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Engaging and Supporting Your Staff with a Retreat

Engaging and Supporting Your Staff with a Retreat

As we rapidly dive into the second half of the calendar year, summer can be a good time to reflect on your organization’s progress, engage in team building, and chart a path for the immediate future. We often hear from nonprofits about the challenges of staff engagement right now. From burnout to remote work to new roles hired during the pandemic, many teams are new and/or working together in new ways. One potential answer to these engagement challenges is to hold a staff retreat.

Over the course of the pandemic, the Catalogue for Philanthropy has seen its nonprofit partners pivot operations in numerous ways, such as transitioning to a completely virtual office, hiring new staff, or pausing strategic planning efforts. Taking a moment to evaluate your organization’s mission, values, and goals through a staff retreat can help ensure that your team feels energized and supported in the coming months, especially if you have new members on your team.

Defining the Purpose of a Retreat

Though staff retreats look different across the nonprofit sector depending on the size of your team and the goals of your organization, a retreat typically has four broad goals:

1. Show staff you appreciate them.

From programming to fundraising to communications to operations, nonprofit staff engage in critical and challenging work every day. It’s important to recognize your team’s passion and dedication to the mission of your organization, as well as to appreciate the skills and experiences they bring to their work.

When organizing your staff retreat, don’t forget to create space for gratitude. Set aside some time to celebrate both individual and team achievements, including surprise successes, hitting a goal, impactful stories, making some much needed progress, and exciting developments. Make sure you “shoutout” the strengths and wins of each team member both publicly and personally — you can even involve the praise of clients, board members, volunteers, or fellow staff members.

2. Discuss difficulties and challenges.

This one might be less fun than #1, but it is equally important. Before looking ahead to the next year, it’s crucial to evaluate the progress of your organization and conduct an honest assessment of the areas in which you want to improve. A staff retreat should provide room for your team to raise any concerns they have, whether it be about programming or the flexibility of your nonprofit’s work arrangements.

If you have yet to hold a staff retreat since the onset of COVID-19, be prepared to address questions about how your organization plans to proceed with hybrid work, events, or programming, as well as questions about work-life balance and employee wellbeing. With the boundaries between our personal and professional lives and spaces blurring, and with many nonprofit staff feeling burnout and dealing with personal difficulties, it is especially critical to have open conversations about how they may or may not be feeling supported by your organization so that you can co-create a plan of action moving forward.

Listen to your staff, allow them to surface and discuss their pain points, proactively ask them to reflect on how staff policies and workflows have been a help or hindrance for them, and remain open to receiving transparent feedback. Use the retreat as an opportunity to gather your team’s ideas on how to best care for them, be it through offering bonuses, more time off, purchasing new equipment, organizing more happy hours, and so on.

3. Set big picture goals for the next year.

It can be easy to get lost in the throes of a nonprofit’s day-to-day work. An annual retreat is a chance for your organization to recommit to its values, mission, and goals at a higher level. Spend some time getting everybody on the same page about why your nonprofit exists to reaffirm the purpose of your team’s daily tasks and set the foundation for examining what has worked well and where you can improve.

Let your team dream a little. Give them a chance to get excited and to re-engage with why they do the work. This can get buried in the endless to-do lists, especially when working remotely.

If there are specific questions about the strategic direction of your organization that you want staff to explore during this retreat, send them these questions ahead of time so they can prepare for a fruitful discussion. When setting goals, be clear about what you can realistically achieve and be specific about the time frame in which you’re aiming to achieve them. Prioritize your goals based on your organization’s values and then establish the metrics your team will use to measure your progress against these goals.

Given the uncertainty we live in, and have been living in for a while, it’s important to also acknowledge that long-term goal setting can be difficult. If it’s helpful to do so, focus on the next year with actionable milestones just 3-6 months into the future. You can also remind the team that uncertainty is now a part of planning and that we need to stay flexible.

4. Have fun as a team.

Whether you hold your staff retreat in-person or virtually, there are many ways you can get creative about bonding as a team. In our experience, the strength of a nonprofit relies heavily on the strength of its team. One of the most vital elements of a retreat is building an engaging and supportive team culture that will leave your staff feeling energized, motivated, and excited to work with each other.

So, don’t forget to introduce fun elements to your retreat! These ideas can range from simply playing a short game before each session to organizing a post-retreat get-together. Every culture and staff will need and want something different, but focus on activities that allow staff to express themselves and to connect with coworkers they may not typically work with every day.

Beyond the Retreat

Following up after a retreat is just as valuable as having one. It can be VERY demoralizing for a team to have a great retreat, set some good goals, and then never hear about them again. Make sure you co-create a plan with staff to share takeaways from the retreat, next steps, and a plan for accountability. Through both regular one-on-one and team meetings, carry the momentum from your retreat forward by building on the skills that are needed to achieve the goals you’ve collectively set for your nonprofit.

At the same time, look for ongoing opportunities to connect staff with each other. Keep some fun elements throughout the year to help deepen your team’s relationships.

For more tips and resources on leading and growing with your values, and on using play as a management tool, check out the slides and recordings from the 2022 National Small Nonprofit Summit. The Catalogue for Philanthropy also offers paid consulting services for small nonprofits in the areas of strategic planning, staff engagement, and board engagement. If you’re interested, please reach out to Chiara Banez for more information.

