Learning from Front Line Leaders

Audio Description

Many nonprofits feel under siege and don't know where to turn. Who better to offer advice than peers from other local, national, and global nonprofit organizations? Here are the best ideas gleaned from our Looking Forward, Giving Back webinar series—which featured proven leaders from both the social sector and the arts—discussing their biggest challenges, innovative responses, and what the post-pandemic future may hold. Tune in for actionable insights you can bring back to your own organization.


00:00 - 00:33

Hi, everyone, before I launch into today's episode, I just want to acknowledge a few things. First, the interviews with nonprofit leaders that we're going to cover today all took place just prior to the tragic murder of George Floyd. So the conversation is really focused on navigating through and beyond COVID-19 with challenges and opportunities arising out of that crisis situation. I think it's safe to say, though, that we're now in, and really always have been, navigating through another crisis situation, which is just now really hit the national stage in a way we haven't seen since the Civil Rights Movement in our country.

00:33 - 00:38

Our hearts go out to the families and the loved ones of these individuals whose lives were tragically cut short.

00:39 - 01:11

Eric Garner in New York, Michael Brown in Missouri, Tanisha Anderson in Ohio, Laquan McDonald in Illinois, Tamir Rice in Ohio, Gabriella Nevarez, California, Walter Scott, South Carolina, Freddie Gray, Maryland, Jamar Clark, Minnesota, Alton Sterling, Louisiana, Philando Castile, Minnesota,

01:12 - 01:30

Stephon Clark, California, Tony McDade, Florida, Botham Jean, Texas, Breonna Taylor, Kentucky. And most recently, Rayshard Brooks in Georgia. These are just some of the names.

01:31 - 01:58

We extend our thoughts to those business owners and community members who have in so many cases lost their entire life's work, and we value the service and dedication of so many law enforcement officials out there. We know that a solution will only come from listening, understanding the systemic changes needed, and taking action to create a more just society. With that, I'm Clare Golla, Head of Endowment and Foundation Advisory Services at Bernstein.

01:58 - 02:30

This is Inspired Investing, where we inform and educate individuals and organizations who strive to invest purposefully with and for a mission. Today, we're going to share best ideas from leaders from local, national, and global nonprofit organizations. We hosted them as part of a recent webinar series where they each shared actionable insights that you can bring back to your own organizations. First, a quick overview of the panelists. From the social services sector,

02:30 - 02:52

We heard from Samir Lakhani of Eco-Soap Bank, Lisa Gurwitch of Delivering Good, and Joella Brooks of Southwest Key. And from the arts, we were joined by Kate Goodall of Halcyon, Chad Bernstein, no relation to our Bernstein, although I joked that we would love to have him, of Guitars Over Guns. And Tony Sias from Karamu House.

02:53 - 03:23

To start off, what I really wanted to know is how these organizations are pivoting so they can continue to make an impact. Take Lisa Gurwitch of Delivering Good. There are a 35-year-old charity that partners with the retail and fashion industry to deliver new product donations to people in need. With their partners hit so hard, we asked how the organization is coping. This pandemic has been devastating to many of the businesses that we deal with, and we want to be very sensitive to the issues that their employees, their teams are facing.

03:24 - 03:50

At the same time, there is an estimated one to three billion dollars of unused merchandise that needs a good home, a sustainable home, a home that can help kids who are rapidly outgrowing their clothes or people that hopefully will have a job interview very soon. So we have had to scale up dramatically in order to be able to meet this need to make it easy for the companies.

03:50 - 04:22

Many of their employees are furloughed. So our regular contacts are not available. We want to make it easy for them to really deliver good in the markets that they want to and even to engage their consumers, because we know that consumers want to support businesses that do good. We are very experienced in disaster response. We're not really immediate responders, but in this case, we've provided items like blankets to people who are at the Javits Center in New York, who are actual COVID patients.

04:23 - 04:36

We we are providing masks, gloves, and other kinds of items that people need right away. But we're also in the process of helping communities rebuild. And so we're providing all different kinds of merchandise that people will need.

