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Take a minute and picture your dream team – both board and staff. Got it? Okay. Why? Why are they your dream team? Is it because of their skills or their approach? Or their experience or their understanding of the world? Or their connection to mission? Or their ability to ask hard questions? Or their ability to get along? Or something else? Jot down a few thoughts. Now ask yourself: Does your dream team reflect your mission, the issues, the community, and the context in which mission and your larger cause operates in the world? The challenge for most nonprofits – maybe including yours – is that the answer currently is no.
Addressing the challenge of creating a diverse team is an important part of our decision making tool, the Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model, and specifically the Right People lens. This lens is complex but in its most simple terms it is about the necessary balance in the relationship between the board and CEO and the essential step of creating a purposeful constellation of board and staff that align to your mission. There are always different ways of seeing through this lens. The beauty is that it is all good—the point is to look, truly question, and then find clarity – something we’ll explore in depth at our upcoming Leadership Summit.
The challenge of creating a constellation within your team takes extra attention. It simply will not happen by accident. Unfortunately, time and again the reality of what I see in nonprofit life and the research – like the Daring to Lead study and the Leading with Intent report – is that the metrics don’t shift all that much. While there may be many ways to define a dream team, if the end result is a team with less diverse experiences, backgrounds, styles, and cultures that reflect and advance the decisions within mission, then the greater the loss to all of us.
Of course, knowing we have a problem and solving it are different steps. The solution is both in undoing the things we can see and addressing the unconscious bias that is woven into the systems where we operate. We all can dive in more deeply and do it better. I know this can all feel too big and overwhelming to start. But we must.
Perhaps these few helpful reminders will keep us all on the path forward:
Given these common realities, where do we start to purposefully recruit and engage the right people at the right time on the board and staff? First, get clear on why it matters. In other words, how will you make better decisions for mission and community if the composition of your team shifts? For example, once I was in the room with 80 people who comprise the board and staff of an organization. Collectively and with clear conviction they declared diversity as a core value. I was perplexed since by appearance alone they did not seem to be living this value. Their job, of course, was not to convince me or anyone but it was their job to ensure they were living it. So we explored their definition and as we did it became more evident that diversity was about the spectrum of cognitive and physical ability. They were, in fact, reflecting their mission inside and out. Of course, this is not a “check it off the list and be good” moment because this is a continuous journey with many layers to explore, and, of course, diversity shows up in so many ways. The key was the essential first step—to know, truly know, what your team means by diversity in light of mission, goals, and the community your mission serves.
As a second step, I offer a gem from Angela Park, a noted national expert on board diversity. When visiting a group in Alaska she asked us all to know our “why.” I have cherished this advice because now when groups say they want to diversify instead of just keeping it on the to do list, I ask why. Sometimes having someone ask this question encourages a more honest conversation and can mean the difference between a meaningful and difficult conversation and a check list. The best of those conversations in my experience pour from the heart with candor and synergy in the room around mission.
The two steps of knowing “what” and knowing “why” are not the solution to diversifying the board, but it at least gets the ball rolling forward.
So here is another catch to this work: if we don’t do it in our board rooms, we likely won’t see a shift in the diversity of our staff leadership either. Boards hire the staff leader so leaning into this conversation is essential in the board and staff space. Last year we brought Sean Thomas Breitfeld with the Building Movements Project to Alaska. If you haven’t taken the time to read this study, then hold 15 minutes in your calendar this week and take a look. Trust me, you will want to hold a lot of 15-minute sessions after that to absorb all that the Building Movement Project has to offer. But for now, just take in the initial findings on their groundbreaking study on diversity in race, gender, age, and sexual orientation in the work place. Sean and his team do a remarkable job at helping us understand both the conscious and unconscious ways that bias prevents a truly diverse workforce. This work comes in layers. So taking the time to read and absorb is a key step. I know it isn’t as exciting as a great new tool, and honestly, if one great new tool was out there, I promise I would share it with you.
The closest thing I can offer you in tools right now is from a national group called Equity in the Center. Their Awake Woke Work study is a must read for each of us who wants to take more steps toward creating a race equity culture in our board, staff, and sector. While they are also quick to note that “there is no singular or ‘right’ way to engage in race equity work,” they do offer actionable steps to get started:
These are just some steps. The most important ones are those that your team is willing to take today.