Why You Should Serve on a Nonprofit Board

Why You Should Serve on a Nonprofit Board

What do you think of when you hear the phrase, “Board of Directors”? The popular image of a board — perhaps conjured by movies or television shows — situates board members in a stuffy office boardroom with a ridiculously huge table. You probably imagine the people at that table to be older, wealthy, and high-ranking business executives.

This perception of needing significant wealth and experience to serve on a board often deters active community members (like yourself) from joining one. But it couldn’t be further from the real picture of what a nonprofit board can be and who can serve on it. Though many promising board candidates who are more junior in their career or come from more diverse backgrounds have likely never considered serving on a nonprofit board, board opportunities for different levels of experience, skillsets, and financial backgrounds exist, especially within the small, local, and community-based nonprofit space.

Having worked with more than 400 of such small, local nonprofits, the Catalogue for Philanthropy has seen that serving on a board can be one of the best ways to leverage your time, expertise, and resources to help create greater impact in your community. An engaged board is critical to the success of any nonprofit, and such an opportunity could be a perfect fit for you as you consider how you want to make a difference locally. Change happens with community, and this is particularly true for grassroots operations that are run by and for the people. The more diverse an organization’s community of stakeholders are, the stronger the organization’s work and impact.

We believe that everyone, especially the most engaged supporters of an organization, should feel encouraged to consider open board positions as a way to get involved. Below, we outline why exactly nonprofit boards exist, what they do, and how you can get started.

So, What Is a Board?

Simply put, a board is a governance group that ensures a nonprofit organization is managed ethically, legally, and soundly. The leadership of a board encompasses three broad areas:

  1. Board members help establish a level of integrity for the organization and focus on its strategic direction.
  2. Board members are responsible for reviewing and overseeing the financial health of the organization.
  3. Should anything happen with the senior staff, the board is ultimately accountable for the organization.

While boards exist on a spectrum depending on the needs and structures of different nonprofits, as both the internal leadership team and the organization’s backstop, board members are typically considered one of the most committed, and key, stakeholders for a nonprofit.

What Does It Mean to be a Board Member?

The expectations for board members vary widely across the nonprofit sector, with some organizations requiring experience or expertise in particular areas and other organizations requiring none. Some nonprofits even have junior boards specifically for young professionals to join.

There is no one model for what a board looks like. The most important factor when considering the success and longevity of a board, and its nonprofit, is that it consists of engaged community members who are passionate about using their time and talent to further the mission of the organization.

Overall, we’ve seen that the three main responsibilities of a board member can include:

  1. Strategy and sound management, such as through annual goal setting, strategic planning for the organization, and reviewing the Executive Director(s).
  2. Stewarding financial and other resources, such as by reviewing financial statements and participating in the budgeting process.
  3. Advocacy, such as through attending events, representing the organization, fundraising for the nonprofit, sharing its work and impact with your network, and so on.

Additionally, some boards are more hands-on than others. While the purpose of a board is to work with and alongside staff members, who have the on-the-ground skills and knowledge required to implement a nonprofit’s day-to-day programming, some boards do serve as an extension of staff and align with them to assist on specific projects and operational work.

Why Is Serving on a Board Impactful?

Just as choosing to serve on a board is a deep commitment, the impact you make as a board member can make a deep difference. The process of joining a board usually involves meeting a nonprofit’s existing staff and board members, as well as better understanding the organization by attending their events, volunteering, reading up on them, shadowing meetings, and more. Preceding the decision itself is a careful consideration of what you want to invest in and whether the opportunity will allow you to contribute your money, time, and resources to an organization and cause that you truly believe in.

And it is through this commitment that you can help to shape long-term and sustainable change. Through your financial and strategic contributions to a nonprofit, you are part of ensuring its longevity. With your deep understanding of a nonprofit, you become one of its best advocates in expanding recognition and support of its work. By offering your personal and professional experience to staff members, you provide opportunities for mentorship, leadership, and development within the nonprofit sector.

When you serve on the board of a small, local nonprofit, you are also actively transforming the place where you live and the lives of you and your neighbors. Because small nonprofits are often under-funded and overlooked, the knowledge and experience you bring as a board member can make an even greater impact. This is especially vital for community-based organizations that rely on the strength of its community — your experiences as a community member matter and bringing your voice to the forefront as a board member is one powerful way to ensure an organization reflects the breadth of the people it serves.

How to Get Started

As you consider joining a board, we invite you to think about three main questions that could be helpful along your journey:

  1. Who and what do you care about? Is there a particular social issue you want to contribute to? What about a specific geographical area or community?
  2. What can you offer? What personal experience, professional skills, networks, influence, or other resources would you bring to your role as a board member?
  3. How do you want to help? Are you looking to assume a leadership role, serve as an extension of your current day job, get involved outside of your day job, or something else?

Once you have a plan, you can start looking for open board positions. If you already know and support a nonprofit, check their website to see if they have any listed or, better yet, reach out to them and ask!

Another great place to begin your search is through the Catalogue’s Board Connections portal. An annual membership for individuals allows you to connect with trusted local nonprofits in our network through an online portal, where you can create a profile, look through recommended openings suggested based on your personal interest and experience, and apply. Additionally, we host a nonprofit board member training that further dives into the Do’s and Don’ts of being a board member.

