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Social Justice

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

As nonprofits, we need to be responsive to the people’s needs at the moment while tackling the bigger structural issues as well. This is a powerful message that this episode’s guest can never overemphasize. Over the next two weeks for a special two-part series, Nic is talking with Sherrilyn Ifill, the seventh and current President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the nation’s premier civil rights legal organization. This interview was recorded back in May 2020, when the country contended with both a pandemic and growing racial and social justice movements. Which, two years later, is still pressing on in addition to the war in Ukraine and inflated markets worldwide. Listen in and learn about the immense power of being responsive and other lessons and information born out of decades in service of the people.

Listen to Part One Here:

Listen to Part Two Here:

Resources:

About Sherrilyn Ifill

NPDU 1 | Legal Defense Fund

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

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

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

Read podcast transcription below:

Part One

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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.

Katy Thompson:   Hi, everyone! It’s Katy, Build Up’s Manager of Global Operations. This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we have a special surprise. We are recasting our very first episode of the Nonprofit Build Up as a two-part series. Over the next two weeks, you will hear Nic’s conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

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

Katy Thompson: This interview was recorded back in May 2020, when the country contended with both a pandemic and growing racial and social justice movements. Which, two years later, is still pressing on in addition to the war in Ukraine and inflated markets worldwide. Sherrilyn does such a masterful job of talking about the work of LDF and the work of nonprofits, foundations, and leaders that’s needed now more than ever. And with that, here is Sherrilyn Ifill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katy Thompson: And that concludes part one of the series. Next week, Sherrilyn will answer Nic’s question about what funders can be doing differently to support nonprofit sustainability during this time.

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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.

Part Two

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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.

Katy Thompson: Hi, everyone! It’s Katy, Build Up’s Manager of Global Operations. This week on theNonprofit Build Up, we are continuing with the recast our very first episode of the Nonprofit Build Up. This week, you will hear the second part of Nic’s conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Katy Thompson: You can jump back to part one of the conversation to learn more about Sherrilyn’s expertise, major accomplishments, and the transformational work of the Legal Defense Fund. But with that, let’s dive into the second part of Nic’s conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill, where they discuss how funders can support nonprofit sustainability and more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sherrilyn Ifill:      Do you mean fundraising infrastructure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nic Campbell:     Yes, definitely.

-Upbeat Outro Music-

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

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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.

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Creating an Ecosystem of Collaboration with Carol Baldwin Moody

This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking with Carol Baldwin Moody, President and CEO of Legal Momentum, The Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. Carol has developed a reputation for her outstanding efforts to fight for equality. Her work specifically focuses on educational, economic, and gender equality. She’s widely recognized for her broad regulatory experience, domestically and internationally. With a strong focus on organizational culture, her specialties include global risk management, regulatory compliance, and corporate governance.

Carol’s passion and expertise are so clearly illustrated in this episode as she speaks about the work of Legal Momentum and its focus on providing support during the inequities of the pandemic. She also shares practical advice for nonprofits and funders about the power of prevention in social justice and the importance of shifting from an ecosystem of competition to collaboration within the sector. This conversation is going to encourage you to embrace new ways of working and collaborating within the nonprofit sector.

Listen to the podcast here:

Resources:

 

 

About Carol Baldwin Moody

Carol Baldwin Moody serves as President and CEO of Legal Momentum®, The Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund.  Carol assumed this role in April 2018 after serving on the Legal Momentum Board for two years and receiving its Aiming High Award in 2011.

Carol has developed a reputation for her outstanding efforts to fight for equality.  Her work specifically focuses on educational, economic and gender equality.  Known as a tireless mentor and advocate for diversity for decades, Carol has taken on many roles to serve the community. For the University of Pennsylvania, she served on the Minority Permanence Committee, which celebrated the 25th anniversary of its launch of the Brister Society of the University of Pennsylvania in 2018.  Brister members, by power of example, support and promote the University’s efforts to attract, encourage and maintain a culturally diverse community.  Carol served on the board of the Toigo Foundation, an organization dedicated to preparing under-served professionals for leadership roles, and she held a prominent seat on the Board of the New York Chapter of INROADS, working to help businesses gain greater access to diverse talent.  She served as pro bono counsel to the 214 Bradhurst Housing Development Fund and served as Associate for the seminal case of Berkman v. the City of New York.

In addition to receiving numerous awards for her advocacy work, Carol is widely recognized for her broad regulatory experience, domestically and internationally. With a strong focus on organizational culture, her specialties include expertise in global risk management, regulatory compliance, and corporate governance. In 2010, Black Enterprise named Carol as one of the 75 most powerful women in business. In honor of her work and influence on diversity, Nationwide Insurance African American Women’s ARG established the Carol Baldwin Moody Impact Award. Carol moved to full-time service in the public sector in 2011, taking on the role of acting Chief Operating Investment Officer for CalPERS, the nation’s largest public pension fund with a fair value of investments of over 300 billion dollars.  She was honored for her work overseeing all business operations and her work on diversity in the Investment Office.

Carol sits on several other Boards that include Security Mutual Life Insurance Company of NY, Grasshopper Bank, N.A.  and Germantown Friends School.  Her professional associations include the Executive Leadership Council and the Council on Foreign Relations.  Carol holds a JD from Columbia University School of Law and a BSE from the Wharton School.

 

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 Carol Baldwin Moody, President and CEO of Legal Momentum, The Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. Carol assumed this role in April 2018 after serving on the Legal Momentum Board.

Nic Campbell:

Carol has developed a reputation for her outstanding efforts to fight for equality. Her work specifically focuses on educational, economic, and gender equality. She’s widely recognized for her broad regulatory experience, domestically and internationally. With a strong focus on organizational culture, her specialties include global risk management, regulatory compliance, and corporate governance. Black Enterprise named Carol as one of the 75 most powerful women in business. In honor of her work and influence on diversity, Nationwide Insurance African American Women’s ARG established the Carol Baldwin Moody Impact Award.

Nic Campbell:

Carol and I recorded this conversation in May 2020 as we navigated our way through the first few months of the global pandemic and were wrestling with issues of equity. Carol’s passion and expertise are so clearly illustrated as she speaks about the work of Legal Momentum and its focus on providing support during the inequities of the pandemic. She also shares practical advice for nonprofits and funders about the power of prevention in social justice and the importance of shifting from an ecosystem of competition to collaboration within the sector.

Nic Campbell:

Carol also shares how Legal Momentum is thinking about its infrastructure to protect the rights of the most vulnerable women and girls, and highlights the importance of revenue diversification, being thoughtful about the role of volunteers, and being deliberate about including diversity in decision making. This conversation is going to encourage you to embrace new ways of working and collaborating within the nonprofit sector. And with that, here is Carol Baldwin Moody.

Nic Campbell:

Hi, Carol, it is so great to have you join us for our Fast Build Leader Series.

Carol Baldwin:

Hello, Nicole. It’s so great to be here. Hello to you.

Nic Campbell:

I think it’s going to be a wonderful conversation. I’m really looking forward to it. To get us started, can you tell us about Legal Momentum, your role there and Legal Momentum’s immediate priority?

Carol Baldwin:

Certainly, certainly, Legal Momentum, we are the first and the oldest – sometimes that’s not a good thing, but in this case, it is – legal defense and education fund for women. And we were originally the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, NOW started. And that means we were their legal department 50 years ago, 50 years ago. We’ve always been at the forefront of what has been a controversial battle for gender equality. I mean, that’s NOW. And so we then changed our name in 2004, just because we wanted to have a 501(C)(3). So I’m the CEO. I think the important thing is I started off actually being on the board of Legal Momentum, which often not a path for CEOs and even more different is that I stepped off the board to be the Chief Operating Investment Officer, because that’s my background.

Carol Baldwin:

I run huge operations. That’s my background. And I decided that I would better serve Legal Momentum if I stepped off the board and just took a look at how well the organization was organized and managed. I love doing that. I’m good at it. And that’s what I did. And then one day I was in a board meeting and it was time for succession. And I said, okay, cause our CEO went on to do something very specific that we were part of, which is the ERA, the Equal Rights Amendment, we’re part of that, she wanted to do that solely. And so she went to do that. And then I came in at a board meeting and then they all were clapping like, yay, we have a new CEO. So there, it was. That’s how it happened.