At Foraker, too, this has been our work. It has grounded us in our core values and that’s a solid beginning. Still, there is more to do for us and to help the sector. We are going slow to go fast in these efforts with a plan, a theory of change, and a lot of research to understand the pitfalls and the opportunities. What I know is that shifting board and staff composition in nonprofits is not just one tool or one of anything. We have created a visual of a flower with equity in the center flower picture to reflect all the ways we are approaching this work externally while working on ourselves internally. While the journey is complex, some of the metrics of success are clear. We will know we are successful when our boards and staff reflect in age, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, and sexual orientation the missions and communities they serve throughout Alaska. And success will be clear when people who come into these spaces stay beyond the typical length of time. Together these metrics keep our focus not just on recruitment but on the necessary welcoming culture to fully engage people. I look forward to much more conversation and exploration together in this work.
Maybe you have read this and thought “no problem,” or maybe you have more questions now than before. Either way, I hope you are planning to join us at this year’s Summit. Very intentionally, we have designed the two days to be one of exploration on how we see ourselves in these conversations and how it shows up in our organization and community. Join us and together we can explore both what it might mean for us to ask harder questions about the diversity of our board and staff. Along the way we can also find our grace in this challenging work and laugh with each other as we celebrate the joy of it all. The quest to engage the right people is full of joy and wonder in the human spirt. It is full of grief and sadness in the human condition. And it is about exploring all of it together as we find our way forward through mistakes, information, and new horizons.
Join us as we fully energize and engage.
Sultana, Foraker’s fiscal sponsorship, is now accepting applications for fiscally-sponsored organizations! If you are interested in learning more or receiving an application, please contact Chellie Skoog, Vice President of Programs at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Understanding that not every new idea needs a new nonprofit and that not every nonprofit is ready to stand on its own, Sultana is a “safe place” for projects to germinate until they understand what long-term form, if any, they should take.
What does a Sultana fiscal sponsorship entail?
Please contact Chellie Skoog, Vice President of Programs, at email@example.com, for more information. After an introductory conversation, all eligible projects will be directed to Sultana’s application process.
Alaska Disaster Hotline (free legal assistance available for earthquake survivors): (855) 743-1001
The type of legal assistance available includes:
Disaster Unemployment Assistance is available through the Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce Development. This is for survivors who would not otherwise be eligible for regular
SBA Loans – The US Small Business Administration provides low-interest, long-term disaster loans to homeowners and renter to repair or replace uninsured/under-insured disaster damaged property. As a homeowner you may borrow up to $200,000 to repair/replace your disaster damaged primary residence. As a homeowner or renter, you may borrow up to $40,000 to repair/replace damaged personal property.
SBA is providing one-on-one assistance to disaster business loan applicants at a Business Recovery Center in Eagle River. No appointment is necessary.
SBA Business Recovery Center
Eagle River/Chugiak Parks and Recreation
12001 Business Blvd., Room 170
Eagle River, AK 99577
Mondays – Fridays, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m.
There is a line often directed to nonprofits that has been circulating for as long as I can remember. It goes something like this: “If only nonprofits could operate more like businesses.” For sure this is said not to insult, but with the best intentions. But for those of us in the field, who take our role of mission stewardship seriously, the intention is lost because it implies that we are acting recklessly and in disarray while our counterparts have the proven model. I mention this because it seems right now, perhaps more than most times, we should share the way we run our nonprofit corporations and stand up as a model to both business and government. Let us not forget that the C in our 501(c)3, 4, 6, 12, etc. stands for corporation, so there is no reason to limit our way to just us. We are all businesses after all, we simply have a double bottom line – mission and money, where the money provides the ability to do maximum mission.
In these challenging times as a state, with a proposed budget that feels challenging for so many, we can lead our sector as a strong partner to government and industry – not to be like them, but to be ourselves and lead by example. Consider three strengths we can share as we use our mission voices:
1. Strategic decision making: One of the things I say often when working with nonprofit boards and staff is that if we don’t know who we are it is very hard to know where we are going. Equally, if we don’t know where we are going, every road will take us there. In these maxims lay the foundation for clarity of purpose, values, and goals or outcomes. Hundreds of nonprofits and tribes each year across Alaska know these maxims and are driven to plan in a holistic way. They begin clarifying or reconnecting to their core purpose and core values – those ideas that are most fundamental and act as the DNA for every decision that comes next. From there they define success for their mission in terms of how it impacts those they serve both directly and indirectly. It is not a self-serving exercise, but one of understanding how to create and sustain maximum effectiveness with and within the communities they serve. It is from this place that the budget and tactical plans are developed for implementation. What emerges if we do it well is the double bottom line decision making that serves communities. What is also critical about this type of planning, that again so many engage in as a matter of standard practice, is that it is not rooted in crisis. Because we know, from experience, that making decisions in a crisis leads to crisis answers not long-term solutions. As Alaskans and as nonprofit leaders, regardless of how you personally or organizationally fair in the proposed budget and subsequent decisions, I think we can all agree we need clear definitions of success that start with our Alaska values – the values of who we want to be as a state and how we want to leave it for generations to come – before we are able to fully determine the right budget for Alaska. If you are planning to use your voice in this process, which I hope you are, bring the best of what you know as a nonprofit – that we start with our values, move to our envisioned future, and then our goals before we talk about the money. The money just helps us all get there.
