YNPN Blog: Resources, People, Ideas

When Workers Organize: Labor Unions Today

Jaimie Sorenson is a member of YNPN Portland who has also been a labor union member for over a decade. In our latest #nplabor piece, Jaimie shares her experience in today's labor movement.

I've been a member of a labor union for thirteen years. I didn’t come from a union family and knew nothing about unions before I joined one, except for what I had seen in a Jimmy Hoffa movie.

My education on unions was self-taught. It started when I left employment in the University Hospital I had worked in since high school and began working for a for-profit hospital. I was naïve to think that health insurance, sick leave and vacation time were standard across the industry.

I quickly learned I was wrong, so I returned to my former unionized employer. I decided to learn more about the union and get involved. Those pursuits lead me to pursue any opportunities my union offered, and they were ample.

I gained wonderful experiences at a very young age in presenting before hundreds of thousands of people, crafting workshops and creating new committees focused on issues my co-workers and I cared about. I found my voice in the union. Later I was elected to almost every officer position in the union and that eventually landed me in my current career as a union representative.

I’m often asked what it means to be a union rep. I usually explain by saying I’m in labor relations. I work with employers on a variety of issues: sometimes I’m in an advocacy role for the workers, bargaining contracts, and mediating workplace issues; at other times I’m helping to draft policies through negotiations, identifying cost savings and efficiencies for the employer and hopefully empowering workers as I’ve been empowered. I currently work with both public and nonprofit sector employees through Oregon AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees).

Jaimie Sorenson with Sen. Jeff Merkley

Jaimie Sorenson with Sen. Jeff Merkley

Public and nonprofit sector employees both tend to be mission-focused, sometimes at their own expense. All too often in the nonprofit sector we tend to put the mission before the workers. I’m not advocating that anyone be less passionate about what they do. However, I do feel that workers need to be taken care of as well, and this is where a union can come into play.

I’ll give an example: One of the first contracts I ever negotiated was for group home workers who cared for developmentally disabled adults. The workers were very focused on fulfilling their mission and so was their employer, often to the extent that they ignored some of the basic needs the workers had. This resulted in big retention problems because the workers would burn out and move onto other employers.

This was very hard on the clients who didn’t understand why their friends, caregivers, and counselors were leaving them. In order to stop the floodgates, we need to address the problems that were causing the burn out.

As with many nonprofits, the main issue was funding. I worked with our lobbying team and headed to the state capitol to advocate for more funding for these types of organizations. I’m proud to report that we received an 8% increase in funding for all subsidized group homes in my state. This resulted in increased wages and the ability to hire more staff. Because of our union, these workers who serve one of the most vulnerable populations in our state no longer make the same wages as fast food workers.

Unions can be instrumental in ensuring that an employer has a sustainable operation. We share that interest with employers, thought that’s not the common public perception. We actually want to help ensure that the employer remains in business and is the best business it can be.

Unions can also help solve workplace issues, secure funding, work to defeat bad legislation and create helpful legislation as well. We advocate for workers, and in the long run when a worker is happy, the work is better. It’s a win-win for workers and business. As a union representative, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many employers who agree with this philosophy. I hope to see more organizations adopting this philosophy in the future.


Jaimie Sorenson Jaimie Sorenson

Jaimie Sorenson is a staff representative for Oregon AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees).

Do Good Data recap: If I keep no record, I can assume I succeeded.

Last week I attended the Do Good Data conference in Chicago. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I registered for the event.
Currently my data management skills extend to drawing information out of Google analytics and trying to remember the difference between mean, median, and mode.

Even though I’ve forgotten nearly everything from my single college statistics class, I’ve recently been making an intentional effort to develop data skills.

  1. It’s easier than ever. These days you really have to go out of your way to ignore the data and tools available to you, often for free.
  2. The prospect of better decision-making is pretty exciting. I don’t know about you, but I love having something other than my gut to go on.
  3. It’s the future of the sector. Andrew Means, the organizer of the conference, said it best: “We’re here because our world is facing huge problems with limited resources.” It’s imperative that we get better at managing those resources, and effectively collecting and analyzing data will be critical to our sustainability over the long-term.

With these things in mind, YNPN has been exploring how to better utilize data in our work. Over the years YNPN has collected and compiled data from our members to highlight what’s happening at the grassroots of our sector. The results have definitely been worth the effort, but they’ve also been sporadic due to the amount of work and coordination involved.

As an organization, we’re working on integrating data and measurement into our day-to-day functioning not only so that we can more easily report out on the experiences of our members and amplify their voices, but also so that we can be more effective in our own decision-making and strategy.

As I’ve begun to explore these topics more, I’ve noticed that there are some in the sector who feel uneasy about the increased attention to data and measurement. They fear that their work will be reduced to a series of equations. It’s not an entirely unfounded fear--big data has become a business buzzword and many believe that if information is power, more information must mean more power. (Even though that isn't always the case). Large portions of the for-profit sector seem to have already moved to a quantify or die mentality.

What I loved about Do Good Data was that there was an understanding and an appreciation that not everything can be measured. This conference was not about how we can cram the expansive and sometimes intangible work of the nonprofit sector into rigid algorithms; it was about how we apply sound data principles and evidence-based decision-making to our work to make it better.
And this perspective is an incredibly healthy one that I think bodes very well for the sector.

