Developing the sector

By Krista BremerThe nonprofit sector provides vital assistance to the communities it serves, but it’s important to not lose sight of the intangible achievements of the sector, says consultant Jan Masaoka.

“People increasingly see the nonprofit sector as an efficient services machine,” says the executive director of Compasspoint Nonprofit Services, a San Francisco-based consulting firm that works with grassroots organizations.

But at least as valuable is the way people build community, become empowered, and find meaning in their lives through nonprofits, she says.

For example, Masaoka recently met with mothers from a housing project who wanted to raise a few thousand dollars independently to start a drill team for their daughters.

Some might have advised these women to seek assistance from a group like the YMCA, which could offer their daughters a similar experience.

But by doing it themselves, in addition to raising money these women are building community and developing their sense of efficacy, says Masaoka.

Creating a drill team, which is the deliverable service, is only one aspect of what they accomplish.

“Something intangible but important is built when these women work together to reach their goal,” Masaoka says.

The work pays off in countless other ways, including how these women may take care of each other and enrich their communities in the future, she says.

That’s why the smallest groups like gardening clubs and neighborhood housing organizations, are so important, and that’s why Masaoka loves her work at Compasspoint, she says.

While many large nonprofits are slowly reaching minority communities, Compasspoint helps small, local nonprofits grow large enough to impact larger society.

“The best part of my work is to see a grassroots organization take a giant step forward with assistance from Compasspoint,” she says.

Ten years ago, Masaoka received a call from a small hospice in the San Francisco Bay area.

The Buddhists who started the organization knew a lot about providing compassionate care for the dying, but next to nothing about running a nonprofit.

On her first visit, Masaoka walked by a few patient beds to reach the “office,” a small room off the kitchen, and discovered the staff kept no financial records and noticed they stuffed hundreds of dollars into a coffee can on top of the refrigerator.

Jan Masaoka

Job: Executive director, Compasspoint Nonprofit Services, San Francisco

Age: 54

Education: B.A., Japanese studies, San Francisco State University; candidate, doctor of public administration, Golden Gate University

Recently Read: “Intoxicated by My Illness,” by Anatole Broyard

Favorite Movie: The Last Emperor

Hobbies: Gardening, cooking, and spending time with family, including two adult children and 43 first cousins

Little known fact: “People think I’m a cynic but I am actually an idealist. I criticize when I care, when I take something seriously and want to engage it.”

Career: Compasspoint Nonprofit Services, 1993-present; director of  consulting services, Support for Nonprofit Management, 1988-1990; lecturer, graduate school of public administration, Golden Gate University, 1987-1996

Still, the level of compassion she witnessed for the patients made a lasting impression on her. With assistance from Compasspoint, the hospice staff established an accounting system, eventually secured the organization’s first government grant, and now the group owns a building with dozens of patient beds. “This is a place where any one of us would be lucky to spend our last days,” Masaoka says. “So it’s extremely fulfilling to see the hospice reach this level of stability.”

The major challenge to nonprofits today is changing trends in federal and state funding, Masaoka says, and now more than ever, members of the sector need to pay attention to politics.

As an example, Masaoka cites legislation approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in October 2005 that says nonprofits engaging in certain advocacy or lobbying activities, including voter registration, would be denied money from a federal affordable housing development fund.

“That legislation was a direct attack on the poor,” Masaoka says. “And yet none of our leadership organizations in the nonprofit sector spoke up about it.”

The nonprofit sector also needs to mobilize voters, she says.

“We in the nonprofit sector reach a large percentage of the population,” she points out.  “We need to be registering our employees, volunteers, and clients to vote.”

Though Masaoka takes a dim view of today’s political climate, she is committed to working to improve local communities.

“I believe in working for change not because we know we will achieve our goals, but because the work enables us to find meaning in our lives,” she says.

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