04:37 - 05:06

And the companies are engaging, as I mentioned, consumers in cause marketing, what we call purpose marketing campaigns, where consumers have the opportunity to contribute to this work online and hopefully soon in stores. There are also many buy-one, give-one campaigns where people can go online and buy shoes, buy clothing, buy all different kinds of products and know that other people will be benefited by what they're doing.

05:06 - 05:23

And we encourage all of these efforts, as well as other creative efforts like entertainment activities online that will benefit our mission as well. Lisa isn't the only nonprofit leader who's had to pivot. Samir Lakhani of Eco-Soap Bank has faced a very similar challenge.

05:23 - 05:56

His organization has historically partnered with hotels to recycle discarded soap and redeploy it into the developing world. It may surprise people to know that the hotel industry used to throw away five million bars of soap every single day. With COVID-19 and hotels shuttering, that just isn't the case anymore. So we had a serious problem on our hands. We were determined to keep all 154 women we employ on payroll, but they had no hotel soap to recycle to execute their life saving mission.

05:56 - 06:28

And so we had the idea to reach out directly to soap factories to see what we could find. And what we discovered, Clare, transformed our business. We discovered that factories discard as much, if not more, soap than hotels ever did. And we estimate we can actually, in the last two months, for example, we have mobilized two hundred metric tons of soap pieces and scraps and rejects, which our women can now recycle and give to people in need.

06:28 - 06:58

Yes. So in that sense, I think it would be wrong to say that COVID has only brought negative things upon us. In fact, what it has done for us, it has forced us out of our comfort zone and our old habits to start thinking creatively on how we can not only preserve our existing impact, but scale it even further. We estimate now with this new sourcing strategy, we can reach three times as many people, but we need the philanthropic capital in order to meet that demand.

06:58 - 07:25

Both Lisa and Samir are living examples of one of the key strategies we discussed in a recent blog and podcast called Nonprofits' New Game Plan. They were each able to pursue cross-sector collaboration, including with the private sector, to continue their missions. And this kind of ingenuity wasn't just seen in social services. Leaders in the arts sector pivoted too. But there the lesson centered more on making programs relevant to today's crisis.

07:25 - 07:27

Take Chad Bernstein from Guitars Over Guns.

07:28 - 07:52

The organization combines music and mentorship to change the trajectory for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. As far as pivoting goes, you know, it's been a really wild time for everyone in the world, but especially for the arts and especially for nonprofit organizations. And we are so much the connective tissue between our students and the resources that exist. And we don't try to be all things to all students, but we are able to be

07:53 - 08:22

a very integral part of the process. So while we may not be the ones that are going out and buying tablets for kids to do virtual learning, you know, we're the ones that are saying, here, here's the program, here are the issues for the individuals that are saying here we have the iPads, the devices. Why aren't they getting to the community? Why aren't they getting to our students? And our students are disproportionately affected in this pandemic. And so it's been a really interesting model. We've gone 100% virtual in the first week.

08:22 - 08:48

We took a hard look at all the numbers and committed fully to our people to honor every dollar of expected income, did a full financial assessment, looked at our cash reserves, to know that we could handle that commitment. We were fortunate to receive a PPP loan. And then it was really, how do we pivot as a program? You know, our three priorities were connect, assess, and deliver. So one, we needed to figure out, are our students connected, do they have a device,

08:48 - 09:13

do they have Internet? Because access to information is really access to everything else. The second was how do we assess their well-being. Baseline needs, safety, food, access to baseline care. We also needed to figure out how do we deliver, how do we continue to maintain a safe place and a sense of belonging for our students? How do we continue to be responsive to their needs? How do we continue to provide hope? How do we continue to provide key services?

09:13 - 09:37

We have a mental health program in the organization, which may seem like a bit of a stretch for an arts organization, but it is an integral baseline need that is not met in the communities that we serve. And so our musicians end up being the individuals that our students go to in times of crisis. And so we are having pulled in a lot of those mental health resources, now we're able to distribute those and be available to our students in that way during this time as well.

