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nonprofit sustainability

Surviving COVID-19 and Beyond: Practical Recommendations for Nonprofits with A. Nicole Campbell (Part I & II)

Over the next two weeks on the Nonprofit Build Up, we are sharing practical recommendations for nonprofits for surviving the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. These episodes were originally recorded as a webinar in March 2020 to address the difficult questions that surfaced as a result of the crisis.

Although a year and a half has passed since the original presentation, we felt that it was pertinent to share this information once more as we continue to battle COVID-19 on all fronts. The pandemic continues to disrupt life as we know it. It has changed the way we work and even where we work. As a result, nonprofits are being asked to increase their services and resources to some of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities around the world while experiencing some of the greatest financial impact of this global crisis.

Nic shares practical ways for nonprofits to address the difficult questions that have surfaced as a result of the crisis about their viability and provides concrete ways to move forward in this crisis and prepare for sustainability post-crisis. . You will hear Nic talk about crisis funding conversations, key funding elements, amending grant agreements, and innovative funding tools.  All are critical to nonprofit sustainability

Listen to the podcast here:

Part One

Part Two

Resources:

 

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Leveraging Systems for Sustainability and Opportunity with Jim Shelton

This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking Jim Shelton. Jim is the Chief Impact and Investment Officer at Blue Meridian Partners, a philanthropic vehicle that identifies and scales solutions to the problems trapping youth and their families in poverty. He also serves as a Senior Advisor to KKR Global Impact and is a nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Jim was the co-founder of Amandla Enterprises and the former Deputy Secretary of Education and founding Executive Director of My Brother’s Keeper under President Barack Obama. He also worked in business, government, and the non-profit sectors as an operator, investor, and entrepreneur. In these roles, Jim has utilized management, policy, and programmatic innovations to increase access to opportunity.

Listen to the podcast here:

Resources:

About Jim Shelton

Jim Shelton, is the Chief Impact and Investment Officer at Blue Meridian Partners a philanthropic vehicle to identify and scale solutions to the problems trapping youth and their families in poverty. He also serves as a Senior Advisor to KKR Global Impact and is a nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Jim was the co-founder of Amandla Enterprises and the former Deputy Secretary of Education and founding Executive Director of My Brother’s Keeper under President Barack Obama. He also worked in business, government, and the non-profit sectors as an operator, investor, and entrepreneur. In these roles, he has utilized management, policy, and programmatic innovations to increase access to opportunity.

Jim holds a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Morehouse College and Master’s degrees in both Business Administration and Education from Stanford University. He lives in his hometown – Washington, DC – with his wife and two sons.

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.

Nic Campbell: 

Hi, everyone. This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking Jim Shelton. Jim is the Chief Impact and Investment Officer at Blue Meridian Partners, a philanthropic vehicle that identifies and scales solutions to the problems trapping youth and their families in poverty. He also serves as a Senior Advisor to KKR Global Impact and is a nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Nic Campbell: 

Jim was the co-founder of Amandla Enterprises and the former Deputy Secretary of Education and founding Executive Director of My Brother’s Keeper under President Barack Obama. He also worked in business, government, and the non-profit sectors as an operator, investor, and entrepreneur.

Nic Campbell: 

In these roles, Jim has utilized management, policy, and programmatic innovations to increase access to opportunity. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Morehouse College and Master’s degrees in both Business Administration and Education from Stanford University.

And with that, here is Jim Shelton.

Nic Campbell:

Hi, Jim. I am really excited to have you joining us for our Fast Build Leader Series and to get us started, can you tell us about Blue Meridian Partners, your role there, and Blue Meridian’s immediate priority?

Jim Shelton:

Sure. So Blue Meridian Partners is a pretty unique non-profit vehicle where high net worth individuals and foundations come together to invest at scale and solutions that take people out of poverty. In recent days, we’ve made sure that our work focuses in two areas. One is accelerating and improving economic and social mobility. And the second is centering on the issues and the systems and structures that will allow for greater racial equity. Those two things go together as you well know.

Nic Campbell:

And can you talk about what you do there and…

Jim Shelton:

Sure. So I’m, what’s called the Chief Investment and Impact Officer. So I help with setting strategy across all of our investment areas. We invest in solutions that work on national scaling. We have a place-based portfolio, we have a portfolio that’s focused on, we call it justice and mobility. So not only focusing on getting people out of the criminal justice system, but if you are involved in criminal justice system or impacted by it, how do you actually get a real second chance and get mobile. So involved in each of those strategies, as well as working across the strategies to look for alignment and ways to get maximize our impact?

Nic Campbell:

When I think about the structure of Blue Meridian, what should come to mind for me? Is it similar to a donor collaborative, a giving circle, or is it something else?

Jim Shelton:

Yeah, I think that for folks who are familiar, it is a lot like a giving circle, right? There’s a set of folks who have committed to working together to invest. The thing that is distinct is that there is a professional staff that’s in place to source new opportunities, to bet the opportunities, to frame up the investment in a way that will drive the kind of improvement in organizations’ impact, and reach, and influence that they aspire to most importantly, but also that the philanthropic investors would aspire to. And so if you think about it almost like a private investment firm for impact, right, but where the investment committee is made up of the partners who are the largest investors.

Nic Campbell:

And given the time that we’re in, Jim, I know you talked about the two focus areas for Blue Meridian, how is that showing up in terms of the work that you’re doing now?

Jim Shelton:

Sure. So it was really interesting is like we had, in 2019, we had actually made applications to our strategy to kind of make these adjustments to the overall strategy, to move from youth development to broader focus on economic mobility, understanding of racial equity. So what’s really interesting about it is, is we had COVID and everything else, taking a hard look to say, so what needs to change about the core of our strategy? And the reality is the core of remaining the same, right? Like economic and social mobility still remains critically important. It is actually, in many ways, the issue of the day when you get past the fundamental rights of human beings and taking a systemic look at that is also critical, which is the way we tend to approach the work. And then what we’ve seen is both for COVID and through the racial unrest that has come after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd Mathers is that our country was just showing us the fault lines that we already had around inequity and that the work that we were doing to lean in to the criminal justice system to lean in on economic mobility was more important.

Jim Shelton:

What we did was we took a hard look on what would be immediately relevant, right? What kinds of things could had a special need right now? So we had a set of relatively early stage organizations for Blue Meridian that we had invested in. And we decided to say, not only what we helped stabilize our overall portfolio, but were there any that, because of the context, might have a real opportunity to expand to meet need. And so, for example, you may have heard of the Family Independence Initiative, that is one of our investees. And we had the opportunity to help invest in scaling their infrastructure, as well as doing some emergency response, to pass through some additional dollars to families that might need some crisis intervention. Again, the bulk of our work basically remained the same, right? We’re trying to build solutions to the problems that actually getting the people’s a way to coming up really mobile and then having more power in their lives.

Nic Campbell:

Jim, I like how you phrased it, right? Which is this, this pandemic, this unrest, is just showing us the fault lines in our system. And we were talking about Blue Meridian and saying, okay, what is immediately relevant to us? And what should we be focused on? And along those lines, I’m wondering if you could tell me what kind of advice would you share with nonprofits that fundraise as part of generating revenue during this time, when you’re thinking we need to focus on things that are immediately relevant, look at the fault lines to really instruct us where we need to go. But you have organizations that are trying to raise money during this time as well. So how do they prioritize and what should they be prioritizing?

Jim Shelton:

Yeah. So I think that it’s important to remember that people have now gotten clear that this is not going to be quick, that even the health crisis has been protracted, the economic impact is going to be protracted. The racial issues that we have to address are not going to resolve quickly. So while people are still…philanthropists in particular, are still interested in being responsive to the need. People are also starting to think, okay, how do I make sure that what I’m doing today is going to have a lasting impact? How do I make sure that it doesn’t…there’s not just one time aid, but it’s something that can go a bit further. There is still an interest in emergency relief and things like that, but people are saying, how does this set up someone to make it to the next run? As opposed to there was, I think, early on, Hey, people are going to be hurting, let’s just get more resources in their hands.

