Reimagining the Nonprofit World
Episode 5: January 21, 2021 | The Public Space
Shari Dunn, innovator, educator, thinker, and CEO/Principal of ITBOM, Inc. joins Lilisa Hall to reimagine the nonprofit world and alongside it, philanthropy, as well.
The nonprofit sector, including philanthropy, is at a crossroads. Shari Dunn compares the nonprofit sector to an ill patient, and discusses the contributing factors that led to this condition. She prescribes how the patient can get well, be healthy, and thrive. She reimagines the transformation of the nonprofit world into an exciting, effective, and vital social enterprise.
In this episode:
Shari Dunn is the CEO/ Principal of ITBOM, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in institutional and organizational coaching around equity, leadership, change management, women in leadership, and workforce development. ITBOM consults with companies as diverse as fortune 500’s, State Agencies, and medium to small-sized businesses. Shari is a former non-profit CEO, attorney, journalist, and foundation funder. Shari was the Co-VP of Power of Attorney Foundation, a sub-grantee of the former Atlantic Philanthropies. She has been quoted in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the Non-Profit Quarterly, and more. She is also an adjunct at the University of Portland in the Pamplin School of Business and serves on the Oregon Talent and Workforce Development Board. Her approach is outside the traditional human resources paradigm and is meant to help institutions with a systemic redesign to bring workplace equity. Shari has been awarded Executive of the Year and one of the Women of Influence by the Portland Business Journal, amongst many other awards and honors.
Lilisa Hall: [00:00:00] Hi, everyone. Welcome to The Public Space, a podcast from the Nonprofit Association of Oregon. I'm Lilisa Hall, the host of The Public Space and it's great to be kicking off our first episode of the year. Happy new year to all of you and I'm hoping that 2021 is going to be a better and brighter one for all of us. And I'm also hoping that this year is going to be filled with some great positive change.
Every third Thursday of the month The Public Space brings you a new episode, featuring thought leaders who share strategic ideas and solutions that spark positive change in civil society.
I'm really looking forward to this episode today and diving into today's topic, which is going to be thought provoking and I hope a very powerful conversation for all of us in the nonprofit sector. And it's on re-imagining the nonprofit world and, alongside it, philanthropy as well. And here to share her perspective and vision on re-imagining the nonprofit sector is Shari Dunn, a transformational thought leader, making waves in our communities.
So welcome to The Public Space, Shari. And it's so great to have you here today.
Shari Dunn: [00:01:04] Thank you, Lilisa. It's so great to be here. I appreciate you inviting me.
Lilisa Hall: [00:01:07] You're welcome Shari. So before we dive into our conversation, I want to share a little bit about Shari's background. So Shari is an agent of change. She's an attorney, a professor, and she's been a news anchor and a journalist. And she's also a game show winner - I want to hear about that! And yes, many of us also know her as a nonprofit leader. She was CEO of Dress for Success in the Portland metro area for more than five years. And in 2020, she founded her own firm, ITBOM, Inc, which is a consulting firm that specializes in institutional and organizational coaching around equity, leadership, change management, women in leadership, and workforce development. Again, a big welcome to Shari and so glad to have you here with us today.
Shari Dunn: [00:01:50] Thanks. I'm excited.
Lilisa Hall: [00:01:52] Yeah. So first off, a couple of questions, could you share with our listeners the genesis of the name of your company ITBOM? So that's the first question. The second question I want to know the answer to particularly, and it's about you being a game show winner. Which show was that? And what was it like?
Shari Dunn: [00:02:10] Alright, well, people do love both of those questions. (Laughs) Those are questions that people often ask. So, for the first one, I will say, ITBOM stands for, I am the boss of me. That is what ITBOM and consulting stands for. I originally had a business called ITBOM Productions when I lived in Los Angeles. I was doing reality TV programming. And so, that was the first time that name appeared. But then when I decided to launch my own business, I decided to go back under the ITBOM because I'm the boss of me is what my mother would say I have said my whole life. So might as well make it official.
Lilisa Hall: [00:02:51] That's awesome! (laughs)
Shari Dunn: [00:02:53] And then the game show, yeah. That is something people love to hear about. And, I like to tell people when I was just a little younger, I had a great memory for trivia and was really clued into media, pop culture, and things like that. So I love trivia.
