Rusty Stahl’s Radical Vision for a Transformed Nonprofit Workforce

The typical nonprofit playbook includes a scenario where an organization has constrained resources and overworked staff with limited access to professional development opportunities. Rusty Stahl, CEO and Founder of Fund the People, is advocated for something radically different. In this episode of Social Change Diaries, Rusty makes the case for an industry wide overhaul of how we invest in the nonprofit workforce.

About This Episode

The typical nonprofit playbook includes a scenario where an organization has constrained resources and overworked staff, with limited access to professional development opportunities. Rusty Stahl, CEO and Founder of Fund the People, is advocating for something radically different. In this episode of Social Change Diaries, Rusty makes the case for an industry wide overhaul of how we invest in the nonprofit workforce.

About Rusty Stahl

Rusty Stahl founded Fund the People in 2014 and serves as its President & CEO. Fund the People is the national campaign to maximize foundation investment in the nonprofit workforce. Immediately prior to Fund the People, Rusty was a Visiting Fellow in Residence at the Research Center for Leadership in Action at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. During 2002 to 2012, Rusty served as founding Executive Director of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP), the network of young and new foundation professionals. Rusty began his career in an apprenticeship at the Ford Foundation, where he focused on grantmaking to strengthen the nonprofit sector and philanthropy. Stahl has served on several boards, including and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. He holds a masters in Philanthropic Studies from Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and received his bachelors degree from George Washington University in Washington, DC. Rusty was born and raised in Philadelphia. He now lives with his wife, Sarah From (a coach and organizational development consultant to nonprofits) and their toddler daughter in the City of Beacon, NY.

In his words…

“Folks who are on non-profit boards, their job is to hire, manage, and fire the executive director. So if they can see their role as not only hiring, managing, and firing, but investing in that person and sustaining that person and growing that person— that is a shift. Not only that, if they can see their role as giving a mandate to that executive director to say, ‘it is part of your job to grow and invest in the staff who report to you and we want to hold you accountable for that. And we want to see goals around that, and we want to see your time and skills going into that, and we want to see managers spending time really investing in the people who directly report to them— we want this to be part of the culture of our organization. That is part of your mandate as the executive director.’ I think that could start to make a difference.”
“I think if nothing changes, nothing shifts, we’ll continue to see zero to 2% of non-profit budgets invested in professional development. We’ll continue to see less than 1% of foundation grant dollars invested in staff development for grantees. And as a result, we’ll continue to see unhealthy burnout and turnover in many non-profits. We’ll see that diverse people, people of color, low income people and others unable to maintain meaningful social change careers over a lifetime. And all of that will hurt the performance and impact of non-profits, and they won’t, unfortunately, achieve the level of change that they want to and need to.”
“Funders saying, ‘if you’re not able to pay a living wage or you’re not able to offer these benefits, or you’re understaffed and some of your existing staff are overworked— how can we help you with some of these grant dollars to address those issues?’ That’s enabling non-profits to talk to their funders about those issues in a way that’s productive, not scary and that helps them meet those needs.”

Questions Answered on this Episode

  • Through Fund the People, you are advocating for a radically new approach to how the nonprofit functions. Tell me about your work and how you arrived here (to the conclusion that something needs to change)? What shifts in the sector, and in the world, if nothing changes?
  • Looking at your background, it appears that the theme of leadership is woven through all of the roles you’ve occupied. Focusing on your work as the Founding Executive Director of EPIP (Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy), what was the tone of emerging foundation professionals around developing their own leadership and what they wanted as leaders? What was the environment like in the foundation community for emerging leaders? Do you think any of that is different now in 2018?
  • Most philanthropic institutions are focused on putting their dollars into solutions around solving social issues. What needs to happen for funders to invest in their grantees’ workforce?
  • What has been the response in conversations around the need for supporting the nonprofit workforce?
  • This season of the Social Change Diaries is about leadership. How has your leadership evolved through your work with Fund The People?
  • One of the challenges or shortcomings of the sector that keeps coming up in my conversations on the podcast is how we are supporting women and people of color. In your work, are you finding these conversations more challenging as you are advocating for support of the nonprofit workforce?
  • I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector in this trusted advisor role for 15 years now and one of the things that has been consistent and painful to watch is this idea of scarcity and sacrifice. People don’t feel like they’re doing their jobs in the sector unless they can claim this in some way. In addition to shifting the culture in philanthropy so that there is more support, how do we shift the culture and mindset of the very people the Fund is advocating for? 


