The following is a transcript of the keynote delivered by Rusty Stahl, M.A. ’00, to the 2017 graduates of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Hello, Class of 2017! Congratulations to you and your families! Let’s give the families of the graduates a round of applause!
I come bearing good news. I was privileged to get my philanthropic studies degree here at Indiana University 17 years ago this month. With the perspective of time and space since then, I am pleased to confirm that all your hard work was worth it!
Degrees in philanthropy from IU have enduring value. This very special school is recognized across the nation and the globe as a unique hub of knowledge and practice in our field. You have important insights into how society works that you will bring everywhere you go. And your colleagues in the nonprofit sector will know you bring something special when they hear that you studied philanthropy at IU.
We all worked hard to earn our degrees. But they are also a kind of gift that we receive.
- Gifts from those who offered us scholarships;
- Gifts from our loved ones who offered us time to do the work;
- Gifts of used furniture and used cars from colleagues and family members; and
- Gifts of knowledge, intellectual debate, mentorship, and friendship from faculty, staff, and our fellow students.
Indeed, to this day, I appreciate the faculty who gave me ... a chance. And a second chance. And then helped me secure internships and jobs. The foundation officers at Atlantic Philanthropies and Ahmanson Foundation who sponsored my fellowships and paid toward my tuition and books. So, appropriately, through the study of philanthropy, we have been given amazing gifts.
The question now is: What will you do with it? What will you give back, or give forward? What life of service will you lead as the price for this education?
I want to share with you a bit about my life because it is very boring. My career is incredibly linear. Literally since I stood here in your place, my work is an attempt to give forward the gifts I was given here. I’ve am simply working to find or create answers for the questions I asked when I studied here.
I came here straight out of college, where, like many of you, I majored in extra-curricular activities. I had been a campus political activist, been an AmeriCorps member, but I struggled to find guidance on how to turn my year of service into a career of service, how to forge meaningful and viable work in nonprofits.
Luckily, I found that knowledge and support here in IU’s Philanthropic Studies community. Under the personalized tutelage of Robert Payton, Paul Nagy, librarian Janet Huettner, and others I learned about …
- The tensions inherent in America’s tradition of voluntary action for the public good
- The challenges of intervening in the lives of others for their benefit
- The spiritual implications of fundraising and giving
- The practical process of building meaningful relationships in a transactional field that is fueled by social capital
However, it was not great philosophical debates that drove my career. Rather, it was reflecting on the gift of exposure and access to the field that animated my trajectory.
It all started about 20 minutes north of here at Aristocrats Restaurant at 52nd Street and College Avenue. (home to a famous tenderloin sandwich – if you haven’t tried it yet, you should).
My friend and roommate Dan Kessler and I were having lunch there. We lived nearby in Broad Ripple during our second year studying and working here at what was then the Center on Philanthropy. We had both studied with Robert L. Payton in his home basement library on a weekly basis the previous year as Jane Addams Fellows.
Coming out of retirement for the second or third time, Mr. Payton exemplified mentorship, and he literally took us under his wing, and introduced us to everyone from a grassroots organizer on the north side to the president of the MacArthur Foundation. Dan was now working for Mr. Payton, and I was pursuing the M.A., studying with Les Lenkowsky, Gene Tempel, Nancy Robertson, and others.
As we sat on the restaurant’s front patio, we shared how extremely lucky we both felt to have had the opportunity to get this personal introduction to a world that had previously been vague, ill-defined and distant. We thought about how many of our friends and classmates from high school and college would have deeply appreciated similar introduction to mission-driven careers in the philanthropic arena.
Beyond our friends, we knew there were millions more young Americans who are marginalized and under-estimated—the very people nonprofits serve—who would love this opportunity, and could bring the diverse leadership to the field that we so desperately need.
We began asking:
- How could the sector do a better job of ensuring awareness among Americans about nonprofit careers? And do a better job recruiting millions more diverse young people into our ranks?
These are the questions that I have worked passionately to address since that day.
When I graduated, I had the opportunity to participate in an apprenticeship at the Ford Foundation in a department that focused on strengthening the philanthropic and nonprofit sector. I began asking how the Foundation supported young people in social change careers. There was, frankly, not a satisfactory answer at Ford—or many other foundations. I realized this was simply not on their radar screens. Indeed, to this day, I believe this remains a major blind spot in the funding community.