2. Values-Based Budgeting: As nonprofits we know that budgets are values-based documents. We can look at our budgets and we can see what is important by seeing what we value. Again, budgets are a means to a larger vision and every line item tells us something about who we are. As nonprofits we can share with lawmakers how the numbers are translated into people and communities. We can share real data, real stories. Without hyperbole, without partisan views, we can just say what we know – good or challenged – about how the budget proposals now and in the future will show up in our lives. We also know from experience that often our vison of what is possible outweighs the money we have to spend. So we work in our budgets to leverage other resources. We prioritize, and when we need to spend from reserves, we have a plan to know how we will get back to a balanced budget. Certainly, nonprofits that have acted out of crisis or overspent without a plan have imposed significant consequences on those they serve and on themselves, so we are not immune as a sector to this approach. And our state’s current situation is not unique to government. Private industry and nonprofits alike have found themselves here before, but we have learned that the more resilient pathway out is a clear understanding of the bigger goals and a series of steps taken over time to get there. We can share our pathway of stability, reliance, and calm in our message to our government partners. Because like nonprofits, government budgets are bigger than we are. They are about the greater good in every way imaginable. When we speak up, we need to do so in a way that the greater good is what shines through, not ourselves.
3. Collaboration: If we know who we are and where we are going, and we know the budget that leverages all of those ideas into more resilient opportunities, then we also know that the people and communities we serve don’t win if we pit ourselves against each other. Already we are hearing a question – if not you, than who? I urge you to not accept the premise of this question. We don’t build our future by pitting one group against another either by people, geography, sector, or anything else. We don’t win as nonprofits in a competitive space. We win when we work to create the communities we want to live in – together. We know how to do this. There are so many great examples. In the last year especially, we have seen some incredible public, private, tribal partnerships based on strengthening outcomes for people and communities. We have also seen some wonderful examples of nonprofits changing the conversation with local governments from competitive to collaborative. Two examples come to mind in Ketchikan and Homer where nonprofits came together to present each other’s requests for local funding. Asked to position themselves against each other, the organizations did not accept this premise and instead found a way to set a new premise – that working with each other rather than against each other is the Alaskan way to win. As you use your voice in the coming months, remember this isn’t about you as a single mission – this isn’t about one sector winning while another is losing – this isn’t about saving your own line item. Rather, this is about all of us – together – creating the Alaska that works for everyone. Be skeptical about the notion that one part of Alaska is not affected by the others. Every decision in every budget – this one and future ones – has an impact on each of us directly and indirectly every day.
These are just three ways we work at our best as a nonprofit sector. I urge you to stay grounded in what works as the road ahead of us as Alaskans is long. The budget process is designed with many steps along the way, and our sector’s voice is essential to the process every step of the way. We won’t all agree on what we say, but I hope we can agree that staying engaged, sharing what we know are tenants of how our sector works best, and offering data and compelling stories about how each number in the budget translates to Alaskans and communities is the best way forward. And that by doing this, we can shift from offering defense to offering solutions that bring us closer to an Alaska where we care for and protect our most vulnerable, educate our children, celebrate our quality of life, steward our vital resources, and find economic prosperity. This is the work for all of us including nonprofits, but it can only be fully realized when we do our part with our government and industry partners. We are all in this together.
Postscript: In recent years Foraker has advocated a path forward that takes into account the value the sector brings to our economy in jobs, private philanthropy, federal funds, civic engagement, and more. We will continue to share this message as we stand ready to deliver those values back to the state. In the coming weeks, we look forward to sharing a platform to collect your data and your stories for lawmakers. We look forward to launching this effort with a diversity of partners across all sectors. We hope you will join us. More soon.
In partnership with the Atwood Foundation, Foraker is offering discounted services to arts, culture, and humanities organizations. A limited amount of financial assistance is available and will be on a first come first serve basis. Every effort will be made to help those organizations with the greatest need.
To learn more about how we can work together, please fill out this application and send it to Monica Garcia-Itchoak at firstname.lastname@example.org.