As one of the youngest sectors around, nonprofits are still learning how to balance competition and collaboration on all fronts.
In an executive roundtable discussion with MiBiz, local nonprofit leaders expressed concerns over drawing and cultivating top talent, especially since they offer less attractive salaries and benefits compared to for-profit companies. Yet, as nonprofits can struggle to invest in talent, they also face the intense pressure from donors and board members to use resources efficiently.
The values of a new generation have also presented their own difficulties, as well as changed strategies for community engagement. With these and many other challenges still in front of nonprofits, West Michigan executives say that communication and inclusion remain key across the board.
Joining MiBiz reporters and Editor Joe Boomgaard for the conversation were:
- Matthew Downey, nonprofit services program director for the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, an academic center for nonprofit research and education
- Jennifer Johnson, executive director of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, a food pantry
- BriAnne McKee, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, an affordable housing provider
- Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, a philanthropic resource and grantmaker in Grand Rapids
- Bridget Clark Whitney, executive director of Kids’ Food Basket, a children’s food pantry serving Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Holland
- Mindy Ysasi, executive director of The SOURCE, an employee support service provider in Grand Rapids.
Here are some highlights from the discussion.
How have the up-and-coming generations changed their approach to philanthropy?
DOWNEY: The Johnson Center has done research on the giving expectations of generation Xers and millennials, particularly our high-net worth families. They always say that they won’t necessarily divorce themselves from grandma and grandpa’s investments and institutions, but rather than being institutionally minded, they’re more cause-minded. It’s hunger that they’re concerned about, for example, or the environment. They don’t want to be an ATM. They want to be a partner with nonprofits and help to solve complex community challenges.
JOHNSON: I just think they don’t want to waste their time. If they’re going to connect to a project or initiative of some sort, it’s definitely so that they do make a difference, even if it’s short-term. Otherwise, they’re not interested.
CLARK WHITNEY: Our millennial givers and volunteers really want to touch and feel the organization. Rather than just being a name on a mailing list or getting a quarterly phone call, they want to be able to engage on a deeper level. The other thing we’ve found is that you really have to make it easy for people to engage, because our generation is spread really thin. There’s lots of things that we care about deeply and want to get our hands deeply seated in. We have to make it easy to give, easy to get involved, easy to volunteer. I think with social media, we have the ability to be more aware of social issues, rather than just what our parents or circle of friends care about. We want to be involved in more things.
MCKEE: I think one of the things, too, with the millennial generation is shifting away from this mentality of charity and really pushing organizations to be more concerned about justice. They want to know that their efforts are not only making a difference in the challenge that is occurring today, but then how does that relate to the larger, long-term systemic opportunities or solutions that we’re trying to figure out how to put together as a whole? We’re trying to demonstrate, ‘You swinging a hammer on this house today is creating an affordable housing opportunity for the next 30 years.’ You have to bring those pieces together for folks.
YSASI: What’s important is what goes across the generations. You want to have an impact. Whatever it is, it’s about legacy. I think we see that as individuals in our community are becoming more a part of the middle class and having that opportunity to give, certainly in the Latino community. … There are families that have been here for four generations. We want to make sure that there’s a legacy there.
In recent years, there’s been a push for more transparency from nonprofits, in part because people want to know that their donations are being used effectively. Has that taken hold?
JOHNSON: We’ve really had to change internally to market ourselves. We weren’t really very good at that. For the last several years, we’ve had to get out there and talk about ourselves where before, we didn’t spend any money on annual reports. Now, we spend a little more money so people understand because we actually get requests for that before someone will donate. We want to be transparent because we don’t spend a lot of money on fundraising or management. We spend a great portion of it on our programs and we want to get that message out.
SIEGER: Transparency equals trust. I think that’s what it really boils down to. Whether it’s communicated through annual reports or online information, it’s really important.
CLARK WHITNEY: A challenge that we always face as nonprofit organizations is that there’s an abundance of resources out there, and then there are critical needs that we see every single day. Our job is to be at that intersection, connecting the two. That’s difficult, connecting all of these resources to all of this need every single day. I think the greatest tool to do that is transparency. Not just transparency in impact, but also in need. Saying, ‘This is the need that exists. This is the impact that we can make. This is how we can use your dollars.’
YSASI: What we’ve found with The SOURCE is that we’re not only focused on being transparent, but also having the companies we work with be a part of figuring out how we add more value to the services we provide. We can do our work, but the reality is that there are all these other external factors that are happening. We know that we’re not solving those problems every day and we’ve had to say that more openly to our member companies. It’s not us not wanting to do what they want — it’s the external factors. So then we say, ‘Let’s look together at some long-term solutions.’
