By Katie Todd
How did our organization start?
A Craig’s List ad.
No joke. The founders of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) Triangle NC chapter came together after an online posting, sitting around a bar (of course), and trying to imagine what an organization dedicated to supporting folks like them would look like.
This was back in the fall of 2009. Over the course of the last six years, this group of four morphed into a membership closing in on 2,000. The nonprofit provides more than 30 networking and professional development events each year and hosts a local conference dedicated to the needs of its members and other nonprofit leaders. YNPN Triangle NC has zero paid staff. It is completely run by 19 volunteers on its Board of Directors. And, it is part of a national network of more than 50 other local chapters, all who have the mission of cultivating nonprofit leaders through resource-sharing, skill-building, and knowledge-sharing.
How has this organization grown so rapidly and so successfully in less than 10 years? Here’s what we think:
Our willingness to take risks.
Our chapter’s founders set forth an audacious goal. Much of the first two years were spent creating the raw infrastructure to create a formal organization, to connect with this national network, and to convince folks to show up at their events. They had no idea if young nonprofit professionals would be interested in joining such a group. But, it was clear early on that this organization was fulfilling an unmet need. True, there were associations for nonprofit organizations and for executive directors or fundraisers. However, there were no other groups in the area dedicated to supporting young, nonprofit professionals.
This willingness to take risks has manifested in the community in visible ways. One board member highlighted the rapid expansion of our #NonprofitSTRONG Summit, a one-day conference specifically designed for young nonprofit professionals. In one year, this event doubled in size, scope, and impact, where more than 200 nonprofit professionals gathered together to discuss sector issues, critical skill development, and unpacking racial equity in our communities. Sophie, YNPN Triangle NC’s current Vice-Chair, added “consistently strive to be a better organization via self-reflection, evaluation, taking risks, and investing in board members.” If we want the sector to embrace these same principles, we need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
Our commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion.
We recognized early on that if we were going to achieve our vision of seeing a more inclusive, sustainable Triangle community, the people sitting around our decision-making table needed to change. Recognizing deficits of perspectives and expertise in our Board of Directors, we revamped our board recruitment efforts in 2015 to be more transparent and intentional in bringing missing voices to the table. In 2015, that included increasing the number of leaders who identified as a person of color, a non-cis gendered female, and LGBTQ. Additionally, we sought out leaders who had skills and experience in governance, accounting, strategic planning, for-profit world, and executive leadership. We grew our board from 11 to 20 in order to make the appropriate space for those directors. While we have made progress, we will continue to challenge ourselves in 2016 and beyond to ensure our board leadership, not just our entire Board of Directors, is reflective of the broader Triangle community.
Several current board members point to our concerted efforts to not only list equity, diversity, and inclusion as values but to put them at the forefront of every decision. Sarah, a current General Director, described it as a “devoted effort to include ALL types of people.” Elizabeth, YNPN Triangle NC’s Outreach Director, notes that “YNPN Triangle NC has always strived to be an open and inclusive organization and space and I think that really resonates with the members and individuals interested in joining but not sure how to start. Having transparency and inclusion be important values draws many more to the organization.”
Our recognition to not overstay our welcome.
Unlike more traditional Boards of Directors, our leadership doesn’t stay around for years and years. Whether we’re called away by major life events – moving, having a child, a new job – or the realization that we may be holding the organization back, it’s clear that our leaders have recognized when it is time to say goodbye. We’ve crafted ways for these transitions to happen as smoothly as possible and try to avoid losing the historical knowledge. In reality, this looks like: crafting term limits from one or two years for each of our board positions; utilizing Google Apps to create a clearinghouse of information that lives with the nonprofit, not ourselves, so it can outlast us; and working to establish an Advisory Board where former Board Members can still engage with current operations in a different capacity.
Our intentional structure.
Joy Monet, one of our General Directors, points to how our organization operates, the people who sit at the table, as a reason for our success: “I believe YNPN Triangle has been successful because of the leadership and structure we have in place. We have a variety of committees that each specialize in their areas, allowing them to be excellent in execution. We have leaders who are knowledgeable about different aspects of the nonprofit sector here in the Triangle, who are committed to serving for their terms and are on the same page with where we are trying to go.”
Our emphasis on listening.