Carol Baldwin:

And so we’re a women’s organization, and really what we do is our focus is to ensure economic and personal security for women and girls. And that’s a broad, broad statement. That’s a broad statement, but we do it because as we say, we lead, we litigate, we educate, we advocate, and we defend. And the great part about that is that means every aspect of any kind of inequality for women we can effect. We can effect. So when it comes to…I like to deal with education first, because that is education fund. I’m a strong believer and we have always been a strong believer that the best way to serve inequality, any kind of harm, is to try to prevent it, try to prevent it from happening. You know, you can litigate, you can do all kinds of things, well wouldn’t it be great if it didn’t happen in the first place?

Carol Baldwin:

Wouldn’t it be great if sexual assault didn’t happen, sexual harassment, pay inequality, discrimination, wouldn’t it be best if it didn’t happen in the first place and that’s our education piece and advocacy. Because you can’t deal with any kind of issue, as you well know, until you know what the issue is. And once you…and we’re so good at that, and we’re deep at that. And once you know what the issue is, you have to educate the people who are affected and that’s everybody. And that’s why our program is really broad. We educate, you know, warriors, we educate judges. One of our great programs is our National Judicial Education Program, because believe it or not, eventually, if something does happen, a lot of things are going to be right in front of a judge. They’re deciding your fate. And we created this phenomenal program where we teach judges how to deal with bias in the court when it comes to issues of gender.

Carol Baldwin:

Very, very important, because no matter if you have a law, that’s good, which we probably helped write. But if you get before a judge and they can apply the law without bias, you haven’t done what you’re supposed to do. So we focus on doing all those things across a spectrum. We spend time and it takes time to advocate for new laws. If you know anything about how legislation is, it could take five years, but you know, here it is 25 years later, and the Violence Against Women Act, which we were the pioneers and part of writing that, it’s 25 years later and what’s happening right now? It needs to be reauthorized. And it hasn’t. And the amount of time and hours and months that we as an organization spend, trying to advocate to Congress, you know, the House and the Senate, about why…I think the number is more like a hundred billion dollars has been given out to organizations because of the Violence Against Women Act, it’s huge, it’s 25 years old.

Carol Baldwin:

But what happens is as time goes on, we see where there are weaknesses in the law. We see that they didn’t anticipate transgender protection. And so we need to go back and say, okay, this was a great law at the time, but you have to be out there. And the reason why we can be out there is because we have our ear to the ground. We have a helpline that people call in and we don’t necessarily represent them, cause we have a small legal team, but we’re hearing what their questions are. And we tell them where they need to go, no matter what state they’re in. You’re being discriminated at work, this is where you need to go. But out of that help line, that’s where we find out what’s really, really affecting people. We find out for instance, that right now at the most vulnerable women, as you well know, if you’re looking at the crisis right now, women are more than 50% of the people who are at the front line.

Carol Baldwin:

You know that, you know that. And sadly, or it’s just a fact, like you said, what’s being highlighted is the most vulnerable women who are being effected. These are women of color, low income women, immigrants, and transgender. They are being affected the most. And so what we’ve done all along and we did something incredible two years ago, we put out the most comprehensive…we call it the Legal Toolkit, that outlines every right a woman has in the workplace in the state of New York. It’s 75 pages long, took two years to write it. And that goes back to my education. First, you had to educate. And so we’re happy because a lot of those laws we have, right? Well, if you don’t know about it, it’s not helpful. And when we put it out there, we got a note from RWA, which is the Restaurant Workers Association. The 4 million members, they said 4 million people, now know how to deal with wage theft, tip theft.

Carol Baldwin:

These are all the things we talk about in that toolkit. And the great part about it is once it came out, we just got together a bunch of those organizations that are affected domestic workers. And we said, what’s missing? And what we’re focusing on now, we took that and in this environment, as you said, it’s highlighted, we now have a policy statement saying, Hey, we did some good stuff with some good laws, but this is what you didn’t get to. And you need to do it because we talk about, you know, women’s rights during the pandemic and after. This is not going away, it is not going away. And like you said, we just highlighted the things that we’ve been talking about. It’s nothing new. It’s nothing new. I mean, we put a series of…when this happened, you know, we’re lawyers and we tend not to, you know, we got to think and think and think and think, but we immediately created our new series called LM Action, every single week shown where the information is for everybody.

Carol Baldwin:

And so it’s across the spectrum. You may not pay attention, but Title Nine, Title Nine, you know, deals with, you know, sexual assault on campus. The new rules just came out. We fought, fought, fought, fought, wrote papers, told them what needed to be done. And frankly, the new rules, they greatly weaken protections of students. And why would you weaken the protection of students to go back to school in a pandemic? We’ve wrote about why that’s an issue. We wrote about pay transparency. And we all know, everybody knows, what the pay gap is between women and men, but you add race into that picture? The number, the disparity is huge. And so here you have, you know, good laws out there, which we advocate for like the EOC, which was collecting data based on gender and race. But then they stopped. They stopped because certain people didn’t want them to do it.

Carol Baldwin:

So we of course are opposing their decision to stop collecting pay data, because you can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what the data shows. So we’re fighting for that. COVID-19 reproductive rights, I mean, come on as a first-grade part of reproductive rights, people don’t realize that there are a bunch of States that are using the COVID-19 to stop reproductive rights. We just filed one of the biggest cases. And we joined up with our NOW organization, which is huge. Huge case, where in Alabama, somebody decided to use an executive order that said, hmm, abortions are not essential. What? So you can wait, what do you mean wait? There’s no going back. I mean, what are you talking about here? And it is women of color and poor women who’re being affected by this. So we got together and we actually, I mean, we worked day and night on this case to file a brief in the courts to overturn that executive order.

Carol Baldwin:

It took weeks. The good news is for technical reasons, you know, the executive order went away, but the underlying statute in, you know, Alabama, Texas, still need to be litigated to protect reproductive rights. So here you are, you’ve got Roe v. Wade, and here we are, here we are. And then about education. One of our news programs, which I’m really proud of is our peer educator program. And we put out something just a couple of weeks ago about young girls of color in these times of crisis. A few years ago, the city council decided to put together a leadership program for young girls of color. And one aspect of it was healthy sexual relationships. Again, try to rebid. What can you do to teach young women about how not to get in these dangerous situations? We started a program a few years ago.

Carol Baldwin:

It is now off the charts. It started off with four and we decided to make it a peer educator program. We would take the young girls of color, bring them in and train them for nine weeks. And then they would go out to schools and talk to their peers. Nobody wants to, you know, they don’t want to listen to me. You know, if you’re 15 or 16 and that plus they have terminology they’ve never heard of. They were like, what? And so we started this program a few years ago and it has now tripled in size. They go out there and when school’s closed, this is what I’m saying, we’re always there to pivot. When the public schools closed, we had a bunch of presentations ready to do and schools closed. But then after people got situated, they asked for a lot of afterschool programs and they said, we need this, people are stressed, domestic violence is going on, kids are home. We need to do this. Can you change your program to be 100% virtual? And we did. And we did. We are now giving the whole series virtually. And it was good that, you know, to have the young peer tutors, because they know how to zoom and all that kind of stuff. They’re like, Carol, you can’t miss it because you’re ghosting the meeting. I’m like, what, what are you talking about?

Carol Baldwin:

Anyway, you know, you hear those young girls talk to the other young girls who’re at home, you know, and no outlet. That’s really, really important. And the last thing I want to say in terms of what’s happening with the roller ball, what we did last week, when we talk about this toolkit that’s 75 pages long that tells you what you need to do. We reached out to people who really are in trouble right now. And we had a phone call with domestic workers in New York, Spanish speaking only, with a translator, virtually, and we said, okay, tell us what’s really happening. And it’s eye opening what is happening, but we were able to reach out because that’s what we do. We have those mechanisms. So we continue to really reach out to the most vulnerable women and girls across the board. And then lastly, ultimately we do bring litigation.