Jim Shelton:

And so for the nonprofits, what I would say is, I think that you wanna keep yourself in that context of saying, here’s how we’re being responsive, but here’s why we were a part of the recovery. And frankly, here’s why we’re important to the systems in the long-term. Relevance in this near-term, the medium-term, and in the long-term, is I think still one of the most compelling arguments. And I think that there’s going to be too, did you have a compelling value proposition that you bring it to the folks that are going to be most impacted. Or at least your particular population, wherever that might be.

Nic Campbell:

Right, and just really looking at it in terms of sustainability at the end of the day. Like when you’re thinking about what’s relevant now, what’s relevant in the immediate future, and then what’s relevant longer term. You’re thinking about how can you yourself as an organization be sustained throughout those periods, as well as the communities that you’re working with. Right? And then trying to really show your value proposition to donors or partners or other stakeholders. So that makes sense to me. Now, if I’m a funder and I’m receiving that message, you know, it’s still COVID, we still have all these issues happening around us. What advice are you giving me? I’m having a lot of these conversations. I’m getting a lot of these inquiries. What do I need to do during this time?

Jim Shelton:

So one, I’d say there’s no cookie cutter answer because a lot of philanthropic investing is tied to both the values and the preferences of the folks who you are representing. And also whatever particular mission you set out, with the funding that you may have access to. And what I mean by that is that there are still going to be pressing needs, right? And it is not in Blue Meridian’s history that we would invest in short-term meat. But when COVID hit, we set up a hundred million dollar emergency relief fund and a little bit more than half of that went to ways of providing aid to people who might not get it otherwise. And so leaning into domestic workers, leaning into restaurant workers, leaning in African-American communities around the country that were particularly hard hit. And so I think that for folks for whom that opportunity is something that fits within their value set, either in the long-term or in the shor- term, that there’s a critical role for them to play in doing that in ways that are strategic and that leverage the resources and infrastructure that exists out there.

Jim Shelton:

So we were really excited to partner with organizations like Propel to get dollars out or CDO, which works with folks who’ve recently been incarcerated, to get…they’re not eligible for lots of benefits, so we were able to utilize them to get dollars using their pay card system out to folks who were not going to be employed in this current context. So use the infrastructure that’s there to reach the target populations that are most in need and maybe frankly, hard to reach otherwise. Look for those efficiencies to look for scale. Then there is the opportunity to really think about how you are leveraging this opportunity, for lack of a better word to describe it, where people are suspending their belief about how things have to work. Whether you’re an education person and now, all of a sudden, online learning has been off the table, off the table, off the table for many, many people for a long time, not it is required in many contexts.

Jim Shelton:

And so how do you make sure that you’re not just enabling that, you know…a quick patchwork effort to get people online, but you’re starting to say, what would it look like to help us get much better at understanding what it looks like to use online learning where it could actually have a real benefit to the students. Where it can provide greater access or can provide better use of tools and resources to meet student needs? I mean, how do I use this as an opportunity to have people to experience that in a way that can shift mindsets about what’s possible? And the third thing is how do I do that in ways that builds an infrastructure that I can leverage later and that is sustainable, to your point, over time, right? It’s really important that, for example, we’ve made an investment through Code for America and trying to get the…there’s normally a very robust infrastructure of people who do with tax preparation for low income people.

Jim Shelton:

And that’s what you basically had to do to get access to your stimulus check. Well, what we realized is that that infrastructure was broken down at the time because the centers were closed. And so a lot of the people who needed the money most were not going to get access to those supports and services. So we worked with a nonprofit called Code for America to develop the online platform to work with those providers to be able to do their work, even though their offices were closed. We hope to reach scale, reach millions of people with it. Actually, didn’t reach millions of people with that, but it doesn’t…it’s two things. One is that infrastructure is going to be there no matter what. Now people who are amending their taxes, people who filed tax extensions to October 15th next year, that infrastructure is going to be amortized over many, many years.

Jim Shelton:

And by the way, like we made a very relatively small grant we already got, that looks like three to four X just on that part of the investment. And there’s another small investment alongside it. We invested in something called Pandemic PBT Infrastructure, which is context. It basically is, they allowed the dollars for free and reduced lunch to go home to the parents. And so they had to put together a plan, the state had to put together a plan, for how the dollars would get there. The first thing that Code of America did was partnered with states to figure out a better way to match parents with their kids. And so I’ll give you an example of California, in California there were like 3 million kids in this category. The algorithm got them to half of them without ever having parents have to apply separately. And then…but that still leaves like 1.7 million kids and families without having been connected.

Jim Shelton:

So they built their quick application online that allow people to sign up for the benefits. Let’s put it up on a Friday morning at eight o’clock and by three o’clock, there were 200,000 plus signed up, by the end of the weekend, Sunday night, close to a million people had already signed up. Two weeks later, 1.5 million people had signed up. So very quickly, like tens of millions, like 50 X on the investment, 50, 75 X on the investment was able to be returned and an infrastructure that now when they do to the stimulus round two, it’s going to be used again. So those are the kinds of things that if we’re thoughtful about the ways in which infrastructure, the ways in which organizations that are doing smart work can do this work. It’d be great. And the last thing I’ll say is notion of providing access to benefits and making it easier for folks to get the things to which they’re already entitled is the high leverage infrastructure investment. People don’t usually love plumbing, but that you couldn’t make last for a long time.

Nic Campbell:

Wow. So, you know, Jim, from everything that you just described, I think at the core I’m hearing, you know, be thoughtful, understand the environment in which you’re, you’re operating so that you know who’s out there to inform the kind of infrastructure you can build to start to be able to be responsive to the needs of the communities that you’re working with. Right? So you’re talking about looking for efficiencies and then looking also with an eye towards scaling and in the midst of all of this that, you know, central to it, is innovation, right? Like thinking creatively about how you can put together solutions. So I’m hearing all of these things and I want to ask a pretty technical question around if I’m a funder and I start to think, okay, I have all of these things in my mind. What does the grant look like? Can I do that through general support? Can I do that through capacity building? I’d love to hear how you’re thinking of then getting the funding to groups ands individuals that do the work.

Jim Shelton:

Lots of people have lots of perspectives on this. I’ll give you mine. Mine is, in particular, when you’re trying to do work that is innovative, I think that providing funds that are more flexible, donor operating support grants, if possible, where the folks who are closest to trying to solve the problem have the flexibility to move at the pace that they’re learning is one of the best things you can do if you really want to invest in innovation. And that’s particularly true when you’re trying to work on problems where there is no roadmap already, right? Because there’s the more framework you put around it, the more constraints you put on the organization and the leaders trying to do the work. The second thing is that frankly, there’s a level of trust that you ought to have in the folks that you’re betting on, that providing that kind of flexibility gives you a really good opportunity to see if you made a smart decision.

Jim Shelton:

If you give that flexibility and it’s not rewarded with the responsible investment and impact, then you don’t need to make that investment anymore. But to be honest, you actually can’t hold your grantee accountable if you prescribed what they’re going to do, and they feel like they are negotiating their strategy with you, as opposed to actually having the autonomy to actually go into the rest of it, I think is best. So I know people have different points of view on that, especially when they work with innovation. I’ve just always found that being over prescribed is a recipe for a suboptimal solution. The last thing I’ll say, because I want to blend these two things together, is you want to find mechanisms for finding the folks who you don’t already know about. And what I find in philanthropy is that our referral networks are usually really small and that being more open, even when you’re in a hurry about the process, by which you identify folks tapping other people’s networks, opening up prizes, short windows, things like that. So that leaders and organizations and solutions that you might not be familiar with at the table is really important.

Jim Shelton:

If you want to do things that give you a different view into what’s possible. And that’s something that they’re in the crisis period, it’s kind of hard to do, but as time goes on, I think we are going to be looking for more and more creative ways to become aware of other parts of the solution space. And frankly, that is going to create more opportunities for investing in leaders of color and others who normally might not be in the channels. Those referral networks turn out to be kind of excluding a lot of leaders who were approximate to the work.

