28: What Would it Take for Nonprofits to Eradicate Problems in Society? With Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan

What Would it Take for Nonprofits to Eradicate Problems in Society? With Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan

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“Why don’t we position ourselves and really wrap our minds around the idea: What if instead of working to just address the problem, what if we work to eradicate the problem? How would we think differently?”

– Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan

Episode #28


In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

I have an enlightening conversation with Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan, Executive Director of Reading Partners DC. As an expert in the education space, Shukurat has some incredible insights to share with the audience on change-making through sharing stories, as well as how nonprofits and funders should embrace their role in community-based programs. 

Shukurat started her career as a teacher, shaping unique experiences among her students. She now leads a nonprofit organization, Reading Partners DC, where they pair community volunteers who are interested in giving back with young people through tutoring around early literacy skills.

We cover a lot of topics in this episode, like why every organization should have a level of flexibility when it comes to their work, how to balance short-term metrics with long-term goals, and funders’ actual role in community-centered fundraising.

As Shukurat wisely said in this episode, education might be the most universally supported social issue of our time and yet, it is the one that progresses the most slowly forward. What does it take to shift how we do things? What are the practices that we should embrace or test? What should we avoid? 

This episodes is one of two episodes released on the first week of February in honor of Black History Month. We respect, listen to, and learn from so many incredible Black women every day, and are grateful for the wisdom they share on What the Fundraising this week and throughout the year.

This episode really opens the conversation to real collective solutions that start with individual introspection, so click that play button and join us!

We cover a lot of topics in this episode, like why every organization should have a level of flexibility when it comes to their work, how to balance short-term metrics with long-term goals, and funders’ actual role in community-centered fundraising.

As Shukurat wisely said in this episode, education might be the most universally supported social issue of our time and yet, it is the one that progresses the most slowly forward. What does it take to shift how we do things? What are the practices that we should embrace or test? What should we avoid? 

This episode really opens the conversation to real collective solutions that start with individual introspection, so click that play button and join us!

If you want to build some new partnerships in 2022, then this is the episode for you! 


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Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan:


What Would it Take for Nonprofits to Eradicate Problems in Society? With Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan
What Would it Take for Nonprofits to Eradicate Problems in Society? With Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan
What Would it Take for Nonprofits to Eradicate Problems in Society? With Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan

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What Would it Take for Nonprofits to Eradicate Problems in Society? With Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan


Nonprofit Highlight:

Get to know Reading Partners!

Reading Partners is a national nonprofit that mobilizes communities to provide students with the proven, individualized reading support they need to read at grade level by fourth grade. Their mission is to help children become lifelong readers by empowering communities to provide individualized instruction with measurable results.

Visit https://readingpartners.org/ 

episode transcript

Mallory: Welcome everyone. So thrilled and honored to be here today with Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan. And thank you so much for joining me for this conversation. 

Shukurat: Sure. Glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

Mallory: So let’s just start with the basics of your history in the non-profit sector. What brings you to this moment in time and what makes you so passionate about the work that you’re doing?

Shukurat: Love that question. I was born and raised in Washington, DC. I am a proud graduate of DC public schools. And I say that because a lot of my experience in schools and a lot of opportunities that I got really stemmed from the opportunities that I received as a young person in school, my parents came to DC in the early 80s from Nigeria with the thought that they’d only be here for a few years to finish college, and then go back. But some moons later, they have made DC home and really have set down roots and have connected the importance of community that was so much a part of the culture in Nigeria and have done so with DC. 

Put that in, my siblings have been rooted in the importance of community and being a part of the community and making sure that you’re doing your part to lift everyone. I started my career as a teacher. I Taught in Prince George’s county, which is a suburb about 15 or so minutes outside of the city where I actually learned more about what was actually happening during the time I was growing up as a teacher there than I’ve ever understood.

And that was because my work in Prince George’s county forced me to really sit down and reflect on what unique experiences I had. The direction of my life. And I always tell people to be clear, there’s nothing unique and super special about me. I have many young people who were friends of mine at the time who were probably a bit more talented.

And the difference between myself and them are just access to opportunity and all of that realization, that reflection. Has shaped my work moving forward. So I’ve been in the education space for over a decade now, doing everything from teaching in the classroom to leading schools, to doing both local and federal policy work, political work, and getting people elected into office who share a passion for equity.

And then now I’m leading a nonprofit organization, Reading Partners, DC, where we pair community volunteers who are interested in giving back. We pair them with young people and provide tutoring for early literacy.

