From Grassroots Activism to Nonprofit Bureaucracy

News & Politics
(Ed's Note: As Gavin writes, "Leadership of the social justice movement is changing." Today, we kick off our new series "Building a Movement" in which 20- and 30-year-old leaders will share their lessons learned, tactics, tips and ideas that have helped them move closer to lasting and substantive social change.

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Leadership of the social justice movement is changing. Young people across the country are beginning to take on increased roles of responsibility, picking up skills and talents on the fly. I'm one of those young people, and when I get the time to reflect on the journey here, it's certainly not at all what I imagined.

Sometimes, I lose my way -- we all do -- so it's essential to pause, take a look at where we've been, where we are today, and where we want to be in the future. That way, we're far more likely to stay on the path to change without losing sight of that drive that got us started in the first place.

How we got here

My mom has been doing nonprofit work of some sort for my entire life, and while my dad's not quite so much of an activist, he's far from apolitical. My dinner table discussions were filled with anecdotes from recent meetings, there are more than a few photo albums with little me at protests, and while I can't explain exactly why I do what I do, it's got to be traced back to some of those childhood memories.

After five different schools and universities, growing up mostly in Ohio and the Midwest, but also having spent time both out West and on the East coast, I ended up in Cincinnati just months before the riots of 2001. I had finally figured out that I'm from the Midwest and that's where I belong.

I quickly got involved with community-based issues in my adopted neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine -- Cincinnati's poorest neighborhood, and the epicenter of action after Officer Stephen Roach killed unarmed 19-year-old African-American Timothy Thomas. I spent hours on end building with local cats at the barber shop around the corner from my apartment. We carried those conversations around the city and eventually decided it was time to do something with all of our talk. Before too long, we're now in our second year of building an institution "Elementz: The Hip Hop Youth Arts Center." We knew that to truly begin to make long-term change, we would first need to develop trust and relationships with youth in the community, and Elementz allows us to do that.

Now, many of my peers are in similar positions where we're working to generate the kinds of opportunities and ideas that came naturally for us. We sat in on workshops and trainings, attended protests and vigils, and most importantly, listened to the people in our communities with an eye for how to turn that talk into action for change. Now we use our experiences, and the reflections and knowledge that came from our community, to guide our efforts. We set up leadership development workshops and classes and programs, all in hopes that a critical mass of people will get caught the way we did.

Kohei Ishihara is another brilliant young leader, and fellow of "Building Leadership, Organizing Communities." Kohei says that what "started out as a community uprising" eventually turned into a full-time gig. That gig being executive director at Providence Youth Student Movement, the organization he helped found.

Kohei began doing campus organizing while at Brown University, but has stayed committed to Providence, R.I. With work on campus, "all you need is a place to meet, passion, and some access to resources, so you can make things like flyers" and where "you don't have to do all you do in the nonprofit world."

Similarly, Laura McCargar began her community-based work while at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. She "got involved with other students making a video on youth rights in encounters with police," then Youth Rights Media started in the summer of 2000. She says that her role as executive director fell into her lap in July of '02, and I can definitely relate.

From organizer-activist to administrator-fundraiser

None of us thought, "Gee, I'd really like to be an executive director of an organization." We got involved in communities. Our groups had bigger visions and needs than could be met without more structure, and here we are.

I know exactly why I became a fundraiser. But lately, I've been thinking a lot about why am I spending the majority of my time on any given day as an administrator. Can we avoid at least some of the bureaucracy and paperwork that keeps us away from actual organizing?

The biggest obstacle to less paperwork seems to be frequent reporting. Raising money inevitably leads to reports on what you've accomplished with that money, especially as funders are increasingly more interested in supporting specific projects, rather than general operating costs that make it possible to raise the money, design those programs, and maintain the space to hold them in. The general consensus seems to be that reporting and evaluation takes around 10 percent of our time. That time could be better spent.

Organizations are increasingly judged on specific outcomes, measures, benchmarks and deliverables. We are asked to quantify our work in clear numbers. I think there's a lot of value in this process, and others agree.

Kohei says, "In the past it's been more about going through the motions, but answering truthfully." Now, he notes, "We want it to be helpful, and we're headed in that direction." Laura echoes that sentiment: "Reporting is relevant and helpful I try to use the time to kick back and evaluate, which is valuable because it requires a certain discipline."

The flip side of the equation, however, is that -- in Laura's words -- "evaluation happens too often because of an externally imposed deadline," and she finds that it often induces anxiety.

The bottom line is that we want to evaluate our programs -- we want to have the opportunity to look at the work we do over time from a birds-eye view. But I know it is difficult to make reporting and evaluation truly mesh with the rest of the work, particularly because with a $300,000 budget, you probably have at least five -- and more likely 15 -- different kinds of reports and evaluation processes to follow.