Nic Campbell:

We’re talking about these tenants that underline all of this funding, you’ve mentioned being flexible, having trust, and then just being inclusive at the end of the day, right, in order to create the best solution. And I think they all resonate with me. And I wanted to ask you about the sector generally, right? And maybe some of your, what you’re going to say, builds on the flexibility, trust, and inclusiveness that we’re talking about. What does the sector do you wish we were doing less of and what do you think we should be doing more?

Jim Shelton:

Yeah. So these two things go hand in hand for me, I wish we were doing more collaborative work in a way that reduces the fragmentation and incoherence of which both the field at large, meaning the social sector, operates. But in particular, the way that the organizations that we fund have to respond to all the different funders in their demands. And so to the extent that we can come together to use common reporting to reduce common metrics, to get behind the plan of the grantee, as opposed to each of us having our own special project that we want them to do to get our money. the more impactful and strategic and innovative every organization we invest in is going to be. That’s number one on my list. And number two is I wish that we lived into our rhetoric of investing in the things that work and really starting to ask our questions.

Jim Shelton:

One, to have a robust definition of what success looks like. So we’re not looking at very narrow metrics to define these things, but also that we’re really being clear about what does success look like at every stage of development. And that might not mean that you produce the outcome you were looking for, but you have to produce the learning that you were looking for and then a path to the next level of output or outcome. And I think that people talk a big game about doing that, but the reality is it gets really easy to keep giving money to the same people, whether they’re producing or not, or get people to the folks that everybody’s excited about, whether or not they’re producing outcomes or not. And if we just all were much more disciplined about saying, what are we hoping that this produces for the world and for the people we’re trying to serve, and then being really hard nosed about saying this either it looks like it’s going to do it or it doesn’t, or it is doing it, or it’s not, I think the deal will move much more quickly.

Nic Campbell:

Yeah. And I think it’s about developing that discipline to ask that question, right. Does this work, will this solution be viable? And really holding ourselves accountable to doing that. Because I think it has implications as we think about evaluation, right? Like that then provides the framework and all the fundamentals for how we then go about evaluating.

Jim Shelton:

Yes. And it also requires that we all have a more shared perspective about what does evidence or rigor look like at every stage of development. So my evaluation framework for the at-scale organization with tons of resources and a model that’s been demonstrated over and over again, that they use in lots of places, it should be very different than the way I think about what rigor looks like for a relatively new organization, with a relatively different model that others are taking that shows tremendous promise. We should know what rigor looks like at that stage of development, but know that it’s not going to look like the evidence that these more mature organizations are producing. And we can get clearer about how we think about that collectively. And then frankly, it’d be crucially invest in organizations being able to produce that kind of rigor, which means adequate investing, flexible investing, so technical assistance and support that will allow us to build a field that is many other sectors, especially [inaudible], like they have natural mechanisms by which the things that are better products, quote, unquote, ultimately win. Doesn’t always work that way, but there’s definitely a feedback loop that says resources flow to things that people are saying are better than the others in our sector, because we don’t track outcomes against the things that are happening. Resources can flow for a whole lot of different reasons. And if we don’t begin to fix that basic mechanism in our ability to get the things that work to the most people and give them a scale is also going to suffer.

Nic Campbell:

You’re talking about things like less fragmentation, so encouraging more collaborative work, really having that kind of rigor to approach the kind of impact we want to have. And these were, you know, in many cases, seismic shifts, right? So it makes me start to think about the infrastructure of organizations and what needs to be in place to make sure that you have an environment where you can start to make these shifts and start to get more collaborative and develop that rigor at Blue Meridian. I’d love to hear how you all are thinking about infrastructure capacity of organizations and, you know, the sector generally, to be able to do their best work. What are you focusing on when it comes to, for example, boards, governance, the way they’re set up, the vehicles that they’re using, and even how they’re organized internally?

Jim Shelton:

Yeah. So I think for us, we’re on a learning journey on this ourselves, in some ways I think our founding principles was about investing in organizations to give them the assistance and competence and infrastructure to actually scale, right; give them enough capital and then allow them to invest in the things that are going to allow to provide that, as you described, core infrastructure, so that they’re not just growing, they’re growing with quality and in a way that will be able to be sustained over time. Earlier stage organizations have an even more challenging thing where they need to figure out what the infrastructure needs to look like to scale and increase their impact on the ground. And so we have to be willing to invest in them, both in what I’ll call more bespoke ways, so, Hey, we’re not ready to give you a big, giant, scaling grant, but it seems like you really need to build out your capability around measuring and evaluation, or you really are trying to figure out new ways of applying technology to your work.

Jim Shelton:

And so where can we do some selective investment to help you get to that next stage? And then once you’re there, we can come back and say, Hey, you look like you might be ready for a real scaling opportunity. So I think we have to be let the grantees do their best work, provide our perspective about where we might be able to assist them on things where it looks like they’ve gotten to the kind of capability that they will need to go to scale and be willing to fill those gaps and then to tie opportunities for more scaling, to having those gaps filled.

Nic Campbell:

That approach really requires, you know, a thoughtfulness; being analytical, but also empathetic, right? And trusting your grantees, the organizations that you’re working with. You know, Jim, your responses have been so incredibly thoughtful and relevant and insightful. 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 this out. What do you think we should read next? Or what artists do you think we should be paying attention to?

Jim Shelton:

So I would say that anyone who has not read ‘Biased’ by Jennifer Eberhardt needs to read it. I read a bunch of books on race, but the intersection that she brings between history and neuroscience does two things. One is, it just makes plain the issues that we’re all feeling. And it’s really interesting because she started her work in criminal justice. So a lot of the examples are really relevant that way. The other thing it does is it makes it clear how hard this work ultimately is going to be for us to shift the way we actually behave as individuals. And as a country, it gives you a sense of possibility because there are things to be done, even though they’re hard, we don’t know all the answers, but there are things to be done. And to start, we have to actually look at like how difficult it’s really going to be.

Nic Campbell:

Thanks so much for that recommendation, ‘Biased’. I will put the information about the book and its author in the show notes. So everyone will be able to have access to that. You have shared so much knowledge and have been so insightful so that leaders can practically use the information that you have shared in their own organizations to help them build bravely and think about how they can collaborate with others. So I just want to thank you so much again for joining us today, Jim.

Jim Shelton:

Nicole, thanks so much for what you’re doing. And for the work you put into supporting so many organizations, it makes a huge difference. Not everybody likes plumbing, but everybody knows when plumbing breaks down. And so, just really appreciate you leaning in on it.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Nicole, thank you for all the work here, and it’s a pleasure and a privilege. Thank you.

-Upbeat Outro Music-

Nic Campbell:

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

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Investment and Innovation for Impact with Lawrence Mendenhall

This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking with Lawrence Mendenhall. Lawrence is the Chief Operating Officer of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the 32,000-member association for America’s eye surgeons, where he leads the Academy’s communications, memberships, marketing, finance, technology, facilities, security, and corporate services functions.

Lawrence has held operational and legal leadership roles for philanthropies ranging from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to Humanity United, a startup human rights foundation created by eBay’s founder. Earlier in his career, he spearheaded The Pew Trusts’ change from domestic grantmaking foundation to international operating nonprofit as well as its successful effort to save Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation.

Listen to the podcast here:

Resources:

About Lawrence Mendenhall

Lawrence Mendenhall, MBA, JD, is COO of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the 32,000-member association for America’s eye surgeons, where he leads the Academy’s communications, memberships, marketing, finance, technology, facilities, security and corporate services functions. He also oversees the Academy’s affiliated foundation, with programs that range from EyeCare America, which has served over 2 million patients free of charge, to the newly founded Museum of the Eye.

He has held operational and legal leadership roles for philanthropies ranging from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to Humanity United, a startup human rights foundation created by eBay’s billionaire founder.  Earlier in his career he spearheaded The Pew Trusts’ change from domestic grantmaking foundation to international operating nonprofit as well as its successful effort to save Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation.

He attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, New York University School of Law, and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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.