Mallory: I love it. And there is this kind of unspoken thread through a lot of my episodes of folks in the education sector.

It’s where I started my career, at Citizen Schools in Boston. I have a lot of passion and appreciation for the work that you’re doing. I also can imagine, given the model that I once knew of Reading Partners and how much of this pandemic has shaken up all the ways in which we’ve operated and worked, that the last two years have probably been pretty hard.

Do you want to tell us a little bit about what that has been like, what it’s been like to lead through that crisis? 

Shukurat: Sure, it is so surreal to hear you say two years, because I think this pandemic is really just a day-to-day thing. And so just now to hear you say two years… Wow, it has been two years!

Of course globally it has been devastating and many folks have dealt with personal challenges and losing of loved ones. But on the other side of it, it has presented an opportunity to really expedite production of resources that we had been working on for quite some time that we wanted to introduce into the space.

And what I tell folks, my school leader, friends and other colleagues in the space is that before the pandemic, we had all the excuses in the world as to why we couldn’t do things differently. It was probably a little bit more safe to take our time and really analyze and process whether or not new interventions would be the best thing, but when the pandemic hit, oh boy, did we throw everything we could at this problem.

And so we had been in the works for quite some time, developing a virtual option to extend our reach and we rolled it out. So we launched our virtual tutoring platform and it has been incredibly successful in extending our reach and working with young people who we wouldn’t typically touch.

It’s also forced us to think a lot more about the other components of our program that really makes it special, thinking more deeply about our family engagement, work, everything. From incorporating virtual home visits to doing caregiver workshops, where we actually teach parents and caregivers how to extend literacy practice in the home by using what’s around them.

We found some great success there. We have implemented our virtual library at the time where students couldn’t go to the library to pick up reading materials. We were able to partner with an organization that provided not just access to thousands of titles, but an option where they can have students who have books read to them.

And so we thought that. Again, it doesn’t have that special magic of having an in-person opportunity to have someone read a book to you, or you read a book to a person, but it did cover the gap for young people who may not have had access. In addition to that, we also piloted our small group tutoring, which I’m very excited about and we’ve been piloting for a year.

What we stand on, what we know works is our one-to-one model, but we also know that if children need additional support and as a teacher, one of the best ways for kids to learn is to have a great model and appear. And so what are the opportunities that we have to have kids work together on skills?

They both need help in and model for each other best practices and learn together. That was also born out of the silence. Reading Partners was traditionally known as just this one-to-one tutoring, evidence-based tutoring program and has since evolved into what we call our Suite of Offerings, Reading Partners Beyond.

And that’s what we were able to do. And we’ve learned a lot, but we are so excited to be back in school buildings, be back in person with young people, but we are also navigating COVID and all of the challenges that presents. 

Mallory: Wow. There are so many directions. I want to go from that intro, but maybe I’ll just ask quickly.

I’m curious. One of the pieces of Reading Partners obviously is this really robust volunteer management that I’m sure has a lot of implications from a funding perspective, from a programmatic perspective. What has that been like? To manage it since the beginning of the pandemic and where there have been some sort of opportunities and challenges.

Shukurat: One of the things I appreciate for the work that we do in nonprofit space and human workers is what I like to call it, is that when there is a crisis people typically rise to the call and find some way to get involved for support and when they’re feeling helpless or hopeless. And that has been something to benefit us and we did not skip a beat. In fact, at one point we had more volunteers than we had kids, which is a great problem to have. That was exciting last year when kids were all at home. Being back in person, folks are really weighing the costs. And honestly, it’s when you have people in a concentrated space, you have more outbreaks and things like that.

And so we also think critically about our young learners. We want to make sure that they are in the healthiest situation possible. So we weighed that, but we continued to find that there are people who are raising their hands, rolling up their sleeves, wanting to dig in, wanting to support, because there is something about it.

Seeing more and more articles about the need and how many students are behind. And what’s actually happening to our most marginalized students who are in need, this is really inspiring folks to want to engage and get involved. And so we can continue to mobilize a strong volunteer base, but the need is indeed great.

And I think we’re going to be in this in terms of the aftermath of COVID and the impact on unfinished learning. We’re going to be in this forward, I’m hoping. And as we talk to our volunteers, and as we talk to folks who keep asking the question, how can we get involved? How can we support? is just to really understand that this is a multi-year issue and sustaining the interest and commitment is going to be so critical to getting kids where they need to be. And for those who were behind already getting them further. 