I came to the conference pretty sure that data skills were worth investing in, but I left positive that they are too critical to ignore. Here are a few of my key takeaways from the conference:

  • When you have scarce resources, it’s critical that you use them in smart ways. Data helps us use our resources for maximum impact.
  • We have so much to learn from each other. Instead of being afraid to talk about our failures, we should be sharing information so we can learn from each other’s mistakes.
  • Measuring our impact can help us move towards approaching our work as investments that will provide a measurable return, rather than as charity that is a good in itself.
  • Use data to make decisions. If you don’t know, experiment.
  • Measurement should be about the value you create, not just accountability. If you use your data only to report out, you’re missing out on huge opportunities for improvement.
  • One of the presenters shared this quote: “If I keep no record of what I do, I can always assume I’ve succeeded.” - Stephen Colbert  If you’re not measuring what you do, you don’t really know if you’re succeeding.

In addition to all the fabulous insights, I loved that the conference was diverse in terms of gender, race, age, and role within the organization. That was true not just in the audience, but on stage as well.

I’d highly recommend attending this conference next year. I know I plan to. In the meantime, here’s a few people and places to follow to get your data fix:

Andrew Means: The organizer of the conference and founder of its parent organization, Data Analysts for Social Good

TinySpark: A podcast by journalist Amy Costello that takes a critical look at the business of doing good

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty: This book was mentioned by Amy Costello during her keynote and is a great example of the importance of looking critically at well-intentioned efforts to solve social problems

Maria Kim, President & CEO of The Cara Program: I was so impressed by Maria during the two panels I saw her appear on. She had some great thoughts on measuring impact, which you can get a small taste of on the Cara Program website.

Jason Shim: I left Jason's breakout session super-inspired to find more ways to integrate data and especially experimentation into our communications work. I'll definitely be keeping up with his work.

The Science of Philanthropy Initiative: John List from the Science of Philanthropy Initiative at the University of Chicago gave a fantastic keynote about some of the work they've done that's exploded conventional wisdom about fundraising and the nonprofit sector. Definitely an organization to watch for innovative research.

#nplabor: Advice from Alison Green of Ask A Manager

Alison Green is the manager behind the Ask A Manager blog, where she answers reader questions and shares her expertise and insight into labor and management issues. We love Alison's respectful and no nonsense approach to workplace relationships and management, so we asked her to share her advice for young nonprofit professionals.

You've worked in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. Are there any key differences that you've noticed or any management and HR best practices that should be tweaked for the nonprofit setting?

You know, I think there's sometimes lack of clarity in the sector about what good management means in the first place. It's not about having an effective board or a happy and empowered staff -- those things are important as means, but the fundamental aim of good management is to produce results that you can sustain over time. Everything else stems from there. Too often, though, nonprofits managers lose sight of the central question of what results are being produced. It's something you see less often in businesses, because there's a clear bottom line (which is profit). In nonprofits, that bottom line is social impact, but it can be easier to lose sight of that when you're not vigilant about keeping your focus there.

You've said in the past "The work many nonprofits do is crucial, and what’s at stake is so much more important than some business’s bottom line. Because of that, nonprofits have a special obligation to be as effective as possible in pursuing their missions, which means that they need to be really committed to effective management [...]." What can YNPs do if they feel they're not being managed effectively?

Honestly, it's very hard to change bad management from below. You can certainly think about what pieces of the situation are within your control and focus on making those pieces go as smoothly as possible.  But what you don't want to do  -- and what happens too often -- is to end up stewing in frustration over things about boss or your organization that you can't change. You need to either find ways to work effectively within that context or -- if you realize that you can't work reasonably happy in that environment -- realize that you might need to move on to somewhere where you'll be less frustrated.
The nonprofit sector is unfortunately infamous for low salaries and tight budgets. How would you advise a young nonprofit professional who wants to negotiate for a higher salary handle it if their manager responds, "We don't have the money"? Does the conversation have to end there?

Try asking what you'd need to do in order to earn the raise. If the answer is still some variation of "we don't have the money, no matter what you do," at that point you'll need to decide what to do with that information. Can you continue to work there happily for now, knowing that your salary isn't likely to go up any time soon? Some people decide that they can, because they're sufficiently fulfilled by the work and like what they're doing. Or you might decide that regardless of how you feel about your work and your mission, you'd like to earn more money. Either is a legitimate decision, and you'll be helped in your thinking by understanding what is and isn't possible in your role at your current organization.

It's also useful to understand what your market value is. It's worth doing some research to figure out what salary you'd command somewhere else, and what the trade-offs of that might be. For instance, you might find that you could earn more money somewhere else, but wouldn't enjoy the work as much, or wouldn't have something else you that like about your current job (like great benefits or working on a high-profile issue). Or you might realize that you WOULD prefer the total package you could get somewhere else. Overall, though, more information is better than less.
One of our board members was curious to hear your advice for middle managers in nonprofit organizations around supporting and keeping YNPs who may be in organizations where there is little opportunity for actual advancement. How can managers best support their employees?