Nic Campbell: 

Hi, everyone. This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking with Lawrence Mendenhall. Lawrence is the Chief Operating Officer of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the 32,000-member association for America’s eye surgeons, where he leads the Academy’s communications, memberships, marketing, finance, technology, facilities, security, and corporate services functions. He also oversees the Academy’s affiliated foundation, with programs that range from EyeCare America, which has served over 2 million patients free of charge, to the newly founded Museum of the Eye.

Nic Campbell: 

Lawrence has held operational and legal leadership roles for philanthropies ranging from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to Humanity United, a startup human rights foundation created by eBay’s founder.  Earlier in his career, he spearheaded The Pew Trusts’ change from domestic grantmaking foundation to international operating nonprofit as well as its successful effort to save Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation.

Nic Campbell: 

He attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, New York University School of Law, and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. And with that, here is Lawrence Mendenhall.

Nicole Campbell:

Hi, Lawrence. I’m so excited to have you joining us for our Fast Build Leader series.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Thank you, Nicole, for having me. I’m excited to talk with you.

Nicole Campbell:

I am looking forward to it. So to get us started, can you tell us about the American Academy of Ophthalmology, your role there and the Academy’s immediate priorities?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Sure. My organization AAO, the American Academy of Ophthalmology is the association for America’s 32,000 eye surgeons. And it also has a related foundation where I am COO and CFO for these orgs. Our group also includes a related management company that provides that operational infrastructure to other nonprofits, as well as a political action committee and a state legislative advocacy fund. Now the immediate priority for our group is ensuring that we’re serving our members, right? They include not just the USI surgeons, but surgeons from around the globe who have been hard hit by the pandemic. What many people don’t know, Nic, is that the first victim of COVID-19 was a Chinese ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital. He was one of the first to raise warnings about the virus in China. He was condemned as a whistleblower, and then he later died. Now he’s since been exonerated, but he really just illustrates the risks for our members.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Some of whom have given their lives, working on the front lines to fight COVID-19. And now treating injuries in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police. Eye injuries are one of the most common injuries from the rubber bullets and tear gas that are often police responses to the protests. And we’ve spoken up before around gun violence because they also result in a lot of eye injuries. And we’re also one of a handful of medical orgs that publicly condemned the recent killing. So ensuring that our member safety and livelihoods are protected are our top priorities so they can continue to serve the community of patients. And another high court priority, I would just say for me, is ensuring that our org, which is responsible for one of the largest in-person meetings in medicine ,is coping with the financial impact of the virus. I mean, how do we ensure the safety of our meeting and the viability of what we offer to our members and their patient is really what I’m spending a lot of my time on.

Nicole Campbell:

Wow, that’s a really wide remit, Lawrence. Thank you for that background. You mentioned that you were both CFO and COO and that is fascinating. So can you talk a little bit more about those roles and how they play out essentially within that network, you named a few entities that you are also responsible for.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Sure. So I was using the little shorthand, I’m the COO for the Academy and then the CFO for the Foundation, as well as the Executive Director of the foundation reports to me. Really what it is, I feel very blessed to work with such an incredible team and incredible CEO, David Park, who’s been our CEO for 10 years and has been involved with the Academy for decades. But essentially I am responsible for harmonizing our very diverse operations here. We go from membership and meetings to patient education, to member education, continuing medical certification, a real range, to public serving programs like Eye Care America, which has provided over 2 million exams for free to the public, to a museum of the eye that we’re trying to launch. So you can imagine trying to launch a new public museum in the middle of the pandemic. So it really is that harmonizing role. It was brought in because so often we see in not-for-profits, whether it’s funders or NGOs, just too many direct reports to the CEO, right? They need to be able to be out in the world and to advance the mission with the public and with the members, if you have members, but then someone needs to really be translating and making sure that that vision is moving forward internally. And it’s harmonized, especially when you’ve got a large team, we’re lucky to have a large team.

Nicole Campbell:

I just think it’s great that your organization and the work that you’re doing is really showing up for everyone during such a tense time for our country. So I appreciate that. And you are a nonprofit and I would love to hear just how you would talk to other nonprofits who fundraise as a significant part of their budget. In other words, what do you think should be top of mind for these organizations, particularly now during this time of uncertainty? We’ve got so much unrest, we’ve got the pandemic, what should they be concentrating on? What should they be doing?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Sure. You know, my top advice for others who are fundraising at this difficult moment is don’t give up. Your donors are still out there and many are looking for ways to help even more. Now I know that’s easy to say right? Going to our experience, the key has been to divide the donors into segments, which is of course a good practice generally, but it’s critical right now. If you have a strong market segmentation in place, you’re ahead of the game, but you probably need to go through the steps again, re-segment based on how COVID is impacting it. Who is going to go into your stewardship category? This isn’t the right time to be asking them they’re going through a lot. This isn’t the right time to approach them with big aks. And then who can you approach? So even though there are some who aren’t going to be able to help now.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

So for example, at my organization, our average donor member have been hard hit. I sort of alluded to before by COVID-19 they stopped seeing non-emergency patients and the impact has been severe. So they’re focused on protecting their patients and their staff and their community. So it’s not the time to go to them for money, but there are others for us, and I think for many other not-for-profits, there are significant segments, particularly corporate sponsors and other corporate partners in our space, for example, that are eager to help. They want to create that goodwill with members in the community, especially now. Their budgets weren’t necessarily impacted, or they’re not being impacted as quickly. So they’ve still got money for this year, right? And they’re eager to support long standing partners and highly visible challenges at a time like this. And so for us, it’s been large pharmaceutical and medical device companies that have stepped up to fund additional education for doctors and patients around say telemedicine, at a time when in-person visits are only for urgent cases. We do also have some high net-worth donors who’ve been able to contribute.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

You know, they’re not suffering from this. And I think there is a significant set out there. The second thing I would just mention, it’s similar, is that there’s a significant funding available specifically for COVID response and COVID responders, or for people who are impacted by COVID. Sometimes it’s an embarrassing amount of funding, including government funding, there’s money that’s just looking for a home, for a place to be effective. So for example, medical societies we’ve found that are focused on emergency care or emergency providers and emergency service for the indigent. Those societies are in short supply and they’re incredibly popular donors. Of course, they’ve, don’t always have the infrastructure yet to deploy that money effectively, but they’re very popular with donors. So what I would say is any of your programs that directly benefit impacted communities are uniquely positioned to succeed with the funders. And I would say, depending on your capacity and others in your space, even if you don’t have a program in place, if you can quickly ramp up and make a difference with integrity, the dollars may be there to support your efforts. And that’s what I’m seeing. Nicole.

Nicole Campbell:

That makes sense, because essentially you’re saying, well, be strategic about your outreach. Also look in different places, right? Not just keep tapping the same sources for funding, because there might be additional funding sources out there, particularly around COVID or around funds that are working with impacted communities. And so that really makes a lot of sense. And so if you were to look at the other side of the conversation and look at the funders who are providing these resources to nonprofit organizations, beyond the advice of give more money, what advice would you provide to funders to support nonprofits sustainability, both within the moment that we’re in and to get us past it, and when you are past it, what does that look like? And I know that you are experienced, you know, you’ve been with funders. So you have that really unique perspective of not only having a leadership role within a nonprofit organization currently, but also haven’t had leadership roles within philanthropy, as well as I would love to hear what your advice would be to funders.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Well, it’s a terrific question and sort of looking at it from both sides. Unfortunately I think the answer, for the donor mindset, the answer isn’t funders just need to provide more advice. You need to provide more thought partnership. I think that’s what a lot of funders think, but that’s not going to be enough standing alone. Like I said, it’s off in the view of these smart well-meaning funders and program officers who say, well, our thought leadership is more valuable than our funding. There’s a point in there, but for true sustainability, I think that funders need to be willing to be thought partners and to support the infrastructure and health of the org beyond the short term, not just a particular program that is of interest to that funder. Now I’m not saying that funders should embrace, you know, 50% overhead rates, but they should be willing to pay reasonable overhead.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Yes. But to go further to support those specific organization strengthening initiatives and work, whether it’s developing fundraising expertise, recruiting board leadership, and putting in place strong work practices, creating compliance infrastructure, building tech platforms, they need to be willing to support those things that benefit the whole organization and not just a slice of it. So that’s the first piece of advice. And of course, many funders say they’ve made a shift, but in reality, I think there’s still a long way to go. The second piece of advice I would say to funders is to make longer term investments, not one to two or even three to five years, but 10 year plus investment. I think the larger your investment is the more true this is. So what’s large? Well, that’s going to be determined by the funding that already exists in the space, but large short term investments, they can really distort the mission of the organization in the field. When they end, they may have co-opted the direction of the org and the space and leading other funders to that source to bow out. So then the org in that field can end up diminished, which harms the exact community that you intended to help.