And when I lived in New York - I lived in New York for five years - and so, you know, you're either an extra on, Saturday Night Live or Law and Order, or you, you know, try to get on a game show. And so Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was filming and I was on the daytime version with Meredith Vieira and, I did not win a million dollars, but I am listed as one of the top winners on the show.
Lilisa Hall: [00:03:30] Ooh, nice! Congratulations for that, Shari. All right. I know a game show winner. Awesome. So let's go on to the big topic we have in front of us today. And I'm really excited about this, and this is about re-imagining the nonprofit sector, and along with that, philanthropy. And so, you know, it's no secret that many in the nonprofit sector have struggled with the way the world views the sector and the work that we all do for many reasons. Whether it's in the funding model, whether it's, you know, how the nonprofit sector is perceived, and its impacts and, and much more.
And then some of us also called the sector, the independent sector. And so I know you're really passionate and energetic about this topic. So I want to dive right in. You know, first off Shari, could you paint a picture for us of how you currently view the nonprofit sector and philanthropy as it stands today? What, in essence, you know, what's your current analysis of the sector?
Shari Dunn: [00:04:21] Yeah, I think the sector is like every other industry at a moment of great change. Right? I think the combination of COVID-19 and the racial reckoning in the United States is giving every industry the opportunity to have gains on the level of the Industrial Revolution.
And what that means is, fundamentally changing both "how" we work and "who" works in spaces. And so the nonprofit community and philanthropy are not immune to that. They stand at the crossroads, just like every other industry. And I think at the moment, philanthropy has really tried to be responsive, and to try to really meet the moment in ways that are different. And because it was an urgency, they have tried to cast off some of the more problematic ways that they deal with nonprofits.
I think nonprofits on the other hand are really struggling with what does it mean for them going forward, especially depending on what area they're working in. You know, if they're on healthcare, social services, they may still be getting a lot of funding, but they're overwhelmed with the number of clients they're trying to support.
At the same time nonprofits have not themselves, as aggressively as they could, have responded internally to the racial reckoning in the United States and really looking at how race and racism shows up in the nonprofit sector.
Lilisa Hall: [00:05:46] Yeah, so as you kind of talked through that, I think one of the things that I heard you talk about in one of the events you presented at was talking about the nonprofit sector and you kind of equated it to sort of the physical body and how it sort of connects the heart, the mind. And could you maybe share a little bit about that? 'Cos I thought it was just such an apt sort of description.
Shari Dunn: [00:06:08] Yeah. I mean, you know, if we look at, you know - the illness. There are symptoms of an illness and based on some of the symptoms, if we're diagnosing the nonprofit like a person or like an entity -that the nonprofit is sick is, is clear. The lack of proper funding into organizations and that funding being the lifeblood that allows organizations to function properly, means that without proper flow, the organization is not robust. It can't achieve what it's trying to accomplish. Um, the organizations are not diverse in their leadership or management. And that is a sign of illness. The absence of diversity in those systems means those systems are not healthy. We know that systems that are healthy are diverse, genetically diverse, biodiversity, other types of diversity. And so that's a symptom that, that system is not well. You know, the inability to be creative - that is a symptom that the industry is not well. And these symptoms are kind of built into the roots of nonprofits and how that dynamic interplay between philanthropy and nonprofits has been, in some sense, a very unhealthy relationship and has fostered a circle of unhealthiness.
So what that specifically looks like is, let's just take an issue that has come to the fore is, general ops support. While because of COVID-19 and to some extent, because of racial reckoning, foundations all of a sudden realize that they could provide organizations, gen ops support. And general operating support is a lifeblood of any organization.
And previously foundations have really tied nonprofits' hand with extreme program requirements, extreme reporting requirements, where all those things fell away with COVID-19. And, my hope is that we don't go back to the old ways. That we move toward more trust-based philanthropy to help heal the sector, which you rightly say, is it a nonprofit sector? I mean, why do we talk about ourselves like that? Like, that's another symptom of our illness is that we talk about what we are not, as opposed to talking about what we do, and what we do is social enterprise. That's what we do. We deal with complex social issues that are important and that are meaningful and that's what we do.