DOWNEY: At the end of the day, improving the human condition is inherently messy work and it takes a lot of time. Change and progress is slow, and it’s hard to have this conversation around programmatic impact without acknowledging the limited capacity of pretty much every nonprofit organization.
SIEGER: I would venture to say that any for-profit could have those limitations, too. It doesn’t work when you think an organization is going to solve the most deeply rooted problems in a community, but then you focus on how much the executive director (of the organization) is making or … spending on fundraising or a public relations person. Well, if you’re developing a new program or something that’s really working — would a business who’s developed a new product not talk about it?
Across every industry we cover at MiBiz, we’ve found that the talent gap has been an issue in one way or another. How are nonprofits handling that challenge?
CLARK WHITNEY: We didn’t used to be good at it, but we’re good at it now. Oftentimes, the argument is that there’s no money for professional development. Well, you can always be creative. For example, one thing we do is encourage everybody who’s on the team to sit in on boards or committees of other organizations and do that on staff time. It’s free professional development. People get an understanding of how other nonprofits work. They get a fresh perspective and learn how to lend their skills to other causes. It helps the organization because it keeps us sharper.
YSASI: The SOURCE is six people. I used to work at an organization that had 200 people in one department. I think that, just as we talked about with our donors, it’s all about relationships. People really want to have support. It’s about being really flexible and realizing when work starts and stops, celebrating things like birthdays and anniversaries, going out to lunch with people and learning about them. I’ve been at the SOURCE almost a year, and when I walked in my thought was, ‘I want to figure out who the next executive director is.’ Some people are afraid that I want to quit, but no: I have aspirations, they have aspirations, and the organization has aspirations.
MCKEE: I think that the level of sophistication has really changed. When I was in school, knowing that I wanted to have a career in the human services area meant I concentrated in social work. Now, there are so many academic tracks as the sector has pushed the educational institutions to shift. The nonprofit organizations need to get ready for these highly-educated, very-motivated people that are coming out. It’s a time to be open to that fresh perspective and figure out as a sector how we’re creating opportunity. One of the things we miss when we talk about the gap is what opportunities folks are being provided. How are we ensuring that these opportunities are being provided in an equitable way?
DOWNEY: I think the biggest threat facing the sector is the preparation, retention, health and well-being of CEOs. From the tiniest grassroots organizations to the largest institutions, CEOs all spend the majority of their time focusing on programming and the least amount of time focusing on boards and managing external stakeholders. That has to be flipped. They’ve got to spend a majority of their time focusing on the board and external stakeholders. Especially for those mid to large institutions, you can hire people to run your programs. Master’s (degree) programs generally are too much preparing students to be focused on internal management issues and not enough on understanding the dynamics of managing a board, which is not intuitive. That nonprofit CEO job is the hardest possible job anyone could ever take. It is treacherous, painful and lonely.
What’s the real benefit of focusing on managing the boards over the programs?
CLARK WHITNEY: We teach directors how to be directors and CEOs how to be CEOs, but nobody teaches board members how to be board members. Personally, I’ve found that when I spend a majority of time developing my staff, board and culture, it’s better than when I spend a majority of my time fundraising. The return on investment is even greater. We can do anything we want, as long as we have the right people on the bus. But what does it take to keep the right people on the bus?
SIEGER: Let’s talk about failure for a second, how to prepare a staff and board for failures, how to prepare media for failures so it doesn’t become finger-wagging. I have made so many mistakes. Well, it’s OK to fail. In business, that’s the truth, too. It’s how you handle it that matters. That’s been the toughest challenge in my career. We want the shining star. There’s so much pressure, but I want to talk about my failures and how we can all learn from them. The whole notion of entrepreneurism is that if you haven’t failed, you’re not really innovating.
DOWNEY: That goes back to the nurturing of the board. If you communicate heavily on an ongoing basis, then when the failure manifests, the board doesn’t flip out on you. They understand the narrative. Too often, we’re just then engaging the board and that’s when they go from hot to cold overnight, because they weren’t prepared for how to react.
CLARK WHITNEY: But the key is that you talk about it, that you have that trust.
MCKEE: I think there’s just this expectation that you want to put on this front that you’re always on, but no one has all the answers. The more you engage others who do have the answers, the better the outcome you’re going to get to because you’ll have a more diverse perspective. I’m constantly challenging myself and my team to figure out who we aren’t talking to that we could be to help solve these problems.