Vanessa Wakeman:  Welcome to the Social Change Diaries, the show that looks behind the curtain at everything you want to know about the social justice and non-profit landscape. I’m your host Vanessa Wakeman.

Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of the Social Change Diaries. I’m your host Vanessa Wakeman, CEO and founder of the Wakeman Agency. Before we get into this week’s episode, I wanted to take a moment to say thank you to all of our listeners. This season, season three, has been our most popular, and I’m so appreciative of all the great feedback we’re getting on social media and emails, and people just sharing their thoughts and giving us lots of support. So I’d like to ask everyone who is enjoying the podcast to do one thing for us … well, two. Actually, tell all of your friends about the podcast. Anyone who you think would enjoy it, please share. And I’d also like to ask if you would please provide a review on iTunes, that would be really helpful.

And so now, for today’s episode, I am chatting with Rusty Stahl, Founder, President and CEO of Fund the People, the innovative organization that seeks to maximize investment in the non-profit workforce. Rusty previously served as Founding Executive Director of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, the national association of young and new foundation professionals.

So I’m here with Rusty Stahl from Fund the People, and I’m really excited to talk to him about his perspective on leadership, and some of the interesting and exciting things that he’s doing with his organization. Rusty, welcome.

Rusty Stahl:  Thanks so much for having me.

Vanessa Wakeman:  My pleasure, my pleasure. So tell me a little bit about Fund the People. You’re advocating for a radically new approach to how the non-profit sector functions, so thank you in advance from all the people who I know who are listening and they’re excited to hear that. Tell me a little bit about your work and how you arrived at the conclusion that something needs to change in the sector.

Rusty Stahl:  Yeah, I know. I think our agenda is radical in the sense that we are challenging assumptions and practices on both the funder side and the non-profit side, and our talent investing framework has implications for governance, management, fundraising, grantmaking and other areas of the field. And really, we’re questioning some of the less than productive myths and assumptions that have been around. So when I came into the non-profit sector and into philanthropy, in my experience, I saw a lack of intentionality in recruitment of, in particular, young people into non-profit and social change careers. 

And as I grew and continued to sort of watch how things were working in the field, I realized it wasn’t just about recruitment, and it wasn’t just about young people, but that there was a lack of support for advancement or retention, and that, in the last decade or so, I think we’ve seen a real crisis around retirement and ascension opportunities for diverse people to come into executive positions. So I saw this really as a full life cycle thing of access, advancement and ascension in non-profit careers. And for me, a big part of the problem goes to how non-profits are capitalized and incentivized to treat their people.

And so Fund the People is trying to follow the money and say, “How do non-profits fundraise? What kind of investments are they inviting and pursuing? And what kind of investments are being made into non-profits? How are they structured? How are funds deployed in a way that artificially tamps down that access, advancement and ascension.” And so we think that all the players have a role to improve practice. Government as it funds non-profits through grants and contracts, foundations, individual donors and others. We are starting with foundations, because they have the flexibility the government doesn’t have, and they have a stake in organizational effectiveness that individual donors often don’t have the time or attention for. So our approach is to try to change the attitudes and practices of foundation grantmakers as they relate to investing in staff in grantee organizations.

Vanessa Wakeman:  Rusty, just to back up a little bit, can you just share with our listeners what is the mission of the organization? What’s the mission of Fund the People?

Rusty Stahl:  The mission of Fund the People is to maximize investment in the non-profit workforce.

Vanessa Wakeman:  Got it. Got it, got it.

Rusty Stahl:  And we’ve started in 2014 with funding from the Kresge Foundation and a number of other foundations, and we’re fiscally sponsored by Community Partners out in LA.

Vanessa Wakeman:  Now, let’s talk through a little bit. What shifts or doesn’t shift in the sector and in the world if nothing changes with regard to how we take care of the non-profit workforce?