Sometimes the way you support staff might be by accepting that they won't stay forever. Not every role has a career path within the organization, especially at smaller organizations, and that's okay. The best thing you can do is to be realistic about that, with yourself and with those staff members, and think about how you can help them prepare for their next role somewhere else. For instance, are there ways they can improve their skills in their current roles? Development opportunities to expand their skills in ways that will be useful in their current work? Ways to give them increased responsibility or a greater role in your department without moving them?
A talented YNP is going to stick around longer with a manager who's helping her gain skills for her next role, even if that role is at a different organization, than with one who won't let her develop at all.
One of our members is wondering how recent graduates can make a phenomenal first impression? Many 'entry level' jobs require 2-3 years of experience but many graduates are entering into the job market with patched together experiences or jobs that they needed to take to pay their way through school. What can they do to break into the field?

First and foremost, get as much work experience as you can before you graduate. Employers are looking for experience, not just knowledge, and so new grads who come out of school with work experience on their resumes have a significant advantage, even if it's patched together from internships and part-time jobs. Next, get a practical understanding of what your degree qualifies you for in the work world. Too often, people pick a major without fully understanding what jobs it will and won't qualify them for once they graduate, and then they end up frustrated to learn that the major doesn't open the doors they thought it would, or that the career paths it opens up aren't ones they're interested in. And third, figure out how to help employers understand how your experience relates to their needs. New grads often come out of school without much understanding of how to frame their qualifications in terms that will resonate with employers. The language and framework that worked in academia may not work with employers, so it's really important for them to figure out how to translate that.
You recently answered a question from a reader about being asked to work incredibly long hours at evening and weekend events. There was a similar question a few months ago about employees being asked to donate to their organizations. Some of the demands made in the name of "the cause" can get pretty unreasonable. Do you have any recommendations or scripts for employees who need to set boundaries with their organization around their personal time and money?

Be clear about what you can do -- and what you can't. For instance, if you're asked to donate money to your own organization (something that I find ridiculous, for whatever that's worth), you can say something like, "I'm glad to put in hard work because I care about our mission, but I'm not comfortable donating to my employer" or "Unfortunately my budget won't allow it" or whatever other polite version of "no" you're most comfortable with. Similarly with unrealistic hours, it's fine to say, "I understand that from time to time I'll need to work nights or weekends and I'm glad to do that on occasion when the work requires it, but I also have other commitments that don't allow me to do it this often. Can we talk about other ways to get the work done?" (Obviously, this wouldn't be appropriate in a context where the nature of the job truly does require odd hours.)

Realize, too, that there might be times in your life when you WANT to throw yourself into work and focus a ton of your energy on your job. You might have times when your professional goals are more important to you than your personal goals. At other times, other things in your life might take priority. The key is to have clarity on that yourself and choose roles that align well with your personal and professional goals at any given time.
Last month we spoke with Paul Schmitz about his book "Everyone Leads." During our chat, he encouraged YNPs to step up and take leadership opportunities when they see them. Do you have any specific tips for young nonprofit professionals who might be interested in taking on a bigger leadership role in their organizations? How can they do it in a way that's effective and doesn't play into some of the millennial stereotypes that are out there (e.g. that we're overly ambitious and don't want to pay our dues)?

Well, first you want to make sure that you're doing a great job of your core responsibilities. You want to be able to prove that you can handle what's already been throw at you. But from there, volunteer to lead team projects, to take the lead on investigating potential new initiatives, offer to manage your team's interns, etc. If you're stepping up to take on new responsibilities in a way that will be a help to your employer, it's more likely to be well-received than if you seem to just be looking to advance without thinking through the organization's needs.

What's the worst piece of career advice or conventional wisdom that you see being repeated?

The idea that there's such a thing as a dream job. The reality is, you have no idea whether a particular would be your dream job or not until you’re actually in it and have been for a while. In fact, there's really no such thing as a dream job that you can truly recognize from the outside. As much as you think you might love doing that work for that particular organization, it might turn out that the manager is a nightmare, or the organization makes you bring in a doctor’s note every time you have a cold, or your workload is so unachievably high that you end up having panic attacks every morning.

Dream jobs do exist — when it’s work you love, at an organization that treats employees well, working for a great manager, alongside coworkers who are competent and kind — but it’s dangerous to think something is your dream job before you’re really in a position to know. It can lead you to turn a blind eye to warning signs or to make decisions you wouldn’t make if you had all the facts, and you can end up miserable as a result. It can also cause you to pass up opportunities that might become your dream job if you gave it a chance.
What are your top three tips for young professionals looking to advance their career in the nonprofit sector?

  1. Be really, really clear on how the work you're doing -- any given project and your role overall -- ties to your organization's fundamental mission. How is it driving your organization forward? What are the results it's getting that will advance that mission? If you can't answer those questions, there's a problem.
  2. Find mentors. These don't have to be formal relationships with an official "mentor" label; they can simply be more experienced coworkers who you have some rapport with. Regularly talking with someone more experienced can give you a broader perspective on office life, help you navigate tricky situations, and succeed faster.
  3. Do what you say you're going to do and by when you say you're going to do it. Always sticking to your word will establish you as someone reliable and trustworthy, someone who is on top of their game, and it's such rare behavior that you'll stand out for it.

If you want to read more from Alison, check out her blog Ask A Manager and the book she co-wrote, Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results.