Lilisa Hall: [00:08:33] Yeah. And so, as we look at all of those various components, and think about what in a nonprofit sector or independent sector could be, as you look down the road, what's your overall vision for how we could, and should be re-imagining the, the nonprofit sector, and for now I'll call it the nonprofit sector.
Cause that's sort of what we, you know, attempt to describe it as, as you said we're a non-something and how would you want to be a non-something, but yeah, if you had your way, Shari and you could wave a magic wand and I know that's sort of, you know, being rather cliched, but how would you describe the nonprofit sector as you envision it down the road?
Shari Dunn: [00:09:12] Right. Well, a couple of things. First of all we're going to start with philanthropy, right? I would hope down the road that philanthropy keeps the elements of trust-based philanthropy, which is really what they were forced to do as a result of COVID-19, which means they put money into organizations and trusted the professionals running the organization to understand how best to target those funds.
So I would like to see an expansion of trust-based philanthropy in the future that does not decide that because you hold the dollars, you know better than the people on the ground as to what type of work needs to be done. And I would like to see philanthropy see its role, not as granting money, which is old English, you know, kind of conversation, but it is investing in societal solutions.
And working with nonprofits to look at what are that organization's bottom line, second bottom line, and triple bottom line. And, and really using the work of the nonprofit as the genesis for any evaluations of competency. So I think shifting that, and I'd also like to see the philanthropic organizations emphasize our, or rather eradicate the overhead myth.
Because the overhead myth is killing nonprofits. The overhead myth means that, you know, if you're operating at 19%, 20%, somehow you're a well-run organization. Totally ignoring the fact that overhead is people, that overhead is healthcare. That overhead is reinvestment in systems. And to ask any business - and while nonprofits don't have to be for profits, that's not my suggestion, but nonprofits are a business, a social enterprise business - to ask them to run a business without any type of meaningful overhead is ridiculous. And it's not something we ask any other industry because that overhead represents the people who do the work. So I hope that if I could wave a magic wand in the future, we would get rid of the overhead myth. We would shift from a grant-making mindset to an investment and we would do more trust-based philanthropy.
And then what I hope would happen in the nonprofit space is that the nonprofits would then change how they see themselves. There are many people in the nonprofit space who fundamentally believe it isn't a real job. Or that the work is only something you do temporarily, not something you build expertise in. We have to change our own mindset about what it is to do the work, and who does the work. Is the work done by people who can afford to work in nonprofits, which are frequently white people, frequently, white women. Or is the work to be done by a variety of multiracial workforce, which means you're going to have to pay benefits. You're going to have to pay proper salaries. And, it also may mean that nonprofits have to start to ask themselves: Is this a vanity project? Or am I trying to accomplish the social goal? And then that might mean maybe we should look at mergers. Maybe we should look at working together. Maybe we should say we don't need 10 organizations just scraping by, all basically kind of touching on the same issue. Maybe we need to come together in consortium. Like we need to really examine and interrogate our motives.
Lilisa Hall: [00:12:24] Well, thank you for that Shari. And I think what is interesting is one of the last pieces you mentioned, which is the long-term sustainability of nonprofits. And in terms of nonprofits, looking at how they could potentially partner, collaborate, or merge with other organizations who are doing very similar work. And so you kind of then create an avenue where you combine, you kind of reduce, in some respects, overhead costs. Only because you've got 10 organizations doing the same thing, you combine them and you're able to actually do more for our communities based on that sort of premise.
And last month we dropped an episode where Jim White, the executive director of NAO and Jenn Clemo the executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Stewardship, was on our last episode. And the conversation was around longterm sustainability of nonprofits and one of the things that you may be aware of is that CNS and NAO joined forces to actually combine organizations into one. And so I want to talk a little bit about that because you mentioned the long-term sustainability of nonprofits.
What are some things that you see nonprofits could be doing to think about? How they could create more and I hate to say this, because it sounds very "private sectory", but more efficient, more effective in what they do to make more positive change in our communities and to affect that change. So, you know, some thoughts from you on that.