Rusty Stahl:  I mean, I think if nothing changes, nothing shifts. We’ll continue to see zero to 2% of non-profit budgets invested in professional development. We’ll continue to see less than 1% of foundation grant dollars invested in staff development for grantees. And as a result, we’ll continue to see unhealthy burnout and turnover in many non-profits. We’ll see that diverse people, people of color and low income people, and others unable to maintain meaningful social change careers over a lifetime. And all of that will hurt the performance and impact of non-profits, and they won’t, unfortunately, I think, achieve the level of change that they want to and need to.

And subsequently, foundations … Those grandiose mission statements you hear on NPR and PBS will continue to be sort of nice slogans, but won’t become reality, because foundations are only as good as their grantees, and grantees are only as good as their people. And so if foundations continue to underfund grantee people, then foundations will not be able to achieve their philanthropic mission.

Vanessa Wakeman:  So thinking about funders for a second, most philanthropic institutions are focused on putting their dollars into solutions around solving social issues. What needs to happen for funders to invest in their grantees’ workforce? You’re clearly having these conversations. Is there a five step action plan that you are sharing? What needs to happen for them to embrace this?

Rusty Stahl:  I don’t know, that’s a great question. We’re not putting forward a sort of magic bullet. What we are putting forward is a mental model to say that funders, the boards of foundations, and the staff, the executives, must come to recognize that the staff or other people in grantee institutions are essential, are the bedrock of organizational capacity and of programs. And so yes, funders tend to want to put as much of each dollar into, as you put it, solution social issues, and that tends to mean programs.

Vanessa Wakeman:  Right.

Rusty Stahl:  And they sort of falsely separate that out from everything else the organization does or needs. And this sort of false notion that there’s this thing called overhead, and that staff are administrative expenses, and administrative expenses are overhead, and that that’s somehow separate from program. And this is actually a unjust double standard, because private foundations, in their payout, the minimum payout that Congress has said they need to spend each year for charitable purposes … You might think that that payout is going to grants, right? Charitable purposes. But actually, by law they’re able to include reasonable administrative expenses within charitable purposes, within payout. So when foundations say, “We paid out this amount.” It means grants plus staff costs.

Vanessa Wakeman:  Right.

Rusty Stahl:  So foundations, private foundations, get to say their people are part of their charitable program. But then they turn to their grantees and say, “Your people are not part of your charitable program. They’re something else, and we’re not going to fund that. We only want to fund programs.” And so what we’re putting forward, is it doesn’t make for foundations, it doesn’t make sense for non-profits. It doesn’t make sense for any institution to be capitalized in that way. And so you wouldn’t go to Coca Cola and say, “I’m going to give you an investment in coke, Coca Cola, the company, but you can only use it for the aluminum on the can or the bottle caps. You can’t use it for the water, or the production line, or the staff who are making the soda. Or the marketing, or anything else, until … ” That’s what happens in our field. 

So we’re trying to, I guess, shift the mindset and help funders to see that if they can be intentional about investing in the people in grantee organizations, that the people are the program. There’s no education without educators. There’s no healthcare without health providers. There’s no community organizing without community organizers. There’s no social work without social workers. And so this false separation … Not only is it false, but it hurts program.

So what we’re suggesting is a customizable solution. Any funder who makes any type of grant, small or big, can say, “Hmm. As I make this grant to this program or this institution, how can some of these grand dollars, or all of these grant dollars, go to support the staff who are doing the work that I’m paying to happen?” So if there’s three staff and an intern who work on the specific program at a youth serving organization, how can this grant strengthen those people’s skills, those three people and the intern, those … How could they access professional development? How could they get performance bonuses as a result of great work on the grant funded program? How could we make sure that intern is paid a living wage, rather than unpaid?

So it’s a mindset that we hope will help funders to ask some of those questions, ask their grantees, “How can we invest in your team, so you can do your best work and get the impact that you want to have, and that we want you to have?” So it’s more about intention, mindset, and the questions that are asked that then shape the investments.

Vanessa Wakeman:  I have had two conversations just this week. One of the professional development services that we offer at Wakeman is our She Roars program, which is a thought leadership development program for women in the non-profit sector. Women are super excited about the program, they’re like, “This is exactly what I need. I want to participate.” But depending on what organization they are with, there’s no budget of professional development, and they sometimes can’t afford it. And so trying to strategize about where to find the money, often it comes up … Maybe I’ll have a conversation with the grantees. 