Mallory: I really appreciate the lens into all of the different forms of iteration that the organization has needed to take. And the flexibility and the pivoting, I think, where other organizations perhaps were paralyzed for longer in terms of how they show up in this new model or new space, you guys really flew into action, which I think is a real testament to the leadership of the organization. And it sounds like also being in development that it was like, all right, now’s the time, but I’m curious from a funding perspective, did you have big funders, unrestricted gifts?

Did you find that the movement of money was more fluid during that time? Or was that a challenge to navigate as there was this urgent need to shift programs? 

Shukurat: Yep. So I would say for the funders that we work with, definitely I’m at the height of the pandemic. Definitely more flexibility, more unrestricted gifts, and those things did occur.

But as we moved from dealing with what was happening in the moment and really talking about recovery, some of the previous attitudes around funding and providing funding began to return into the space. Everyone, again, wanted to make sure that the return on investment is strong. I also think what worked a tad against us this time is that when we think about it, at least in the education space, some of the bigger solutions to critical problems, and we think about some of the successes and many of the challenges, I think for this particular crisis funders have approached us saying “We love your idea. But we want to make sure this is evidence-based” and “this is right”, or “the metrics are right”. Basically you do what you say you’re going to do because of experiences of the past. So I’m thinking a lot about the grants when we started talking about how to lift schools  who were underperforming, some of the grants that were put out there to help states think about getting all the resources to students who were attending failing schools.

I think about the race to the top, all of those things. Like the COVID recovery work or the dealing with unfinished learning, you had the federal government give out a bunch of money. The philanthropists have responded as well to support that, but you had a lot more metrics this time. You had a lot more guardrails that didn’t exist.

When I remember working in the space, it was for those other pieces. And so, going back to what I said earlier, when you’re doing human rights, There is a level of flexibility that I believe all organizations should have. You should absolutely do what you say you’re going to do, or why do you exist? a thousand percent agree?

But there is a level of flexibility that is needed to really meet the need of the moment. And some funders are doing a great job at that. Some still are trying to balance that with also being able to speak to their impact. 

Mallory: Yeah, I think it’s such an important point around. I remember given my sort of history and the education space and the nonprofit space, just how long sometimes it took to learn that something was going to work or wasn’t going to work.

And the long-term costs for short term metrics. And I remember the things I would have to report on in citizen schools and sometimes feeling like “Is this the right metric?”, is this actually the metric that’s going to move the needle or does this look good on the annual report? And I feel like I can only imagine being back in doing this work in the city that you grew up in, in a place where you are deeply connected on that human level in so many different ways. 

I remember, I feel like I learned this in college, or someone said this in college, that education is the most universally supported social issue of our time and yet the one that progresses the most slowly forward. And that to me is mind boggling. If you think about the funding going into the space in general and the universal support for education reform, not that everyone sees reform in the same way, of course, but that it’s like this bipartisan issue.

And then the progress is slow. And so where is the space for innovation and adaptation and allowing community and local leadership, and then the space to figure out does that get us the results or like actually help us shoot way above that metric. At that cost or in that type of model, there’s also going to be some failures, some things where we don’t hit that mark.

And what does that teach us and how do we learn from that so that we can finally say that’s actually not the model. That’s actually not the way. And what’s possible when we have that kind of open conversation. Any thoughts come up?

Shukurat: So, so many thoughts come up, you’re a thousand percent right, and I think one answer that I’ve been playing with in terms of why is it that an issue that everyone agrees on that is important. We have invested money for DC, just for folks to wrap their minds around it. DC is a system of about 90,000 kids and we spend a little over a billion dollars a year for 90,000 kids. That’s a lot of money, right? Why? And we’ve been doing this for quite some time. Why aren’t the results better?

My most cynical answer is that there are whole industries that have been created and have sustained and thrived on the fact that these gaps exist. And when you think about nonprofit work, while I think it’s critical, and this is why I’m going to spend my time, my work time and my life in this space, and then really tackling social issues, this industry exists because the gaps exist.

And that’s not to say that my colleagues in the space are not doing everything that they possibly can to solve problems. But the system is bigger than us. There are people who’ve been benefiting from this for quite some time. So, that’s my most cynical thought, but the way that, in formsof how I work and the conversations I have with my team is that, one, why don’t we position ourselves and really wrap our minds around the idea that what if we were, instead of working to just address the problem, what if we work to eradicate the problem? How would we think differently? How would we choose the risks that we want to take or the innovation or the pilots that we want to do? How would we choose that differently? How would that shift the conversations we have when we’re looking at our data and we’re pushing one another.

