The Need to Maximize Investment In the Nonprofit Workforce
By Rusty Stahl
The 11 million professionals who work in the nonprofit sector, and the millions more activists and volunteers they support, are the first responders and last bulwark of our democracy. If there was ever a moment, now is the time to start treating nonprofit leaders at all levels with the decency, respect and support they deserve.
A growing body of evidence—and common sense—tells us that significant investments in nonprofit people can dramatically increase performance, impact and sustainability. Yet for a long time, funders, as well as nonprofits themselves, have under-invested in the nonprofit workforce. Most funders are great people trying to do the right thing, but they inherit harmful myths and practices that maintain the “starvation cycle” in the organizations and movements they seek to support.
As a result, nonprofits often produce poor working conditions for the people who fight for workers’ rights, injustice within the social justice community, and poverty wages for those who serve the poor, all of which undermine performance, impact and sustainability. And the Trump era is putting unprecedented additional strain on these workers.
In 2014, I founded Fund the People, a national campaign to maximize investment in the nonprofit workforce. This past September, we launched Fund the People Toolkit, a free online resource to help funders and nonprofit leaders integrate talent-investing into their work. As funders, fundraisers, advisors and mentors, LAFF Society members are well-positioned to share the idea and practice of “talent-investing” across the field.
In 1998, I was fortunate to be selected for the Jane Addams–Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, a one-year, non-degree granting liberal arts introduction to the ideas, traditions, values and challenges of the nonprofit and philanthropic community. With funding from a then-anonymous funder (now known as The Atlantic Philanthropies), this generous fellowship covered tuition, books, living costs and conference travel for six students who had just completed their undergraduate studies. It also provided graduate credits that I was able to apply to a Master of Arts in philanthropic studies the following year.
The fellowship reinforced the idea that the price for an elite education is a life of service, a worthy principle. But who helps to support public service careers for millions of young people who do not have access to elite education? What about the majority of students who are never adequately or comprehensively introduced to civil society? And what about non-college bound youth who are written off as problems and who are served by nonprofits, but who are rarely developed to serve as the staff and board members of these same organizations?
How could the nonprofit sector create a more intentional system for recruiting diverse, young people into social-change jobs and careers? And how could we do this in a manner that is affordable and has the economy of scale needed to reach millions of Americans? These questions offer a complex and meaningful puzzle, and they have guided my career.
After the Fellowship, I was fortunate to be selected for the two-year, cohort-based Program Associate (PA) apprenticeship at the Ford Foundation. I will always be thankful to Michael Edwards, Marcia Smith and Christopher Harris for hiring me and, along with Urvashi Vaid and Michael Lipsky, managing and mentoring me. Along with many other PAs, I am thankful to Jan Jaffe, John Naughton and Kyle Reis for their leadership in establishing, growing and sustaining the Program Associate program.
I brought the guiding questions discussed above to my role as a Program Associate, where I supported grantmaking to strengthen United States philanthropy, civil society and social justice movements. Unfortunately, there were not many answers. During my time at Ford, the Foundation engaged consultant Susan Stroud to explore the direction of Ford’s support of the national and community service movement. And Program Officer Inca Mohamed was supporting youth organizing as a social justice approach to youth development.
But Susan’s recommendations did not lead to significant action, and when Inca left, the youth development program officer seat was left vacant. It seemed there was no intellectual or practical framework in which the Foundation would support young people to move from youth organizing and youth service into lifelong careers of organizing and service.
Program Associates were given the opportunity to propose a project that was aligned with the work they supported; many such projects produced a paper or convening. My project evolved into a network of young and new foundation professionals. I thought if I could organize one thousand emerging grantmakers, a segment of them would be interested in building a stronger pipeline into nonprofit careers. The project grew into Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) and, with support later from Ford Senior Program Officer Linetta Gilbert, it became a full-fledged funder network that is housed at the Tides Center, and remains vital to this day under new leadership. During the ten years I spent on the EPIP staff, the focus was primarily professional development to help members become good grantmakers and advance social justice through philanthropy.
While EPIP primarily focuses on leadership development within foundations, I continued to participate in field-wide conversations about the nonprofit workforce, including the White House Forum on Nonprofit Leadership in 2011. That same year, the Kresge Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation supported EPIP for the Generating Change Initiative, research implemented by Putnam Consulting Group that explored how funders were investing in the staff of grantee organizations.
By this time, the prospects of Baby Boomer mass retirements had sent shockwaves through the field, yet most organizations remained unprepared for executive transitions and Boomers remained unsure about when and how they would step back. I realized that the issue was not just about young people, but under-investment at every stage of the career life cycle, which impacts every age cohort and every generation.
Recruitment is wasted if we don’t fix retention, fixing retention is pointless if we don’t enable advancement, and advancement cannot happen if we don’t fix retirement and executive transitions. If we don’t address the whole leadership pathway, the flow of nonprofit human capital is stuck in a brutal bottleneck. The Generating Change research paper reflects this holistic approach, and informs my work today.
When it came time for my own executive transition from EPIP in 2012, the Annie E. Casey Foundation offered a critical lifeline with access to guidance from the aptly named Transition Guides (now part of the Raffa consultancy). The coaching I got through that process, combined with separate career coaching and participation in the Selah Leadership Program—an initiative of the Rockwood Institute and Bend the Arc—helped me decide to pursue solutions to my “guiding questions” on a full-time basis.
In 2013, I dove into a year of research and writing supported by New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, the Tides Center and Public Welfare Foundation. This resulted in an article called “Talent Philanthropy” in The Foundation Review. Creation of Fund for the People, (initially known as Talent Philanthropy Project) followed, with initial major support coming from the Kresge Foundation.
Fund the People is now entering its third year of support from the Ford Foundation through Program Officer Chris Cardona. Investing in the nonprofit and social justice workforce is a logical place for Ford to be, particularly given the emphasis placed by its president, Darren Walker, on strengthening the ideas, individuals and institutions of
As mentors and leaders in U.S. and global civil society, members of The LAFF Society can contribute to systems that increase the accessibility, effectiveness and sustainability of careers in nonprofit and social justice leadership. I invite you to use the Fund for the People Toolkit (fundthepeopletoolkit.org), follow us on Twitter (@fundthepeople) and contact me directly (email@example.com) if I can be of any further assistance.
Rusty Stahl worked in the Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society and Peace and Justice programs from 2000 to 2002.
Other articles in the series:
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