And then we’ve had some conversations with foundations, asking them to support grantees, and exactly what you said, some of that thinking has come up around they’re focusing on the programs. And so the response that we’ve been getting … While foundations think that the program is really valuable and could help, a lot of organizations are saying, “We just don’t have the additional bandwidth in dollars to be able to allocate for this. We are giving toward particular programs, and we just don’t have this in our pie.”

So I do think sort of like a rethinking the model of what will be valuable … Like if a woman is able to sort of share her agenda in a really powerful way, is that an opportunity to attract more support for the work, and attract more dollars? So I think that we are sort of looking at things with a very singular focus, and I’m excited to see if people are open to embracing, or at least entertaining a new approach to how we are looking at what resources are needed and how we’re offering support to people in the sector.

So I guess my next question for you is what have the responses to those conversations been? Are people totally against it? Are they open? Is it sort of a continual conversation? What has your experience been so far?

Rusty Stahl:  Well, you said a lot there. I’m excited to learn more about the programming you offer, and I just want to say that I think this is a largely women-driven workforce, right?

Vanessa Wakeman:  Yes.

Rusty Stahl:  Almost 11 million people work in the non-profit sector, and then it is, in some ways, a very gendered kind of work, and that’s one of the cultural sort of myth situation in our sector, that maybe used to be helpful, or maybe … I doubt it, but at some point it was like, “Oh, charity. That’s sort of women’s work.” These sort of upper middle class white women who don’t need to work can go do charity to bring meaning to their lives.

Vanessa Wakeman:  Right, and that’s changed.

Rusty Stahl:  And that’s awesome for them. That’s great for upper middle class women who are independently wealthy or supported by their spouse. But all of us aren’t like that, and we need a hell of a lot more kinds of people involved in social change, and able to do it, to afford it. And there’s a hell of a lot more kinds of people who want to do this kind of work.

Vanessa Wakeman:  Yes.

Rusty Stahl:  As you know. So yeah. So I think it’s … So and the higher up you go, at the bigger institutions, the more male it is, even though the bulk of people doing the work are women. So I think we’re looking at both the gender issues, race, class and other sort of manifestations of inequity in the sector, and how new ideas and practices …

Rusty Stahl:  … the sector, and how new ideas and practices could shift to create a more equitable pathway into and through nonprofit careers. So, you know, how people are reacting, I think honestly sometimes there is a deer in the headlights response from many funders, like what, and it’s starting from scratch, it really is. I think to a lot of funders this is just a blind spot, a major blind spot.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy has done some interesting research actually surveying nonprofit executive directors and they found that one of the top challenges that those EDs face is that they don’t have the resources to invest in their own leadership development and that their funders don’t understand, so there’s this dual problem that speaks to I think those issues. 

But even as places like the Center for Effective Philanthropy have those findings, it hasn’t sort of sunken in in a lot of places, and so I think that largely what we call talent investing remains focused on kind of leadership development and professional development in a very programmatic and individualistic way, often with foundations creating and running their own fellowships or training programs, and it doesn’t translate into the grant and it doesn’t enable nonprofits to sort of practice those muscles and build their budget around that development inside their organization. 

So there are funders who are open. We’ve done a number of funder retreats and webinars and there is great interest. It’s just a matter of getting people exposed to this. I think is a very kind of rational idea. We’re making this fairly simple. It’s radical, like you said, but it’s almost pretty straightforward. So people kind of get it and then they say, “Well, how do I do it? What do I do?” 

So we’ve been trying to highlight … Find and highlight exemplary and promising practices out there. There’s just some great funders who are really doing interesting work, responding to grantees and laying on creative resources and interventions for grantees. Some of them really say you know what? We may be a small funder in a small community, but we’re going to … Our grantees deserve Cadillac resources in terms of staff on board development, and we’re going to make that happen. So that’s been really exciting to see as well.

So I’m excited about what some of those examples that are out there that we can kind of highlight in webinars we do and in the tool kit we offer. We have six case studies where we’ve tried to highlight some of those stories. But overall, I think we are far from sort of shifting, you know, the philanthropic community at large.