Embedding Equity in Philanthropy by Supporting Leaders of Color

Embedding Equity in Philanthropy by Supporting Leaders of Color

Originally published by the Crimsonbridge Foundation

Earlier this year, the Catalogue for Philanthropy concluded our inaugural BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) Executive Director cohort, in which local nonprofit leaders of color met regularly for six months to connect with and support each other as peers. Using a participant-led model, the cohort determined the agendas for the sessions and the Catalogue helped facilitate, with leaders discussing topics ranging from managing staff onboarding and professional development to recruiting and engaging board members.

This was the Catalogue’s second cohort convening nonprofit leaders who identify as BIPOC. Late last year, we also concluded our pilot BIPOC Emerging Leader Cohort, which mixed peer-to-peer learning with skill-building so that aspiring and junior Executive Directors could grow professionally alongside each other. Over four months, these emerging leaders of color shared and gained insights about fundraising models and strategies, establishing equity-centered evaluation metrics, and more.

Across both cohorts, common challenges emerged, as well as potential initiatives that would support BIPOC-led small nonprofits. In reflecting on the concerns and ideas our cohort participants shared, five main takeaways that our sector should consider rose to the top when looking to support and champion leaders of color.


1. Move towards a vision of trust-based philanthropy.

Too often, institutional funders demand that nonprofits earn their trust before receiving their funding. Our participants recognize that trust is a two-way street. In most instances, philanthropic institutions and small nonprofits are deeply aligned on a common goal of making local impact. One big way to increase this impact is for funders to trust when nonprofits say they are doing the work.

On a small scale, this can look like rethinking how nonprofits apply for grants and how those applications are scored. What questions are you asking and why? Which of these questions are truly important to you? If it doesn’t serve a purpose, consider removing it from your application process. When reviewing applications, are you looking for spelling errors or are you prioritizing how a nonprofit is engaging their community? If you critique an application for being “unpolished,” can you acknowledge that small nonprofits may not have the capacity to tell their stories the way larger nonprofits might and examine how you define a “polished” application?

In the longer-term, we have heard from leaders of color that it is difficult to plan for their organizations – especially around structural changes or the ongoing process of embedding equity in their work – when they can only secure funding for the next 12 months. Instead of restricting your funding by program area or length of time, could you give multi-year grants for general operating support so that leaders have the freedom and flexibility to determine how to best allocate that money? For individual donors, consider making a multi-year pledge.

2. Prioritize the health, well-being, and sustainability of leaders of color.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout has been a major issue in the nonprofit sector, particularly for leaders of color. Small BIPOC-led nonprofits already grapple with the many systemic inequities that disproportionately impact communities of color in our society. On top of this, they tend to receive less funding and attention than white-led nonprofits. Plugging these gaps has led many leaders of color, themselves experiencing burnout while managing exhausted nonprofit staff, to work in ways that are unsustainable.

Collectively, we must better care for leaders of color by providing funding for coaching and mental health services, and by offering support through leadership development and skill-building that is affordable. Such a network of care is what will enable BIPOC and women-identified leaders to build sustainable workflows for themselves and their staff.

3. Create space for authenticity and honesty in our funder-nonprofit relationships.

Relationships that allow for both parties to be fully honest and themselves breed trust. Because of the power dynamic between funders and nonprofits, many leaders often feel that they cannot be authentic with a funder without worrying that they will withdraw their support. Such an imbalanced dynamic, wherein nonprofit leaders refrain from sharing about stressors or challenges and funders don’t see the full picture of what’s happening on the ground, only weakens the collaborative nature of these relationships.

True collaboration is crucial to ensure that everyone in our sector can direct their full attention, time, and talent to working with each other. Funders can take small steps to create more room for authenticity in their relationships with nonprofit leaders of color, such as by proactively encouraging leaders to share the realities and difficulties of their work and, most importantly, by continuing to support nonprofits that face challenges or setbacks but are still focused on critical local work.

4. Make networks of support more visible and accessible.

From DAFs to major donors to corporate funders to foundations without open RFPs, finding and navigating sources of funding can be extremely challenging for nonprofits that aren’t already privy to such networks of support. Bigger organizations and white-led nonprofits often have more access to these funding sources than smaller and BIPOC-led organizations.

One major way that the philanthropic sector can increase equity is by making these networks more visible and accessible so that leaders of color know where to look and how to secure support from funders who want to champion local, grassroots movement work.

5. Transition from donors to actively engaged supporters.

Individual donors and nonprofit leaders both agree that supporting a nonprofit should not feel like a transactional relationship. While financial support is critical, we hear from leaders of color that they want donors to show up for the cause in more ways, too. This can look like offering your time by volunteering or offering your influence by becoming a peer-to-peer fundraiser and sharing about the nonprofit’s work with your friends.

Ultimately, supporters and nonprofits exist within a larger ecosystem of change. Just as nonprofit leaders work hard to cultivate a more authentic relationship with their donors, donors can take action to become more engaged supporters and move into authentic advocacy as well.