Young executive directors I know put in an average of no less than 60 hours a week, and most of us have side projects that go on top of the core work for our organizations. I'm not particularly unique in the fact that I've built a nonprofit from scratch that is now at a $200,000 budget -- and it won't be until July 1 of this year that I will be able to leave my full-time job and get the possibility of a social life back.

I find that quality management is one of the biggest challenges as a young leader working with young people and young staff. Kohei estimates 35 percent of his time goes towards management; Laura simply says "a lot of my time," with a laugh; and I'd say I'm lucky to spend less than 30 percent of my time in this category. As a result, I leave the office many days with a guilty feeling because I know I've just cut it too close and in the process not given as much to others as I might have been able to.

Another thing that always seems to get pushed to the back of the to-do list is fundraising. Both Kohei and Laura agreed that they don't spend enough time on it, and I would concur. Kohei said, "I spend about 15 percent of my time on fundraising, but it should be 25 percent."

And the biggest loss is that we also end up skimping on time spent with youth -- staying in touch with the community we are serving. Whether it is just getting to know those we work with, or doing specific programmatic, campaign or case work.

Lack of community-based leadership

Another story within this story is that we're all working with constituencies that we're not a part of. Ivy League-educated, middle- to upper-middle-class people of color running organizations that work with low-income people of color are not uncommon. White folks who play the role of executive director in organizations whose constituency is mostly black are, sadly but truly, a dime a dozen.

Yet we're filling needs and doing jobs that are often the toughest ones to fill -- the jobs many would say cannot be filled within the constituency itself. And while we all feel strongly that top leadership can come directly from the constituencies we work with, and we're working hard to make that a reality, we also see some big hurdles in our way.

"A lot of these jobs require college or post-graduate degrees -- in accounting or social work or nonprofit management," says Kohei. As a guy who decided to leave New York University with three semesters left, I could argue that nonprofit managers don't necessarily need a degree. But I often joke that my real full-time job is working as a translator; I try to get wealthy and poor, old and young, black and white folks -- all to hear one another. To do this, I definitely needed my time at NYU and other experiences like that which were not and still are not available to the guys who sat in the barber shop with me and have the vision.

When it comes to following directions to the tune of eight-page proposals, matching the lingua franca of your chosen sector with your chosen funder, and learning the ropes of "relationship building" with program officers, something more than pure street smarts is definitely a prerequisite. There are precious few individuals who break the mold and learn to speak money and power fluently without ever really being exposed to anything other than poverty and powerlessness.

So even though I started doing social justice work with the hopes and dreams of being an activist and organizer, it's really not all that surprising that I now find myself sitting squarely in my office as an administrator pushing a lot of paperwork. Kohei and Laura are in just about the same place. If we envisioned anything, it was not this. But it's a position that needs to be played if we want to turn community uprisings -- often momentary -- into lasting change.

Some suggested solutions for getting back on track

Never one to complain without working to identify possible solutions, I'd like to evaluate the role of the young executive director and suggest how we -- director and funders might improve our lot in life.

1. Set up your own reporting deadlines. Consider setting up consistent times for evaluation and internal reporting independent of your grant requirements. Internal systems and processes will often be acceptable to funders, as they are willing to make exceptions if you make a good case. Work to be proactive rather than reactive in your evaluation so that you will be more able to set the standards by which your work is judged. For helpful resources, check out, or

2. Encourage funders to give more flexibility and individual tailoring in reporting. I think that if funders would factor in spending some time on the front end with each grantee to discuss what evaluation structure would work best for that organization, the benefits would be significant. We should all be careful not to lose the quality of our work in all of our desire to quantify. Also, I found at least one foundation -- Cricket Island -- that used reports by other directors to connect our organizations and share their work.

3. Membership! There is a growing movement of nonprofit leaders doing progressive work around the country who are fed up with budgets that are ultra-foundation heavy. The nonprofit world is becoming more saturated every day, and in my opinion, too few that are doing relevant work. If we are to prove that we should be around, we need to do the hard work of developing membership bases and broad-based support in our communities that will prove our value. For more info, visit Incite! or

4. More community members, including youth, on the boards and evaluation teams of funders. If we are to truly pave the way for organizations to have constituent leadership and support organizations that provide invaluable services, funders are going to need to be a part of the solution. Too often, an innovative or truly community-based organization has to depend on individual savvy of a director and smart program officers to get its point across. No one is better positioned to evaluate whether or not you've got the pulse of your community than respected community members. If funders made an effort to have more people -- like those they are seeking to help -- on their boards, I am confident there would be a rise in the percentage of organizations with indigenous leadership doing truly relevant work. For helpful info, visit or

The years ahead

As I look toward the future, I am confident that young leaders like me, Kohei, and Laura will make our mark. The only question that remains is how big that mark will be. By consistently taking the time to step back and evaluate our position and the effectiveness of our work -- while staying focused and driven to do the work itself -- we will do right by our legacy.

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