Vanessa Wakeman:  Now Rusty, in your conversations, in my head, and this is just based on my sort of limited experience around our [inaudible] offering, I feel like there’s two sort of camps. So there are the leaders of organizations, so there are these women who are already in the CEO or executive director seat who are looking for support so that they can, you know, better sort of fulfill the mission of the organization through being able to, you know, develop that leadership platform, and then there are those mid-level professional women who are not in a leadership role yet, but are very clear around what they believe they will need to occupy that space. 

So I’m wondering how do … Like what should we be saying to those women? Because if it’s difficult to get support for the women who are already in the seat, are the leaders in these organizations, then I’m guess and I’m seeing that it’s even more difficult for support for those who are not there yet. 

Like are there things that you think that the workforce can be doing to prepare or to sort of help make the conversations easier, or like what do you feel is the responsibility of any … Or the accountability for those women who are looking to lead in let’s say like the three to five year timeframe? This could be for men as well. I’m just curious if you have any thoughts on that?

Rusty Stahl:  That’s a great question. One of the ways I’ve looked at the issue is that unlike the narratives that have been in the sector for the last 15 years or so that bears this kind of mass exodus that’s going to happen as baby boomers retiring, there really haven’t been … If anything, those boomers are kind of stuck in place for one reason or another, so that’s created this kind of bottleneck where those folks you’re talking about who want to move up … Who want to stay in the sector and move up really have no where to go, and so they often end up where they are in place, or leaving to go somewhere else in order to move up and sort of snake along through the sector since there are very few sort of direct paths. 

So part of the solution is kind of opening up the bottleneck. So while respecting boomers for what they’ve done and what they need, sort of enabling people … And not just boomers, but these things happen for everybody who get to that point in their career. If they haven’t saved for retirement, paid down student debt and enabled themselves to pay for their … If they have kids, to go to school or take care of their parents. So it’s not specific to one generation or another. It’s a structural issue. 

So I think we need more opportunities for folks who have reached the pinnacle of their careers and are ready to move out of those chairs. We need sort of narrative opportunities for them in the sector, where they can go out and be mentors to young people coming into the sector, write about their experiences and lessons from their own careers and history and social change, and go out and recruit people to come into the sector.

If they could be paid to do that outside of the organizations they’re running, that would then enable them to move on and open up all these seats that then folks I think are ready to move into and need support, and those folks who are ready to lead in three to five years will need support to be set up to succeed in that, rather than set up to fail.

What we’ve seen is that not only are boomers stuck, but there’s this sort of race and gender and age dynamic where you have a lot of white boomers who are founders or have been in place 20, 30 years who hold a lot of relationships with donors and foundations, and they’re scared to leave because they’re concerned, rightly so in some cases, that it could destabilize their organization that they’ve worked so hard to build because they hold all those relationships.

So you may say that’s egotistical, and it may be, but it may also have some grounding in reality. So if those people don’t plan their departures well, then there’s a lot of poorly executed executive transition, which also is damaging to institutions and hurts the people who are hired to come after them. 

So this relates to how funders sort of behave and do their work. Do they just talk to executive directors, who they’re comfortable with, who are longterm, who are trusted partners, or do they find out who else is on the team, what’s the bench look like in this organization, in this community, and get to know other emerging and mid-career leaders so that by the time those people do get into top positions they have had the opportunity to connect with the funding community so they’re not unknown quantities? 

In many cases those organizations are hiring for diversity at the top, and what happens is those women, younger people, people of color, come into those positions following those long-serving white EDs and they’re set up to fail because they don’t have those relationships. 

In some cases they even inherit, you know, a dysfunctional organization or an organization in debt, and one funder practice that I’ve seen is what I call the wait and see practice, which is funders will hold off on renewals until they see is this new person going to succeed. 

So if all your major funders wait and see if you’re going to succeed, essentially they’re helping you to fail, and then the board can say this person, we tried, they couldn’t fundraise, so let’s go back to someone who looks like our old person. 

So that whole dynamic I think is very much at play, and so funders have a really critical role to proactively early support executive transitions, as much as possible make sure they’re helped, and then to support income EDs, and like you said women, people of color, younger people, people who just may not look and act like, or lead like the people who they’re following. 

Vanessa Wakeman:  Whoa, that was a mouthful and I’m thankful to hear … I’ve certainly seen that in practice. I’ve seen leaders who just unfortunately weren’t able to take organizations to the next level because of that wait and see approach, which is just unfair. So I’m glad that you are raising the flag on that, and hopefully, you know, creating that awareness will help people to see what they’re doing and how that is the clear path to failure. 