We would have a radically different conversation and we are having radically different conversations at my organization. We are really asking the question if this is a problem, if early literacy and the fact that there are students who for whatever reason are not where they need to be, what if we came and attacked the problem as if we’re trying to work ourselves out of a job immediately, that frame switches the conversation.

We are not talking about how to sustain. We are not talking about how to celebrate marginal wins, but what we are talking about and the success is not how many students we get to work with, but the success becomes how many do we get to exit? And we get to return back to the school house and say, this child is at or above grade level. Go forth and put whatever else you got to put into them so they can go and live the lives that they want. To have radically different conversations. So that’s one side of it. 

Mallory: I’m curious, I’m thinking, as you’re saying these things. The different types of funding, streams that submit for education work and the different story and narrative that you’re telling and the types of funders that align with, and perhaps even the internal work that people need to do to ask themselves those fundamental questions, what does it look like for us to fund work that actually solves this problem? 

I was talking to someone recently about their donor advised fund and how much money is just sitting in their donor advised fund. And they can’t decide what to give it to, or they don’t feel activated around a certain issue area or haven’t found the right organization.

And we know how much is trapped in donor advised funds across the country. We know how much money gets trapped in. Corporate matching programs. You have six to 10 billion a year that have never been claimed in corporate matching programs. So how would things change? How could giving or philanthropy or investment change if we started with the questions that you’re pushing us to ask?

Shukurat: Sure. So my view on this has been an evolution and it really started with me as a leader leading in my home town and leading in a city where my daughter is going to enter the education system in a year. I got a year to fix it, which is crazy.

I know I have a year to make this extremely perfect for this perfect being that I got. Here’s a little bit of my base, but that’s where that process comes from. I started off as a teacher. So my former students now have kids who are in the system and for some of my students, that went on, they were very successful.

They now have children in the system and the same problems exists. The same pitfalls exist. It is all still here. And so if we’ve been trying to tackle these issues, if it’s poverty, if it’s climate change or whatever, the big social issues are, and we’ve been trying to tackle this for generations, decades or whatever, and year after year, it’s the same problem we need to switch.

And what opportunity we have is, one, actual introspection around what role had we played? We being non-profits, philanthropists, government, community… What roles have we played to keep the problem going intentionally and unintentionally? Let’s have some real conversations. The second outcome that could come from really switching the lens would be what is actually needed today ?and how are we serving the people whom we’ve developed all these things for?

And is it actually what they need? Is it what they want? There’s an organization. I can’t remember their name, but they do fantastic work. And the idea of it is to support families and lift the entire family up. And what the nonprofit does is they make many grants to the families. And so in the grants, all you have to do is tell them what your goals are.

They don’t question your goals. All they offer you is the resource to live out the vision that you set for yourself. And they just check in with you on your progress to division. That’s it. And that organization has seen tremendous success and continued participation in the program because what they did was honor the expertise and experience of those most impacted by all the issues and created space for them to do what they knew how to do, but just weren’t resourced to do. And that was it. 

And so, of course there’s a non-profit leader. I want more of that. That type of trust, that type of space to really allow leaders to lean into their expertise and experience, I think will help us get to closing some of these gaps a lot faster. 

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe in metrics. I believe in measuring what we’re doing, because the other side to that, if you go too far in that direction, you have a bunch of resources that are given to organizations that are not quite doing what they said that they would do. And the people are not benefiting. That is not okay. There has to be some sort of middle ground that creates space to be flexible, to be innovative, to actually address these issues. And again, that question of asking how we would approach the work if we were actually trying to work ourselves out of a job, I think it would yield all those things.

Mallory: And I think that question you asked around how have we involuntarily or consciously continued to perpetuate this problem, we’ve had a number of conversations on What The Fundraising about white supremacy culture and its impact on organizations and at sort of macro level micro levels.

I think one of the things that is clear about the funding structure, especially the foundation funding structure, I think it can go across the board like, “How do we get out of this?”, the paternalistic nature of funding. The reality is to best what needs to happen and beyond just the trust on an individual level, although I think that work needs to be done and the anti-racist training and the white supremacy training to be aware of our unconscious biases is critical too.