This month on the YNPN blog: #nplabor

In the nonprofit sector we generally do quite a bit of reflection on our work. We often ask ourselves what good nonprofit leadership looks like and how we can be better practitioners and change agents. Yet one thing we don't talk very much about is how labor and employment practices affect the answers to those questions.

When we decided to take a look at labor issues this month, we found that the list of things we could talk about, both in and out of the nonprofit sector, could make for months worth of blog posts. As our economy moves toward knowledge work and away from what we traditionally think of as "labor," we're renegotiating boundaries like the 40-hour work week and the minimum wage.

Those of us in the nonprofit sector are especially impacted by these issues--not only are we workers ourselves, but we're also often in the position of advocating for those who are marginalized in the economy and vulnerable to exploitation. This month we wanted to take a closer look at how young nonprofit professionals could not only be better advocates for themselves, but also more effective and informed advocates for their communities.

We'll be talking to experts in the fields of labor and management about what issues YNPs should have on their radar and how they can deal with some of the labor issues they may be encountering in their own workplaces. We'll also be talking transparently about how YNPN handles some of these issues as an employer.

And we hope to talk to you about your experiences. On May 23 at 2 pm CT we'll be hosting a Twitter chat to talk about labor issues in the nonprofit sector. Join us for the chat and all of our content and conversations this month with hashtag #nplabor.

Everyone Leads: How YNPN Leaders Step Up to Support Their Own

During our recent book club Twitter chat, our ED Trish Tchume encapsulated YNPN's approach to leadership in 140 characters: "The YNPN model relies on the idea that everyone leads. Our chapter leaders start, build up, and run the network. We are because they are."

One of the best examples of this is our National Conference and Leaders Institute, which brings YNPN chapter leaders from across the country together to connect, share best practices, and collaboratively develop the future of the network. Since 2007, these national gatherings have been hosted by one of our local chapters with support from the national organization. Our local chapter leaders plan the conference from start to finish, including developing and presenting the conference sessions.

This year's conference will be hosted by YNPN Twin Cities in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. We spoke to Leah Lundquist, National Conference Committe Chair, and Jamie Millard, Board Chair of YNPN Twin Cities, to hear about what it's been like serving as a YNPN chapter leader and planning a conference for hundreds of their peers.

Jamie Millard, Board Chair of YNPN Twin Cities, leading an event Jamie Millard, Board Chair of YNPN Twin Cities, leading an event

So, tell us a little about yourselves. What do you do outside of YNPN and what's your role in YNPN TC? How long have you been involved with YNPN, and how long have you been part of YNPN Twin Cities' chapter leadership?

Leah: I'm in my 5th year (final term) of serving with YNPN Twin Cities. In that time I've served as Programming Chair, National Liaison and now National Conference Local Host Lead. Outside of YNPN Twin Cities, I am currently helping develop the Hubert Project, an OpenEd initiative encouraging the creation and sharing of free, multimedia materials to be used in training, teaching and self-directed professional development for nonprofit and civic leaders.

Jamie: Outside of YNPN TC, I'm a co-executive director for Pollen and co-founder of the literary arts magazine Paper Darts. I'm the board chair of YNPN TC and have been involved for more than four years.

What have you enjoyed most about being a YNPN chapter leader?

Jamie: Seeing other YNPN board members and volunteers find opportunity to take ownership over projects and dedicate vision to creating the community they want to work and live in.

Leah: When I moved to Minnesota 7 years ago, the network provided me an incredible support system and team of colleagues outside of the small nonprofits I have worked in. I've learned so much from serving on the board that I bring to my work. I love passing that forward, providing opportunities for other YNPs across the Twin Cities to connect, try bold things and build the relationships that will sustain all of us through our careers.

Leah Lundquist and Jamie Millard at YNPN TC's Ugly Sweater Party last December Leah Lundquist and Jamie Millard at YNPN TC's Ugly Sweater Party last December

In addition to those connections, how has chapter leadership been valuable for you professionally outside of your work with YNPN?

Leah: Leading a chapter has helped me get up close and personal with the life stages a start up nonprofit goes through and the many important governance discussions that take place at each of those stages. It's provided a safe space for me to speak up, experiment and push my own creativity. Though we have traditional chapter leadership roles, we function highly horizontally as a chapter, so I've also learned a ton about effective teamwork and being always cognizant of organizational culture.

Hosting a national conference is a big task. What motivated your chapter to step up and apply?

Leah: It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the idea was first floated, but I have a hunch that it was after a whole cohort of our board members returned from their road trip to the Grand Rapids conference. Both the travel time and experience of the conference itself was such a bonding experience for them and a perspective-widening opportunity to get to know the national network that we've asked ourselves since then if we might be conference host at some point. Finally the stars aligned with the right people and capacity for us to help make this happen. We are all proud and appreciative to be living in a metropolitan area with such a robust nonprofit and philanthropic sector and are excited to invite others from the network to get a taste of this.

Jamie: We knew this would be a unique opportunity to infuse energy into our local YNP community by bringing chapter leaders across the country to highlight what makes the MSP community thrive.

Do you have a favorite memory from past conferences?

Jamie: I do! I attended Grand Rapids (2011) and San Francisco (2012) recently. My favorite moments were when I got to experience something local and specific to that community. It reminded me that being a member of YNPN Twin Cities is truly about being part of a national movement.

