How nonprofits can thrive in challenging times

The four organizations receiving the Allen Foundation’s first annual Creative Leadership Awards reflect five basic leadership principles.
The four organizations receiving the Allen Foundation’s first annual Creative Leadership Awards reflect five basic leadership principles.

Sustaining a nonprofit is a new kind of challenge these days. Reports from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the National Council of Nonprofits, and Guidestar regularly and urgently tell nonprofit leaders that American attitudes, needs, and patterns of charitable giving are changing. It’s not only because of a stubborn recession. The U.S. economy is undergoing a structural reset, federal and local governments have cut longstanding commitments to nonprofit funding, demographics are shifting, and new technologies are revolutionizing the ways we live, learn, and work.

What kinds of leadership help nonprofits thrive in a world marked by such changes? The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has been exploring this question. On Thursday (Nov. 1), the foundation announced the first in an annual series of Creative Leadership Awards (CLA) to Pacific Northwest organizations that have demonstrated what it views as exemplary success in adapting to changing times.

Four recipients — Deidre Holmberg, principal at Delta High School in Richland, Washington; Sandra Jackson-Dumont, deputy director of education and public programs at Seattle Art Museum; Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon; and Portland YouthBuilders — were selected from among 134 nominees gathered through a public process open to nonprofits in five Pacific Northwest states. Each recipient organization will receive $50,000 from the foundation.

“Too much in the media was about what wasn’t working,” said Sue M. Coliton, Allen Foundation vice president. “We wanted to shine a light on what was.” CLA recipients combined originality of thinking with extreme practicality and diligence shaped by a clear sense of mission and purpose, she said. “It was a combination of lack of fear — seeing uncertainty and change as opportunities — and doing it in a very informed way.”

The work of award recipients reflected five principles the Allen Foundation sees as central to creative leadership in the Pacific Northwest. Below are notes on how each principle is reflected in the work of one or two of the four recipients, and then on how the principle informs operations at other nonprofits in the Puget Sound region that I happen to know through my writing or volunteering.

"A clear purpose and compelling vision" come first, of course. This principle is embodied today in leaders who “regularly ask themselves why they and their mission are relevant in this place and time,” said Coliton. For instance, CLA recipient Deidre Holmberg leads “a new kind of school” designed around a vision of education for the 21st century. Delta High is grounded in hands-on learning and real-world experiences combined with rigorous academics. Teachers collaborate, and the school partners with businesses and other local entities to give students learning opportunities in the wider community, Coliton said.

Similarly, Creative Leadership Award recipient Sandra Jackson-Dumont of SAM “has a very strong vision of what the museum can be in the future and how the museum can be part of the fabric of the community,” said Coliton. Using a variety of approaches that include young people in the planning, Jackson-Dumont has boosted the size of young audiences at the museum. For instance, she has created special night-time events such as Remix, a late-night occasion that attracts youth with its combination of music, socializing, art-making, and exhibit tours led by local celebrities and artists. According to Coliton, Jackson-Dumont “sees the museum as a citizen of the city.”

Clarity of purpose and a timely relevance of vision have strengthened Plymouth Healing Communities, too. PHC provides housing and companionship for formerly homeless individuals with mental illnesses. At a time when homelessness is rising and American life is increasingly fast-paced, stressful, and individualistic to the point of social fragmentation, companionship helps people with mental health issues move toward recovery and a better quality of life, said executive director Gary Southerton. PHC’s trained volunteers form individual relationships with each vulnerable client so that each has a stable personal connection for sharing activities offered in the city’s theaters, parks, and concert venues, or just cups of tea at a friendly café. The critical relevance of PHC’s mission has enabled this nonprofit to grow staffing in response to increased need during a time of economic decline, said Southerton.

“Commitment to their greater communities” is the Allen Foundation’s second principle. Creative leaders see themselves as integral to the community, said Coliton, “not separate, and with goals in common.” So the rising dropout rate in many communities prompted Jill Walters, executive director of CLA recipient Portland YouthBuilders, to develop a nationally recognized program for students who have left the school system, to help them earn a high school diploma or a GED while they learn green construction techniques. Once they graduate from the YouthBuilder program, they have preferred entrance to local apprenticeships, Coliton said.

Fulfilling a commitment as an integral part of one's community can be complex in places like South King County, which is moving toward a majority minority population. Nonprofits there need cultural competence to do their work, said Mike Heinisch, executive director of Kent Youth & Family Services. An agency’s task becomes especially complex, he added, when fiduciary responsibility includes using approaches rooted in research and proven effective; evidence-based practices may not be normed to a client's particular ethnic group. KYFS's commitment has been to develop “a new world view and mindset in order to respect, learn about, and work within” a variety of cultures in the community, using proven strategies that help people make changes they need in their lives.