The YNPN Triangle NC Board of Directors cannot claim to be an expert on what all of our nearly 2,000 members need and want. So, we’ve sought out means to receive feedback on a regular basis in order to create the desired programming and learnings. Since 2013, we’ve conducted an in-depth annual membership survey, and over the last two years, we’ve incorporated post-event surveys as an ongoing barometer to measure how we’re meeting member expectations.
Most importantly: this data doesn’t simply live on a spreadsheet, only to be unearthed when it is time to do the next survey. Our committees form their plans and next steps from this information on a regular basis. We need to know when we’re on target and when we’re really missing the mark. It does our members – and our community – zero good if we’re focusing on topics that aren’t relevant or desired.
We have worked hard to build a supportive, transparent culture in our leadership. From orientation to each subsequent interaction, we highlight the need for accountability. Our definition of accountability isn’t something that only a few decided on and shared with the rest of the team. Each member’s definition of accountability is elevated and we work together to identify shared values.
Our Board of Directors believes in being accountable to one another. That looks like fulfilling our roles and responsibilities. Jessica, our current National Liaison, flags our committee action plans serving as a critical tool to keep us in check and working towards the same goals: “are very helpful in keeping an eye on growth, from the committee level up to board leadership” That also looks like knowing when to ask for help, when to step up, and when to step back. We recognize that we all have lives, personal and professional, outside of YNPN Triangle NC. It is unfair to ask our Board members to put the organization first each and every day. We post when we are unavailable on a shared calendar – and then we respect those dates. It’s easy to be the colleague that still sends emails, but who wants to return with a stuffed Inbox? We need that time away to restore and refresh because this work of changing the world is tough enough.
Additionally, our Board of Directors believes in being accountable to our members. As noted above, we must actively provide as many channels as we can for our members to share feedback. We must seek out spaces for them to lead and to carry the organization forward in their networks and circles. YNPN Triangle NC will not survive without our members feeling heard and acknowledged. It is more than hosting events and a listserv. It is connecting with our members one-on-one and learning from them about their work, values, and needs. As former board chair Brent reflected: “YNPN Triangle NC helps to build leaders. Joining a board of directors or committee might be really intimidating at a bigger nonprofit, but we’ve lowered that bar at YNPN Triangle NC and I think we provide an awesome avenue for young folks who want to gain leadership experience and learn more about what it takes to run a successful nonprofit from behind the scenes.”
Finally, our Board of Directors believes in being accountable to our community. Our vision is to see a sustainable, inclusive Triangle. This extends beyond the nonprofit sector but to all who call this region home. We need to heed the concerns of the broader community and find spaces to partner with allies and leaders on addressing the inequities that are keeping people from achieving their best quality of life. This is at the center of our nonprofit sector: working to improve our world. And we must stretch ourselves beyond our silos in order to do that successfully. We have developed means of achieving that: from a dedicated outreach committee to a task force focused specifically on addressing equity, diversity, and inclusion challenges and actions.
Alexa Sykes, a current General Director, sums up our success brilliantly:
“In my opinion, YNPN Triangle NC has been so successful because it addresses and fills a critical need. Young nonprofit professionals are constantly seeking resources and vehicles to become better people and professionals. YNPN is uniquely positioned to tackle this challenge because our governing board is comprised of the very target audience we seek to support.
As a result, the voices of the board represent the voices of our constituents. In addition, we are very comfortable with change, and don’t hesitate to test new strategies and methods for better serving our members. We are agile, attentive, feedback-oriented, and willing to do explore unknown territory.
Our board members, regardless of experience-level or identity marker, are each valued as individuals, empowered and given the autonomy to make important decisions, and are affirmed in their volunteer efforts. These qualities, complemented by the dedicated leadership of our Executive Board have made us a successful nonprofit organization.”
What’s next for our organization? We’re navigating becoming a legal affiliate of our national organization, a process that has created an opportunity to learn and collaborate in new ways. We will be onboarding new leaders to our Board of Directors in a few months. This will require us to ensure we stick to our commitments, as we shared above, and balance respecting our tradition and also opening the door for new, creative ideas for us to support our members into achieving that inclusive, sustainable Triangle community. We can’t wait.
Katie Todd oversees online advocacy, fundraising, and communications as the Director of Digital Strategies for the NC League of Conservation Voters. Additionally, she is the current chair of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Triangle NC chapter.