Nicole Campbell:

You are definitely speaking my language because I’m hearing you say, you know, support infrastructure needs beyond the immediate needs that are cropping up. And I liked when you said support the whole organization, not just the flight, because it really resonates with me. I talk a lot about just making longer term investment in an organization, not in deliverables, right? So that makes complete sense to me. I’m going to ask you a question about this overhead support. Talk to me about why you think there are so many organizations, so many funders out there who are saying, well, we’ve determined that you can’t spend more than 25% or 10%, whatever their percentage. Why do you think that those percentages are introduced if they are, as you put in that language, like if they decide to make longer term investments in an organization for their sustainability, how do we reconcile the percentages of overhead?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Right. Sure. I think what’s happening and want to really give credit to funders. I think they want to be responsible. I think they want to share that they are delivering on their mission and that they’re supporting the mission of the organization. But what I think has happened is it’s become misguided. It’s become a rule of thumb. Say we’re not going to go beyond this percentage because somehow that signals that this isn’t a responsible investment. And I think what’s happened over the last 20 years. We had some very visible scandals at hundred million dollar organizations, billion dollar organizations, the Stanfords of the world. Now there is a question, how do I, as a funder, for example, in the social justice space, do I want to place a project at Stanford or another large university, which may have a 30% overhead rate? I think that question is very different than whether for this small 10 person not-for-profit, which may be in South Sudan, which may be a couple of people in Northern Nepal.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

I think the question would be it’s a very different issue. And unfortunately it becomes sort of one size fits all. This is our policy and we don’t fund beyond this amount. And so I think it really is a desire to be accountable, but I think there has to be a built-in flexibility there. And it’s hard though. It’s hard because a lot of the funders they’ve gotten larger, they’re bigger. They need to have sort of…I know this from the operational perspective, black and white rules are always easier to implement than sort of, it depends. And so I think that’s part of the challenge that also is another aspect for philanthropy. Philanthropies themselves, they say, well, we want to stay small. We don’t want to get too large. That’s their idea of humility, but if you need to grow to do your work well, I think that for philanthropies themselves is an investment that’s worthwhile. So this obsession with overhead comes from a good place, but I think it needs to be examined in specific cases.

Nicole Campbell:

Right. And just be tailored to the organization that the funder is investing in. We’ve talked about the advice that you would provide to nonprofits, the advice that you would provide to funders, with all of that in mind, what do you wish we did less of as a sector? And what do you think we should be doing more of?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Sure. And here I’m putting my kind of funder hat on. I know what I’d like to see less of is really honestly, less self-reflection and more other reflection. You know, I look across the philanthropic sectors, funders are often incredibly skilled at looking inward, at examining their own notice and practices, and there’s a place for that. This is a good thing, but listening to you and reflecting the grantees and NGOs that they’re supporting is the number one job for me. It’s similar to the conversation my team and others are having around privilege and around race for folks who are part of a dominant culture that’s the funder culture in this case, they need to be listeners and to not expect to be catered to. They need to open up space for others to be heard, take the time, to educate themselves to the extent possible, and then still be willing to defer to the expertise and these lived experiences of others. Now, in some ways, it’s the exact opposite of the strategic and venture philanthropy models that many funders have cycled through or are still in. But that’s what I wish we would do less of as a sector.

Nicole Campbell:

Well, how do you think this shows up from an infrastructure perspective? So you’re a funder and now they listen to you and they say, okay, well, we’ll do less self-Reflection, we’ll listen, we’ll let our grantees be the experts. How does that show up in terms of a funders grant making? And I’m speaking in terms of infrastructure, like the type of award, type of monitoring evaluation, like what could we be looking for to say that is a funder who is listening to their grantees?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

I think some terrific practices are to fund group of grantees with general operating support, working in an ecosystem where you are hoping to see systemic change, opening the spaces for them. So whether that’s hosting a monthly call, whether that’s actually giving them financial support, coordinate advocacy, public education efforts, it’s supporting that without tons of strains, perhaps providing staff support for those meetings, introducing the systems that will allow them to create sort of a shared portfolio. Or do you begin to think about it? Right? I think so often we jump to that, we’ve done the mapping, we know what needs to happen, and now let’s just plug it in. And I think funders have tried to get away from that, but it’s that, I think that hangover of that approach is it’s still very much out there.

Nicole Campbell:

And remove the strains. What do you think then we should be doing more of?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Well, of course, through the flip side of that is the listening. And it’s also what I would love to see. And I’ve not seen a lot of this. I know, Nic, you’re so deeply involved in these conversations, but there is some great writing in philanthropy. The state of the art and best practices continues to evolve. But I also think there is a, and this is from part of my work here, there’s a communication aspect to helping the rest of the world understand the various ways that effective philanthropy can show up. And sometimes it is just opening the space. It is writing that check. That doesn’t mean that we’re not effective philanthropists. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to eventually create the change that we all want to see. It’s just that we’re committed to a longer timeframe. We’re committed to doing it in this more collaborative way.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Take the focus off of wow, who pays for 30% overhead versus 15% overhead. And can you believe X large foundation funded this work, helping the public and helping our policymakers understand that this is not a command and control economy. We are putting the dollars out there to let this work bubble up, to let these good ideas and these movements advance. We are not controlling them. So there’s a role for communications and messaging to change from that strategic philanthropy model, where it’s my funding, I’m responsible for it. It’s like if I’m funding it, I’m trying to open a space.

Nicole Campbell:

And so getting out of your own bubble your own way and using communications to fully integrate within the world, right within the economy in which philanthropy is trying to make a difference. And that resonates. And so I know that the focus of many nonprofits is often on programmatic strategy and their own development needs and fundraising apps, which makes sense because fundraising is a large part of their budget and their app and what they’re doing to get money into their work and to support their operations. Is the Academy thinking about building infrastructure during this time? I know you talked about how you were being responsive to your members and showing up to support communities in need. Are you thinking about how you were building your own organizational infrastructure? And if so, how is that showing up and how are you thinking about this beyond the moment that we’re in?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Sure. You know, we are a hundred year old organization that really reinvented itself in the eighties, nineties. And so we do have a lot of infrastructure in place. And I would just make one point as I go into this, it’s often harder to change existing infrastructure, strong infrastructure, than it is as I’ve been, for example, in a philanthropic startup environment, where if you had a system for three years, it’s not really hard to get rid of it. But if you had a system, whether it’s technology, whether it’s a process, that’s grown up over decades, it’s more challenging. So for us in the short term, we’ve had to get comfortable in some cases with really quickly assemble infrastructure, for example, holding a dozen webinars a week, educate our members of the public on COVID-19. When we would normally host a fraction of that number for a fraction of the viewers. When we’re doing that, responding to this immediate need, how do we right-size our investment? They’re urgent needs, but they may not be permanent.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

So that’s one of the things so lowering our standards, being willing to say, Hey, you know what? Some of this is going to happen quickly and we’re going to test it and we’re going to decide then what we do next. But looking at the longer term, we are asking ourselves daily, how will the needs of the communities we’re serving be different after COVID-19? How do we build the infrastructure we’ll need to respond to those needs? Then the reality is that in this fiscal environment, though, we also have to ask, what are we going to stop doing so that we can meet the new reality? You know, in my humble view, every org, whether it has sufficient reserves or a deep pocketed funder who can help plug the current funding gap, I think every org should be asking the strategic question about the long-term. What’s changed permanently and what hasn’t changed. And why do they have to ask this?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

I think it’s because the reality is that we don’t know what the new normal will be after this period we’re in. And we want to be prepared to continue to serve our communities, the ones that rely on us, even if our funding model turns out to be very different. So for us, for example, as I said, we hold one of the largest meetings in medicine. Well, what is that going to look like? Right. Are folks going to be comfortable going to meetings in the future? Is the whole world going to permanently go more virtual? We don’t know, but we need to be asking those questions so we’re ready.

