Alumni Spotlight: Reverend Alison Dunn-Almaguer, Washington Interfaith Network
Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) is a D.C. affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), which is the largest community organizing group in the United States. Founded in 1996, WIN works to empower local congregations and associations through a multi-racial, multi-faith and non-partisan mission. The organization trains and develops community leaders to create long-term shifts in power and spark action for various issues including affordable housing, living wages and public safety. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL) spoke with Reverend Alison Dunn-Almaguer, Senior Organizer at WIN, about her experience working in the nonprofit sector and her time in CPNL’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program, where she was a Wells Fargo scholarship recipient.
CPNL: Why did you want to work in the nonprofit sector?
Dunn-Almaguer: I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector because I really care about people and about making change. My background is in interfaith hospital chaplaincy and I became frustrated seeing the limits of direct service. I think it’s important work, but I was discharging homeless patients to the streets because the homeless shelters were full. In the winter months, I knew they were going to be back in a few days. I wanted to work in systems change and nonprofits have a lot of ability to impact that kind of work.
CPNL: Tell us about your work at Washington Interfaith Network (WIN).
Dunn-Almaguer: The goal is building people power to create community change. We organize churches, mosques, synagogues and unions to build community power. In many ways, it’s rebuilding democracy. Right now, we live in a time of polarized politics and fragmented communities. We need institutions, regardless of faith or tradition, that are ready to be transformative and create change outside of their communities. The work is political but explicitly nonpartisan, and we take on grassroots campaigns. We hold listening sessions within communities in all eight wards of D.C. to hear what people want to work on. In the past 24 years, the main issues have been jobs, living wages and affordable housing.
We also spend a lot of time working in transit, where D.C. Circulator and Streetcar employees suffer decreased wages because they have been privatized. As a result, workers drive the same routes as WMATA operators but make significantly less per hour and lack benefits. It took years of organizing, but we, in partnership with our regional affiliates and the Amalgamated Transit Union, were able to put pressure on the D.C. Council to increase funding for wages and benefits of the privatized workers.
CPNL: What is the most fulfilling part of your role right now?
Dunn-Almaguer: One part is leadership development, which I think is the heart of community organizing. We ensure that no matter what the issue is, the people who are directly affected are at the table. Whether it’s affordable housing, jobs, or homelessness, the people who are affected are there. They are the experts but sometimes we forget that, especially in such a bureaucratic city. For example, we worked on a project called Temple Courts. Five years ago, when I first started working with WIN, we organized former residents of Temple Courts to bring back affordable housing that had been converted into a parking lot. I got to see how one leader in particular, Nathan, really grew. He stood in front of a crowd of 300 peers, residents and councilmembers and asked, “Do you know what it’s like to be a refugee in your own city?” He stepped down from that speech and said, “Without WIN, and without this work, I would not have known my voice mattered.” That is why I do this – to get people at the table to understand that every voice matters. People are silenced and we help build power so their voices are heard.
Another fulfilling part is success. This past spring, WIN worked with a coalition of immigrant rights organizations and direct service providers and we managed to secure $2.5 million in the mayor’s budget for immigrant legal defense funding. When we originally started this campaign, people said there was no way that we would get that amount because even the most progressive cities were not doing that. But we listened to the different service providers and that was the amount that they needed to have the right number of lawyers for our population. We were able to organize the immigrant population and the majority of our Catholic population, alongside the direct service providers, and got that win. That is one of the most fulfilling things, seeing real results from our campaigns.
CPNL: What was your biggest takeaway from the certificate program?
Dunn-Almaguer: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That was one of the most helpful things to recognize. It does not matter how many great volunteer or board manuals we have written, it is the culture that is the most important. We did an entire module on how to change the culture of an organization, which allowed me to recognize that culture is incredibly important. But to have a healthy culture, you do need written documents and protocol. With WIN being a grassroots organization, that is something we do not always have. We often rely on leaders and use a more organic approach. The program gave me the opportunity to step back and assess where our organization was successful and where it could change. I could step back and do a health analysis and use the SWAT Chart tool that we learned about in order to develop a strategic 5-year plan that I could share with the board at WIN. Another thing we learned about was styles of motivation. I used that with our board members to figure out what motivated them. Our board members are organizers; they are leaders in our organization. It was really helpful to figure out how to work with individual leaders better.
CPNL: How did the certificate program challenge you?
Dunn-Almaguer: The program challenged me to recognize that even though we are a high-performing nonprofit, we have a lot of practices that we could be better at implementing. At WIN, we never even had a simple volunteer manual, so I made that part of my capstone. I created a manual that outlined the expectations and opportunities through which volunteers could engage. We are still getting it approved, but creating one was a challenge. We have about 1,000 volunteers every year through our congregations and institutions and still do not have a volunteer manual in place. The program challenged me to realize that although our community organizing is relational, we need a structure and mutual consent. People consent to volunteer but we do not have a behavioral contract that allows us to hold volunteers accountable. Creating these documents has been really good for our organization.
CPNL: How has the certificate program helped you in your career?
Dunn-Almaguer: This is my first year managing staff and the program really helped me gain skills and insight so that I could be a successful manager. We talked about management and were given specific tools to help develop management skills. Strategically learning how to organize people has been extremely important. Studies show that people experience burnout without a great manager and that is one of the highest reasons for turnover. These strategies have been very important for my career and I will continue to use them forever.
CPNL: What advice would you give to the other professionals who are considering taking part in the program?
Dunn-Almaguer: Do it! It is one of the most important and best gifts you can give yourself. Often in nonprofits, we get into the work because we want to make a change and help people. This is how many nonprofits are born, but many of us lack specific skills or training in nonprofit management. We also tend to have a smaller budget and little time for professional development, so this program allows you to step back and look at your organization from a different perspective. It is extremely beneficial to learn the practices and models of other high functioning nonprofits. One of the other gifts of the program is the opportunity to meet leaders who are doing amazing things in D.C. and around the world. I really benefited from meeting colleagues and I would encourage other people who participate to make sure they invest in relationships. I would also advise people to try not to do work during the program. I wished I had turned off my email for the week to make sure I could truly focus.