“The ability to realistically assess circumstances and see possibilities where others do not” is also an essential principle in a time of economic stringencies, according to the Allen Foundation. Leaders need to be “brutally honest about facts and data,” finding in them possibilities others might not see, said Coliton. CLA awardee Literary Arts is thriving in current circumstances because director Andrew Proctor has right-sized it, she said. Proctor reduced the number of past programs to achieve financial stability, but strategically, so that in the process he actually increased the size of the Literary Arts audience — for example, by forming partnerships with Oregon Public Broadcasting and with local schools. Proctor also spearheaded the building of a storefront neighborhood center that hosts a lively variety of literary programs, Coliton said.

"Brutal honesty” about finances also helped the tiny National Alliance on Mental Illness-Greater Seattle grow its influence after major funding cuts. NAMI can maintain its advocacy efforts, its public education programs, a unique role of supporting family members of people living with mental illnesses and two permanent group homes for adults in recovery because the mostly volunteer-driven organization has been making many small changes, said executive director Christine Lindquist. Among these are "ending a ridiculous lease on an expensive copy machine and insulating the building.” A focus on new economies such as no longer printing the newsletter in color led to the use of social media, which are not only free but also invite participation from the younger generation. ”Now we’re running nine programs and three facilities on a $185,000 annual budget, and we’re likely to conclude 2012, like last year, with a budget surplus.”

Friends of the Children-King County (FOC), which matches at-risk children from first grade through high school graduation with long-term individual mentors, saw budget-savvy possibilities in taking advantage of what other nonprofits offer gratis. “We aligned our milestones for youth with best practices from nonprofits working more in youth development,” said executive director Kelly Stockman Reid, thereby strengthening FOC's program without straining its finances. Her organization also partners with Youth in Focus, which offers photography classes that FOC youth can attend. With this partnership “Youth in Focus reaches a population they wouldn’t necessarily reach, and we offer our kids a way to develop artistic self-expression” through photography, “where we’re not going to be experts,” said Reid. “We’re coming together to make this happen.”

“Flexibility about how they realize their mission” is the fourth Allen Foundation principle. Creative leaders “don’t have any 'sacred cows' in their program,” said Coliton. Clearly, for example, SAM's Jackson-Dumont and Delta School’s Holmberg had set aside any rigid, reverential definitions they might have held, respectively, of art museums and schools as being mainly conservatories for masterpieces and traditional knowledge.

The very name of another Northwest organization suggests that no "sacred cow” can get in the way of fulfilling its mission. Building Changes has left behind its former incarnation as AIDS Housing of Washington. Instead of developing housing and providing technical assistance for people with AIDS, Building Changes has taken on the role of intermediary to bring different large systems together — government entities, private philanthropy, schools, child welfare, workforce development, human services, advocates — so that they can work together toward community solutions to homelessness that no single organization or partnership can provide alone. (Disclosure: I wrote a report for this organization about part of its work to end homelessness.)

A "sacred cow” commonly encountered in social service organizations is the belief that management is secondary to direct services, but inflexible adherence to this notion can impede progress. “It’s easier to make the case that we need more services to families than we need more brainpower in the executive suite,” said Solid Ground communications director Mike Buchman. But every organization today needs the capacity to support, guide, and articulate its work into the future, he said. So Solid Ground has hired new leadership talent: a CEO who can make the changes the world requires of the organization, and a chief operations and strategy officer to do the strategic analysis and organization-building that change requires. “We have a good idea that we’re helping a lot of people. Now we’re asking, ‘Where’s the world going? Where are the interventions that are best practices?’ Most nonprofits are under-resourced in terms of management and analytical capacity because the focus is on providing direct services,” Buchman said.

Accordingly, flexibility that can provide smaller nonprofits with management advice and analytical help has become important to United Way of King County in recent years. “Back in the old days, United Way was looked at as an umbrella agency with entitled partners funded every year,” said Jared Erlandson, UWKC public relations manager. “About 10 years ago we started asking ourselves, ‘What are the holes in services where our dollars can have an impact? How can we prove that we are actually moving the needle?’” So when the Great Recession hit, United Way was in a position to offer analytical tools, which generated this kind of knowledge, to nonprofits in the region that were delivering the services but struggling to survive, Erlandson said. “It is our responsibility that they be aware of what’s coming down the road. We go out and help agencies that don’t have staffers possessing this expertise to learn how they can be efficient, create the efficiencies they need.”

“Transparent leadership in their organization” is the foundation’s fifth principle for leaders. Those honored with CLA recognition this year are strong leaders in the nonprofits they head, Coliton said, but “everybody understands how decisions are made, and decision-making is horizontal.”

The Allen Foundation established the annual Creative Leadership Awards after the happy experience of celebrating and rewarding a number of nonprofit leaders in the region as part of its recent 20th-anniversary celebration, said Coliton. Those anniversary awards coincided with the completion of a report, Bright Spots Leadership in the Pacific Northwest, which grew out of the foundation’s effort to promote wider understanding of how successful nonprofit cultural organizations can adapt to changing social and economic conditions. The foundation hopes that Bright Spots principles and examples can both inspire and guide nonprofits of all kinds in the region.


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