But I also think there’s just, in the whole way that funding is given to non-profit, this whole kind of deep professionalization of the nonprofit sector, where you need to be babysat to do our work. And if that could radically shift, if we could start watching non-profits lead the sector, lead philanthropy instead of the funders, I think that’s how for me, when I think about what it’s going to take to eradicate these problems, it feels like that shift is a critical part of that. 

Shukurat: I think when you talk about human problems, everybody feels like they have a good idea on how to solve it.

But if you go into the L and D space around, I don’t know, self-driving cars, I don’t see a lot of venture capitalists saying “Yep. I know exactly the way this industry should work, the technology here”. No. What do you hear them say? “Okay, that sounds really cool. If I give you this, how much am I going to get back?”.

When you do human work, everybody feels like they have some level of expertise around how to do human work, but then there’s also the stories that we tell and the narratives that make us feel comfortable around talking about how we feel good about what we’re doing.

So it feels good to say, oh, there are some children who are under-resourced or without means, they’re so poverty stricken and that we were able through our fundraising efforts., we were able with our resources to provide for them. It feels really good, right? That’s something that you can go home at night, pat yourself on the back, lay your head on the pillow and move forward.

But one, that’s actually not the true story. And I’m now talking about this from personal experience. I remember in DC, it’s been such a boom, lots of people moving here. And I remember having a conversation with a gentleman who had just gotten to the city and moved into the neighborhood that I grew up in.

And he said something to me that was so striking. He was like, “I don’t understand why people who are from here complain about new people moving in and all the changes coming, after all aren’t they excited that these amenities are being brought to the community?”, we were the ones who served as catalysts.

I remember the many nights that my dad and my neighbors came together to not only complain about the lack of amenities or the lack of safety in a particular community, but also the frustration and the pain that they felt when they went to advocate for themselves and when they went to enact the plan that met the needs of the community, they weren’t listened to, they weren’t heard, they were ignored.They were invisible. 

In many ways. I see a parallel with that and I tell my team all the time, our board and our funders, I want us to be clear. We are not here to be saviors in this space. We have the great privilege to partner with communities who have a plan in motion to provide a resource, to support them, to reach the vision that they have on a school level. We are a part of a plan that a school leader developed in support of their young people. That’s already an action and we just fit into this. 

That’s a radically different way and it doesn’t lend itself to a lot of ugly feelings. It’s just “I’m working. I’m bringing something to the table. I don’t want to claim the good of all of this…”, but it’s not ours to claim. It is for the communities to own and use to push forward, to push the community forward. So it’s less self-centered, but it makes it harder to fundraise with folks out there. Everybody wants a feel-good story.

Mallory: I’m having this weird experience right now because the way you talk to your board and staff for me is so much more exciting.

And so I’m trying, I’m really trying to tap into what you’re saying, which is funders and that claiming piece. No one has said that word on any episode before. I think there’s something really important about this ownership and claiming of the result that there needs to be more transparency around and we have this softer language of talking about this.We need to show our funders their impact. Like we want to show our funders their impact. And going back to what you were saying before, it’s not about how many students we work with, but how many students have we exited of the program and just all of these pieces that you’re saying, I just think are so important for us to be honest.

How we have used language and tools in the past that have caused harm. What it looks like to change the way we show up. And then to be honest about why the heck we’re even here, is this sector here just so we feel good?

Shukurat: Yeah. And there is actually an order of operation, if you will, in order to arrive at different results, it does start with the personal work, as you mentioned.

And I want to be clear, there’s both work that white folk have to do in this space and there is work that folk of color have to do in the space, because unfortunately we’re all impacted by the system of racism and oppression. Everybody has a negative impact, whether you recognize it or not, and there’s individual work that has to be done.

And then once you ask the question: What will it take to solve the problem and really flipp it on the head? I think you then begin to arrive at some of those other questions or aha moments that pop up. And I would say funders are not excluded from going through that process either.

Now, I want to be clear that there’s some organizations that are really doing the work and living it out. I will shout out the CityBridge Foundation in DC. They are really doing this so much that they’ve come up with, these are folks who have access to a tremendous amount of resources and they want to really support and solve the problems around education in the city.

But they have really done the work to think about how they’re showing up in this. What’s their role, what’s the right type of role and how are they lifting the community and the plans that they have for themselves and how are they lifting that and pushing that to the forefront and only leveraging what they have to support those plans. That’s a powerful example of a funder who’s doing the work to make sure that they’re not getting in the way of progress or claiming progress, but actually aiding the community to address the problems that they want to address in the way that they see.