Carol Baldwin:

We do bring litigation. We had two of the most important equal pay cases last year, you know, very, very hard to win, very, very prominent tech company. Can’t say the name, you know, and it was clear that it was a woman and a man, same job, different pay, that’s common. And at the end of the day, not only did we get her money, we got them to change their practices. And that’s what we talk about. We only take litigation that is impactful. Cause we, you know, we don’t have 60 lawyers. If we take litigation, it has to be something that will impact lots of people. That means that case will affect lots of people. And that’s how we choose our litigation. When people call in to the helpline, you know, we refer them, but if they call in for something, we go, Oh, Oh, this is big.

Carol Baldwin:

We have a lot of pro bono lawyers. We give millions of dollars of donations of free legal work. That’s how we do it. We reach out to our law firms and say, this is a big case. On one of our cases on sex trafficking, which was all over the news, we’re the ones that brought the Backpage case. If you know about Backpage and the sex trafficking, we brought that case, caused millions of dollars of pro bono work. And because of that case FOSTA and SESTA, which are the federal trafficking laws were passed. So again, we go from education, we advocate, we’re the ones that gave a testimony in the Paid Leave Family Law for New York City and New York state. They didn’t follow everything, but we gave testimony. And then we got to review their drafts. They ask us, you know, what are missing? You know, how can we do this better? So our priorities haven’t changed, but every single thing we work on is nailed at the top. Everything we do. Does that answer your question?

Nic Campbell:

No, it definitely does. And what it paints for me is just a really thoughtful organization. So you’re able to play the long game, but you’re also very proactive. So you’re able to say what do we need right now. And then stepping up for the rights of the vulnerable and fighting really hard for them and being creative and focused at the same time. So it just shows just the tremendous history and breadth of what you do and the kind of work that LM is doing now. So thank you for that. I know you mentioned within that explanation that you’d received millions in pro bono work, and I’d love for you to talk about the advice that you have for nonprofits that fundraise as a significant part of their budget. So in other words, what do you think should be top of mind for them right now, particularly during this time of uncertainty? You know, you’ve raised, at least even in kind support, millions of dollars, and you’re doing such huge, you know, huge projects and work with a long lasting impact. So what would you say to those nonprofits that are also trying to fundraise and trying to affect change?

Carol Baldwin:

So a couple of things and the pro bono stuff. So definitely, if you can, find…there are a lot of people, listen, even when times are hard, people like to volunteer. If you don’t have any money, that’s a way you can volunteer. And to the extent that you can free your staff to do other things, because you’ve partnered, it’s really, really important. And you got to think out of the box, it means ease for us because we’re lawyers. So we know what we need. We need pro bono lawyers, write briefs, and go to court. We know what that means. We know what that means, but for other organizations, it means different things. And they need to think about what that means, because that frees up their resources. So think a little better about what your volunteering support is. The second thing is diversification. Listen, you know, I was in charge of a $300 billion portfolio.

Carol Baldwin:

I know about diversification, right? And unfortunately, and we’re victim too, we’re victim too, that over time, you rely on your same funding sources, because it’s easy. It’s easy because it’s hard to get new funding sources. I’m sorry to say. It’s very difficult to get new funding sources. And once you get a funding source, you just stay there. You just stay there. But the reality is, certainly for us and other organizations, as you see, we’re struggling, we have got to diversify our funding sources. We really do. And I’ve been talking about that for a couple of years. I mean, for instance, there are a lot of organizations like ours, who depend on events, right? As their fundraising. I told you I was in San Francisco. We had to cancel that event. We had to postpone our biggest event that normally happens every year.

Carol Baldwin:

It’s almost 60% of our revenue, the combined events. What do you do? And that’s why, as you’re thinking about this, and you’re, you know, obviously we’re figuring out how to do virtual, but the point is I advise a lot of not-for-profits who have gotten, you know, so, okay, we’ve got this, this is how we raise money. You’ve got to think differently. You’ve got to think more out of the box. And then for funders, you know, you got to, you know, push a little more. I know it’s easy to give money to the same people all the time. I get it. I know, I get it. You know, you don’t have to do the extra research, but I do feel that I ask funders to, you know, be more thoughtful about where the money should go. We know that there’s a peanut hole, just like I said, when we were giving out money to invest.

Carol Baldwin:

There’s a finite pool of money. We get it, we get it. But we shouldn’t have to compete as much as we do to get the money. I think it can be a more collaborative process than it is because I’m competing. I was like, okay, you know, I’m trying to get money from this. And I’m talking about the big ones, not the little ones. I’m talking, you know who I’m talking about? The big ones, yeah, the biggest, the biggest. It was the 300 pound gorillas. So I know what it is to be the biggie. When everybody’s competing against the biggies, it really isn’t the most effective way. They should allow us to be more collaborative amongst ourselves, instead of us all saying, okay, let me try to get this money from that. We should be able to go to our funders in a more collective way. And I think that’s something that has not happened in this industry.

Carol Baldwin:

It would serve funders well, it would serve organizations, that we can actually go in a more collective way. Because the way grants are done now, everybody’s got to put in their grant proposal. Everybody’s got to answer questions. Everybody’s got to put in the metrics. And I’m a good, listen, I believe in numbers, I believe in measurement. I do. But some things are not measurable. I mean, when we got that grant is somebody going to, you know, say my God, 4 million people got to read that? How do you measure that? That you can measure. But what you can’t measure is the fact that one of those peer educators who’s in the program, single mom, the only way she could do that program at the school was to bring her five-year-old. Immeasurable. And at the end of that process, he actually got to see his mom in a leadership role teaching others, life changing. How do you measure that? Life changing. So my answer is gotta be more the collaborative in this fundraising initiative, because you know, the money’s going to get…you know, you see what’s going on has always been that way, but I’m a big believer in collaborating, and we need to do more of that.

Nic Campbell:

And it’s something I wanted to jump back on what you said, Carol. And that was about diversification of funds. You are really just singing music to my ears when you, when you talk about diversification. And I wonder if you could just give some advice to nonprofits that are at that point where they’re saying, I only get my funding from one particular source or a couple of sources. I see it a lot, even in terms of government funding for example, or just working with the same foundations as their funding sources, what advice would you give them to transition out of that and start that diversification process? What should they be looking at or considering?

Carol Baldwin:

They should be looking at partnering with some other organizations, don’t do it alone. Here’s a good example. There’s an organization that’s up in Harlem, we’re big time lawyers and we do stuff like that. But we actually thought of a way to put in a joint proposal. We are bigger, been in business for much longer time, it goes back to what you say. You know, some people don’t want to fund you not-for-profits. I said, you know what, partner with us, we’ve been in business for 50 years. We know how to run million dollar grants. You partner with us, and we put that grant proposal in together. So people need to start thinking that way, because you can diversify by, like I said…I mean, they never did. They would get like $25,000 grants. Now we get million dollar grants, but partnering with us really opened up an avenue that they would not have been able to do.

Carol Baldwin:

So that’s number one, you can partner. And they get different sources that didn’t get because of what they do. And then it just goes full circle. You know, it just…I help them and then we say, Oh my goodness, we can see how…so that’s number one. You really need to look at partnering with other organizations who have different funding sources, because when you can connect things, you can actually diversify your funding sources. The infrastructure, I mean, raising money, when you have a small staff. You know, you get penalized, you know that you’re in the not-for-profit world. You get penalized when the percentage of time spent raising money, right, is a larger percentage. And you get penalized because of that’s the way the not-for-profit, that’s how they count it. So, you know, if you’re the CEO, I mean, I’m fortunate in that I’m a lawyer.

Carol Baldwin:

So most of what I do is programmatic. I’m the CEO, but when I raise money, I’m doing it in a programmatic way. I’m not just out there, you know, you know, just raising money. We do it that way. But if you’re, you know, you’re a CEO of a small, not-for-profit. You get penalized if you say 60% of my time is raising money, because those statistics go out there. So that’s the other thing we got to get the funders to stop using the traditional guidelines for what’s efficient. You know, you can’t spend more than 10% on this. You can’t. I mean, when you think it, you know, that person who wrote that the toolkit for two years, you know, we got a grant, but that was only for 10% of her salary. The rest of the time, she didn’t work for free, you know. And then you have to…she didn’t, they don’t make that much money anyway. You know? They don’t. You know, these are people who are passionate about what they do. So the other thing is, you know, as you’re looking at how you define operational costs, which you know, is the big no no, I think that you got to really try to look at, you know, what you do, programmatically and what you do with what you call operations.