The Catalogue for Philanthropy is a partner of the Crimsonbridge Foundation’s LeaderBridge initiative. To learn more about LeaderBridge, visit their website.

Why are we making donors the hero of the story?

Why are we making donors the hero of the story?

In a panel at this year’s National Small Nonprofit Summit (NSNS), Marisa Stubbs, Director of Development and Communications at Critical Exposure, and Loree Lipstein, Founder and Principal Consultant of Thread Strategies, shared their journey in Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF), a growing movement to evolve the philosophies and practices of the nonprofit sector.

The Catalogue for Philanthropy is deeply appreciative of Marisa Stubbs and Loree Lipstein for introducing us and other Summit participants to the CCF movement, as well as to the movement itself for inspiring this session and providing some of the materials that were covered during this session. Further resources are linked at the bottom of this article.

Many of the current best practices we learn as new and seasoned development professionals uphold a donor-centric narrative that positions donors as the protagonists of the nonprofit stories we tell. Often, this looks like:

  1. Messaging that frames the donor as the person making an impact.
  2. Competing with other nonprofits for the attention of donors and funders.
  3. Privileging wealthy donors and their perspectives over those of staff, volunteers, and the people we serve.

This narrative directly harms under-resourced communities of color by perpetuating a model of charity, not solidarity, that is rooted in white saviorism and that replaces the agency of these communities with a need to be “rescued.” It also maintains a scarcity mindset that pits nonprofits against each other instead of uplifting all nonprofits as collaborators and co-conspirators within a larger ecosystem.

What could our fundraising practices look like if they center the communities we serve instead of our donors? How might nonprofits be in right relationship with our communities such that we can fundraise to build their power and voice?

Fundraising with New Principles

Central to the CCF movement are ten principles that we, as nonprofit professionals, can commit to advancing through our work.

Ground our fundraising in race, equity, and social justice: It is valuable for fundraisers to be trained in anti-racism, equity, and social justice issues. Increasingly, we should invite donors and funders into difficult conversations about money and power because they affect the whole nonprofit sector.

Prioritize the collective community over our individual organizational missions: Our nonprofit missions do not exist in a vacuum. Our communities are best served by collaborating with other local nonprofits. It’s time to move from a scarcity mindset to a mindset of abundance and trust that we’re there to support each other.

Be generous with and mutually supportive of other nonprofits: Examine how we can truly build community with other nonprofits, such as by sharing fundraising opportunities and finding ways to partner with each other.

Value everyone who strengthens the community equally: Volunteers, staff, donors, and board members all engage with and contribute to a nonprofit. While donors and board members play a part in making the work happen, they are by no means the only stakeholders who matter.

Value time as equally as money: Time, lived experience, and knowledge of a community are just as valuable as money. Instead of asking for donations from 100% of your board, what if you ask about the percentage of your board members who have experience with the community you serve? As another idea, could you make your board more accessible to new members by asking them to pledge a commitment to your nonprofit by percentage of their giving, rather than a fixed monetary amount?

Treat donors as partners: Strive to be transparent with donors in a way that’s rooted in your values. Don’t let a donor’s money outweigh the need to have a conversation with them about how your values align.

Foster a sense of belonging, not othering: Use language that centers “we” over “you” to show donors how they are part of the greater community. Share stories of the people you serve in ways that honor their dignity and make sure that you have consent to share people’s stories.

Promote the understanding that everyone benefits from engaging in the work of social justice: The work that we do is not about charity or compassion. Rather, everyone who is personally investing in the community, from donors and volunteers to staff and board members, benefits from this investment.

See the work of social justice as holistic and transformative, not transactional: As an example, nonprofits are often asked to differentiate their overhead costs from their program costs because donors and funders prefer to “directly support” programming. As nonprofit professionals, we know that funding salaries, administrative costs, and other general costs is necessary for us to make the programming happen. It is important to show donors that your nonprofit works in a holistic way.

Commit to economic justice for healing and liberation: We need to address the root causes of equity, including the destructive effects of capitalism. Many of the imbalances in power and wealth underlying the issues and challenges our nonprofits face stem from the way capitalism has been operating in our society. A commitment to equity must include a deep examination of the causes of economic injustice.

Leading with our Values

“It’s less about what your mission is and I think it’s more about the values of your organization,” Marisa Stubbs shared during the panel. “It’s about the values that you’re also then bringing to fundraising… It’s not about stated values. I think it’s more about how you’re actually living and breathing and acting.”

Stating your organizational values is easy. Applying these values in practice throughout the work that you do, especially in fundraising, is a much more challenging and ongoing journey.

But none of us are alone. A step you can take is to begin having conversations about CCF with your team. Pick one or two of these principles to explore more deeply and adapt for your organization.

For instance, you can start by shifting the language you use when you write to donors and funders. “What would I say if I had to say this and everybody was in the room?” From donors to staff to volunteers to the community, “What is the thing that I could say and say honestly and everybody would walk away feeling wonderful?” This is the question Marisa asks herself when she writes, even if she’s writing only to a funder. Across all your communications, make sure you honor the feelings and agency of the communities you serve.