YNPN TC members engaged in developing their strategic plan YNPN TC members engaged in developing their chapter's strategic plan

What's been the most challenging aspect of planning an event for hundreds of your peers from across the country?

Leah: The nail biting suspense as you wait for people to register. It's the whole middle school party syndrome: "I planned this huge party... I hope everyone shows up!!" (Save me from the suspense: Chapter leaders, register today!)

And what's been the most fun?

Leah: Coming up with creative, meaningful networking ideas for the evenings and during the day. We definitely want you to leave feeling like you have relationships across the network that will be sustained and that you saw at least a slice of the Twin Cities! It's also been great working alongside National to push ourselves to go beyond what has happened in past years to bring in new partners like Echoing Green and the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue.

What are you most looking forward to at the conference?

Leah: I'm really looking forward to hearing Linda Nguyen's keynote on Thursday! It's so neat to have someone speak who is both an early YNPN founder and an incredible leader on civic engagement! I'm also looking forward to the deep learning and discussions I see happening Friday through the 2 deep dive opportunities with Echoing Green and IISD alongside the Chapter Leaders Institute.

What can our leaders look forward to doing in the Twin Cities this June?

wagegap YNPN TC members talking about the gender wage gap at local watering hole The Nicollet

Jamie: Hands down spending time outside along the river or lakes. A walk down St. Anthony Main eating gelato from Wilde Roast — that'd be a pretty perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Leah: There's no limit to the things I love about the Twin Cities in the summer. There's always great music at the Cedar Cultural Center and the iconic First Avenue. From the Humphrey School (where the conference is being held), I like to rent a Nice Ride bike and pedal downtown along the bike trail that runs along the Mississippi River. One of the great things attendees might want to stick around for the weekend of the conference is the Twin Cities PRIDE festival--TC Pride is the third largest Pride festival in the country and largest free Pride in the U.S.

Why do you think it's important for chapter leaders to come together in person? 

Leah: When chapter leaders come together in person, we can all question our limiting beliefs and assumptions about what it means to be a YNPN chapter. This sparks new ideas and relationships that can make us more effective--not only in our work on our YNPN boards, but also in each of our professional roles.

For those who aren't YNPN chapter leaders (yet!), we'll be sharing insights from the conference on social media during the event on June 26-28.

What kind of leader do you want to be?

I’m sitting in a breakout session on leadership at a nonprofit conference.  The speaker asks, “Can someone tell me about their experience as a leader?”

Immediately, my hands get clammy, beads of sweat bubble around my hairline, and I am genuinely considering whether anyone will notice if I crawl under the table. As I glance at the raised hand of my neighbor, I am certain she is getting ready to share her experience founding a nonprofit that single-handedly raised adult literacy rates, ended childhood obesity, fed the hungry, and sheltered the homeless all at the advanced age of nine. I have only two thoughts: I am not a leader, and I hate this question.

This describes my experience at nearly every leadership workshop until last week when the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits brought in Paul Schmitz to lead a workshop based on his book, Everyone Leads. Paul suggested a definition of leadership that I had never considered before. In fact, his definition defies the very laws of grammar. According to Paul, the word “leader” is a verb, not a noun. Leadership is an action someone takes, not a position someone holds.

When asked to consider my personal experiences as a leader in the past, my internal response has been, “I’m only 25. I’m not a CEO. I definitely don’t have a list of awards on my resume. Maybe I’ll be a leader in 15 or 20 years after I’ve accomplished more.” But if a leader is defined by his or her individual strengths, talents, and values rather than titles or lists of accomplishments, how does that change the way I view my leadership abilities?

Paul Schmitz in Oklahoma City. Photo from the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits.Paul Schmitz in Oklahoma City. Photo from the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits.

First, Paul’s definition of leadership helped me identify the ways I have stepped up as a leader in my organization.  My Director has a visionary leadership style. She is innovative and likes taking risks. I fall somewhere between the analyst and mobilizer leadership styles. I am excellent at developing program timelines, summarizing complex group discussions, communicating persuasively, and creating accountability for my department.

I may not be the Director, but I also recognize that “Director” and “Leader” are not synonyms. I may not be generating innovative program ideas, but I also recognize that visionary leadership is not the only kind. If it were, our programs would rarely develop beyond the initial spark and enthusiasm.  Every action I take is an opportunity to step up as a leader, apply my unique skills and strengths, and contribute to the progress and success of my organization’s programs.

Second, if leadership is defined by individual strengths, talents, and values, then it is a fluid definition. I expect my strengths, talents, and values to grow as I do.  If I have a hard time defining who I am as a leader at 25, that’s perfectly okay. I’m still developing that definition. Paul encouraged this when he discussed the leadership value of continuous learning.

During the workshop, he asked everyone to write down three things they suck at. Here are mine: being on time, taking big risks, and letting go of control. There is power in identifying our challenges, mistakes, and shortfalls; it keeps us from growing stagnant. Part of my position with the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits involves training nonprofit boards on good governance practices. The first time I trained, I was paralyzed with fear that someone would ask a question, and I wouldn’t have the answer. Everyone would realize I’m a fraud. Now, I see that the best answer is often, “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.” Every time I don’t have an answer, it forces me to grow and improve.

