinking about who has access and how that was created, very strong book. There’s two YouTube videos that I would recommend watching. One is James Baldwin, has a debate with William Buckley. And the conversation is the American dream at the expense of the American Negro? And then another conversation that James Baldwin has with Nikki Giovanni. Both of those were, I think, really insightful. As we think about the moment that we’re in and the change that we’re trying to drive. I think it’s very important to understand how we got there, who are the leaders, and that has set the foundation for that. There’s a quote that, when we lose an elder…I’m not going to get this exactly right, but where we lose an elder, a library burns. And so understanding where folks have been to understanding where we are now, how do we build those bridges across generations? I think in a way and in an effort to move forward. Very insightful conversations and I’ve been reading a lot of Baldwin lately.

Nicole Campbell: So, thanks for those recommendations, Dorian, I will put them all in the show notes so that everyone can have access to them. And that’s great that we’re also talking about YouTube videos and being able to learn and get some insight information from YouTube as well. Dorian, thank you so much. You have shared such knowledge and just been so thoughtful and insightful in your responses. And I think that, not only that, you’ve been really practical in terms of what leaders can do in their own organizations to help them build bravely for the sustainability of their communities. So thank you again so much for joining us.

-Upbeat Outro Music-

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

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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:


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

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Centering Equity and Justice in Philanthropy with Melanie Brown

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

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

Listen to the podcast here:


About Melanie Brown

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

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

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

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

Read the podcast transcription below:

-Upbeat Intro Music-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Nicole Campbell: Okay, that is really powerful.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melanie Brown:

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


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

Melanie Brown: Awesome.

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

Melanie Brown: Thank you, Nic. Thank you for this opportunity. I really appreciate it.

-Upbeat Outro Music-

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

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Welcome to the Nonprofit Build Up Podcast!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to the podcast here:


About A. Nicole Campbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read podcast transcription below:

 -Upbeat Intro Music-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Upbeat Outro Music-

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

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