JOHNSON: One of the stark realities that I had to tell the new board members is that we’re not feeding all the hungry people in Kalamazoo. You’re going to come up with all these things that we ‘should’ be doing and I appreciate that, but put it aside — because here’s what we are doing. So that’s started our board education. I love that you want to feed more people, … but let’s come up with a plan and look at our own programs and put together new people to collaborate.
How do you pivot from the idea that the community you’re serving is consuming resources to it actually becoming a resource?
MCKEE: I had the opportunity to participate in a program funded by Kellogg Foundation, and supported with facilitators from the National Equity Project, called Racial Equity Action Leadership. The premise of the conversation in our first meeting was that the answers to our most critical problems reside in the neighborhoods in which we are working. That is a voice that has not been leveraged or authentically engaged in the conversation. Until we create an opportunity where we are authentically doing that and actually listening to them and implementing what they are telling us that they need, we’re missing a huge part of the conversation.
DOWNEY: Homogeneity is never helpful. Diversity is not just a justice issue, it’s a community-building strategy and more.
JOHNSON: The coalition that we started, one of our absolute stakes in the ground is getting more community advocates and participants. This next year, we’re supposed to be adding several people that represent the neighborhoods and populations we’re serving. I love the composition currently at the table, but they do not necessarily represent the folks we’re serving. I need that information and I want to know how to best serve them. They’ll tell me that.
MCKEE: This issue of racial equity is an undercurrent. We are seeing symptoms of racial disparity in every single one of the issues that each of our nonprofits are tasked to solve, which means that the racial equity lens has to be present in every conversation we’re having.
SIEGER: We do need greater understanding, embracing change. It just seems that if we talk in those ways, we’re seen as bleeding heart liberals or just being ‘politically correct.’ I’m not terribly politically correct. But this is part of me, so it’s really hard to communicate to the community about the work that’s happening. When you’ve got … the current presidential election environment where it’s OK to say horrible things about others, it’s really distressing.
What keeps you up at night?
MCKEE: There are 17,000 renter households earning between 30 to 80 percent of the median income in Kent County who are living in substandard or overcrowded housing conditions. That is a challenge and a problem that’s going to require much more than one organization to resolve the issue. When I hear about the pioneering aspect of Michigan and the way we’ve been able to creatively solve issues, I’m both equally kept up at night and motivated by the fact that we have the intellect and the capability to drastically reduce that number.
SIEGER: I would say what keeps me up at night is the attitude toward discrimination. It touches everything that we do at the Community Foundation, and we’ve been challenged quite a bit over the last few years with regard to some of the communities, helping people really understand the importance of nondiscrimination. But I do have to say that I am so heartened by the leaders sitting around this table and other young nonprofit leaders. It makes my heart sing to know that the strength of the leadership is where it is.
DOWNEY: Nonprofit capacity is super weak across the board and we have not invested enough. We’ve approached nonprofit capacity as a very technical issue. ‘Do they have a fundraising plan? Do they know strategic planning?’ We actually need leadership development and to become more resilient. We need to prepare nonprofits for the environment around us. All of this is going to be changing and resiliency teaches them how to adapt to constant change. We’re not doing that.
YSASI: We need to connect people to more opportunities that are full-time employment with strong wages and full benefits. We can really focus on that talent gap. For us, because a majority of our employers are manufacturers, the concern is getting people beyond the hump of temporary work into full-time work and restoring dignity to employment for people. That’s working a full week, getting appropriate pay, raises, having a safe place to work, etc. It’s ensuring the dignity of work because we know that we need their talent, but we have to make sure we’re willing to make the investment.
CLARK WHITNEY: I think the nonprofit sector reflects the most important work in the world. We have the responsibility and the honor of creating and sustaining communities and the human condition. That’s what keeps me up at night, the need to propel that work every single day, to look at that intersection of what the community needs from us and what we’re really good at. It’s critical for all of us.
JOHNSON: I think this is a scary year for us in terms of politics. The reduction of the federal part of the food safety net is a scary, scary thing. Part of that, again, is that there’s this level of judgment of the people that we serve, that they have to earn it, deserve it, somehow qualify for it, more and more. That group of who qualifies for it just shrinks and shrinks when there’s tons of people on the outside of it that are just hanging on. It’s just sad that the humanity is forgotten in this conversation.