Nicole Campbell:

It’s such an interesting perspective, right? Because you are within an organization that has a tremendous amount of infrastructure. And your view is that even within that infrastructure, you want to continue to innovate so that you are responsive to the needs of the community that you are serving and you’re working with. And I really appreciate how you’re saying changing an infrastructure that already exists is a lot harder than, you know, just creating one. And I understand there are a lot of considerations around why you…convincing someone to create infrastructure in the first place. But I agree with you, I think changing that infrastructure that has been hardwired, not only into the processes and the policies, but into the people, because people are a large part of that infrastructure. And it’s like, how do you not only change the policies and change the processes, but then change the people and have them be innovative in that way.

Nicole Campbell:

So I really appreciate that observation, Lawrence. And you know, your responses, I appreciate them a great deal, particularly because they’re coming from a COO who has that programmatic vision, has the organizational vision, but is also able to think about the details within the infrastructure to hold up those visions. And I think that your advice has been so thoughtful and so practical and just powerful. And I want to ask you a question to help us continue to build knowledge through books and people we should learn from or about to close us out. What books do you think we should read next? Or what artists, the think we should be paying attention to?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Well, I thought hard about this. I was thinking about what I’ve been reading lately. I’ve been rereading though, what’s really impacted me, is I’ve been rereading ‘I Will Bear Witness’ which was written by Victor Klemperer as a diary of his experience of one of a handful of Jews who was able to survive in Nazi Germany through the entire prewar and world war II period, right through Germany’s liberation. He was this accomplished professor, married to a Christian woman, the cousin of a famous conductor, some folks know Otto Klemperer, and he kept a daily diary of his experience beginning in 1933. Now there’s so many comparisons, you know, folks drop between the 1930s and our present era, including global trends toward populism, potentially fast fascism, but to see his daily count of how’s German society, you know, this fame cosmopolitan, at that time, society that would produce an erudite converted Jewish professional like him, to see how that imploded and almost brought the entire world down with it. It’s just incredibly powerful. What I find is that it’s a reminder that our engagement as individuals, as not for profit leaders, and as funders, that our engagement just isn’t negotiable. You know, it’s easier, and the risk is, it’s easier for the world around us to change us than for us to change it. And we really need to fight for what we value. That’s not hot off the presses, but it is one that I think is worth a read.

Nicole Campbell:

So ‘I Will Bear Witness’ by Victor Klemperer. Thank you for sharing that, Lawrence, fight for what you value. You have shared such knowledge and insights that I think leaders, as I mentioned, can practically use in their own organizations to help them build bravely. And I think that that’s, what’s really important that we’re not only sharing our thoughts and our insights and talking in cliches, but actually saying here’s what I think. And here’s what I think you can do next. Here’s what I think we can do next. So I want to thank you for sharing that level of insight, that level of practice, just how practical your suggestions and recommendations are. And I want to thank you for joining us today, Lawrence.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Nicole, thank you for all the work here, and it’s a pleasure and a privilege. Thank you.

-Upbeat Outro Music-

Nic Campbell:

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

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Investing in Systems Change for Sustainable Impact with Geoffrey Canada

This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking with Geoffrey Canada. Geoff is a leading advocate for children and an innovator in the field of education. He created the Harlem Children’s Zone, a birth-through-college network of programs that today serves more than 13,000 low-income students and families in a 97-block area of Central Harlem in New York City. The unprecedented success of the Harlem Children’s Zone has attracted the attention of the media and leaders around the world.

In this episode, Geoff shares tremendous insight, knowledge, and practical advice for everyone listening, helping us to build and lead bravely.

Listen to the podcast here:


 

About Geoffrey Canada

Geoffrey Canada is a leading advocate for children and innovator in the field of education.

Canada grew up in one of the most devastated communities in the United States, the South Bronx, raised by a single mother. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College, and eventually went on to earn a master’s degree at Harvard University. He vowed to help children who grew up in disadvantaged circumstances to succeed through education.

Canada created the Harlem Children’s Zone, a birth-through-college network of programs that today serves more than 13,000 low-income students and families in a 97-block area of Central Harlem in New York City.

The unprecedented success of the Harlem Children’s Zone has attracted the attention of the media and leaders around the world. In 2011, Canada was named one of the world’s most influential people by Time magazine and as one of the 50 greatest leaders by Fortune magazine in 2014. President Barack Obama created the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone model across the country,

Canada has been profiled extensively in the media, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, 60 Minutes, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Forbes, among others. He was featured in the documentary about the dire state of American education Waiting for Superman, and has received more than 25 honorary degrees including ones from Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania.

He has also influenced a new generation of education reformers through his writings, having published essays in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Chronicle of Philanthropy as well as two critically acclaimed books on poverty and violence: Fist Stick Knife Gun and Reaching Up for Manhood.

After 30 years with the organization, Canada stepped down in 2014 as Chief Executive Officer of the Harlem Children’s Zone, but continues to serve as President.

 

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.

Nic Campbell: 

Hi, everyone. This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking with Geoffrey Canada. Geoff is a leading advocate for children and an innovator in the field of education. He was raised by a single mother and grew up in the South Bronx (where I also grew up) in New York City. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College, and eventually went on to earn a master’s degree at Harvard University. He vowed to help children who grew up in disadvantaged circumstances succeed through education.

Nic Campbell: 

Geoff created the Harlem Children’s Zone, a birth-through-college network of programs that today serves more than 13,000 low-income students and families in a 97-block area of Central Harlem in New York City. The unprecedented success of the Harlem Children’s Zone has attracted the attention of the media and leaders around the world.

Nic Campbell: 

In 2011, Geoff was named one of the world’s most influential people by Time magazine and as one of the 50 greatest leaders by Fortune magazine in 2014. President Barack Obama created the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone model across the country. And with that, HERE is Geoffrey Canada.

Nic Campbell: 

Hi, Geoff, I am really excited to have you join us for our Fast Build Leader Series. To get us started, can you tell us about Harlem Children’s Zone, your current role there, and what the Harlem Children’s Zone’s immediate priority is particularly given our current environment. 

Geoff Canada: 

So, first of all, thank you for having me as a guest. You know, I founded the Harlem Children’s Zone more than 20 years ago as an answer to what do we need to do to sort of end generational poverty in communities, historically black communities, that had this going on for 40, 50, 60 years. And we came up with a holistic, comprehensive set of strategies that begin at birth and stay with young people, the same group of young people, until we get them in college and then get them through college. But that is combined with an effort to rebuild the community; a community infrastructure where the adults are playing a much more powerful role in kids’ lives, the physical environment, because so much of what we think about ourselves is reflected in the places we live. So if your community is filled with trash and graffiti and seems to be chaotic, well, you think the adults have no power, that the likelihood that I’m not making it out of this place is pretty high, that success is the exception and not the rule. So we came up with this comprehensive strategy to try to do all of those things at the same time. And 20 years later, we have essentially accomplished those goals. We’ve got more than 940 kids in college, we graduated more than 800 kids in college, in schools that we run ourselves, we’ve eliminated the black-white achievement gap in math and ELA. So we feel like we’re an example of what needs to happen in communities of color all over this country. 

Nic Campbell: 

It’s just so impressive that you had this vision years ago and it has really come to fruition. When you think back to that time, when you said I’m going to found and start this organization and you look at where you are now, is this what you had in mind? 