You can also work towards approaching your donors as partners and asking them to have open conversations with you. “Part of doing the work of community-centric fundraising is actually about educating and being open to educating your funders,” Loree Lipstein said. “We’re not used to educating our funders about fundraising… but I do think it’s an important part of the movement, as a fundraiser, to be sharing this.” As you do this, consider the donors you’re stewarding and ensure that you build relationships with people who give $5 just as you do with people who give $500.

Further Resources

Watch “An Introduction to Community-Centric Fundraising” in full on the Summit website and dive into the existing resources available on the Community-Centric Fundraising website. Readings recommended during the session include: The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas, and Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva.

A Catalogue Member Reflects: Hear from Nicole Lynn Lewis About Her Forthcoming Book, Pregnant Girl

When I got my first job out of college and started to get to know my coworkers, I shared a bit about my college journey. So many people told me that I need to share more to inspire others and to change the way people think about teen parents. Nearly 20 years later, my book Pregnant Girl: A story of teen motherhood, college, and creating a better future for young families is being released by Beacon Press on May 4th.

Pregnant Girl cover (1)

Part memoir, and written as an urgent call to action, Pregnant Girl explores how we can better support young families so they can thrive and how the intersectionality of race, gender, and poverty impacts our lack of support for young parents. In it, I also reflect on my own experiences as a Black mother and college student fighting for opportunities for my family. The book presents the possibility of a different future for teen parents – one of success and stability – in the midst of the dire statistics that dominate the national conversation.

I also tell the story of how Generation Hope, the nonprofit I founded in 2010 and later included in the Catalogue for Philanthropy in 2014 and 2019, came to be. I share our philosophy and approach to helping young parents succeed, and I talk about the dearth of funding for organizations led by people of color. As a Black woman and nonprofit CEO, I’m often called a unicorn, because this combination is too rare in this sector – less than 10% of nonprofit leaders are people of color. A further differentiator is the fact that I have lived the mission of my organization as a former teen mom and college graduate. This background and lived experience have aided me in leading and growing Generation Hope over the past decade by informing our mission and the whole-family work we do every day to help more teen parents earn their college degrees while also preparing their children for kindergarten success.

One of my main motivations in writing Pregnant Girl was taking steps to ensure that my story, both as a teen parent in college and, in subsequent years, as a Black woman leading a direct service and advocacy nonprofit, is no longer a rarity. Fewer than 2% of teen parents earn their college degrees before they turn 30, and nonprofit organizations led by Black women receive less than 1% of foundation giving. These statistics point to broad systemic changes needed in higher education (Which students do we deem “college material” and worthy of support? Who was our higher ed system designed to serve?) and in the ongoing racial inequality that permeates all industries, including philanthropy.

Nicole Headshot

One of the most powerful tools we have is our stories. In Pregnant Girl, I share stories – mine, and the stories of the young parents we work with at Generation hope – in order to shed light on populations that are too often overlooked and rendered invisible. For too long, the stories that have dominated the issue of teen pregnancy – and more broadly race, poverty, single mothers, etc. – have been negative, damaging, and inaccurate. At Generation Hope, our work is directly informed by the tremendous assets and needs of the families with whom we work, underscoring the different kinds of stories it is possible to tell about teen parents and their families. Our impact and our families’ triumphs have been clear, proving that the future we wish to see is not an impossible dream.

I hope you will join us in telling a new story about young families. You can pre-order Pregnant Girl here, join us for our spring events for an in-depth book discussion and a celebration of our graduates, and/or continue the conversation with me on Twitter. We can all play a role in removing obstacles to opportunity, reimagining our educational systems as places that truly fulfill their promise of mobility and success for all students, and changing philanthropy to invest in leaders and solutions that will truly address racial disparities.

Early praise for Pregnant Girl:

“Reading this book, you will learn something important about race, poverty, and gender and how they play a role in teen pregnancy. And you will learn something about how hope can win over adversity.”

- Soledad O?Brien, award-winning documentarian, journalist, speaker, author and philanthropist

“Pregnant Girl is not just a powerful memoir; it’s an empowering guide for all of us. Nicole Lynn Lewis shows us that all our journeys matter, and the beauty of those journeys is not just the destination but the lessons of the path. I would highly recommend this book to all.”

- Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore, CEO of Robin Hood Foundation

“Makes a compelling case for the multifaceted approach that is necessary to ensure that all young people – particularly our youth of color and young parents – are able to make the choice to pursue a college education, earn a degree, and lead thriving lives…It is an approach that is deeply rooted in the belief and call to action that is core to this book – that all young people are worthy of an education, worthy of resources and opportunity, and worthy of our every effort to help them reach their potential and soar.”

- Dr. John King, 10th US Secretary of Education under President Obama

Jasmine is a Woman on a Mission!

Jasmine’s success, and the success of her community, has been driving her for a long time, but especially since she returned home in October 2020 from a 15-year prison sentence.

Last year brought challenges for everyone. Combining the challenges and barriers of COVID-19 with the stigma of being a returning citizen, Jasmine was faced with a choice: return to the life of her past or continue to fly high. Only weeks after choosing the latter, Jasmine connected with the DC Department of Employment Services’ (DOES) Project Empowerment Program for supportive services, job coaching, employability and life skills, for DC residents living in areas with high unemployment or poverty. It was there that she was introduced to Suited for Change.