Finally, Paul’s definition says that leaders are defined by a certain set of values. Leaders hold themselves accountable to these values and expect others to hold them accountable as well. Paul outlines five values that his organization, Public Allies, identifies as necessary for positive and lasting community change. But at the end of his workshop, he invited us to name our own values. I thought back to a prompt Paul used at the beginning of the day: think about a time when someone believed in you, opened a door, or created opportunity for you.

This past January, I was invited to help facilitate a retreat for ten Executive Directors in a rural community in Oklahoma. A few days before the retreat, the primary facilitator asked if I would lead a thirty minute educational component on a topic of my choice. I was shocked she thought I had anything of value to share with a group of far more experience leaders and that she trusted me to develop the topic on my own. She valued my voice. She forced me outside my comfort zone. She was confident in my abilities even when I still needed some convincing. This is how I want to lead others.

What kind of leader do I want to be? A leader that understands that the most effective organizations utilize the leadership of many. A leader that seeks constant growth and improvement. And a leader that recognizes and develops leadership potential in others.

KHollandKristin Holland is the Program Manager for the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits. In her role, Holland is responsible for managing the Center’s educational programs including training, customized consulting, and the nationally-accredited Standards for Excellence series. Since joining the Center in 2012, Holland has received over 250 hours of nonprofit management training, and she received her Certificate of Nonprofit Board Education from BoardSource in February 2014.  A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, Holland earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in History.

Holland volunteers for the Alzheimer’s Association Oklahoma Chapter, the United Way of Central Oklahoma, and she is a founding board member for Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Oklahoma City. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her husband and their dog and cat. A native of Oklahoma City, she is extremely enthusiastic about her hometown. Follow her on Twitter: @krismholland

How I Lead: Renee Bracey Sherman on "Everyone Leads"

In today's post, YNPN member and Public Allies alum Renee Bracey Sherman shares how the idea that everyone leads has impacted her life and work.

On the first day of training for Public Allies, we were told, “Everyone leads.”

This felt like a radical notion for many – we’d been socialized our entire lives to believe that there are born leaders and there are followers. Over the next two weeks we would absorb something new: we could all lead and become an agent of change in our own way, and each way is powerful and necessary. This empowering way of thinking about leadership reminds us that everyone has something to add, and that our experiences, struggles, and skills inform how we move through the world and are all valuable.

For too long, I felt that I didn’t have a fancy enough résumé, wasn’t as experienced as the person next to me, and just wasn’t smart enough. It was the mentality that we must have everything and be everything that kept me from reaching my full potential as a leader. It kept me from learning from my successes and my mistakes. It kept me from leaning in to risk – which is where the best learning happens. Public Allies taught me to let that go.

At the end of my time in Public Allies, I wanted to continue to be of service to others, meet new people, and continue to grow professionally – so I applied for the Young Nonprofit Professional Network San Francisco Bay Area (YNPNsfba) Board of Directors. I was terrified. I’d never served on a board before and all the worries of not being ‘enough’ came rushing back. But when the current board members interviewed me, they explained that YNPN was a place where we could grow and learn together. We could (and would) share our skills and talents in service of other nonprofit professionals looking to make friends and learn something new.

When I was offered the position on the board, I was thrilled. I immediately took on the leadership role of secretary and learned the ropes. And in my second year, I was elected the board chair. Again, my feelings were in that sweet spot of excited and freaked out.

We were about to embark on a new strategic plan, overhaul our volunteer system, create a new website, and revamp our budgeting plan – all things I had absolutely no experience in.

For a few weeks I thought about how I had seen other people take on these tasks. How did they do it? What of their models could I copy? But none of it felt right.

And then I remembered what Public Allies taught me: everyone leads.

Everyone leads in their own way and I needed to figure out my way. I realized that I didn’t have to do any of the projects alone. I had a wonderful team that I could lead on and partner with. I had a core of brilliant volunteers who offered up ideas on where they wanted the organization to go. We held strategy sessions where we took in all ideas and merged them together. We collaborated, shared resources, and most of all – had a ton of fun doing it. It felt right, and we were able to exceed all of the goals we set and do more!

That’s when I learned the biggest lessons of all: I am enough, and I lead best when I have brilliant minds that excite, invigorate, challenge, and of course make me laugh, in the room.

It is now how I lead my life and career – through collaboration, empowering brilliance, and a ton of joy. It is enough and it is all I need to lead. How do you lead?

Renee Bracey Sherman Renee Bracey Sherman
Renee Bracey Sherman is a Public Allies Bay Area ’11 alum and served as the board chair of YNPNsfba. She is a reproductive justice advocate and a writer with Echoing Ida, a project of Forward Together. Her writing has appeared on EBONY.com, Salon.com, and RH Reality Check, and been heard on the BBC World Newshour.

She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Administration from Cornell University, where she also serves as the editor of the Cornell Policy Review and communications chair of Women in Public Policy. Follow Renee on Twitter at @RBraceySherman

Beans, Cornbread, and the 2014 NFF State of the Sector Report

If you’re like me, you read through the 2014 Nonprofit Finance Fund State of the Sector report and breathed a sigh of relief. Not because the 2014 report paints a particularly rosy picture of where we are as a society and as a sector, mind you, but because the results of the 2009 survey are still seared into so many of our memories.