Mallory: Love that. I want to learn more about their work. And I’d be curious to learn the internal work that had to happen in order for them to show up that way and the different things that they put in place and stuff like that. Cause I think that we’re hearing a lot of high-level conversation in the foundation space about some of these issues, but then like you and I have talked about before this reporting and metrics look the same as they did before. And so there seems to be this disconnect between the cognitive recognition of the need to evolve and the ability or knowing of the organization around how to evolve. I’m seeing something similar around community centric, fundraising principles. There’s a lot of conversation around that from a theoretical perspective and what’s wrong and broken in the system perspective and not a lot of tangible examples of here’s really effective community-centric fundraising. And so folks are like “How do I cross this bridge? I want to do that in my organization too, I feel so far away from that”. What is the process of getting from A to Z?

Shukurat: Yeah, again, I do think it’s a commitment to the organization, is a commitment to developing their people because your people, your greatest asset will build how you do the things. So investing in your people to actually do that deep reflection, to explore their own experiences and how it shapes, how they see the world around them in their role and their position in the world.

I think that’s the beginning of it. And from there. I think we’ll spark how to do things differently, but if you’re not even tackling that and you’re just giving lip service, if you will, to moments in time where unfortunately folks in marginalized communities suffer the repercussions of systemic oppression and racism, and you’re every now and again, putting out a statement and standing in solidarity, and that’s the extent of the work, then we’re going to keep having this conversation. Mallory, I’ll be back here in about another 10 years or so talking about the same thing. But if we actually make strategic investments into the development of the people who create the systems to begin with, maybe we’ll see something different. So I would encourage those organizations to really invest in that and really put that as a critical part of the work. It should be just as important as meeting deadlines or anything else. They engage in that work and to demonstrate growth. 

Mallory: Yeah. I agree with everything that you just said. Looping on the way you talk about nonprofit work, this human work. I feel like oftentimes fundraisers remove or try to remove their humanness from the equation because it feels so vulnerable or emotional.

And that some of the biggest challenges that I see fundraisers face is not because they don’t have the fundraising plan, but because they’re really deeply afraid of rejection and it’s holding them back from taking the action that they need to take to do the plan. I think that is actually such an important point that I haven’t heard anyone talk about in that way.

The fact that we all feel like we’re experts in the nature of human work in a way that actually really devalues true expertise in spaces. I think that’s a critically important point. And I’m just curious about from your experience, how has fundraising felt in terms of showing up as your full human self and how does that relate to this equation for you?

Shukurat: This is probably the first role where fundraising metrics were really a part of the job. And all my previous roles, I did it indirectly, or I’ve done it in my private life, around political fundraising and things like that. But what my experience has been just in total with fundraising, I do think that there’s an extra level.

Fundraising is hard. Asking people to give of their resources in a very significant way, and to really invest in an idea or a set of principles that you and your organization have around addressing a problem it’s still hard work. You’re asking people for their money to do the things that again, many of them think that they know how to do better than you because they’re human too.

But I think as a black woman in the space, there are quiet challenges that I deal with. Some of which is just by virtue of who I’m dealing with and whatever bias they come into the space with whether conscious or unconscious. So there are some experiences that I’ve had where I’ve watched a particular funder deal with my predecessor, who happened to be white.

There are a lot less questions that are offered or questions around strategy that are offered to them than there are for me and there’s a lot more justification. I just don’t understand. And I need to see those types of things. All of it is under the umbrella. We just want to make sure that you all are doing what you’re saying that you’re doing.

And this is just to make sure that we’re supporting you in the ways that you want to be supported. That’s one way. I also think there are, again, as an outcome. Of structural racism and oppression. There’s internal work that I’ve had to do with myself around value and worth in the space. And then on top of that, my experiences growing up as a working class, low income, whatever the descriptor is for folks like my parents.There are opportunities that I didn’t have and experiences that I didn’t have. I don’t have to draw on to build connections. 

And so it doesn’t make me less valuable. It doesn’t mean I’m less worthy of being in the space. Also, because I didn’t go to Harvard or Yale or Stanford or all those places, it doesn’t mean that I am less educated or less talented. So there’s the weight of doing that. To show up in the space to lead in the way that you need to lead that also isn’t factored into it, the mulling over of an email and making sure the language is right and going over and over in your head about particular interactions and how you missed the cultural reference, because you just didn’t have any exposure to it.

