Guest post by Nina Selvaggio
In 1997, fresh out of college, I took on a one-year position as a college campus organizer with the legendary Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority. She was looking for recent graduates who were in touch with what was happening on campuses daily. I pinched myself every day as a too-good-to-be-true reminder that I was working for Ellie. She was a pivotal leader, famous for her role in 2nd Wave Feminism. I had read about her involvement in the Equal Rights Amendment fight before taking this job, and I knew she would be an incredible leader to learn from.
My role, funded by the Ford Foundation, was part of the first cohort of organizers to launch the national program. Chosen from hundreds of applicants, we were a group of six with incredibly diverse backgrounds. We would be working directly on college campuses to create a new type of progressive organization. Our job was to help students on campus put all the structures, systems, and protocols in place for their group ideals to succeed.
Before long, we were organizing brilliant students in places I had never heard of. We encouraged them to engage in small but powerful actions with their very limited resources.
Organization and structure have a huge impact
And in doing so, I was able to watch how just a tiny organizational push could really help these movements soar. With a little bit of structure — such as utilizing a database to track their activities — these small groups were able to measure their impact, paving the way for additional funding from their colleges.
It was a dream to get paid to promote social justice, advocate for the most vulnerable, and strive to make the world a better place. I was ecstatic.
Though not everyone saw it that way. “Are you volunteering?” or “Is this an internship position?” were common questions I would receive, when I explained to people who asked what I was working toward. I realized that not everyone understood what working at a nonprofit required, but it didn’t deter me from my goal. I was determined to build my career providing services to communities and individuals who would not otherwise have access to those services while advocating for others who also didn’t have the opportunities they deserve and need.
And eventually, I did.
The root of the problem
Yet, twenty years later, I still find myself chasing structure rather than working within it. In the nonprofit sector, especially, there is a pervasive uncertainty about the level of impact achieved. These two phenomena, a lack of structure and demonstrable impact, are deeply connected. After working for a variety of organizations, some with budgets less than $5 million and others with budgets of over $20 million, I have come to understand the roots of these problems.
Today, whether you realize it or not, there are plenty of great minds who are passionate about changing the world and making a difference working behind the scenes of many a nonprofit organization. They hustle and raise dollars to fund their important program work. They invest in vague concepts like growth and saturation. They lead the masses and inspire staff to work long, hard hours with small salaries and few perks. They are charged with wooing a handful of donors and following the opinions behind their dollars (which, unfortunately, likely lead to short-term solutions that distract the organization, without deepening their impact or furthering the mission).
Nonprofit organizations often struggle to demonstrate their value to current champions and would-be stakeholders because they haven’t invested in their capacity to grow processes, promote professionalism, and, most importantly, invest in people. Furthermore, organizations in our sector grapple with valuing their own work in concrete terms. At the same time, they are in conflict with how to prioritize systems and build infrastructure so that staff can focus on doing their job seamlessly. These are the keys to truly valuing the work being done and the people charged to do it.
As leaders, our individual creativity and passions often stunt our collective ability to express what effective structures look like. When budgets are tight and tough decisions must be made, people and processes are often pitted against investments in services. Organizations may have 200 staff members in the field with only one or two human resource professionals to manage all the talent needs. Companies are often stuck with using long-outdated databases and technology, asking staff to “sink or swim” when managing the daily struggles of the office. I have often heard leaders say they want the best but just can’t afford the time to think about making these changes.
Nonprofits are bringing about real social change and people working in the sector are not always held in the same esteem as their for-profit peers. There is only one thing that perpetuates that perception: not investing in the foundation of the organization. And my new personal nonprofit mission is to help organizations make that transformation.
Focusing on solutions
After twenty years of working around these challenges, I’ve decided to stop noticing the problems in one organization and instead, offer the following solutions and strategies to as many organizations as I can:
- Cultivate ideal management styles and leaders that inspire staff to be their best selves and challenge them to grow.
- Implement rigorous annual and multi-year planning with accompanying accountability protocols as the backbone of your ability to make an impact.
- Hone internal and external communications strategies — to keep those who care about your mission engaged and informed.
- Analyze — then optimize — sustainable systems and operations to make an organization hum. Without solid infrastructure, nothing else can happen.
- Develop employee programs that emphasize staff humanity to build diverse, bright, supportive, inclusive, and collaborative cultures where everyone can thrive.
I firmly believe that the difference between organizations that grow and those that struggle and stay stagnant are the priorities of their leaders. Those leaders who focus on and invest in management and leadership, annual planning, communications, executive support, operations, and staff engagement will succeed. Those who still want a shot to lead effectively must position their organization to do just that. The leaders who will best accomplish their missions are those who already understand the importance of investing in infrastructure and talent.
When Nina is not brilliantly leading our Boston Founding Exchange, she is a nonprofit professional with twenty years of leadership experience in the social sector. Her core passion, expertise, and abilities are grounded in her goal to integrate improved ways of operating so talent can focus their time and energy on bringing a mission to life.
Nina works with nonprofits to help them reimagine their impact. She provides support and services centered around ideal management & leadership, rigorous planning, thoughtful communications, sustainable operations, and inspired staff engagement.