From beginning to end, Jasmine describes her experience with the volunteers at Suited for Change as “Amazing. From the moment I stepped in, I felt comfortable, even though I’ve never had an experience like that. It was like I was at a photo shoot,” Jasmine recalled. While there, volunteer Marianne Clifford Upton helped Jasmine pick out clothes that made her feel comfortable and prepared her for her next steps.


Jasmine remembers walking away from her first appointment feeling proud, confident and excited about the choice that she had made, and that was even before she was put in touch with her Suited for Change volunteer mentor coach who helped her prepare for her interview with the Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation.

Jasmine remembers her coach, Patricia Blackshire, being incredibly patient and working with her through job interview exercises.

“Patricia made me feel so confident in my skills. This experience was so new to me, but I walked away feeling assured that I was going to be able to obtain a job and do well.” Each Suited for Change coaching session focuses on bolstering client confidence in their qualifications and tailoring their strengths for upcoming interviews.

After Jasmine successfully got a job as an Administrative Assistant with the Training and Development Corporation, she shared that she is most excited about her work for several reasons:

“Success just excites me, I’m so hungry to succeed because I know that through working here, I can continue to soar.”

Jasmine also shared that she is excited about continuing to build her skills working for an organization impacting in her community. The Training and Development Corporation works to provide training and employment opportunities for people in economically depressed neighborhoods to help them and the surrounding communities. Jasmine is tied to the mission because it allows her to be a part of something that makes the path to success easier for people in her community faced with lots of hard choices.

Her experience at Suited, with DOES and now at the Training and Development Corporation have helped her immensely on her path to success, but Jasmine also attributes her success to others along the way like her mentor, Michelle West. Michelle was a fellow inmate with Jasmine and was influential in leading her towards her current path as a role model and mentor.

“Women like Michelle, who is a first-time offender facing two lifetime sentences, are my why. She taught me simple things like being early is being on time and looked out for me on my path to this choice.”

Jasmine’s excitement is infectious, and her drive to succeed is clear. Now that she is well on her way, having made her choice, there’s clearly no stopping this woman on a mission. We here at Suited are glad to have been a part of her journey.

Changing the Conversation on Teen Pregnancy in DC

I was honored last week to accept the Changing the Conversation Award from DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. DC Campaign has been very successful at reducing the rate which, just in the last six years, has decreased dramatically in teens ages 15-19 from 54.5 to 28.2 per 1000. Or to look at it another way, in hard numbers over a longer period, we?re talking about 999 births in 2006 and 458 in 2016 — the most recent year for which we have stats. That’s more than a 50% decrease and this is a very good thing, and well worth applauding. But as the DC Campaign will tell you, it isn’t yet good enough. And this is true for a number of reasons: first, though the rate is lower here than in demographically comparable cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore, it is still higher than the national average, and second, because the numbers in some wards of the city are still just unacceptably high.In Wards 7 and 8 in 2015, there were 278 births while in Ward 3… one. Chevy Chase, Cleveland Park, AU Park, Cathedral Heights, Friendship Heights. One. And lest we think this is strictly a matter of race, the difference between the rates for black teens outside Ward 8 and inside Ward 8 is significant. The combination of poverty, unemployment, high female-headed households, crime, and low rates of school completion — what Child Trends calls “community disadvantage” — is at the heart of the problem.

Barbara Harman giving her speech at DC Campaign's 20th Anniversary Change the Conversation Luncheon

Barbara Harman giving her speech at DC Campaign’s 20th Anniversary Change the Conversation Luncheon

And what is striking, if less apparent, about the numbers, is the overall impact that they have on the well-being of multiple generations. Teen moms and their children — without other kinds of interventions — generally do not fare well: pregnancy often means dropping out of high school, or not attending college, or both, and this is linked to a similar pattern in the next generation. Of course there are interventions — at the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington, which I founded in 2003 and where DC Campaign has been featured since 2004 as one of the best community-based nonprofits in the Washington region, we see a wide range of efforts that help prevent teen pregnancy both before and after it has occurred: in programs that keep teens off the streets and deeply engaged in after-school arts, or sports, or educational enrichment; in programs like Generation Hope, which works with teens who DO parent — to complete their education, and to focus on the child as well for a two-generation approach to ending poverty; or in schools like Columbia Heights Education Campus whose MCIP program helps fund an on-site day care center and program for teen parents that is very successful at keeping parenting teens in school and thus short-circuiting the intergenerational repetition of the problem.

But at least in these latter two examples, it’s a case of closing the barn door after the horse is stolen. Until we solve the problem of “community disadvantage” and bring the teen pregnancy rate to zero we need these programs, but to address the problem now we need the DC Campaign to help parents talk to their kids about sexual issues, to invest in the after school programs that are effective at engaging them productively, to talk to boys as well as girls, and to their parents about sexual health, to advocate on behalf of teens, and to make contraception widely available. DC Campaign’s simple assertion “there are only two ways to prevent teen pregnancy: don’t have sex or, if you do, use contraception” — may sound simple, but simple it is not. We need to keep at it, to work with teens (and their communities and families) on delaying sex, preventing pregnancy, and ensuring more promising lives for them and for the children they will bear in their 20s and 30s when they have finished school, have decent jobs, and are ready for the demands of parenthood and of life.