Nic Campbell:

I like that because it really conjures up for me what I talk about a lot, of the ecosystem of actors. So it’s not, when you say don’t go it alone, it’s like, it’s not just you, you’re a part of a whole ecosystem that’s providing resources and benefits to communities in need. So that the more you’re able to collaborate with other organizations that like you said, are receiving different sources of funding. Then the stronger you are. And I’m going to touch on some of the things that funders might want to do differently. And that’s to make sure that they themselves are more collaborative and that they stop using these sort of traditional risk management tools. Even though many times, they want their grantees to show up as innovative organizations but then turning back and relying on the traditional risk management tools that are pretty rigid. So is there other pieces of advice that you would say to funders now in addition to, you know, give more money, but how would you suggest that they show up so that they can support nonprofit sustainability both within the crisis, as well as beyond it?

Carol Baldwin:

So in the crisis, we see all of this emergency funds, right? Emergency funds, emergency funds. And I don’t like that terminology so much because it makes it seem like it’s going to go away and it’s not. So first of all, what I say to them is, I know you want to jump in there and give them money, but don’t be thinking of it just as emergency funds. I like the term transitioning toward the future because emergency has a negative connotation to it. And I think then people go, okay, I did it. And also the not-for-profits sometimes look at it that way. Okay, let me get through this emergency. So that’s number one. I think that, you know…it is an emergency. I get it. But if you’re looking at that from a mindset of risk, it doesn’t put you necessarily on the right trajectory for the future.

Carol Baldwin:

That’s number one, sometimes how you call things really makes a difference in the outcome. First of all, whatever you do, because we’re moving, please, I say to funders, this is not the time not to continue to fund those you do fund while we’re figuring out new ways. I mean, because this is not going to happen overnight. We’ve been talking about this for a long time. I mean, infrastructure and what we need to do, particularly those not-for-profits where, you know, they are run by CEOs of color, we’ve been talking about just like we talk about diversity. I mean, we’ve been talking about diversity and what that means in the decision-making process for how long? In corporate America, it’s no different, it’s no different. And I would hope that to the extent that…I mean, getting on the board of a big, big, big non-for-profit, you have to have money because you know, board members on not-for-profits.

Carol Baldwin:

They donate money. So how many of us of color have been around long enough to have that kind of income to put us into the decision-making process on a big, giant board? I mean, I’ve been giving money myself since I was young, because I was fortunate that I went to a school that, you know, that’s what we did. And I went to a Quaker school. So that’s what we did. But most people, I don’t know how many of my friends I talked to who, particularly minorities, who don’t have a history of giving. And so that is, you know, difficult for you to get on to a big board and diversify the board. If people don’t understand, I mean, I’m on, I’m on a couple of boards. I get money being on that board. And I sit in that boardroom and I’m telling you, it makes a difference because, you know, we were building, you know, an addition to the school. I said, hello, did you guys make sure that the people who are bidding for this, that there’s a diversity factor in there? They’re like, Ooh. That’s cause I was in the room.

Carol Baldwin:

I was in the room. I was on the board. They didn’t think about that. So it does make a difference who’s in that room as they’re thinking about collaborating and understanding that it is not…just like, you know, diversity in general, this is not, you know, like a blame game. It’s not a blame. It’s not a blame game. It’s just a reality that having diverse thoughts in the room make a difference. I’m telling you. My last example was I was talking to someone at a big bank and they were talking about diversity and something or another. And then I said, have you guys ever heard of susu? They’re like, no, what’s that? I said, do you know that my West Indian nanny, who, by the way I paid on the books and she got unemployment, but that’s aside. When it’s time for your son to go to college, they put that money in a susu and they have a 100% repayment rate.

Carol Baldwin:

Okay. And I said to that banker, you’re trying to get to that community, but you didn’t invite anybody in the room who’s in that community. And that’s what happened to you. So I say the same thing, you know, to the funders, you know, invite somebody and they don’t have to be on the board. But instead of the only opportunity for you to get to know organization is through their grant proposal. It’s just like the only way to get a job through a resume doesn’t necessarily work. So I’m just saying they give more opportunity for them to learn about these organizations when they’re not applying for a grant that they can do for free. You know, invite them in, not applying for a grant. Let’s just talk. But the way it is now, the only time you get to talk to your funders, you’re asking for money. That’s something they can do very concretely, invite us in.

Nic Campbell:

I really like that because it’s really talking about the power of voice and the power of being heard and making sure that your voice is part of that funding conversation, even when you’re not talking about funding. But I wonder if you are, like you said, we’re talking about access, right? And if you are a leader of color that is heading up one of these organizations, you know, there was just an article that came out about how much funding is going to organizations that are led by people of color. And one of the issues is access, being able to say, I know this particular person at this philanthropy or this foundation or this grant maker. And so the question is, how do you say, let’s talk, let’s have a conversation outside of funding? How do you even raise your hand and gain that sort of access so that you can be in a room to have a conversation to say, learn more about my organization when normally you’re being invisibilized.

Carol Baldwin:

And I thought about that because, you know, I talk a lot about…you talk about diversity and then getting on boards. Okay. So you know that whole conversation about the…and I’m on I’m on some boards and, and how does it work? It’s the same thing, access, sadly, it really is the networking. It really, really is. I don’t care how many times people tell you that, you know, okay…well no, it’s you’ve gotta get close. You’ve gotta be in the settings. You gotta get out there. You gotta get out there and network. We talk about in the board world, you need to make sure that you know where the person on the nominating and governance committee, you know, where are they going? That’s where you need to be and be invited to. So the same thing here is that I know it’s difficult when you’re running something day to day, but you got to build into your time.

Carol Baldwin:

And I do. Build into your time where you can be to get access. And it has to be part of your job. It has to be part of your job. And it has to be intentional that you get yourself access and we can have help. And the ones who do it well, the same thing about diversity, you know, the ones who do it well, then they can lift up the ones who do do this. Then they can say, this is how we did it. And it will move faster. And you can laud the ones, like in the diverse world, we always rank, you know, corporations that are, you know, diverse. And you go, okay, these are the ones that are doing well. And then the ones who have found a way to do it, share, share, this is how we did it. I’m not the name the big ones, but this is how we did it. This is how we invited them into the room, because that is the biggest problem, number one, that the only time they see us is when we’re asking for money.

Nic Campbell:

And I just think that your response, like to lean back again into what you were saying, just about being collaborative, right? So helping each other and working together. So when we’re looking at the advice that we’ve given to nonprofits and to funders, with all of that in mind, what do you wish we did less of as a sector? And what should we do more of? I know we’ve talked about collaboration, but what do you think we should be stepping away from that we’re doing now? And what should we be leaning more into?

Carol Baldwin:

I think we should be stepping away from feeling that being a non-profit or not for profit, however you want to call yourself, requires you not to have innovative thoughts. You know, sometimes people feel that because you put that title on yourself, that unlike corporations who have shareholders and, you know, we’ve got to look at your profits and all that, get away from feeling like, well, because we’re nonprofit, it doesn’t mean that we have to think in an old fashioned way. That’s just a tax thing. Stop using that as the way you frame yourself. And it really does make a difference because sometimes I’m on calls with other organizations and I go, Hey, Hey, Hey, it’s 45 minutes into the call. You know, you have 10 more minutes, be efficient. You know, because if you were in a board meeting, they wouldn’t let me talk for two hours endlessly, you know, get to the point.

Carol Baldwin:

So stop saying that as a way of thinking, because you’re a nonprofit. And that’s my first thing, stop doing that. Okay. Stop doing that. And the other one, keep doing more collaboration, but that first one’s hard. And I see it. And I see it in action. You know, you put that title. I think it’s like a negative. Think about it. It’s a negative, I’m not for profit. What? We’re really trying to show that you’re philanthropic, but in a way using that terminology can be negative because you get like, Oh, well, yeah, they’re not for profit. They could just do anything, kind of thing, you know? And that’s not it. So I really don’t like that. You know, I don’t call myself, I don’t call us that. We have to for tax reasons, but that’s not what I focus on. I focus on our mission, who we serve, how we get it done, how we account for it, how we action for it. And yeah, by the way, we’re not-for-profit so that you can take advantage, but that’s, by the way. So I know that’s different. I go, and by the way.