Oh, gosh, I have so many questions and we’re almost out of time. But I did want to talk a little bit about your background. It sounds like from what you’ve talked about today … And I know that you were involved in other organizations where the theme of leadership has been woven through a lot of the roles that you’ve occupied. 

You were the founding executive director of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, so I wanted to talk a little bit about what was the tone of emerging foundation professionals around developing their own leadership and what they wanted as leaders when you took that role, and are you seeing anything different now? 

Rusty Stahl:  Yeah. Thanks for bringing up EPIP. It’s near and dear to my heart, although I’m not formally involved anymore, and I really have my own executive transition as a founder there, from which I learned a ton. 

So yeah, I think when I started with EPIP in 2001-2002, the foundation field, or the foundation community was not particularly hospitable to younger professionals, and in some cases for good reason. They would say this is such a powerful position, you really ought to come to it to being a grant maker leader in your career once you’ve had experience running a nonprofit or fundraising, et cetera. 

I thought those were valid reasons, but for saying don’t say here forever. But that was the last … You know, foundations were bringing in junior people, interns, fellows, junior staff, and not supporting them very well. So we said if you’re going to have folks on your team who are young professionals and emerging practitioners you ought to treat them well and make sure this is a great learning opportunity for them before you send them off to do something else or hire them and keep them there for a whole career. Whichever way, this ought to be a good place to work. 

I think this investment in people happens inside foundations and in nonprofits, and it’s different. It’s connected but different. So in foundations, you know, it can just be a toxic place to work because you have to say no to a lot of people. You have all this privilege, a perceived or real privilege, and it’s just funky to work with all that money and sort of in the upper classes of our sector. 

I mean, you know, people don’t want to talk about it inside, and a lot of people just feel very uncomfortable in that role. There’s not a lot of accountability or feedback loops for how you do, and there’s just a lot of temptation to … You know, to bad behavior or ego driven behavior, et cetera.

So I think it can be a funky place, and what I saw was there just wasn’t a lot of investment in junior staff and support. So EPIP was a response to that where a bunch of us … I had been working at the Ford Foundation as a program associate and I mean we had decent support in that. We had a cohort and we had professional development and it was well-defined as a two-year engagement, but I started meeting people in similar roles at other foundations and we really felt we needed a network for ourselves, for our peers, and so that’s how that got started. 

And I think eventually the foundation community finally caught on and said oh, yeah, this is a whole group of our staff who we’re not really supporting or even seeing frankly, and so eventually some of the other institutions in the field started catching on and doing mentoring programs, like Philanthropy New York still has a really great mentoring program for staff in their member organizations, and other things like that that kind of resulted from us chasing the cases a little bit.

So yeah, I think nevertheless you’re right to point out that this theme of leadership has run across my career, and I see it as having worked inside the foundations on prioritizing that development, and now from the people, is looking at that same issue, but how foundations can do that externally with their grantee partners. 

So for me it’s really exciting to have spent a decade working on the internal issues of foundations and now looking at the wider sector and how foundations can invest in people out there in the nonprofit sector. These things take time.

Vanessa Wakeman:  Particularly in this sector. Yes. Do you feel like your leadership has evolved through your work with Fund the People, like your own personal style? 

Rusty Stahl:  Definitely. I mean I hope. I think I’ve tried to take some of the mistakes I made when I was running EPIP, because it was my first full time running anything, I made a lot of mistakes, and I’ve tried to say okay, as I started Fund the People how could I do those things differently? One example, I used to be very bad at- 

Rusty Stahl:  …you differently. One example, I used to be really bad at responding to people who reached out for a phone call or a meeting. I’d just get overwhelmed by my email inbox. I wouldn’t write back and then people would feel insulted. It wasn’t personal. It was really just my own issue. And so, from the people I started with a virtual assistant and Nicole, she’s still working with us, and really has helped me to make sure I’m getting back to people in a timely fashion as possible. Making those calls and meetings happen. 

That’s just a little example of trying to shift my own management practices and leadership skills. I think I’m also been on a journey and learning around racial equity and how to sort of navigate the sector and trying to change the whole sector while maintaining my value and organizations that are value driven and that have a core of social justice values. That has been somewhat tricky at most organizations and, again, I’ve messed up and I’ve had failures in both places around that and continue to try to evolve, I guess. 