Shari Dunn: [00:13:49] Yeah. I mean, first of all, when we talk about being efficient, that is not the purview of only, you know, for-profit businesses. You know, the government should try to be more efficient. Social sector should try to be more efficient. They don't own efficiency, right. And this is that mindset thinking that there's something wrong.
You know, I had someone who really early on when I took over at Dress (for Success) was really angry and complained and said: "Oh, she's running it too much like a business." I mean, you know, providing healthcare and trying to pay people a salary where they could stay at a job shouldn't be the purview of for-profit, right. That should be the elements of any well-run organization. So there's that. But I think as we talk about the sector, we do have to focus on what, what are our motivations, what are we trying to accomplish? Because if I'm trying to accomplish a feel-good story about how I'm helping the poor unfortunate, that's one thing. But if I'm really trying to help change people's lives and it impacts social problems, that's a whole nother thing. And if I'm doing the latter, then I am going to be willing to let go of my ego about this organization and try to figure out what is the most efficient way to get the big picture, the work that I'm really about done. Do you see what I'm saying?
And so that is the distinction and we in the nonprofit sector really don't talk about that. You know, everybody doesn't need their own nonprofit. That's really not a thing. And it becomes more ego-based than it becomes about the clients and about the needs of the community that you're trying to serve.
If we're really trying to impact the community we're trying to serve, we have to figure out what is the best way to do that. That is what is the best way to sustain the thing that I started. And I think organizations should look to align entities, entities that touch on the things that they do and impact the same client population. And try to see, like you said, for efficiencies, could we administratively run together? And you think about ways to do that, where you keep elements, distinct programmatic elements, but that you ultimately use the efficiency of scale around fundraising, around how you're managing, around how you're carrying out programs. And, and you can only do that if you're willing to let go of the "I" in the process. And if you are truly, you know, I call it the, the mother Theresa dilemma, you know, are we here to just comfort the poor? Or are we here to transform people's lives so they are no longer poor and no longer in, in difficult situation, like which is it? And, I think organizations have to ask that. And I also think that conversation is directly related to equity in the workplace.
Lilisa Hall: [00:16:30] Yeah. So it's really all about mission as opposed to the organization. I'd like for you to expand a little bit on your last piece, about equity in the workplace. Tell me more about that.
Shari Dunn: [00:16:40] Yeah, I mean the way... so historically if we just take a little jog back in time, philanthropy, you know, in the United States has its roots, you know, from the pilgrims and, and in our Protestant work ethic and our ethic around giving, but it's also rooted in the robber barons who made tons of money and then, set up boards to distribute those funds is obviously a way to - ultimately it ended up being a way - to ameliorate tax liability, but also that system was developed and designed in large part to execute the work by wealthy women. And primarily we're talking about wealthy white women. I mean, that's, that's who ran philanthropy and they did amazing things. They did great work, child labor law changes, all kinds of health and other issues were spearheaded by those women. So I'm not trying to denigrate that, but what I am saying is, it designed a system that still reflects who it was designed for.
So the elements of that early system meant that you were either a wealthy woman and so you didn't have to be paid to work benefits. And it wasn't a real job because real jobs were in the business field so we made that early separation. It was about your heart and not your head and that type of thing. And it was, you know, pejorative to women. It was very pejorative, but the philanthropic and nonprofit space was a space where women, and again, we're talking about wealthier white women, had the opportunity to have agency, which was great, but, but the other thing that did not happen is, at no point was philanthropy really asking those who they were seeking to help what they thought, what they needed, the money conferred knowledge, and that knowledge meant that you know how to solve the problems of these people without ever asking them.
The other piece of this is that philanthropy never anticipated a multi-racial workforce. And so the early days of nonprofits were really spearheaded by volunteers. Again, once again by women who could afford to be there. And so as people of color start to come into this workspace, you know, for a variety of issues related to historical inequities, they don't have that historical wealth.
And so if they want to do this work, they have to be paid a salary, all that historical understanding that goes back to the 17-1800s that that's based on a certain group of people. And one of the quotes I give in a talk I do is from Michelle Obama who talks about her early days in nonprofits. And she said, the thing that struck her most, was that most of the people there could afford to be there either through, you know, some family member or ability to pay their student loans or having their mortgage paid, or just simply having access to wealth or being wealth adjacent. And that she was one of the few people in the nonprofit space that she was in, in that particular space in Chicago, who actually, this was costing her money to do the work. And so, that is why it's imperative that we re-examine how we think about this work from top to bottom, because it has been exclusatory, it excludes people of color. It excludes people who are not financially well off, in a very real sense. And it sets up a dynamic where there's something wrong, something bad about wanting to be paid to do the work.
