by Helen Hope Kimbrough

We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond. – Gwendolyn Brooks

While in the office one day, I ran into one of our Cultivate alumni who happens to be a founder of an emerging nonprofit organization. I was sharing how excited I was about him graduating from the Cultivate program and the new opportunities that were on the horizon – one being a sizable project in the healthcare sector. 

As we continued to converse about this project and onto the exciting plans of summer, I was reminded of the specific challenges and vast differences for leaders running grassroots organizations. These challenges are both personal and professional because the needs for services and programming are at an all time high, oftentimes with no downtime – which means burnout is very real for many of these leaders. This particular community change-maker also shared that he really only wanted two basic things from life: a thriving organization to support students in his local community on a full-time basis and the personal ability to travel and see the world. 

After our conversation, these reflections and basic things stuck with me. Why, do you ask? Because it is extremely difficult to address a community need and create a nonprofit with a sustaining footprint – and many times it comes at a great personal cost. It’s why so many emerging nonprofit leaders reach out to Next Stage for guidance, help, and support, and it’s why they continue to engage on the online Cultivate platform with a goal of obtaining the foundations of what they need or aspire to – just like this nonprofit leader.

We know nonprofit leaders need funding, support and resources – but this conversation reminded me that they need so much more. So what are so many grassroots leaders missing?

Acknowledgement and Access
First, there needs to be an acknowledgement that not all nonprofit organizations are seen or treated equally –  especially for Black-led organizations. Especially prior to the pandemic, there were grants or RFPs (request for proposals) that did not make it easy to be considered for funding. Many required rigorous financials and years of history, alongside long applications and interview processes. Others required an ‘in’ with the organization before organizations could access meaningful funds. Sometimes it would take four or five times to move through the process which frustrated and deterred organizations from applying. However, throughout the pandemic, a shift in these processes started to change because we began to recognize the biases and systems (some intentional and some unintentional) that kept smaller nonprofits out of the game. 

There is a growing desire among funders to get resources to neighborhood-level organizations because they are often most proximate to the challenges that need solving and have the relationships that make their work more effective. Many funders have decided to diversify the decision-makers and to be more transparent and inclusive. This recognition and acknowledgement continues to evolve, creating more opportunities and space for emerging organizations.

Social Capital
Social capital enables people, organizations, or companies to work together and access benefits from constructed relationships. As a newcomer to Charlotte approximately 15 years ago, one of the ways that I decided to build my own social capital was to join Women’s Impact Fund (WIF), an organization whose mission is to “strengthen communities by maximizing women’s leadership in philanthropy through collective giving, education, and encouragement.” WIF allowed me to meet and work alongside dynamic women on the committee-level to impact change in a philanthropic way. And just recently, I have joined a giving circle, New Generation of African American Philanthropists (NGAAP), which advances opportunities for African American families to live, work, and flourish. I can’t wait to engage and learn from black leaders like Vailada Fullwood, a founding member of the organization with whom I have long shared values and interests. 

For emerging, grassroots and Black-led organizations, social capital is critical to achieving the resources necessary to do their work. Leaders can access this capital through local groups committed to similar causes while building a larger network. For those of us who want to support the success of these organizations, one way to help build social currency is through time and commitment. Volunteerism is essential for so many nonprofit organizations to sustain and grow. Thankfully, companies are seeing the need on a greater level and want employees to support initiatives that pertain to an array of causes such as affordable housing, healthcare, education, digital equity, the environment, and more. There is a growing trend among companies to support the volunteer efforts of grassroots organizations, and companies who seek this type of engagement are helping to actively build up local nonprofit movements. I am proud to say that Next Stage is involved in many of these engagements, emphasizing ESG and collaborative opportunities as a social construct. 

Training and Coaching
There is a saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” It’s okay not to know – but don’t get stuck there. Most grassroots nonprofit leaders don’t start nonprofits because they are experts in nonprofit management – they get started because they are proximate to a problem and passionate about finding a solution. It can take time for grassroots organizations to develop these skills. For nonprofit leaders – ask questions. Find a way to obtain answers. Enroll in free webinars or classes. Be the squeaky wheel so that people know that you are serious about the task at hand and the journey ahead. The Cultivate platform is a great way to give yourself a strong nonprofit foundation at your own pace!

Community and corporate leaders can support these organizations by providing mentorship or sponsorship as a coaching opportunity. This kind of one-on-one instruction is priceless and helps the leader build upon your knowledge base and achieve learning in real-time – and it gives you new insight and perspective into real community challenges. Don’t shy away from coaching. Be open to the experience and embrace it fully. Nonprofit leaders who have access to this coaching will be able to harness their natural passion and grow it beyond what they ever could imagine. 

With these three elements – acknowledgement & access, social capital, and coaching – it is my hope that emerging nonprofit leaders (like the one that I reflected upon at the beginning of this blog) can pursue the basic things of what they value and hold dear. Hopefully, finding a sense of belonging and seizing opportunities and resources to move towards a sustainable nonprofit model with lasting impact and the ability to achieve their heart’s desire – like perhaps traveling the world.