So those things are different. As a leader of color, if you happen to have a development person who’s white, the difference that’s given to that person in this space and the sort of turning to them to answer strategy questions, the assumptions that person is leading and not.  All of those things have come into place in my personal experience, it’s heavy in the way that the emotional labor is so much. And so why wouldn’t there be a tremendous amount of burnout? Why wouldn’t there be folks who may shy away from that seat? And so I would say that’s the description of the challenging side. 

But the other side of it is I am a tall, heavily melanated, very beautiful dark skinned woman. I’ve been this way, my whole life. And so when I talk to other leaders of color and we talk about the different negotiations and things like that, we have to do just the encouragement of you might as well be who you are because you are who you are and that doesn’t take away from your abilities or anything like that. I do this work because I am from the city. I do this work on behalf of my daughter, my nieces, my nephews, my cousins, my current and former students and their children. I do this work for children who look like me and come from the same background. That’s why I’m in this seat. And I so happened to have all the other things that make me qualified for this, and that’s what I start with. I found peace in that and I’m learning to rest in that and be okay with my leadership, looking different than others might be in a space.

Mallory: Thank you for sharing all of that. Okay. What question am I not asking you that I should be asking you?

Shukurat: How can we fix this? How can we fix this dynamic?

I think, and when I’m wearing my community organizing hat, right? One of my mentors in the space, the biggest lesson, he taught me, he knows how to get people interested in fixing a problem. And I was like, “Okay, how?” He’s like, getting them to share. The sharing of stories actually increases everyone’s self-interest around a problem.

Because you actually begin to have a face and a name and an experience. You can associate that with whatever the problem is. And so in many ways, I love to see the conversation you and I are having. I’d love to see a conversation pulled together with executive directors of nonprofits or leaders of nonprofits.

Major funders in the space to actually talk about what’s happening here. Let’s just share stories about what’s happening here. What are you experiencing? What have you experienced? What do you need? And that type of exchange. I just wonder what would come out of it. And I wonder what the next steps are around how to actually fix this and move forward. I wonder if that would emerge just by doing a sharing of stories and explaining. 

Mallory: I love that. And I love that you’re talking about it through the frame of wonder and curiosity and not how would we measure this conversation and its impact and what would six months deliverables mean? But what does it look like for us to get together and have some more open dialogue around some of these critical issues with the right folks in this space, to be able to contribute their own stories in their own experiences.

There was something that you said that made me want to ask you one other question. We have a mutual appreciation for LEE leadership, educational equity. And one of the things that was moving to me about meeting with folks from that organization and doing those interviews on the podcast was actually the way that they talked about self interest and the important role that plays in bringing people into a cause.

And you just used that word again. And I think it’s this really important point because I think that in the nonprofit sector, we often fall on the side of martyrdom where even the term self-interest feels crunchy to people. They’re like “Oh no, Mallory, don’t talk about self-interest. We’re just here to help”.

And it goes back to that whole other narrative around what feels good to us conversation. And why are we here? And what are we doing? And how often are we actually taking actions? Because it just feels good to us as opposed to really solving these problems. Okay. This piece around self-interest I think is so important. It’s like it’s okay for there to be self interest when we’re organizing, that it’s actually a necessity that it’s actually a powerful force and that self-interest is not equal to exploitation or harm. And I’m just curious, about your thoughts. 

Shukurat: I think it’s important so long as self interest and the focus of it is not just on the organization, but rather when we take self-interest into consideration, I think that it does denote a certain level of respect for the individual, like when you sit back and say, before I come to you to pitch a thing, let me understand who you are, what you value, what is important to you, who are the folks around you that support you?

Let me understand that first, before I come to you and talk about why I think the thing that I’m interested in, the thing I care about has some sort of connection to the thing you’re interested in. That’s when I’m talking about self-interest. So in that way, that’s how I’m seeing it. I do think that we do have to be careful not to move into manipulation and space or things like that.

That’s not going to help us, but I think exploring self-interest mutually allows us to have deeper and more meaningful conversations and that denotes respect for all parties that are involved. So that’s how I see it and how I see that plan. 

Mallory: Yeah, I love that. Inside my course I talk about that a lot around, like, how are you, first of all, identifying alignment, really understanding that person or that entity or that organization is aligned around a mutual goal, a mutual impact.

Solving the problem that you both want to see solved, and then being honest and transparent about the mutual impact in a way that upholds the dignity of everyone at the table, and is honest about the relationship, that I’m bringing this to you because I think there’s a real mutual benefit here.