Vanessa Wakeman:  Yeah. Yeah. Thank you for that. This is going to be my last question and it’s focused on the people that you’re advocating for. So you are asking the philanthropy sector to sort of re-think how they’re supporting the non-profit workforce. In my experience working with the non-profit workforce, a group, an audience that I care deeply about one of the things that I sort of observe overwhelmingly, which is so painful, is this idea of sacrifice in scarcity. 

Like, I feel like there’s always the push to how much can I be sacrificing and how limited can our resources be to sort of prove that I’m committed to this role and that I could do lots with less. How do we shift the culture, in the non-profit sector, to sort of say no we don’t have to be in a space of sacrifice and scarcity? No it’s not cool that nobody has a chair that doesn’t have holes in it or nobody doesn’t have … we’re still working with computers that have floppy disks. It’s okay for us to have the requirements that will allow us to do our roles well. And that life-work balance is acceptable. Like, you don’t have to go home totally haggard and just out of it. 

And so, I feel like if we have an expectation of more for ourselves, as a sector, that can also be really, in my opinion, a powerful driver in how the philanthropy world is looking at what the needs are. I think when organizations are going in and having conversations about we need a grant or we need help, I’ve never heard … and this could happen and I’m just not aware, but I’ve never heard anybody saying, “We need help for our organization.” End of story. 

Now, not for this program, but like we’re dying here. Our office space sucks. Or my team is overworked. How do we sort of change that culture and that mindset so that people’s expectations for what they should be getting for the kind of work that they’re doing is out there in the atmosphere and so that organizations are taking note in a different way of what the needs are for people to really be able to give their all in these environments? That was a long question. 

Rusty Stahl:  You put it quoted so well. It was beautiful just listening to you. I think … I mean, I’m in agreement with you and I think as art it’s really a thorny problem that we’re trying to contribute to [inaudible]. It really takes people from all different roles to make that change happen. 

So, for example, folks who are on non-profit boards, their job is to hire, manage, and fire the executive director. If there is such a position. So if they can see their role as not only hiring, managing, and firing, but investing in that person, right, and sustaining that person and growing that person, that is a shift. Not only that, if they can see their role as giving a mandate to that executive director to say, “It is part of your job to grow and invest in the staff people who report to you and we want to hold you accountable for that. And we want to see goals around that.And we want to see your time and skills going into that. And we want to see little managers spending time, really investing in the people who directly report to them. We want this to be part of the culture of our organization. That is part of your mandate as the executive director.”

I think that could start to make a difference. 

Vanessa Wakeman:  Okay. 

Rusty Stahl:  Another key thing and of course, I’ve talked about this already a bit is how can funders start to change the intensive structure. So that on their websites, in their grant proposal guidelines, in their grant agreement, in their grant reporting questions they begin to signal to the non-profits that are raising money for them, “Hey, not only is your financial health important. And not only is your programmatic strategy and implementation important, but your staff people are really important to us as your funder or potential funder. So we want to know what’s the salary scale look like? Do you pay your insurance? What’s professional development look like? What is the benefits that you offer to your employees? Are you contributing to health insurance? [inaudible] policy? Etc.” 

Those signals, to me, in those questions and in how foundations talk about their work are crucial to shifting how the non-profits see the [inaudible] structure for themselves. If we want to get this money, we actually need to care about our staff. And so, and if that becomes part of the process of raising money and securing resources then I think executives can go to their boards and say, “Yeah, we want to get money from the Gates Foundation. But in order to do so, we’ve got to talk about how we don’t … we’re not paying health insurance or we’re not-“

Vanessa Wakeman:  Right. 

Rusty Stahl:  “And so we better get our ducks in a row on that.” The idea is not that it’s punitive, but rather supportive. So funders saying, “If you’re not able to pay a living wage or you’re not able to offer these benefits, or you’re understaffed and some of your existing staff are overworked, how can we help you with some of these grant dollars to address those issues?” That’s enabling non-profits to talk to their funders about those issues in a way that’s productive, not scary and that helps them meet those needs. 

