How a University and Foundation Collaborate to Support Diverse Nonprofit Leaders

Posted in News Story

October 14, 2020

In 2016, Georgetown University’s Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL) and the Crimsonbridge Foundation, through its Leadership Fund (CLF), began a partnership to strengthen the leadership of community-based nonprofit organizations in the Greater Washington DC region. The approach to this work seemed simple: provide funding to support nonprofit leaders of diverse backgrounds in the Center’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program. Over the past four years, we have learned that designing a scholarship program is more complex than we had originally envisioned. It requires analyzing everything through the lens of racial equity—recruitment, curriculum, support and network building. This article shares how we redesigned our approach and the lessons learned throughout the partnership. We hope this encourages similar partnerships between other organizations.

Shared Mission

One thing that made it possible for the Crimsonbridge Foundation and CPNL to build this successful partnership was our shared mission. In 2016, the Crimsonbridge Foundation reached out to CPNL with the goal of supporting the professional development of diverse, committed, and talented nonprofit leaders serving the Greater Washington Region. Danielle M. Reyes, Executive Director of the Crimsonbridge Foundation, stated “One of our priorities is to support local nonprofit leaders of color by connecting them with high-quality professional development opportunities and an expansive network. Investing in nonprofit leadership that reflects the diversity of the communities they serve will help build a stronger nonprofit sector.”

This was perfect timing for CPNL, as the Center had recently conducted an audit of our participant demographics and committed to increasing the number of grassroots organizations in our programs. “The Greater Washington Region is the home to one of the most dynamic nonprofit communities in the world. We were, and still are, committed to making sure that the entire depth and breadth of the sector is represented in our programs,” said Dr. Luisa Boyarski, Associate Director of CPNL.

You can learn more about the accomplishments of the partnership here.

Challenging the Old Model

To meet the needs of the new leaders we were hoping to engage, CPNL and the Crimsonbridge Foundation made changes to three elements of the old model.

  • Recruitment – It was not sufficient to merely share the opportunity with our existing nonprofit networks. We had to think creatively about new ways to reach diverse communities throughout the region. Additionally, we had to counter the perception that Georgetown University programs are inaccessible. Even in cases where a lack of financial resources is not a deterrent, the elite university brand can make leaders feel like the program “is not for people like me.”
  • Curriculum – In 2016, our curriculum did not address important topics, such as power building or racial equity, which are critically important to nonprofit leaders. We needed to update our content to address the challenges that leaders of diverse backgrounds face.
  • Support and Network Building – Local nonprofit leaders need more than just  knowledge and skills to be successful. They need access to new networks—networks of funders and peers in the sector. These networks, when nurtured, can provide needed ongoing support.

It would have been easy to stick with the old model and provide scholarships to nonprofit leaders already in our networks. Instead, CPNL and the Crimsonbridge Foundation committed to doing the work differently by redesigning how we approached the three areas above.

Recruitment – Accessing Diverse Networks

As explained more fully in our 2019 article, Growing Networks and Diversity, both CPNL and Crimsonbridge rethought our outreach strategies. CPNL made two significant changes. First, we enlisted the help of program alumni to tap into new networks of leaders at the community level. Several alumni were part of Facebook groups or listservs where they shared the information. Others had one-on-one meetings with colleagues whom they thought could benefit from the Certificate Program. We found that having our alumni make the first contact with potential applicants helped overcome the concern that “this program is not for me.”

We also realized that because it was not possible to individually connect with all potential scholarship applicants, we needed to visually show in our outreach material that the Certificate Program provides an inclusive learning environment and cohort. We decided that the best way to do this was by interviewing program alumni and sharing their stories. Including photos was critical. Crimsonbridge shared that these alumni stories helped several participants, who were on the fence about participating, decide to attend the program.

Curriculum – Building Power and Racial Equity

As more nonprofit leaders from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds have applied to the Certificate Program, it became very clear that there were some topics that we needed to add to the curriculum to meet the needs of all of our participants. Nonprofit leaders saw on a daily basis the power inequities between community members, nonprofit leaders, philanthropic funders and government systems. They were eager to learn more about how to build the power of their communities and encourage them to advocate for their own priorities. We engaged two new faculty in our advocacy class to share their strategies on power-building: Rashad Robinson, President of the Color of Change, and Tram Nguyen, Co-Executive Director of New Virginia Majority.

Additionally, we found that the topics of racial equity and justice were very important to many of the nonprofit leaders who were joining the program with support from CLF. We decided to restructure the sessions on human resources to be taught through a racial equity framework. Monisha Kaplia, Founder and CEO of ProInspire, has brought new research and tools to the Certificate Program including the frameworks Awake to Woke to Work Building a Race Equity Culture and the new Leadership Guide for Inclusion and Impact.

Support and Network Building

After the first two years of our partnership, we determined that offering new tools and skills was not enough to build the capacity of nonprofit leaders. It was equally important to provide support and networking opportunities during and after the Certificate Program. To strengthen relationships during the program, Crimsonbridge Foundation staff meet with scholarship recipients during lunch in order to learn more about the challenges and opportunities they face as nonprofit leaders. “Making space to learn more about the aspirations and challenges of CLF leaders has helped us make new connections within our network and leverage leaders’ expertise in wider circles,” Danielle shared. As we have learned from talking with these 49 leaders, creating this space for sharing helps leaders get to know how funders can advocate for them and how their peer leaders can provide a sounding board for their ideas.

After the Certificate Program ends, CPNL continues to provide opportunities for alumni to come together in social settings, as well as in a Racial Equity Working Group. The Working Group meets at least eight times annually and provides a peer support space for alumni to gain new knowledge and get advice on challenges they are facing in their racial equity and justice work. Additionally, in response to the new needs of nonprofit leaders that have surfaced in 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and movement for racial justice, CPNL and the Crimsonbridge Foundation will bring together scholarship alumni for workshops that will help them address current challenges and plan for long-term sustainability.

Through its support of 49 CPNL leaders, the Crimsonbridge Foundation has strived to engage nonprofit leaders beyond only financial support. The CLF network is a group of 81 alumni in total from all of the foundation’s leadership program partners. As members of the CLF network, these alumni have access to resources and continued professional development opportunities long after the program has ended. Beyond their CPNL experience, leaders’ contributions – within their nonprofit organizations, their sector, and within the CPNL and CLF networks – add unique value to organizations and our region. Crimsonbridge invites CLF leaders to:   

  • Participate in networking events
  • Tap into their CPNL and Crimsonbridge networks as they move through career changes
  • Engage in CPNL Alumni activities, including the Racial Equity Working Group

Keys to the Partnership – Innovation and Ongoing Communication

We believe the partnership between CPNL and the Crimsonbridge Foundation has been successful for two main reasons. First, we are willing to try new approaches to see what works. We are constantly innovating based on feedback from scholarship alumni and from our own observations. Second, we have an open line of communication, which is based on our desire to learn together and share insights. This partnership would not work if only one of us was driving the decision making or if feedback was travelling in just one direction. We look forward to continuing this work together and are excited about the new scholarship alumni programming that we will be developing for 2021.