Geoff Canada: 

Well, you know, it’s funny because a bunch of us knew what the answer was. The answer was to replicate what’s working in the rest of middle-class America, right? Decent schools, decent housing, decent healthcare, decent nutrition, exercise, you know, places that you can play and go as kids. That’s what’s necessary. What I was told is what I believe and what I think most people believe, is that we couldn’t afford to do that for poor kids of color. Right? We just couldn’t figure out how to do it for them. So this idea that we could do all of this, they said, choose one or two, but you can’t do it all, but there’s no evidence that if you do one or two, it will actually work. And so the question became, how do you raise the dollars to do it all? Because that’s what…we actually know that works. 

Geoff Canada: 

There’s no one who I know who thinks the answer to success is to be poor and trapped in poverty, right? I don’t think anybody said, that’s how you’re going to really be successful. Right? We know the answer is to be in communities that are healthy, that have good schools, where jobs are plentiful, and transportation to work is available, whether you own a car, you can get there. All of this stuff we actually know. And so therefore, this idea became just about money. And this country has invested huge amounts of money to build the middle class, right? After world war II, we did it with the GI bill. We had low interest loans to buy housing for all groups, except one, African-Americans were excluded, and we had a free college, except that in ;45 and ’46, you couldn’t go to white colleges in the South. So we excluded blacks again, from that. This country invested literally tens of billions of dollars to build a current middle-class. The wealth gap between blacks and whites right now, it’s basically the equity in their homes that was created by government support. And now we’re saying we can’t afford to do it for kids of color. And I reject that as a theory. We raised some money privately, but this should be a public function. 

Nic Campbell: 

And just the way you’re explaining it, it’s just basic needs, like meeting basic needs. When you’re talking about having employment opportunities and decent health care and decent education. And you know, we’re in a very similar moment now. When you look around, Geoff, what are you thinking might be a start to addressing what’s happening currently, the moment that we’re in? If it’s still let’s just go back to basics, let’s just see, look, what do these communities need? And just start to reduce that wealth gap and give basic services, basic needs. Or do you think it’s something much more radical that’s needed in this moment? 

Geoff Canada: 

So we have a moment now, we have spent trillions of dollars to try to save the American economy and the American, sort of, employment structure. The group that has not benefited from that money: businesses of color, right? Everybody said, “Oh yeah, everybody, the businesses all work with the PPP, except for, oh yeah, small business of the people of color, it didn’t work so well.” Right? Well there, we have this issue about jobs and preserving jobs, oh yeah, except one group, the jobs, they’re unemployed at record numbers, depression level numbers. Oh, it’s African-Americans. So even as this country has spent trillions, not billions of dollars, somehow people of color have gotten left out of that equation. Again, when you say do something radical, I don’t want to do something radical. I want to do the same thing that we’ve done for white America, for black America. 

Geoff Canada: 

I want to make investments that protects jobs, that protects businesses, that protects education. And I want to do it intentionally. So this gets equalized among all groups. So here again, people think, well, you’re preaching an exception for African-American. I am not preaching for an exception. I’m preaching for inclusion to what’s already going on and what we’re doing for white America, that somehow keeps skipping over black America. And I think, at this time of an election, that we have to demand that this country treats people of color equally. That we have to take the blinders off, that we’ve done an equal job of preserving jobs and equity in this country. And admit not only that, it didn’t happen, but that we need to do something about it. And we need to do something significant about that and equity right now. 

Nic Campbell: 

And so when you think about the nonprofit sector and nonprofits that are raising funds, with that in mind, what kind of advice would you provide to those nonprofits? What would you say to them that they should be doing right now? What should be top of mind for them? 

Geoff Canada: 

There’s two challenges. Number one, foundations and corporations have realized they’ve done like the rest of America. They’ve invested in white organizations. They built the infrastructure in white organizations. They’ve created an unfair advantage for white organizations, because the moment you say, “I want outcomes and data”, if I don’t have any data collectors, if I don’t have any evaluators that work for me, if I don’t have the resources to hire the folks to actually drive those outcomes, I can’t compete with the groups that have been invested in for decades to build their infrastructure. So folks can simply say, “Oh, they couldn’t deliver. That’s why I’m not investing in these organizations.” So now there’s an interest in what do we need to do to support these organizations of color? So my message to them is you need to do two things. One is you need to build a competitive infrastructure. 

Geoff Canada: 

And what is that? That’s development because you’ve gotta be able to raise private dollars and development people are expensive and they’re this hard to find talent. You’ve got to build data systems and evaluation. You have to build an internal evaluation capacity by hiring folks with PhDs in evaluation to help you think about how to design more effective programs and to be able to show the impact that your organizations are having. So at this moment white folks are saying, “We want to help you.” Don’t take money just to do more great programs, take money to build your infrastructures, take money that allow you to hire the talent so that you can compete more effectively when it comes to demonstrating impact right now. And you know, 25 years ago, if someone had said, “Geoff, we want to give you more money.” I’d say, “Great. I can save more kids. Give me the money.” 

Geoff Canada: 

I’d spend it right on kids. I wouldn’t have thought I need to build an infrastructure because this moment is going to pass. And two years from now, no one’s going to be coming to me and saying, “I want to give you more money.” And how am I going to ensure that these investments I’m making right now are protected. You’re going to do that by building significant infrastructures that allow you to compete on data, on evaluation, and on development, which means you have to have a strong communications department, as well as an evaluation department so that you can talk about results and framing these issues. So that would be my advice to folks. There’s a moment right now. Don’t just let people push you in the programmatic response. Yes. We need to feed more folks. We need to help folks with rent. We need to make sure that children have access to the technology. We have to do all of that, but we also have to build stronger organizations. 

Nic Campbell: 

Well, you know, Geoff, you’re speaking my love language, right? So about building the organizational infrastructure of a nonprofit to make sure that you can have sustainable programmatic outcomes. And I think that you’re exactly right, having the time and the foresight to invest in people and build your own capacity is how you’re able to then say, here’s how we’re going to go out and create this great program or deliver this amazing service. So if we look at the other side of that, now you did mention, you know, a lot of funders, new funders are stepping in and saying, “Well, how can we help? What can we do?” What are you saying to funders? We have the advice to nonprofits. Like, let’s start to focus in on your organizational infrastructure, get that stronger. What are you saying to funders? What advice are you giving to them? 

Geoff Canada: 

There are two things I’m saying to funders. Number one, we can’t expect organizations to be able to deliver the outcomes and the objectives that they agreed on six months ago, COVID has changed all of that. We’re all dealing with an online environment, a non-touch environment, and very difficult to drive outcomes in this brand new world. So they need to suspend those parts of the grants that said, we expect you to serve 300 kids by providing two hours of X, Y, and Z. Or we need to say, “Okay, okay. We realize that this is a different time. You need to come back to me, organization, you have to come back to me, funder, with a strategy of how you protect families during these sort of COVID times.” And then with a plan of how you’re going to rebuild the community infrastructures necessary for you to begin your work again. 

Geoff Canada: 

So that’s the two parts of the coin. You want to suspend right now, folks still need the money. We still have staff. We still have rent. We still have to keep the lights on. So we need the money, but we can’t be held to a set of outcomes that becomes impossible for us to deliver. So take that stress off of organizations. Tell them instead, talk to me about how you’re going to use this money right now to deal with the emergency you’re dealing with. And then once this emergency passes, let’s plan on how we’re going to do recovery. So those are the two things that I think I would say. Continue the support; actually, folks need extra support, because these communities are really in dire need, but also encourage organizations to think about how to plan now for recovery, so that when this subsides and it will – it may take you 12 months, it may take 18 months – that these organizations are able to go back on the same trajectory they were on without literally starting from scratch of where they were three years ago. 

Nic Campbell: 

And what’s coming through in your response, Geoff, is flexibility, right? Encouraging funders to be much more flexible than they might have wanted to be a year ago, even a few months ago. And so for me, when I think of flexibility and funding, I think of general support. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on providing general support grants or providing project support grants during those time. And is there a significant difference in providing general support or project support with some flexibility. 

