Stronger Nonprofits Initiative Spotlight: InsideOut Literary Arts Executive Director Suma Karaman Rosen June 14, 2021

In a Nutshell

What: A Q&A with Suma Karaman Rosen, a member of the Detroit cohort of the Stronger Nonprofits Initiative, about her experience in the program as a new cohort launches in St. Louis

Location: Detroit, MI

Sector: Arts and Culture

In the fall of 2017, IFF launched the Stronger Nonprofits Initiative (SNI), a free, 14-month program that aims to support nonprofits led by people of color in navigating systemic barriers to accessing capital and real estate opportunity. The program does this 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. Offered first in Chicago and later in Milwaukee and Detroit, SNI has provided 49 nonprofits led by people of color in five cohorts with support to develop their skills, strengthen their organizations, and deepen their impact in the communities they serve.

This month, SNI’s reach has expanded again with the launch of the first-ever cohort in St. Louis, MO, made possible by a partnership with BDO FMA LLC (formerly Fiscal Management Associates) and generous support from JPMorgan Chase & Co. 10 nonprofits have been selected to participate in the St. Louis cohort, including:

Through August 2022, leaders from each nonprofit will take part in virtual workshops that focus on team-based nonprofit fiscal management and emphasize peer learning; have access to special networking opportunities and one-on-one coaching with financial and real estate professionals; and receive technical assistance and opportunities for flexible financing for their facilities, if needed.

As the St. Louis cohort kicks off, we sat down with Suma Karaman Rosen, the Executive Director of InsideOut Literary Arts in Detroit, to discuss what participating in SNI has meant for her and the organization she leads. Rosen is a member of SNI’s second Detroit cohort, which launched in fall 2020 and is currently underway.

IFF: What aspects of SNI drew you to the program?

Rosen: There were two things about the program that were really interesting to me. One is that any time we can get technical assistance in an area where we really want to grow and get better, particularly in this case with financial oversight, that’s appealing. We’ve grown as an organization, and I think we’re doing pretty well, but financial oversight is a place where we could always use more in-depth coaching and skill development.

It was also really interesting to me that it was geared toward organizations that are led by people of color and also serving people of color. There are nuances in how the world of philanthropy works, and making sure that these organizations have access to the resources to effectively navigate that world is really important.

IFF: How has participating in SNI impacted you and your organization?

Rosen: The seminars and the direct educational component have really been amazing for us. There’s been a lot of learning for myself and the team from InsideOut. We have taken what we’ve learned in these groups and had follow-up meetings on our own to look at what we can be doing better, how we can understand our finances more deeply, and how that will relate to how we can empower our program team to have better control over the work that they’re doing.

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.

We’ve also used SNI as a jumping off point to tackle areas of our financial oversight that we’ve been talking about for the last two or three years. We now feel like we have the support to go a little bit deeper into that. For example, we’re recategorizing our expenses in QuickBooks so that we can run better reports. We’re also looking at how our account management will relate to being better at reporting out to funders and donors about the impact that they’re having on our programming. These are really important things that are taking InsideOut to the next level. And then on top of that, the one-on-one coaching we’re getting through SNI with somebody who not only understands financial oversight, but also understands our organization specifically, that’s just phenomenal.

IFF: What are some of the barriers to leading a nonprofit as a person of color, and what do you think SNI’s role is in overcoming those barriers?

Rosen: This program is super helpful for any nonprofit leader, period. It’s really important to note that it is a very high-quality program. I can’t think of any of my colleagues running other organizations who wouldn’t benefit in some way from being part of it. But the fact that it’s geared toward nonprofit leaders of color, in particular, is important in terms of creating a level of access that we may not already have at our disposal. It also creates a safe space where we can have “real talk” about the structures that we’re all operating inside of.

In this particular cohort, there have been a number of conversations that we’ve had in the peer sessions or in having a Q and A that have gone off the “pre-scripted” conversation that have allowed us to go a little bit deeper. “How is this affecting you as a leader of color? What are you noticing? What are people telling you? How is it different for us, as compared to other organizations? How can we learn from each other about how best to address systems of inequality or structures that maybe are working against us?”

I think that it’s really important to be having those conversations in that safe space and a place where we can learn from each other as well. One of the true benefits of the program is that we learn as much from each other as we do from the direct instruction.

Participating in SNI is a major time commitment, but there hasn’t been a moment that I’ve spent in the program where I’ve thought that this isn’t absolutely worth it.

IFF: Have there been other components of the SNI curriculum that have been particularly helpful for you?

Rosen: We are really loving the one-on-one coaching, which has allowed us to work with people who have a deep understanding of financial oversight. They’ve looked at our financials, they get what we’re trying to do, and they really have an understanding of who we are as an organization. They’ve shared tools with us to problem-solve challenges specific to InsideOut, and we’ve been reporting back on how we’ve been using them.

I think about effective process being two pieces: there’s the tools, and there’s also the behavior. We have access to amazing tools through BDO FMA, and, through coaching, we’re looking at the behavior that matches with the tools that we need in place. It’s not just like “here’s this tool and good luck,” but “here’s a tool, and here are ways that your team, even working with an external accountant, can use that tool in the appropriate way to achieve true process improvement.”

You can customize your action plan with the support of a coach and drill down in what you specifically at your organization need to be focusing on. I don’t know of anything else out there that’s available to nonprofit leaders like this. Participating in SNI is a major time commitment, but there hasn’t been a moment that I’ve spent in the program where I’ve thought that this isn’t absolutely worth it, and the other two members of my team have felt that way too.

IFF: How has the pandemic and the current climate of social awareness around racial injustice influenced the need for SNI?

Rosen: I think this program would be beneficial at any point in time, but the context in which our cohort is taking place is important. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and the United States has been through an incredibly rough year. Racial injustice is not new, but it has become more of a point of conversation at the national level, and people are thinking and talking about things in a different way. There’s all of this swirling around outside of us while we’re trying to do our jobs and get our work done and provide amazing programming.

Within that context, this program is even more important because we’re learning really essential skills and building the tools that will help us weather the storm and get through to the other side, whatever that looks like. And whenever that is, I feel very fortunate that we have this extra support in a time where I’m looking at colleagues and other organizations where everyone’s struggling.

Funders have a lot of places they can put their philanthropic dollars. There’s no shortage of people and organizations you can support right now, whether you want to support the Black Lives Matter movement, or you want to support people who are working to feed folks and make sure that they have homes, or you’re supporting the arts, there are a lot of choices. If we can be a better partner and a savvier potential grantee, that gives us an advantage. SNI is helping us become more sophisticated in how we’re making those asks.

IFF: In three words, how would you describe your SNI experience?

Rosen: Valuable. Supportive. Transformational.

Valuable in that with the time invested, it’s worth it. Supportive in that everyone we’ve interacted with, from BDO FMA to IFF, they’re wonderful people. They’re professionals, they understand what they’re doing, and they get us too. It’s been really wonderful to be part of that, and there’s also the supportive aspect of the cohort itself. And then transformational because we’re pushing into new ways of looking at our finances that I think are going to make us a more sustainable and more solid organization for years to come. That’s very exciting.

Learn more about the Stronger Nonprofits Initiative

Categories: Stories

Tags: :