Yeah, you remember that survey--the one that spelled out so plainly what all of us were experiencing in our neighborhoods and our organizations: soaring demand for critical services (93% of organizations providing these services reported an increase in need) and plummeting resources (62% and 43% of organizations braced for foundation and government funding cuts respectively). The majority of respondents planned to operate at a deficit that year. Those were some pretty dark days, friends.

And like I said, it’s not that the 2014 report is calling for 7 days of high temps and sun. 80% of this year’s respondents are still anticipating increased need for their communities. But far fewer are operating at a deficit and the year over year comparison shows that funding prospects are essentially expected to remain level. So, while we're at a place where we're no longer in freefall, the sense memory of the freefall is still pretty acute.

What better time to have real conversations about the relationship between funders and grantees?

As you know from past posts, YNPN and EPIP have made a commitment to advancing the conversation about the power dynamics that exist between funders and grantees. We call this the Beans & Cornbread convo as a reference to the Louis Jordan & Tympany Five song about things that go together but sometimes just can’t get along. Rahsaan and I have been open about the fact that we don’t exactly have a 12-step plan for “advancing the conversation” but we do have a strong, shared desire to actively and thoughtfully experiment.

YNPN & EPIP talking beans and cornbread Members of YNPN & EPIP's NYC chapters talking funder-grantee relationships

As another step in the direction of figuring out how funders and grantees can go together and get along better, earlier this month we hosted a pilot dialogue circle which brought together 3 representatives from YNPN NYC and 3 representatives from EPIP NYC.

Over pizza and snacks, facilitator Lucretia John (formerly of the Funding Exchange) guided the group through some introductory questions about identity, hopes, and fears for the conversation, then opened up the floor for participants to reflect on three basic questions:

  • Who has power to create change in communities?

  • Who sets the priorities for change efforts?

  • Who defines impact?

As you can imagine, the responses to these questions raised even more questions. More importantly, early feedback tells us that the experience also highlighted the shared identities, goals, and attitudes of folks in the room, as well as an eagerness to learn more about each other and how we can use these stronger relationships to change how power plays out in social change work.

This is great news for the vast majority of this year’s NFF respondents who reported that they can’t have real conversations with their funders about anything other than expanding programs. And we all know that it takes more than that to build stronger communities.

You’ll be seeing a fuller synopsis of the pilot conversation and plans for next steps soon. In the meantime, check out the NFF Report and tell us in the comments below where you’re seeing signs of hope or how you think we should continue the conversation.

Leading with a question #ev1leads

In Chapter 1 of "Everyone Leads," Paul Schmitz lays out the importance of working from a community perspective:

"To create lasting solutions to our most pressing problems, leaders can't just create isolated services. They must build community capacity, think systematically, and collaborate with others."

Natasha Golinsky is one of the co-founders of the new YNPN Vancouver chapter, and in this post she shares what she learned about the importance and benefits of engaging her community early in the process of developing a solution to a problem she identified.

Last year my friend Vanessa and I decided that we wanted to co-chair a new Young Nonprofit Professionals Network chapter here in Vancouver, Canada. We saw the joy that YNPs got from being part of other chapters and deeply felt that our community needed some support in the nonprofit professional development arena and wanted to help. Each chapter runs independently and many operate as their own registered nonprofit full with board of directors, fundraising campaigns and we were interested in doing the same.

Although our first reaction was to get our paperwork all in order and incorporate ourselves, we decided to take a breath and test our idea to see if there really was a need for this service or if we were just assuming there was interest. Both of us wanted to find out what our fellow young nonprofit professionals wanted before we invested tons of time building something that nobody needed (or that had already been done before and failed).

We tackled this community outreach through a few specific steps.

Step one: Talk to the leaders of active nonprofit professional development groups. What was working for them? What had they tried already that didn't work? What did they see was a need in our community as it related to YNPNs? Would they be willing to continue to stay in touch with us as we were planning? Is there anyone else you would recommend that we talk to?

Step two: Talk to the leaders of nonprofit professional development groups that had closed down because of low-results. Why did they shut their program down? What went wrong? What could they have done differently? What need do they still see that needs to be served in our community? Is there anyone else they would recommend that we talk to?

Step three: Talk to leaders of other YNPN chapters who were a few steps ahead of us and were having a lot of success. What did they do to set themselves up for a strong start? What would they do differently? Were there any resources they used to help them plan and market their organization? Would they be interested in coaching us? Was there anything we could do to help them?

Step four: Talk to the big influencers in our local nonprofit professional development space. We got a hold of the board chair of one of the most popular training organizations in our community, we talked to the Western Canada sales manager for a different nonprofit resources organization, and we talked to the fundraising department head at a local university. Both of us scoured our LinkedIn profiles for people that would have some good data for us about their needs and the current resources available to them.

Step five, the final and most important: Talk to the people we wanted to serve. We went through all of our contacts and identified those who hit our demographic profile and sent them a link to a survey we created using Google forms. We asked them to pass it around to anyone they knew who could have some valuable feedback on what they would be interested in seeing in a new local professional development group. We sent the survey to everyone we had talked to in the above steps 1-4 and asked them to circulate it too offering to share any data we found with them.