Barbara and Amira El-Gawly, one of Catalogue for Philanthropy board members, at DC Campaign's May 2nd Change the Conversation Luncheon

Barbara and Amira El-Gawly, one of the Catalogue for Philanthropy’s board members, at DC Campaign’s May 2nd Change the Conversation Luncheon

Because one thing I think we can all agree on is that we want a better life for all of the children who live here — not just for our own. I have a very young granddaughter who lives with her parents in Ward 3. One of my many wishes for her is that she will do what her mother did and have a child intentionally in her late 20s when she is fully and happily ready to be a parent — economically secure, parenting with a spouse (or partner – because parenthood is a joy, but at the same time it is not easy to do alone), diplomas in hand, ready and eager to take on the world and to take on …another life. I think we all want to see community disadvantage become community advantage — but that is a long haul and, in the meantime, this right here, this work — this is something we can do now. We are already doing it, and we must continue the work. Our lives — and the lives of all of our” children — depend on it.


Written by Barbara Harman, Founder of Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington


A Day in the Volunteer Life: Anacostia Watershed Society

An innovative, environmentally-friendly workout idea: cleaning up a garbage-bag-worth of cigarette butts. A single butt only weighs about 1 gram, but once you pick up hundreds of them, they start to add up to some serious bicep strengthening. That’s how I celebrated Earth Day 2019 with the Anacostia Watershed Society on April 13th.

As a fellow with Catalogue for Philanthropy, I have the honor of working with and learning about over 400 locally-based nonprofits in the Greater Washington Region. So when my school’s community service committee asked me to arrange a volunteer opportunity for myself and other American University students for Earth Day, I knew where to look. Time to join the #Trashtag Challenge!


Anacostia Watershed Society’s annual event engages nearly 2000 volunteers for 44 sites around the Anacostia River. My site’s neighborhood in Anacostia was not directly next to the river but in the river’s wider watershed area; whenever it rains, all of the trash in the residential area flows into the river, hurting wildlife and the ecosystem.

Fellow volunteers and I met at We Act Radio Station, a hip local institution and de facto community center. I sat among piles of books from their ongoing book drive. We were welcomed by Stacy and Aroni, two friendly and enthusiastic Anacostia Watershed Society staff members and our team leaders for the day. They gave us gloves to protect our hands, picker-uppers to prevent back strain, and matching t-shirts to look cool and groovy.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning to go for a stroll and pick up garbage. We made a circle around several blocks, carrying a blue bag for recyclables and a white bag for general trash. About 70% of what I picked up were cigarette butts. In public discourse, we acknowledge how cigarettes choke our bodies, but not enough about how they choke the environment too. What made me saddest were butts littered on the ground not 3 feet away from public trash cans.
It was rewarding work. Quite a few residents stopped to thank us and a few even added some trash to my bag. I was pleased too by how social it was; the steady and relaxing pace of our walk through the neighborhood easily facilitated conversations with new and interesting people. Our crew even had a beauty queen! If you want to meet new people, explore a new neighborhood, and make a difference in the environment, I strongly recommend signing up for clean up events. There’s no better way to celebrate the new springtime weather with friends than going and picking up a bag of butts.


Written by Nancy Erickson, Nonprofit Programs Fellow at the Catalogue for Philanthropy

What I’ve Learned from 7 Months of Serving Homeless and Housing-Insecure Women in DC

AVODAHGRAs I finished my senior year at Wesleyan University, one of the things I was most afraid of for my post-grad life was losing the environment in which everyone is eager to share the learning process with their friends and peers. The desire to preserve that, and the importance of my Jewish communities and experiences to me, is what led me to Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps.

Avodah is based on studying the issues and approaches of our own service work as a way to navigate the centuries-old question central to Jewish life that is: how do Jews meet our obligation to serve? To do this, my fellow 23 Avodah Corps Members in DC and I are placed at leading anti-poverty organizations across the District – where we gain hands-on work experience and learn about the root causes and effects of poverty in this country. We work with individuals facing challenges related to healthcare access, food insecurity, housing insecurity, our immigration and refugee systems, and much more, as we also consider how to best organize the Jewish community toward a more just and equitable future.

For the past seven months, I’ve been serving as a program associate at N Street Village. N Street Village empowers homeless and low-income women in Washington, D.C. to claim their highest quality of life by offering a broad spectrum of services, housing, and advocacy in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.


Before I started Avodah, I was worried that my position and responsibilities would be too far removed from the macro-level social justice that I had spent most of college thinking about and cultivating my skills toward; I was nervous that I would not only miss reading, writing, and critically thinking about social justice in these ways, but that I wouldn’t be qualified for the direct service work that our clients needed me to do. Within the first few months I definitely faced a steep learning curve, but have also since found that I continue to learn more than I could have ever imagined about the lived experiences at the heart of the issues that I care about. This has been due in part to all of the training and learning opportunities that my placement provides its staff – especially its Avodah Corps Members and social work interns.

One of the areas of learning that has profoundly impacted me this year is trauma-informed care. Trauma informed care is a holistic approach to providing services, based in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma. What fascinates me about this framework is that trauma-informed care is more about changing systems than providing brief interventions to navigate traumatic experiences: it’s more about how a person who has experienced homelessness feels in a space that is intended to provide care, rather than about agencies checking off boxes of predetermined treatment requirements.