Working in the strange atmosphere of a large, old private foundation, I got interested in how young professionals learn how to do their jobs well and keep their souls intact inside foundations. So I helped to start Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP), the professional association for young and new foundation professionals.
But I continued to stay involved in the wider conversation about the pipeline into the nonprofit sector, getting my organization involved in coalitions and research on the topic. Our research at EPIP on this topic showed that even good recruitment into the field is undermined by the lack of development opportunities and upward mobility for people in the field. And even good retention efforts are undermined by the lack of personnel policies and benefits to support debt repayment, retirement, and healthy executive transitions.
It was clear that these career lifecycle issues impact not just young people, but all age groups and generations in the field. And as Baby Boomers reached the traditional retirement age but did not retire, Generation Xers reached mid-career, and Millennials entered the workforce en masse, these systemic problems heightened inter-generational tensions and a bottleneck in the nonprofit workplace.
Fund the People
In 2012 I left EPIP and decided to focus full-time on addressing the deficit of investment in nonprofit professionals. This was not always an easy transition. During a year of study and preparation, I struggled financially. I told people that I was going to do this whether or not they supported it, but I would welcome their investments.
Eventually a few foundations decided to place a bet on this work, and I took a deep sigh of relief. I am pleased to say that Caroline Altman Smith, now at Kresge Foundation and a fellow alum of this school, is one of those supporters. In May 2014, I officially launched Fund the People, the national campaign to maximize investment in the nonprofit workforce. We are making the case, equipping for action, and building a movement in the field.
Our research with the Foundation Center has found that only 1 percent of foundation grant dollars go to support for staff development in the grantee organizations. And nonprofits themselves put in an estimated 0-3 percent of their budgets into staff development. About one-fifth of what businesses invest.
According to the Center for Effective Philanthropy, 73 percent of nonprofit executive directors say that one of their three major challenges that their funders don’t understand is the lack of resources to develop their own leadership.
All of this is reinforced by unhelpful myths such as the view of nonprofit people as “overhead,” and the largely accepted notion that there is a deficit of nonprofit leaders. There is no deficit of nonprofit leaders. The problem we face is a deficit of investment in nonprofit leaders! Nonprofit people are nonprofit programs. Nonprofit people are nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit people are not overhead, we are the bedrock of organizational effectiveness.
We must all work to create a rising tide of resources to support people in our field. Together, we can increase the performance, impact and sustainability—at the individual level, at the organizational level, and at the field level.
So I charge you with this challenge: As you go out into the next phase of your journey, make investing in your nonprofit’s people part of your own philanthropic practice.
- If you are doing fundraising for a big institution, work with management and HR to identify staff investments that would advance the organization, work with finance to budget for these investments, and make sure it is part of your conversations and asks to every funder.
- If you are doing grantmaking, respectfully ask your grantees about their staff development strengths, challenges, and how your funding might help them invest in their people. Then provide that funding.
- If you have positional authority, make investing in your staff part of the culture of your organization. Budget for it. Fundraiser for it. Talk with the board about it. Make time for it. Invest in it.
- If you don’t have positional power, do what you can. Don’t stay silent. Negotiate where you can. Organize with your peers to make a compelling case together.
- And no matter where you stand, be sure to invest in yourself, those who report to you, and those who have no power—the unpaid intern, the administrative assistant, and the high school student. Treat yourself and those around you with dignity, respect, and the awareness that—as Dr. King said—“Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.”
If you want to learn more, I invite you to visit fundthepeople.org to find resources, subscribe to our email list, and follow us on Twitter.
So, even we you celebrate, ask yourself:
- What will you do with the gifts you’ve been given, and the degree you’ve earned?
- How will you put to good use the investments people have made in you?
- What questions will your journey seek to answer?
- And how will you take others under your wing, investing in nonprofit people throughout your career?
Each of us answers these questions in our own ways. I look forward to seeing your answers in action!
Thank you for the opportunity to share the excitement of this moment with you! Once again – Congratulations graduates!