10 Key Takeaways from the Stronger Nonprofits Initiative’s First Five Years October 26, 2022

Five years ago, IFF launched the Stronger Nonprofits Initiative (SNI) with two cohorts in Chicago. The 14-month program aims to support nonprofits led by people of color navigating systemic barriers to accessing capital and real estate solutions by acknowledging disparities in lending, providing training in fiscal management and individualized financial management coaching to increase capacity, and building connections to networks of funders and peer organizations.

Administered in partnership with BDO FMA and funded by JPMorgan Chase, since 2017 the program has expanded throughout the Midwest with additional cohorts in Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Kansas City. Seventy-eight nonprofits, led by people of color, have participated in the program, strengthening their organizations and deepening their impact in the communities they serve. Now, SNI is returning to Chicago with two more cohorts launching in 2023.

In celebration of SNI’s five-year anniversary, past participants and partners share some of their key takeaways from the program.

Nonprofit leaders of color are not alone in their experiences. 

“The entire process has been grounded in a historical context and I can be honest in the room. There are so many times as a Black leader you feel like you’re making an excuse, you feel like, ‘I don’t want to pull a Black card’. But then when you’re hearing these brilliant leaders with years and years of experience – because I’m new to this, I’m junior – you realize they are saying the same things with their experience. It grounds you in reality and it helps you be able to navigate those barriers. So, I would say the cohort in and of itself was amazing.” – Monique Thomas, Cornerstone Corporation (St. Louis, Missouri)

In a race-explicit program, it’s important to name the problem – systemic racism – and acknowledge the lived experiences of the people of color in the room. 

“SNI is not a capacity building program targeting BIPOC-led organizations. SNI is a racial equity program leveraging financial management capacity building to address a specific problem felt by leaders of color. This shift in how we defined the program itself opened up greater possibility in building relationships with our cohorts and the nonprofits they represent. You can’t solve a problem you don’t name. By acknowledging the lived experience of the people of color in the room, we opened the floor for specifically naming where systemic racism is impacting their financial options and how best to position their organizations to combat those effects. It has built greater rapport with participants, many reflecting on the ‘real talk’ had in training sessions and events as what left a lasting impression on them.” – Crystal Coats, IFF

Nonprofits are community organizations, but require a business mindset to thrive. 

“I spent almost 30 years as a health care executive and took over the nonprofit Neighborhood Service Organization about four years ago. I have an MBA, but what the Stronger Nonprofits Initiative helped me do was translate that into the nonprofit world. Members from my new executive team were able to participate as well, so we were all on the same page as a leadership team and had some foundational context for how we would operate, because even though we are here to serve the community, we’re also a business. No margin, no mission. So, one of the things we had to do at NSO, which SNI helped with, was change the culture and help staff understand the importance of being operationally efficient and more fiscally responsible, to ultimately have greater impact in our community.” – Linda Little, Neighborhood Service Organization (Detroit, MI)

Take the time to understand and prepare for large funding opportunities, before they arise. 

“One of the things that the SNI program helped us do was prepare for large funding opportunities that are coming our way. We had to ask, how do we manage this? Often times community organizations operate at a deficit in part because we haven’t been privy to some of the budgetary structures, or financial ins and outs, or tricks of the trade in the same way as corporate organizations. SNI gave us the opportunity to understand how do we set up our grant? How do we make sure that we can manage all of these things at a glance? How do we make sure that we are more mindful and intentional with our fundraising and what that looks like? And what’s valuable and worth our time? Asking these questions, along with setting up our operations and accounts to be more efficient has helped us in the long run.” – Bria Grant, UniteWI (Milwaukee, WI)

Successful fundraising and partnership development requires a different type of storytelling. 

“Being part of SNI has taught our organization about financial resilience and how to tell our financial story to potential funders and partners. Before this journey, we were trying to create our budget and follow the accountant. Now we know how to speak about revenue, profit and loss, capital funding, liquid unrestricted net assets (LUNA), and cash on hand. Not only are we able to talk about it, but we can also calculate it at any given time based on the resources shared from SNI.” – Trinity Davis, Teachers Like Me (Kansas City, MO)

With the right partners, there’s always a path forward. 

“We were invited to be part of the first cohort of the Stronger Nonprofits Initiative in 2017. At that time, we were experiencing growth and really trying to strengthen our financial position and look at our policies and structures and what we needed out of the program. While all of this was happening, we had started to outgrow our space, which was an old bank, and I just threw it out there that it might make sense for us to go down a path of looking at a feasibility study, since it was one of the benefits of being part of SNI. And it was my first time ever going through that process, so getting that deep of a look inside, looking at price tags based on square footage, I knew I was in way over my head, and I’m grateful to IFF who kind of helped me calm down a little bit and walk me through that yes; it’s scary, but there’s always a path.” – Adam Alonso, BUILD Inc. (Chicago, IL)

Involve Board Members in order to strengthen collaboration.  

“I feel like our board is coming together a bit more now. A lot of our board members don’t have nonprofit experience, or they’ve never sat on a board or committee before. The fact that we’re able to give those women and folks the opportunity to join their first board and show them some of the ins and outs, and have them be more involved, is super important. By participating in SNI, they’re talking and asking more questions about our finances. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, minorities are never at those tables during those discussions. I think for the few of us who were able to go through SNI and share our knowledge and experience it has been very enlightening, especially for the board members who might not feel quite comfortable asking some of the questions or don’t even know what to ask.” – Consuelo Lockhart, Latinas Welding Guild (Indianapolis, IN)

Empowering staff to make financial decisions is transformational. 

“One simple example of that is understanding how we track expenses and how we can use that to proactively plan rather than having a program member come to me or the program director and say, ‘Hey, will you approve this cost to do X, Y, Z?’ We can look forward at what we think we’re going to be able to do and empower that program person with the dollars that they will have at their disposal to run their program. It’s made us more forward-looking, which is really exciting. Giving the people who are in the trenches and doing the work more power to run their programs the way they want to is also very exciting. That, in and of itself, is transformational, because we’re moving the decision-making in the organization down to the level where the work is actually happening.” – Suma Karaman Rosen, InsideOut Literary Arts (Detroit, MI)

A thoughtful approach and sensitivity to the various time commitments and capacity burdens experienced by leaders of color is required.

“It is important to understand how the current moment we are in, during which many funders are increasing investment in leaders of color to rectify past inequities, is a much-needed change. But it still requires thoughtful approaches, sensitivity to the various time commitments and capacity burdens currently on leaders of color – many of whom are facing burnout after dealing with unprecedented demands over the past couple of years. Nonprofit leaders are the experts in what they do, and we continue to work towards making the SNI program flexible and work alongside leaders to meet their needs.” – Radhika Shah, BDO FMA

Fellowship is essential to strengthening nonprofits.  

“By supporting the nonprofits through financial management and real estate strategy trainings, SNI innately strengthens the organizational capacity of the nonprofits by creating a shared space for diverse leaders to be transparent, build trust, and show up authentically. In every market in which JPMorgan Chase operates, we often hear that having a strong network and community that one can turn to is critical and even greater for our diverse leaders. Whether the organization is a grassroots non-profit leading change in their neighborhood or a nationally recognized organization, a network of leaders that one can turn to for advice, showing up as their honest selves, is important for professional and organizational growth.” – Damion Heron, Region Director, Public Engagement, West Midwest Region at JPMorgan Chase 

Learn more about the Stronger Nonprofits Initiative and the current application for Chicago

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