Learning and exploring the principles of trauma-informed care has helped me imagine concrete ways in which the choices that I make at work can be empowering for clients, even when challenges within the systems can be endlessly disempowering for them. Having an understanding of this holistic approach to care, I’m able to better recognize symptoms of mental health instability as related to the traumatic experiences of homelessness and being deprived of basic human needs. Most importantly, this framework helps me as a staff person to focus on the sheer resilience at the core of human responses to stress and crisis, reduce the shame and stigma associated by homelessness and/or other crises, and ideally, help survivors feel respected, connected, and hopeful about their recovery.

Though I describe trauma-informed care as systemic, and at its core it is all about a widespread change to social work and the standards behind providing services, where it really manifests are the personal experiences I have with clients and my coworkers. In the fall, our N Street Village CEO wrote a letter to the organization’s staff in the wake of multiple acts of white supremacist violence – from the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh to the murders of Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones in Louisville, Kentucky. She wrote that in our work at N Street Village, “every day we have multiple invitations to challenge our implicit biases and to seek interpersonal justice. We are invited to acknowledge our well-worn habits of mind which automatically see an ‘other’ — and instead to exercise new habits of heart which see our commonality and which instinctively reach for connection.”

Having experienced this work for the past seven months, and getting to see its impact, I’m so grateful to my workplace and to Avodah as a whole for bringing the interpersonal connections to the foreground in my understanding of justice. I can only hope that through the rest of the year and beyond, my fellow Corps members and I never stop finding ways to fold that interpersonal justice into greater action and movements for progress.


About the Author:

Sammi Aibinder is an Avodah Jewish Service Corps Member. She currently works as a program associate at N Street Village, which empowers homeless and low-income women in Washington, D.C. Ms. Aibinder is a graduate of Wesleyan University.


Center for Inspired Teaching: A Year of Teaching and Inspiration

Center for Inspired Teaching is proud to be recognized by the Catalogue for Philanthropy as one of the best local nonprofits in the DC area. At Inspired Teaching, we envision a future in which every person is prepared to thrive in and contribute to our ever-changing world. Our mission is to transform the preK-12 school system by cultivating and partnering with change-making educators who authentically engage their students as active learners and empathetic critical thinkers. Pic 2 As we begin 2019, all of us at Inspired Teaching are deeply appreciative of the educators and students who made 2018 a joyful and meaningful year of learning. We are proud to share some of our favorite highlights from the last twelve months as we reflect on the moments that inspired us:

Inspired Teaching Youth Lead Dialogues on Social Issues at Speak Truth

Inspired Teaching Youth kicked off 2018 with an International Night of Dialogue via Speak Truth, a program which brings students across the District together to engage in discussions meant to expose one another to new perspectives. High school students spent the year enthusiastically leading and participating in discussions around a variety of social justice topics, like: gun violence, toxic masculinity, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, Colin Kaepernick and the Nike boycott, and many others. One student remarked, “I’ve talked about issues like this before, but went deeper than conversations in the past.” Pic 1 Inspired Teaching Fellows Create Engaging Learning Opportunities

Over the summer, the 2017 Fellows created interactive educational experiences for students at Capital City Public Charter School. These experiences culminated in a learning showcase where students proudly shared their STEM projects: from exploring ways that humans can lessen or reverse the effects of climate change to creating inventions inspired by animal adaptations, students connected their learning to their own lives in meaningful and fun ways. After finishing the summer on a high note, the Inspired Teachers embarked on another exciting journey – beginning their first years as teachers of record at 13 schools throughout the District.

Inspired Teaching Alumni Influence the Broader Education Landscape

2018 has also been an exciting year for Inspired Teaching alumni who have received recognition on the local and national levels. 2014 Inspired Teacher Leader Paul Howard was selected by OSSE as the 2018 DC Teacher of the Year. In addition, several Inspired Teachers were featured as presenters at conferences led by Education Week, EmpowerED DC, and EL Education. During the EmpowerED Teacher Voice Summit, Inspired Teacher James Tandaric (’16) spoke during the keynote about a moment that fueled his passion for advocacy:”Recently, I was talking to another teacher about how DC’s wards are very racially segregated, and he said that he hadn’t known that was an issue. This was shocking to me. As a person of color, and as a person who has worked in a variety of school settings, including Ward 8, I wondered, how can he not see this? The discussion made me more determined to help all teachers be more aware of these racial divides.”

Inspired Teaching Staff Travel the Globe to Share Engagement-Based Education Practices

In 2018, Inspired Teaching leaders have traveled internationally to spread Inspired Teaching’s message far and wide. Our travels have included leading a teacher training in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributing to an education thought leadership summit in Oxford, England, and participating in a gathering of educational change-makers in Lyon, France. The launch of the National Alliance for Engagement-Based Education has also prompted Inspired Teaching to travel the country exploring engagement-based teaching & learning practices. Staff had the opportunity to observe classes in several different schools across the nation, discovering effective strategies for building strong school communities.

2019 and Beyond

We look forward to seeing all that our staff, students, and Inspired Teachers will accomplish next year. We are especially appreciative of supporters who help our efforts to transform education.