Nic Campbell:

Right, right. Well, you talked about you’re fully focused on how you get it done. And I know that the focus of many nonprofits right now is on their programmatic strategy and fundraising, for example. But if we’re talking about being focused on how we get it done, I’d love to hear how Legal Momentum is thinking about building its infrastructure during these times to get it done. And how you’re thinking about building your infrastructure after the pandemic.

Carol Baldwin:

So we’re at a point now where we spent the last couple of years, really, really, really putting depth to all of our programs. We have five program areas and we did that. We’re done with and it’s reflected in our website that’s coming out on Thursday after two years of work. But we did that. And now what we look for, we said, okay, now we need to leverage. You can tell I’m a financial person here. I’m talking about leverage. But anyway, we need to leverage. So what we said was, okay, now let’s get out front. That’s really focused on getting to the legislators as they were making their agenda for the coming year. Okay. This is cool. This is really important. So how we’re doing it is, we said, okay, let’s get in front of the various legislators. And before you set your priorities, think about this, get ahead of it.

Carol Baldwin:

Because what normally happens is something comes out and we get to comment on it, but we’re ahead. So that’s one of our big change is and big push is, getting on the agendas of the various legislative bodies and we’ve gotten invited. So it was great. Say, okay, while you’re figuring out what your priorities are, this is what we think will be helpful in this arena. So that’s number one, and we’ve got invited. And like I said, normally it’s reactive, but we said, okay, we’ve got our programs together that we can leverage if we can get in front of what’s happening. And particularly after the pandemic, where money is going to be an issue, it’s going to be even harder. And so we are at the table as they’re setting in their priorities, this is going to be really, really important when you’re in difficult economic times. And unfortunately, as I said, the other thing in terms of building infrastructure, got to find a way to spend more time fundraising.

Carol Baldwin:

I have to, I do, but I’m going to do it in the way I talked about, I’m going to focus on not just getting 50 grant applications out. Nah, not going to do that. I know that’s what people…if you look at the literature, they go, you have to have ten to one ratio of how many applications you have out. You know, that whole literature. That’s not really…you know, that literature, right. And I know, okay, but I’m not going to be doing that. I’m going to be doing what I just said. I’ve been talking to some other organizations. I said, I think we can collaborate and we can share. And we can get…because some of them know this person, I know that person, and we can share. And I want to spend my time getting ourselves in front of funders in a non-grant way, and I’m going to do that.

Carol Baldwin:

And I started doing it before this happened, but now…we had a board meeting like two hours ago and we were talking about that. And then I said to my board…and that’s the other thing is you got to look at who’s on your own board. I had to look at who was on my board. Right. I didn’t look at who’s on my board. And you know, because it’s historically been around for 50 years, like I said, some of the people, I mean, they’ve been around for a long time. They know people. And they said today, and they did, they said today, everybody think about how you get Carol access to who you know. That’s your job. And that was today. That’s what you need to do. You need to get, because they are, I mean, they’re on the board, which means they contribute money. Your job is to get Carol access.

Nic Campbell:

So even like, thinking about when we’re talking about building infrastructure, looking at your governance, looking at the composition of your board, and looking at the way that your organization is set up so that you can start to think innovatively. And say, we’re going to get, and proactively, we’re going to get in front of legislators, for example, or whoever that target audience is before they even start to do their thinking around issues so that we are top of mind. And to be able to have that kind of those systems in place to say, this is how we’re going to move forward and impact decision-making is extremely important when we’re building out infrastructure. You know, Carol, your insights have been so amazing. 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. So what book do you think we should read next? Or what artists do you think we should be paying attention to?

Carol Baldwin:

Does it have to be in this space or just in general?

Nic Campbell:

Just in general.

Carol Baldwin:

Well, when you asked me that question, I was very sad. I was very sad because I’m old school. I read hard books. I don’t read online. I’m sorry to say. I read books. I go to my local bookstore. I buy used books, and then when I’m finished, I give them away. And I’m a speed reader. I’m a speed reader. I really am. I am really, really, really. And I haven’t been traveling so I haven’t gotten a chance to read the book I wanted to read next by Colson Whitehead. You know, ‘The Nickel Boys’. I mean the underground railroad. I don’t know if you’ve got a chance to read it, but I know I should just go on Amazon and order the book, but my I’m so tired of being online. But you have inspired me because I now have it, here it is. I cut it out of the New York Times this weekend and I’m going to paste it into my little office, and I’m going to order this book before the week is out.

Nic Campbell:

Why do you think we should read ‘Nickel Boys’?

Carol Baldwin:

You know, I’m just fascinated about young black boys and particularly what’s going on with Black Lives Matters and look at what just happened last week. I mean, I of course, I have a young son. I mean, he’s not young anymore, you know, but I have a black son. And to see how things start and where it all starts is really, really important if we’re going to get ahead of what continues to be a crisis in the United States, that it is a crisis. You know, that’s why, I mean, and I see it in my own work. Unfortunately, what’s going on now is just shining that, you know, a lot of this racism is still there. It’s still there. It’s still there. It’s just that, you know, it’s coming out in a different way. And so, you know, when I look at the headlines and he is a master storyteller, I just want to get into that. Of course. My other book that I tell everybody to read is ‘Just Mercy’ by Bryan Stevenson. Everybody should read that book. Everybody should read that book. I know they made it into a movie, but everybody should read that book.

Nic Campbell:

Okay. So you’ve got two really outstanding recommendations, ‘Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead, and ‘Just Mercy’ by Bryan Stevenson.

Carol Baldwin:

I mean, in some ways they make you sad because ‘Just Mercy’ is just one of the most…but it’s true. But it just…as sad as it is. But I mean, obviously there’s a positive part, you know, about the work they’re doing, but I still recommend them.

Nic Campbell:

Yeah. We definitely need that knowledge and particularly now. So thank you. And, you know, you shared such knowledge and so many insights that I know leaders can practically use in their own organizations to help them build bravery. So thank you so much for joining us today, Carol.

Carol Baldwin:

Thank you for inviting me. I really, really, I just thank you for getting this out and getting the word out and us helping each other. So thank you so much.

Nic Campbell:

Yeah, of course.

Carol Baldwin:

Bye bye.

-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

Creativity in Crisis with Jean Lee

Jean Lee is clear and compelling in how she speaks about MCCA’s work and how they’re being creative and responsive during the crisis. She also talks about the importance of thinking outside-the-box, appreciating the diversity of the nonprofit ecosystem, and reflecting on the reason why your organization exists in order to better serve the communities you work with.

During this conversation, Jean asks the question, “How can we improve our communities to show humanity, to show kindness?” Such a powerful question. It forces us to think about how we can continue to support organizations that will allow us not to go back to a time that was unacceptable to those of us who are committed to social justice.

This conversation encourages us to use the moment we’re in to not only focus on surviving, but to use our leadership to improve our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in order to build thriving communities.

Listen to the podcast here:

Resources:

 

About Jean Lee

Jean Lee is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), a national organization committed to advancing the hiring, promoting and retaining diverse attorneys in law departments and law firms by providing cutting-edge research, best practices, professional development, training; and through pipeline initiatives.

Prior to joining MCCA, Jean served as Vice President and Assistant General Counsel at JP Morgan Chase & Co. where she worked on consumer litigation and regulatory matters.  Before joining JP Morgan Chase & Co. in 2011, Jean worked on litigation matters at a boutique litigation firm in New York City and started her career as a law clerk to the Honorable John J. Hughes, United States Magistrate Judge (retired), in the District of New Jersey.

She graduated from New York University with a B.A. in Politics and Psychology and a M.S.W. in Social Work.  Jean received her J.D. from Rutgers University School of Law, where she was a Senior Editor of the Rutgers Law Record.