09:37 - 10:11

Tony Sias from Karamu House echoed Chad's sentiments. Karamu House ranks among the nation's premier African American performing arts theaters. And as a 105-year-old organization, they've been through multiple economic crises over its long history and have always figured out a way to survive and thrive. Tony shared what they've learned from the past. Our brand is theater, but throughout the years we've been much more than theater. So we think about our education programs, which, you know, people like Langston Hughes got his start at Karamu House.

10:11 - 10:21

When you think about Vanessa Bell Calloway or James Pickens Jr., all of these artists have come through Karamu House and Karamu has served as a training ground.

10:21 - 10:55

You know, in the 70s, the institution was viewed as the premier training ground for artists of color, specifically in theater. So if a person left Cleveland, left Karamu House and went to Chicago, LA, New York, and people saw Karamu on that resume, they were given carte blanche because they knew that these people have been formally trained in the arts and sciences of theater. So today, that's why it was so important for us to look at the arts education as the first thing that we would invest in, in this COVID moment to pivot.

10:55 - 11:23

And a lot of organizations immediately, within the first week of the country being shut down, they put programming out there and we made a decision that we didn't want to be the first, but we wanted to ensure that we had quality programming, because what's so important is that our education programs is focused on mastery in that art's discipline, so that young people and whoever is matriculating through the program gain all of the benefits from studying that particular discipline.

11:24 - 11:31

So we're finding at this point that we lost about a week ago registration for some arts academy.

11:32 - 11:44

In the past, we had students who were from the local area, and if someone was visiting an aunt or uncle or grandparent, we might have a child or two that was from out of town. Well, this summer, our already registered,

11:44 - 12:07

we have families represented from eight different states as far as Arizona. And so this looks at this moment as a moment of expansion, that our brand now moves from the heart of the city of Cleveland and that we're able to reach around the country and around the world so that people understand and connect with the quality of services that we're providing.

12:08 - 12:23

It came as no surprise that all the leaders we spoke to had seen skyrocketing demand. So we asked them how they've been engaging funders and ramping up their outreach, because one thing we've heard from not-for-profits across the country is the need for open dialogue with funders right now.

12:23 - 12:52

Often highlighting the ways you're adapting to stay relevant is really all donors need to hear. Here's Joella Brooks of Southwest Key, which operates shelters for unaccompanied minors and provides juvenile justice services. They quickly realized they needed to pivot to remote training for their staff, and they worked with their funders to make that happen. We immediately contacted them with ideas that we had with the intention and the efforts around social distancing and keeping staff and kids safe.

12:52 - 13:14

So that was the, that was the impetus for all of what we were trying to do, and so they asked that we present them this idea in writing, and which we did know, obviously we went back and forth on it a bit, but there was no hesitation to approve the program that we had designed and shared it with them. And there was no hesitation to approve that.

13:14 - 13:48

We also, for all of our funders, even our youth justice funders, we went to them immediately with plan to transition our community- based work, to telework and to begin making sure that we could continue to service the youth remotely. And so Bell's partnerships were, are solid and they appreciated the proactiveness and the innovativeness and appreciated our desire to continue to serve these children even during this difficult time.

13:48 - 14:04

And here's Lisa and Samir again, talking about the innovative ways they've been working with donors and supporters. Many of us run very lean organizations with very small staffs, and Delivering Good, for a 150-200 million dollar organization,

14:04 - 14:39

we actually only have 14 staff. So we have had to develop a whole cadre of ambassadors, people who can help us get the word out about this critical mission and especially the urgency of this time. So we've been working with our board, our associated council, a group of really energetic and creative people who are our ambassadors in the business community to help amplify our message. And they even developed a menu of opportunities for virtual volunteers. With our funders,

14:39 - 14:55

spending some time taking a step back is really important. We all have operational issues that we need to solve every single day. So it's easy to lose sight of our vision while we're dealing with these operational details.

14:55 - 15:15

So with our largest foundation funder, we've actually set aside time every few weeks for a virtual coffee break to remember our vision of a more equitable world. And when have we seen the need for that before, given this crisis and the inequitable way that it has affected certain populations.