Geoff Canada: 

You know, I think it’s hard to do project support right now, unless that support is around a set of COVID relief strategies, right? That’s designed to deal with the epidemic we’re dealing with right now. Just think about how quickly this has all happened. Right? Five weeks ago, Arizona seemed fine. No one would think Arizona fine, I don’t care what your plans were in Arizona and Phoenix five weeks ago. You’re not trying to do those plans right now. You’re trying to think about how you can keep families safe, provide emergency relief for folks. We don’t know what’s going to happen three months from now. This is one of those times where the best laid plans can be just destroyed by a second wave, by a current wave, by the facts that schools do open, that they don’t open. So I think right now I’m much more in favor of general support. 

Geoff Canada: 

Even when that general support is tied to COVID relief, because COVID relief that you think is of what it is today could be something totally different three weeks from now. So my sense is…and the other thing I would the foundations is, this is a time to give organizations in particularly odd cities, more support. So if you went in for $400,000 to this organization, let them use that money for general support, but think about additional support to actually help them during this time of crisis, a mess, we are extremely unlucky. This will be the biggest crisis this country faces in our lifetime, right? It’s not like we think, oh yeah, three years from now, we’re going to face this again. In the biggest crisis of your lifetime, are you prepared to spend more money to help folks who are literally desperate? And that’s the challenge I will send out to foundations. If you can’t believe yourself, you’re stuck on some 4%, 5% spend out and therefore you don’t have the money. This is the time to say to your trustees, no, that’s not going to be sufficient. We need to spend more than that this year. It may be next year because this country is in the worst crisis it’s faced literally since world war II and we need to respond to this crisis. 

Nic Campbell: 

I really liked that challenge, just to increase funding and be flexible with grantees and with the nonprofits, we’ve talked about building organizational infrastructure to really have sustained impact. So now that we have that advice to both nonprofits and funders, with all of that in mind, what do you wish we did less of as a sector? And what do you think we should be doing more of? 

Geoff Canada: 

I think the thing that we’ve done less, or there’s something that’s not going to surprise anybody right now, organizations of color have been systematically discriminated against by a funding entities. And we might as well say what it is, it’s been systematic. And when I’ve talked to funders, I have said to them that there are all kinds of excuses, folks have come up with for why they’re going to invest in the white organization versus the next organization or the Native American organization or African-American organization. And that has gone on for decades, my whole career. So when you look around and you say, so which of the top African-American organizations in education, you keep thinking, which of the top African-Americans organizations in environment, keep thinking, which are the top African-American organizations…you can name a couple in social justice. You can, but there’s no other place that you really find the level of, I think, significant organizations at the threshold that we should have as a nation. 

Geoff Canada: 

Because so much of the work that’s being done in these communities of color. How is it that folks who are working in those communities aren’t getting any funding? And so that I think we have to do less. We just got to do less of coming up with excuses for why we don’t support these organizations run by men and women of color who are on the front lines, doing the toughest work. So that’s what you should do, less of that. Let me tell you what we should do more of. We should do more of, the kind of, what I would call, dual funding. And this is the interesting part. So most of us will say, Geoff, if you want to build infrastructure within organizations, I’m going to give 400,000 for that organization to do their program, I’m going to say, you have to spend 200,000 on infrastructure. 

Geoff Canada: 

That’s not the way we should deal with this. We just say, no, let’s give them the 400,000 and put an additional 200,000 on that for them to build their infrastructure. Don’t make an organization choose between serving desperately poor folks or building up infrastructure that’s not right now going to help save more lives. So I think this would be what we need to do more, not reduce, not split the grant in half. Okay. I hear you, Geoff, let’s split…no, give the same amount that they need, but then give an additional support for organizations so they can build this infrastructure. That I think we need to do more. And we need to do it intentionally if we’re going to make up for what we haven’t done in the last 30 years. 

Nic Campbell: 

I really liked that, Geoff. So just having this idea of infrastructure funding plus the needs, right? Because infrastructure funding is so critical to the organization actually doing what it says it wants to do. So just being very deliberate about that really resonates and doing much less of, you know, providing excuses as to why you can’t fund organizations that are led by people of color. But that makes me think Geoff, like when you think about Harlem Children’s Zone, how did you do it? You did it in a time, you know, some might argue it was even worse than now or just another repeat of now. And you were able to build something sustainable, something that is being modeled around the nation. What did you do that you think that others can learn from? 

Geoff Canada: 

So a couple of pieces to this. The first is that we became focused on data. At the time that we did this, we thought we were doing a great job. And when we began to really get serious about data, we felt like we weren’t doing a great job. And I was stunned. I spent 10 years championing how wonderful we were. And we began to look at the data we should share about. And we found out kids who were fine when they were 12, weren’t fine when they were 17. So that’s the first thing, data became critical. Second is we built a board. If there’s an area that I think these communities or organizations of color struggle, they not have kinds of boards that will allow them to have access to folk who can help both programmatically and financially with their goals. I don’t feel like…look, I grew up a poor black kid in the South Bronx. 

Geoff Canada: 

I don’t believe I’d have one. So there was no way for me to go and ask a friend, any friend I asked on the board, I’d have to have the loan them $50. They weren’t going to give me any money. So what we find in so many organizations is that they are looking locally for board members, which is great. Seems like it, but it excludes the ability to go into areas that you don’t have any contacts. So my board was built by folks who had contacts into wealth and into expertise. And you know, there was a trade off because a lot of folks thought, yeah, Geoff, but that’s a lot of white men and you got to worry about diversity. I want a black organization, white men have money. I can do the math. I’m sorry. People don’t like it, whatever, but I know what I needed. 

Geoff Canada: 

I could find all the help I needed. What I needed was literally tens of millions of dollars. And that’s what we focused on. And I never felt the pressure, right? My board was saying, you can’t say black kids, or you can’t do it this way, or you can’t do it that way. I’m not saying people need to replicate what I do. I’m saying that all in all, the ability, I think, to raise significant dollars so that you have the flexibility to do what’s right means that you have to think differently about how your board gains access into wealth in your community. So if it’s in Kansas city, guess where the money is in Kansas city, if it’s in Minneapolis, guess where the money is in Minneapolis. I don’t care where you go in this country. If you want to tap into private dollars, you’re going to have to use your board to do that. 

Geoff Canada: 

And I think that’s intentional and we built a board to help us do that. The last thing I’m going to say, if people have always thought oh, Geoff,, no, you’re wonderful. You did this. I built a team of folk that I would tell folks, I would match my team against any fortune 500 team in this country. These were smart, talented men and women. They will very diverse. White, black, Latinx. We all were focused on this work. And when I looked at my team, there were about 20, 25 folk who were serious senior members of this team that did this work. People think you can do this with one or two people. Not possible, just not possible. So if you, yourself, as the leader find it difficult to give up responsibility. I mean, there’s no way I can manage 20, 25 people. I’ve got to hire really smart people and let them do their job. 

Geoff Canada: 

Right? And if you struggle with that because you micromanage or you find it difficult to you, don’t like somebody, you don’t necessarily want them being part of your team. You can’t do this kind of complicated that we’re doing right now. I built a team, one of the things I was really good at and we help use the data to hold everybody accountable. And everybody understood. You kept your job if you delivered for kids, you lost your job if you didn’t. I didn’t care…it didn’t matter whether Geoff Canada liked you or not. If those numbers weren’t going in the right direction, you couldn’t stay part of this team. And I think that’s, what’s critical in doing this. 

Geoff Canada: 

I’ve got to go. I’ve just got a call, so I literally have to go right now. I’m sorry. Hopefully you got enough. 

Nic Campbell: 

No worries! 

Geoff Canada: 

Thank you for having me. 

Nic Campbell: 

Thank you. 

Nic Campbell: 

Incredible. Geoff shared tremendous insight, knowledge, and practical advice for everyone listening. And that’s how we learn how to build and lead bravely. So, thank you again for your time, Geoff.

-Upbeat Outro Music-

Nic Campbell:

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

Read more

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:

Resources:

 

 

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.

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