After two months of research, we had some awesome feedback and a clear direction of what the needs of our community were. Probably the most interesting take-away from this process was that we found that the needs of the young nonprofit professional community were completely different than we expected--even though we're both part of the community we're planning to serve! When I think back to our original plan of running out of the gate without having any data or community input to back our ideas, I feel anxious about how much time we might have wasted running in the wrong direction.

We also developed some amazing connections and some potential joint-venture partners. Without taking the time to consult with our community, we might not have encountered these resources and been able to work with them from the start. Not only did we get clear direction from consulting our community, we found some awesome partners along the way.


Natasha Golinsky Natasha Golinsky
Natasha is the Founder of Next Level Nonprofits and is dedicated to helping passionate start-up nonprofit leaders develop the foundational leadership and management skills they need to enjoy a enjoy successful, sustainable and satisfying career. You can find her on Twitter as @ngolinsky.
A version of this piece originally appeared in Natasha's Next Level Nonprofits newsletter.

An Interview with Linda Nguyen

Today we're excited to share this interview with Linda Nguyen, who will be the keynote speaker for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Leadership Conference and Day 1 of the YNPN National Conference on June 26 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

As the Director of Civic Engagement for the Alliance for Children and Families, Linda built and currently manages a national initiative that has enabled thousands of community residents across the U.S. to become advocates, leaders and activists. She has worked with the Alliance network to encourage nonprofit staff and board members to embrace civic engagement strategies in their organizations and neighborhoods and to work in concert with community to address key issues in health, education and economic security. Linda is responsible for identifying and nurturing talent, coaching human service organization staff, conducting research and serving as a national advocate for constituent voice.

In addition to her outstanding work with the Alliance for Children and Families, Linda is also one of the early founders of YNPNdc and YNPN National. We spoke with Linda about her experience helping to found YNPN, how organizations can elevate diverse voices, and a few of her favorite spots in the Twin Cities.

You're one of the early founders of YNPN. What drew you to the idea for a network of young nonprofit professionals? How did you go from idea to reality?

I was looking for a job in the nonprofit sector when I first moved to DC in 2003. I knew very few people in the field. I searched for help online, and came across the YNPN (then only in San Francisco) website and saw that people just like me were looking to network with one another for job opportunities and professional development and networking. I connected with a few of those peers in DC, and after a few meetings, we launched YNPNdc. I think our first event attracted 10 people.

I think the lesson is Jump In. Don't be afraid or embarrassed. So what, 10 people came to our first "event." We cared about something and so we created an entity to address the needs we and others had. I then became involved in helping to build the national organization. The national board at that time was made up of local people starting up their own YNPN chapters and we knew we would be stronger if we built together.

What were some of the network’s values back then? Has the network changed in your view, particularly from a values perspective?

Our values "back then" (ha ha, the good 'ol days) were focused around voice (giving young nonprofit professionals a forum and support) and local autonomy (YNPN chapters were self-starting and proud of it). I imagine these values are still present today, and I would think that engaging diverse voices would be a particular focus for the network.

The YNPN National Board meeting for the first time in Denver in 2005. Linda is the second from the left. The YNPN National Board meeting for the first time in Denver in 2005. You can see Linda second from the left.

Why has the idea of “exploring diverse voices” surfaced as such a timely topic?

We are standing in that moment of change where there will be as many young people as old people, as many white people as people of color, as many people with a decent standard of living as those without.

What do we do? We have to make sure that we are hearing from everyone, engaging everyone, and getting as many voices to the table as we are able. When you see these vast differences, you may feel daunted and even fearful. But it is within our ability, and especially for us in the nonprofit and social sectors, it is our collective responsibility that we are listening and attending to everyone.

As Minnesotan Paul Wellstone said, we all do better when we all do better.

How do you think nonprofits are doing at addressing diversity and including members of the communities they work in?

Hmmm, results are mixed. Overall, I think there is more attention being paid to diversity, looking for diverse staff and partners, and including community members. I do think, however, that we have a ways to go in creating meaningful roles for community members to play in our organizations. Are they making decisions? Are they considered equals? Or are they tokens or checkbox fulfillments?

And what is the thinking behind diversity and including community members? Are we doing it just to do it, because it looks good? Or do we see that it actually enhances our work, our programming, our decision making?

Do you have any tips or advice as to how nonprofit leaders could do this better?

Try it. Seek out other leaders who seem to do this well. Talk to them; figure out how their approaches could translate to your work/organization.

Who are some leaders that you think are doing this particularly well?

LIFT.  Check them out.

And finally, what's the best experience you've ever had in the Twin Cities? Do you have any favorite spots to recommend to conference attendees?

Tough one! A lot of ties -- from a ruckus late night karaokeing at The Saloon to exploring the Cedar Riverside neighborhood (near Pillsbury United Communities' Bryan Coyle Center) for its friendly neighbors and enlightening murals painted by youth.

But I think my best experience was walking through Loring Park, above the highway on the Loring Greenway to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to the famous Spoonbridge and Cherry. I did that walk last year with my mom and son and we had such a fun time!
MN Council of NonprofitsTo hear Linda speak on the theme of Exploring Diverse Voices and see a few of her favorite Twin Cities spots for yourself, register for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Leadership Conference on June 26 in Minneapolis.