15:16 - 15:39

So we step back, we talk about the vision, and then that's actually turned into concrete action where this particular funder and a board member developed a whole new communication strategy for how to explain what was happening. So the planning and reflection and then the actual next steps and real tangible action have been what we've been focusing on.

15:40 - 16:12

Got it. That's great. So, Samir, I have a question for you. Tell me a little bit about how you have partnered with your board members to spread the word and develop, I guess, as Lisa mentioned, ambassadors on behalf of the organization. So our board got together to kind of evaluate how we were going to pivot. And I think two things came out of that. First, we determined, we went back to basics to preserve our impact and our morals, but also we came up with two creative strategies after that.

16:12 - 16:28

Immediately the board stepped up and said, we have matching funds available, in order to increase the available fundraising dollars coming into the organization at this tough time. There are currently available matching funds through a current fundraiser.

16:28 - 17:01

But the second thing we did is we were literally starting from scratch in reaching out to soap manufacturers and factories. I'm 27 years old. My Rolodex is quite small, so we needed to utilize our board members' networks in order to have conversations with large consumer good companies and other soap manufacturers and the like. And what we have stumbled upon is an absolute treasure trove of valuable soap that we just need to recycle and redirect to three million more people in the next few weeks.

17:01 - 17:19

I'll just close out with some final points for funders. We recently published a blog outlining the four things that nonprofits really want from funders right now. And coincidentally, our leaders from the arts made a very similar case. They're looking for a willingness to revisit spending and to minimize the red tape.

17:19 - 17:49

Hear Chad, Kate, and Tony. There are organizations that are really doing the work right now. And now is the best and most important time, we are so uncertain of what revenues are going to look like for this next year to make a really meaningful impact on the organization. Thanks, Chad. Kate? I agree with all of that, and I'll add, I guess, I was at a nonprofit well, not this one, back in 2007, 2008, and certainly remember vividly mostly the foundations that stepped up during that time.

17:49 - 18:23

And many of them spent beyond their five percent to fill the gaps that were left by corporations and individuals that were no longer able or desirous of contributing. So I do remember that with immense gratitude. We all have purchasing power, right. We make choices in terms of where our dollars goes. That's a really important message. Thank you. All right, Tony? I would just say, be flexible with your investment and funding. That funders should really know that this is a time that all organizations are, you know, let me speak me and Karamu.

18:23 - 18:43

We're doing a little spagetti throwing and it's saying, what's going to stick? Because at the end of the day, we are trying to redefine who we are in this space. And that's not to say that we're doing a huge mission creep or anything, but this is about how do you stay relevant in this moment in time.

18:44 - 18:58

And so you're developing new content. You are looking at various platforms to then present this work on. So these are new costs associated with doing this work virtually.

18:59 - 19:24

So there needs to be a flexibility and understanding that this is about expansion, but this is about investment and looking at what the ROI is on that investment. But we need flexibility at this time and to really continue to expand your giving. Thanks again to all of our guests for sharing ideas that others can use to sustain their own missions. And thanks for listening.

19:24 - 19:49

Be sure to subscribe to Inspired Investing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you'd like to learn more about Bernstein's Endowment and Foundation Advisory Services, please explore the link in this episode's description. Bernstein: Making money meaningful for individuals, families, and foundations for over 50 years. Visit us at Bernstein.com.

Clare Golla
National Managing Director—Philanthropic Services

The information presented and opinions expressed are solely the views of the podcast host commentator and their guest speaker(s). AllianceBernstein L.P. or its affiliates makes no representations or warranties concerning the accuracy of any data. There is no guarantee that any projection, forecast or opinion in this material will be realized. Past performance does not guarantee future results. The views expressed here may change at any time after the date of this podcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment advice. AllianceBernstein L.P. does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. It does not take an investor’s personal investment objectives or financial situation into account; investors should discuss their individual circumstances with appropriate professionals before making any decisions. This information should not be construed as sales or marketing material or an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any financial instrument, product or service sponsored by AllianceBernstein or its affiliates.

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