Because that’s what I’m hoping. That’s my theory of change. I think we’ve seen it where there’s a small community foundation in rural western Michigan called the Community Foundation of Greater Holland/Zeeland Area. What they’ve been doing is putting in $5,000 to a group and saying, “You know, we care about your executive director.” Going to the board and sometimes the non-profit and saying, “We think your ED is great. We want to give them $5,000 for their own professional development. Do what they want with it. We’d love it if you match it in your budget so there’s $10,000 for your ED to go off and get training or take a sabbatical. Something.” And it’s an investment in them. 

They see that yields great renewal and a sense of support among those EDs that it’s actually helping them stay longer in those jobs and feel supported. They’ve also similarly started putting in small amounts of money to support executive transitions and they’ve got one executive transition coach who can serve as an interim director in their tiny community. And so they’re putting in a little-bit of money to support those transitions, helping boards to think about hiring as a part of that, the whole deal and it’s … the foundation sees it as saving these organizations that could otherwise collapse. 

It’s just a little-bit of money, big ripple effect and it’s really saving them a lot of money in the long run. Because if these organizations collapse, they have to re-build them from scratch. So there really is quite a return on investment for these relatively modest investments that can be made. 

Vanessa Wakeman:  That’s exciting to know that organizations are thinking about it and community organizations, smaller organizations with less resources, that’s really hats off to them. I do think that even from a psychological perspective for an executive director or CEO to be offered that, I think that sort of helps them to be more excited about the role and know that they are getting … there is support for them and that there are opportunities for development. I can certainly see nothing but benefits to that. So that’s wonderful to hear and I hope that other organizations adopt those very same practices. 

Rusty, is there anything else you would like to share with our listeners before we end the interview? Anything they should check out on your website or any sort of parting words of wisdom? 

Rusty Stahl:  Well, thanks again for having me. It’s really a pleasure and I’ve listened to the podcast and really enjoyed the other guests you’ve had. So thanks for including me and some of the people in this conversation in this season about leadership. I would definitely invite your listeners to visit and check out our free toolkits to help you make the case and take action for talent investing. There are resources up there for non-profits, for funders, really for anyone. A lot of consultants actually use our materials as well. 

It’s free. All we do ask is for your name and email address and we’ll add you to our mailing list, but we don’t spam you. You can always unsubscribe if you need to, but that’s the way to access the content. And there are about 30 different individual resources up there, as well as collections where you can get all the materials in one PDF from the case making section or the other five sections we have up there. 

So encourage folks to go to to get to the toolkit directly. 

Vanessa Wakeman:  Rusty, it was an absolute pleasure to have you. I know for certain we will be chatting again. And I will be following along and screaming Fund the People everywhere I go. Appreciate the work that you’re doing and I’m hopeful that we will see some change. So thank you so much. 

Rusty Stahl:  Thanks so much. Folks can check out our Twitter feed too, which is @fundthepeople or they can shout #fundthepeople. Thanks so much. 

Vanessa Wakeman:  I love it. Thank you. Okay, folks. I don’t know about all of you, but I am encouraged by what was shared on Journey Today’s interview. Fund the People is really starting conversations about what investment in the non-profit workforce can look like and what the benefits are. So I think that every one of our listeners, because we know that the majority of the people that listen to the Social Change Diaries are professionals in the non-profit sector. Every listener needs to forward this to every one that they know so that people can be aware of the work of Fund the People. 

But also that it becomes part of conversations that we are having. I think you should be forwarding it to your leadership team. Make sure that it’s being shown, shared with board members, grant making organizations. Like this is definitely something that is a conversation starter and hopefully the catalyst for going from conversations to action. 

I like to talk about how we can re-imagine things. What would happen if we did invest in the non-profit workforce? How much more incredible work could be accomplished? The other thing that comes to mind regarding this conversation is the idea of innovation and disruption. So sometimes I feel like I’m having conversations with people in the industry and it feels like I’m talking, I’m speaking foul language. Innovation? There’s no space for that, but this is a very good example of what innovation can look like and why it’s important for us to sort of try new things, different approaches as we are trying to really affect change around social issues. 

So I’d just like to thank my guest, Rusty, again. Folks, go to Fund the People and find out more about what’s happening. Look at some of the resources that are there. I hope you will tune in again next week as we continue the conversation about leadership. Thank you.

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