Jean has been recognized as a Catalyst: Change Agent | Law in 2014 by the Council of Urban Professionals; as a Trailblazer by the Korean American Lawyers Association of Greater New York in 2015; and as a Vanguard by the Asian American Bar Association of San Francisco in 2018.  Currently, she serves on the Select Committee for the Legends in Law Award for the Burton Foundation and as an advisor to law firms and community organizations.

 

Read the podcast transcription below:

-Upbeat Intro Music-

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

Nicole Campbell: Hi everyone, this week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking with Jean Lee, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, or MCCA; a national organization committed to advancing the hiring, promoting, and retaining of diverse attorneys in law departments and law firms by providing cutting edge research, best practices, professional development, and training, and through pipeline initiatives. Prior to joining MCCA, Jean served as Vice President and Assistant General Counsel at JP Morgan Chase, where she worked on consumer litigation and regulatory matters. Before joining JP Morgan Chase, she worked on litigation matters at a boutique litigation firm in New York City and started her career as a law clerk to the honorable John J. Hughes, United States Magistrate Judge, now retired in the district of New Jersey. Jean and I recorded this conversation in May, 2020, as we navigated our way through the first few months of the pandemic. Jean is clear and compelling in how she speaks about MCCA’s work and how they’re being creative and responsive during the crisis.

Nicole Campbell: She also talks about the importance of thinking outside the box, appreciating the diversity of the nonprofit ecosystem, and reflecting on the reason why your organization exists in order to better serve the communities you work with. During this conversation, Jean asked the question, “How can we improve our communities to show humanity, to show kindness?” Such a powerful question. It forces us to think about how we can continue to support organizations that will allow us not to go back to a time that was unacceptable to those of us who are committed to social justice. This conversation encourages us to use the moment we’re in to not only focus on surviving, but to use our leadership to improve our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in order to build thriving communities. And with that here is Jean Lee.

Nicole Campbell: Hi, Jean, I’m so happy to have you joining us for our Fast Build Leader Series. I’m really looking forward to the conversation today. To get us started, can you tell us about Minority Corporate Counsel Association, your role, and MCCA’s immediate priority?

Jean Lee: Nicole, thank you so much for having me today. I am the President and CEO of MCCA. I have been in this role for about four years and MCCA has been around for 23 years now. And it is really the leading organization that provides research, education, professional development training in the legal profession. We have focused on improving diversity, inclusion, and equity of our profession since its founding, and that is the sole mission of the organization.

Nicole Campbell: And when you think about the environment that we’re in right now, is MCCA focused on anything new or doing anything differently to respond to the needs that are popping up in this current environment?

Jean Lee: Yeah, I think like many organizations we’re thinking of new and creative ways to respond to what’s happening, but for us as an organization, that has been solely focused on convening individuals to talk about these issues in corporate America and in the law firms that serve the corporate legal department, our focus has really been about rebuilding our community. What we have noticed in the past several weeks is that there is somewhat of an inconsistency as to the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. You know, when people are in times of crisis, your natural instinct is to focus all your energy on survival. Completely understand, and absolutely that should be the first and foremost focus, your health and safety of your loved ones, and then obviously, work. And then as you think about work, you know, people are struggling with billable hours or dealing with businesses that are closing.

Jean Lee: Again, while you’re doing that, it’s important for organizations like MCCA to really think about, how do we ensure that the work and the progress we have made…and we have made some progress, probably the most notable in the last few years in improving the diversity of the profession. And there are so many leaders who have shown commitment, have come out publicly stating their commitment. We want to make sure that those commitments and that progress is not lost during this time. And we are really focused on bringing our community back together to rebuild, to continue to work on the mission of the organization, which is to improve diversity and equity and inclusion of the profession. The ways in which we are doing that, we just recently hosted a virtual conference. It was an all-day conference. It was the first of its kind in the legal profession where we did not just cobble together a CLE, but we really thought – thanks to the many guidance and advice from our experts and our leaders – we really thought about what are the ways in which allows us to bring a community together virtually.

Jean Lee: How do you connect virtually when you’re really looking at a person through the screen and thanks to their expertise and guidance and just suggestions, we were able to successfully pull off a seven hour, all day conference with networking reception, breakout sessions, CLE as well as professional development programs, just last Wednesday. And so we really focused on bringing people’s stories together; what are leaders dealing with, how can you as an associate, a diverse associate, navigate the law firm that is perhaps going through maybe even a boom or a major crisis, which many are dealing with? Or if you’re in a corporation, perhaps some parts of your businesses aren’t doing well, how do you stand out? How do you still do your day to day and manage what’s going on at home? Because we are all staying at home, you know, for the most part, at least until last, I think Monday or so, most of us were still working from home and we’ll continue to do that for the foreseeable future. And that opportunity gave people an outlet to reconnect, to recharge and to be re-energized about the work that they have done, as well as the work we have done.

Nicole Campbell: I really like that. And a couple of things jumped out at me from what you said, which is that you really don’t want to be one of those organizations that is just exclusively focused on surviving. Like how do we just survive within this current environment? And instead you’re really tackling difficult issues, like you’ve pointed out, like how do we still keep our focus on improving diversity, equity, and inclusion within the profession, and even trying to see how you can bring stories together in order to do that. And you talked about the event, I just think it just speaks to how innovative and creative you’re still trying to be during crisis, which is extremely important for organizations and your sustainability. So along those lines, I want to provide any sort of advice to nonprofits, that a lot of them at this point are in fact focused exclusively on their survival, which is understandable, they’re fundraising as a significant part of their budget. So what do you think should be top of mind for them right now during this time of uncertainty?

Jean Lee: I think that, you know, everyone is going through a state of uncertainty. I think you alluded to that and it is incredibly challenging. So what I’m about to say, there are just times sometimes where you have to focus on survival. But if you can spare some moments to think outside of that sort of crisis mode, if you can, and it’s not easy, in no way am I trying to make light of that, but if you can think creatively, what’s the most important thing why your organization existed or while your organization should continue to exist. And I think if you can think for a moment and take a step away from the crisis, if you can and think about that, you’re going to start to see solutions in how to be more nimble. Because I think while you’re trying to survive…and I just went through this whole thing as well, right?

Jean Lee: We have the great fortune of having many committed leaders that are all-hands-on-deck helping us. Right? And you may have an organization where the leaders themselves are so focused on crisis, that they can’t lend a hand. Because you are a, obviously for most nonprofits, a volunteer organization, and it’s not the first priority because their day job is. And I would say, if you don’t have the fortune of that, perhaps take a step back and say to yourself, what was it about this organization that made you committed, that allowed you join? Cause I often think about that. And you know, when all this happened, I had, I think, six full-time employees and one full-time contract employee, as well as couple of part-time employees. So total, maybe about 10, but the six were the ones that I saw day in and day out in the office or on a Zoom or a Skype.

Jean Lee: And within the first week, first of all, we were supposed to have our conference, we had to cancel a conference, that’s a major hit to our revenue. Then we had to quickly think about, okay, how is this going to impact our revenue, our membership, cause we started hearing all this about the industry. And then three out of the six employees got sick. Two of them thought that they had COVID, had to get tested. So you can imagine, for any small business owner, I don’t need to go into the minutia and the granular details of what kind of came afterwards. It was incredibly hard. That was my first week. In addition to hearing about, okay, what’s going on with PPP loan and should we apply? And how much can we get and what are the things that are happening? So I had to take a step back and say to myself, okay, I’ve had crisis before both professionally and personally.

Jean Lee: And I have not only survived, but I have thrived. I learned a lot. Like every job I had, there were some crisis. And certainly this is probably, in some ways, the biggest, because I’m actually responsible for people as the leader of the organization. Whereas in other situations, I had many other leaders to collaborate with. Here within the walls of MCCA, it’s just Jean Lee, who’s leading the organization. So when I took a step back, the first thing I thought to myself was, why did I join this organization? What made me so passionate that I left my corporate job at JP Morgan in New York City, a city that I love and call home for 27 years. What made me do that? And it was the mission of the organization and it’s the personal story that I was moved by. Why I thought to myself, I want to give voice to those who don’t always have a voice and leading this organization and leveraging the amazing leaders and platform we have, we can make a difference.