And so yes, of course I have an interest in it and of course you have an interest in it. And does it work? Do you see the alignment that I see and all those things? I think it’s just part of this bigger conversation, which is what you’re saying. 

Shukurat: And again, I speak about all of this from the context of non-profit work, human work, or what have you.

It’s not just the organization, it’s not just the funder or the individual who’s giving that is important to understand self-interest, but the folk that we’re working with too, and that should be communicated at every step of the way. I think that formula yields stronger results that preserves the dignity of all folks who are engaging in this process.

And I think that part is also important and maybe, at least for me, as I think about our work, it takes away the cringiness of the word. When it’s no, all parties who are involved, there’s an understanding of their self-interest. And there’s a recognition that self-interest is just as important.

And what we’re doing here is trying to figure out how to find the balance between all of it, to do the things that we want to do and things, the things that we want to change that’s important. But I think what happens in the nonprofits Is that we absolutely, most of the time, ignore the self interest of the people we’re trying to do the things for and don’t even inquire about it.

And not even a bit of curiosity there, or, and we as non-profit folk, we don’t talk about our own because of the whole martyrdom piece. And we don’t want to look like we’re so greedy, right? Hyper-focused on the self-interest of the foundation or the individual donor. And that’s what’s actually happening.

And again, that contributes to a lot of where we are today, but the question is what would it look like if we considered everyone’s self-interest how would that shift conversations? What it is we’re doing, how your resources would help us attack the broader vision, how would  we even shape the vision of what we think the problem is by just really focusing on the conversations and getting to know people, maybe the problem is we understand that we are in non-profit spaces.

There’s then if we would just spend time thinking about the people who would actually benefit from the good, I’m using you all podcasts, I’m using my fingers with the air quotes. What would we, how might that shift the vision or whatever the call to action is if we would hear from the people who were actually trying to work on behalf of.

Mallory: And all of it goes back to an underlying belief that there is a path forward that is not a zero sum game. And that is just such a critical, I think, foundational belief to adopt, to be able to do work. That’s more inclusive. And I’m glad you said that part because I think you’re right. 

I think that’s a really important point that the only way to have that level of transparency is having that conversation together and in our organization. Is really taking that to heart and really doing that work.

Shukurat: We want to make sure that whatever we bring to market, whatever product, if you will, that it is needed and informed by the folk who we are doing this in partnership with our type of our way, our approach to partnering with communities is actually what they need. Again, for the plan that they already have in action.

Mallory: So on a tactical level, would that look like sometimes bringing principals to meetings with funders? If you’re talking about getting funding for programs that go into their schools.

Shukurat: Absolutely. It would mean the official school leaders be represented within any sort of board or be a part of our strategic planning process or coming to funder meetings or having just as much input on things as a funder would have. So do that. That also is a little bit of releasing the reigns a bit too, but not just school leaders for us parents as well. Kids even, ultimately the children are the end user or customer or whatever term you want to use, but they’re the recipient of the thing. Do kids like what we’re doing? Is it actually helping them? And they can tell you, they’re experts in themselves. 

Really thinking about all of those stakeholders, how are we creating opportunities for them to meaningfully engage and influence what we’re doing? And we are really thinking critically about that.

Mallory: I love that. And I, in addition to releasing the reigns, it sounds just doing less gatekeeping from a funding perspective too. And that’s only possible if you’re asking the question that you’re challenging us all to ask, which is how do we eradicate this problem? How do we stop needing to exist? 

I am so grateful for your time today and for this conversation. So at the end, I invite folks to highlight a nonprofit that they love and care about. You want to share where folks can go and learn more and then about you, how they can follow along, support your work.

Shukurat: Again, I. Absolutely adore Reading Partners. And you can find more information about us that deputy WWW dot reading partners.org. If you live in Washington, DC, Maryland, or Virginia, please check out the Washington DC chapter. And at the top of the webpage, you’ll be able to choose a location. Come learn a little bit about what we’re doing.

Come get your hands involved in this work. We have young people who are ready to grow and we have opportunities to support them. And we want you to be a part of that work. 

Social media. I’m not there yet. I’m working on that, but I’m always around Reading Partners accounts. So you always see me there, but don’t hesitate to reach out. I can give you my email address at the end of this. I really do love talking to folks and feel free to connect with me there as well. 

Mallory: Perfect. We can put it in the show notes. So folks can find you. Thank you for this conversation. Thank you.

What Would it Take for Nonprofits to Eradicate Problems in Society? With Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan
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