Lilisa Hall: [00:19:56] Yes. I mean, I think there is, there's so much to glean from, from your conversation and your thoughts, Shari. And so as we look at the nonprofit sector, moving forward, as well as philanthropy, what are some key things that you think nonprofit leaders, funders, others supporting the nonprofit sector - what are some key actions you think that we could take to revolutionize and transform the nonprofit sector and take that forward in a positive way?
Shari Dunn: [00:20:26] Well, I like to say, change your thinking, change your life, right? Change how you think about what you're doing for the philanthropic sector. Like I said, move to trust-based philanthropy as the default of philanthropy, not the thing that only happens when there's an emergency, but it's the way you fund. And bring some level of respect and trust to the professionals who do that work and move away from the omnipresent, all knowing, money-based grantmaking where you decide the hoops and the programs that the nonprofit must jump through to trusting the professionals on the ground and co-creating with them what the evaluation will be.
I think for nonprofit boards, it's taking the work seriously and not just seeing being on a nonprofit board as a resume builder as, Oh, I'm just here to do something good, but not taking seriously the work and educating themselves about the harm that underfunded institutions are doing, asking questions as a board member about what are we paying our employees and what are our benefits structures?
And. You know, in no other industry, would you assume that people with expertise and qualifications are just going to up and leave in two years. I mean, you can't, it's hard to run anything like that. And so I think board members have to change their thinking about this work. There are many board members look at this as, just as I was describing earlier, well, it's not a real job, you don't really need to be paid. Like they have to change their thinking about that. And they have to be willing to think about what does it mean to work with another organization, either through mergers or through partnership or collaboration.
And I think nonprofit staff have to be empowered to see themselves as part of - a third part of the solutions that impact our communities and our country, that the nonprofit sector is just as vital and important as the for-profit sector, the governmental sector - we're just as important, and we have to see ourselves that way. We have to, we have to also change our thinking about the work.
And I think the nonprofit sector should also explicitly address race and racism in its work because the problem we have is the nonprofit sector historically is a group of people who are not from communities, who don't look like communities who are designing solutions for communities. And the power dynamics implicit in that are very complicated. But when we have people of color working in nonprofits, that becomes very complicated. Because you have a group of people who are very used to dealing with people of color in a position where they are in authority and they are helping, but they're not used to dealing with people of color and equality. They're not used to dealing with people of color who are running an organization. They're not used to dealing with people of color who are on the same managerial level with them. And so nonprofits have to stop thinking that just because they do - quote - "good work", they don't have the same real problems around race and racism that other institutions do. And they need to get about the work of dealing with that.
Lilisa Hall: [00:23:29] Thank you so much, Shari, you have given us so much to think about, so much to chew on, and quite frankly, many things to think about in terms of moving actions forward. So with that, I want to thank you, really appreciate the thinking around re-imagining the nonprofit sector and philanthropy, and hopefully we can make a bit of a radical change, moving forward.
Shari Dunn: [00:23:52] Yeah, no, thank you. Thanks, thanks for having me. Thanks, for everyone listening and, you know, I don't dislike the nonprofit space. I just think we, we need to change, you know, like I tell people, we don't make phone calls like it's 1896, or whenever the phone first started working. So why are we still, you know, in the nonprofits still running our work like that, all I'm arguing for is for us to start to think about changing to who we are now.
Lilisa Hall: [00:24:19] Great, thank you so much, Shari. I hope this conversation has given nonprofit and philanthropy leaders much to chew on, to act on, and to set in motion a transformation in the independent sector and a radical shift to how the sector is perceived and valued. So thank you so much.
For more information about Shari Dunn and her firm ITBOM Consulting, check out thesharidunn.com. That is, T H E S H A R I D U N N dot com.
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This episode of The Public Space is produced by NAO's Brad Ramos.
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