Jean Lee: And that made me think about, okay, so that’s what made me join. what should I be doing next? And then it occurred to me about the amazing personal stories that I’ve heard in this role. You know, you’re part therapist, you’re part leader, you’re part counselor. And I thought about the personal story of so many who were so thankful that MCCA existed, of the programs that we provided. And I started connecting with individuals once again and trying to get a better sense of what’s happening on the ground. You hear everything in the media, you hear everything in the news, and it gets distorted. What is the individual’s personal story? Because even though we have corporate memberships and law firm memberships, entity memberships, the individuals within the organizations are the ones who drive that conversation. So once I started doing that, I started to understand, okay, how can we provide value, which ultimately provide revenue, which ultimately will provide our long-term sustainability.

Jean Lee: And that’s how I started to do it, step by step. Now it may be different for different organizations. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know why I keep thinking of clean water, but if you’re delivering a product or a service, think about…and you no longer can because of quarantine or stay at home orders or whatever it is that your state has mandated, think of different ways in which you can deliver that service. I never started to use Zoom, sorry, I’m the first to admit that, until this crisis. And it’s amazing how you can still connect with people in a way that you’ve never done before. And I’ll quote Michelle Coleman Mayes again, and I told her that I would, because I think she said it so well when she said, “It’s not the new normal, this is the next normal.”

Jean Lee: Because there will be, is what our scientists and doctors and experts are saying, there will be another time where there may be another pandemic. There may be another outbreak that will prevent you from connecting. So, does that mean that every organization, company, that has done work with face to face should stop to exist? I don’t think so. So I think in order for you to be creative, in order for you to tap into that creativity, you need a moment to yourself to think about what brought you to the organization. What made you passionate about leading the organization or being a staff or a member of that organization? I think that’s the most important thing. Sorry. I know that was kind of long winded.

Nicole Campbell: No, that was perfect because what it really boils down to and what you’re pointing out is, that you start with why, right. And that’s always the starting point that I think that owners, nonprofits, philanthropies, individuals should have, whenever you start something or you’re moving along, right. What is your, why? How do you make sure that you’re keeping that purpose, that reason at the forefront of everything we do and it’s going to inform how you show up. And so once we do exactly what you said, which is, let’s think back to what is our, why, why are you doing this, it helps inform the kinds of stories that we’re telling. And it helps to improve our storytelling at the end of the day. And so if we flip that for a second, Jean, and say, “Okay, well now we discovered our, why, we are able to now tell better stories, and we’re telling them to funders who are hearing these stories.” What’s the advice that you would provide to funders beyond, you know, give more money, which would be great, but what else would you tell them? What advice would you provide to say, this is how you support nonprofit sustainability both within and beyond the crisis?

Jean Lee: I would say, where do you want to see change? You personally cannot commit to that change in the way you would like, because you have another day job, what is important to you and what services are necessary in our community. So not only, as cliche as it may sound, not only to make the world a better place, but what sort of things do you want to see? What services will provide those gaps? So for example, if you’re somebody who’s all about social justice, what organizations in your mind are great advocates and equalizers or providers who provide access to social justice to everyone? Is that important? Is that the world you want to see? If your mission, like it is for Bill Gates is to ensure that the world has access to great healthcare and medical attention and medicine, that’s where you should really think about donating your money.

Jean Lee: Right? But there are so many. And if you have the great fortune of being able to fund more than one, what are things that important to you and which ones do a great job in delivering those services that you really should continue to support? I mean, I think about the very same thing. And I, sometimes, I know some people, friends, have said, “You work for a charity. Why do you donate to a charity?” Because my charity only does one thing, right? There are so many amazing charities that provide services. I mean, my passion before I went to law school, was to work with children and women in the inner cities. I was a social worker for the Legal Aid Society in New York for many years before going on to law school. So charities that really provide the necessary services, whether it’s job interviews, clothes, or basic necessities, like food and water, those organizations are important to continuing to provide services to those segments of the population that do not have the access and the privilege that I may have.

Jean Lee: So I think about those kinds of things. And I would say the same thing to the funders. What do you want to see? You want to see where we were five years ago or 10 years ago, in our case diversity inclusion equity, do you want to see the profession more homogenous with straight white men and women leading law firms? You know, women still have a long way to go, but certainly white women are in a much better position than women of color, for example, is that what you want to see? And if the answer is no and you don’t want to lose progress, I think the answer is, think about giving. Think about donating, think about organizations that will not allow us to go back to where things were, if in your mind that where we were was not acceptable. And I think you have to be honest with yourself, what’s important?

Jean Lee: And then it goes back to, why give, what’s important to you? I can’t possibly do all the things that I would like for my nieces, for my children, for my parents, whatever it is that you may be thinking about, how can we improve our community to show humanity, to show kindness, especially in times of crisis. I think we say this about people and especially American people, there is such a great spirit of giving. Well, this is another time for us to show how much we care about each other, no matter what is happening, that we are thinking about one another, because we are, at the core, people who care and people who are good.

Nicole Campbell: I think that’s right. And I hope that others share that, that they also think about the ecosystem in which these different organizations might be operating. So they’re not just picking out one organization and saying, “Yep, that’s the one that furthers my mission.” But it’s really like how does that organization relate to the others within the ecosystem that the funder wants to support? And so now we have advice for both nonprofits and funders and that’s been really good advice to both. With all that in mind, what do you wish we did less of as a sector and what do you think we should do more of?

Jean Lee: I think we talk a lot, as I talk a lot. I think that whether it’s corporate America or a nonprofit, there’s a lot of talk and less action, or the action is so slow. And that may just go to my own shortcomings as an impatient person. But I think we need to talk less and do more, or at a minimum when we talk, our actions should match our rhetoric, our words. There is a reason why the saying, “actions speak louder than words”, exists. And I think this is the one time where we really need to show that our actions will speak way louder than any words can say, how important it is for us to come together, to support one another, to ensure that we are all thriving when this is over, because this too will pass at some point and we need to be there for each other.

Jean Lee: We can’t leave some organizations or some people…and then to some extent, I’m not trying to be Pollyanna, but it will happen. But how do we do that? You need to pull the leaders together, the community together, to ensure that we are doing more. For example, for our organization, it’s about improving diversity, inclusion, and equity. We need our leaders to show up and not just talk about it. We need our leaders to continue to invest in those dollars and not talk about it. We need our law firms that say diversity, inclusion, and equity is important, to continue to invest in the resources and not cut diversity as the first thing in their budget. We need to show that it matters by bringing our people together. We need to show that it matters by talking to people, by being human, and not talking about it to someone like you, or a podcast, or an interview.

Jean Lee: So really bringing it home and showing that it matters. So if you’re a firm that says wellness is important, give your attorneys a break, because there are some that are truly just suffering. And try to connect. If you are saying inclusion is important, connect with one another, connect with your subordinates, connect with your peers. It’s much easier to do that and has the benefits that are, I think, exponential than your words. And that may be very hard, but you know, what times of crisis require you as a leader, as a peer, to work a little bit harder to connect and to ensure survival and wellbeing of everyone. So I would say no more, talk less, or at a minimum, make sure that what you say are matching what you do.

Nicole Campbell: I really like that, the less talk, more action, at the end of the day. And I know that the focus of many nonprofits, as we talked about at the beginning when we started our conversation, they were focused on fundraising and making the right app, and also about work that they’re doing, which is extremely important, particularly now. But I was wondering how you all are thinking about building infrastructure during this time. And if so, how are you doing it? How are you thinking about what your infrastructure looks like now versus after the pandemic? I just want to hear your thoughts around your infrastructure building

Jean Lee: For us, very small nonprofit like many out there, the way we think about infrastructure for us is the programmatic services we are offering and how we offer those services. And one of the ways in which we have switched gears, as I mentioned earlier, is to really do things virtually. So that’s the one infrastructure. We had already started before the pandemic to really shift our model, primarily the fundraising and the conferences, to being a service provider. From being solely a convener to somewhat of a hybrid. How can we individually provide a product or a service, so creating our consulting and advisory work that we started to really focus on in the last two years is how can we empower, provide the tools to empower those members to do it themselves. So creating templates, having these sorts of one-on-one discussions, that’s the heart of our infrastructure that we started to change.

Jean Lee: What is the infrastructure of this organization? Okay. We provide research, we share that research during a conference, how do we make money? We have done it usually like 50 to 60% of our revenues used to come from fundraising, from galas, and conferences. How do we shift that so that we’re doing other things that will proliferate faster. So we looked at impact, how can we have a greater impact? Because gala is one day you’re inspired. Now you go and you go back to your normal thing. How can we continue that momentum that they may get out of gala as a convener? That’s our job, to inspire our audience in mass. The other thing is how can we inspire them enough to act, how can we give them the tool? And that’s the service piece, why we created the consulting and advisory work. You know, giving the experts, once again, the leaders that we have access to that’re on our board, the research that this organization has done for 20 plus years. How can we leverage that and work with some other experts in this space to provide the one-on-one service, the template, so they can proliferate.

Jean Lee: They can continue the great work of the MCCA. Because we’re so small, we can’t do that for the hundreds of organizations that are part of our membership. So we can certainly provide them with the tools to do that on their own. And that’s kind of the infrastructure shifting that we had already started two years ago. And it is now more critical than ever as we embrace ourselves. Not only this year for the pandemic, which could possibly come back in the Fall, is what everyone is saying. I mean, that’s kind of, what we have done. And the way we interact with people, you know, I meant to ask you that earlier, before our conversation, is that what you were thinking in terms of infrastructure? Like in terms of what we’re doing as an organization?

Nicole Campbell: Yeah, definitely. Because what I’m hearing from your response are some really key infrastructure components, right? Like one, how you create leverage within your own team based on your current environment, right? You’re talking about virtual work and adapting to working remotely, what you’ve already started to do with your team. The second is creating capacity. When you talked about how you create templates and give access to different items and different resources for your members. And then the third, which I stress so much, is the diversification of revenue, right? Like we’re doing galas, we’re getting lots of money from them. What else can we do to generate revenue? How can we diversify our revenue streams? And it also has the effect of having greater impact in where you diversify, but be able to think about how do you diversify revenue. So I think that was spot on.

Jean Lee: Yeah. I mean, we’ve been working on that and scalability. So to your point, we are thinking, how can we scale our work? And I think, you know, before the pandemic, we had so much potential, we certainly did pretty well last year, thanks to the hard work of our leaders and our board and our staff. Again, there’s such a small group that they’re just so committed. The amount of work we produce in the services we’ve provided, I think has been noticed. But you’re right, I mean, when I looked at the revenue stream, when I first came on board four years ago, although I knew that having been on the board as a volunteer board member for three years, it really struck me. When you, you know, as a board member, you show up three hours every four months, you kind of have one sort of that small narrow lens perspective. And then you’re sort of looking at revenue across all dreams and then data, right?

Jean Lee: And I’m like, okay, what’s the cost rate, like benefit analysis. Like everything has a cost ratio, right? You realize like, okay, this long-term is not a sustainable model. And in fact, one of the things I had said was what if you can’t have a gala because there is a tsunami or in the Northeast and in the mid-Atlantic, you know, I said, hurricanes, aren’t common and tornadoes aren’t common, but it has happened. I’ve lived in the Northeast most of my life, except for a few years in the Midwest, it has happened, and we’ve had earthquakes, we had power outages. What do you do then? We had 9-11. So when I thought about that, and if a 9-11 were to hit, like, what do we do? I mean, that’s kind of the conversation we started having because when we looked at the data, it was like, we’re not gonna make it.

Jean Lee: So, yeah, I mean…and it’s harder for us in some ways, because everyone says diversity, equity, and inclusion is important, but it’s always the first to go. Although this round, it has not been the case across the board, I’m really heartened to see that. But it’s not like, again…you will not be an NAACP or a PRLDEF, the Latino Justice Now, or the AALDEF, all these civil rights organizations, ECLU or so on, you’re not going to see those organizations fold because they provide a critical component of that social justice system in our country for many of those communities; whether it’s Asian, African-American, Black, or Hispanic, or Latino, Latinx. That’s where, it’s organizations like MCCA and probably some others out there, that are providing really important work and service, they may be seen as not as essential or critical. When in reality, if you think about organizations like MCCA and the movement toward ESG by many of the largest asset managers in the world, starting with BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street, the S part, the social part of the ESG strategy, which many of those investors are demanding, it is a critical component.

Jean Lee: It is what MCCA can do. So again, going back to your question earlier about infrastructure and being creative, this is where I think people need to really tap into their creativity and talk to people, right? Because you can only read so much on the internet. And I feel that for me, I think, there’s just so much information to sift through. The easiest, kind of, quick way is to talk to leaders in different sectors. And that’s exactly what I did to learn about where can MCCA have greater impact. Where can we think about how to leverage our work in the corporate environment so that it becomes an important work and not just a nice to have. And that’s where we started thinking about the importance of G strategies within corporations. And it’s been around for 10 plus years. And they started talking about it at the World Economic Forum at the UN level, et cetera, you know, over a decade ago.

Jean Lee: And in the last five years, it’s come like something that asset managers are looking for when they evaluate a corporation, whether to invest or not. And again, the BlackRock CEO’s letter to other CEOs was incredibly telling us how important it is. And the F part deals with diversity and equity, because it’s that stakeholder engagement. So again, I think that idea of diversification doesn’t have to be okay, well, we only do this part. We can’t really diversify. You absolutely can. We didn’t think that either. But then when we started thinking about that a couple of years ago, we realized like there are opportunities within opportunities. How you tackle that, of course, is the challenge.

Nicole Campbell: Your responses have been so incredibly full. And I really think that you could talk again to really talk through that DEI piece, because I really would love to get more of your thoughts on thoughtful approaches and practices that we’re seeing in the sector. So definitely I think there should be a part two to this conversation. But 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 do you think you should read next? Or what artists do you think we should paying attention?

Jean Lee: I won’t say an artist only because I don’t know much about pop culture. That’s probably where as you go into crisis mode, you pay less attention to, although I know some people have listened to music a lot more because of the crisis. I’m on the opposite spectrum. But I’ll say this one thing, I just started, and I can only do it in segments, sadly, but I would recommend reading Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’. It is really truly about her personal story. And once again, it may give you some ideas about connecting with people. I’m only halfway through, as I said, I watch it in segments. And I’m now more eager than ever to read her book, which I’ve had by the way, when it came out, because I get all these lovely books as gifts. But being on the road 80% of the time in my job, I’ve just not had the time to read a book, because whatever time I have in the air I feverishly try to catch up on an email. So I would say read Michelle Obama’s book. It is truly so inspirational. As a woman of color, as a first-generation immigrant, so many of it just spoke to me. And just what it means to be truly authentic for any woman, for anyone, a man or a woman. I actually told my brother to read it. So yeah, I would say if you want to be inspired, if you want to find that sort of inner strength or grit, as they say, read her book.

Nicole Campbell: Yeah, I agree. I agree. They should definitely be your next read, if you haven’t read it already. You have shared such knowledge and insights that I think that leaders, after hearing this conversation, can actually put into use in their own organizations to help them build bravely. So I want to thank you so much for joining us today.

Jean Lee: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure and an honor, and so nice speaking with you, Nicole.

-Upbeat Outro Music-

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

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Building Resilience Through Storytelling and Innovation with Tonya Allen

Throughout her 25-year career, Tonya Allen has been a bridge-builder and a civic diplomat. She is a champion of diversity, inclusion, and equity practices, driven by her passion for justice. This passion is so clearly illustrated in how she talks about building infrastructure focused on culture as well as the importance of compelling storytelling and making the correct cultural pivots in building nonprofit sustainability. During the conversation, you’ll hear Tonya say, “It is time for us to behave differently.” And to that end, Tonya shares so many insights for nonprofit leaders and organizations looking to build differently and stronger than they have before.

Listen to the podcast here:

Resources:

About Tonya Allen

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

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

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

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

Read the podcast transcription below:

-Upbeat Intro Music-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Upbeat Outro Music-

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

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