November is Nonprofit Awareness Month, a time that celebrates and promotes the support of nonprofits in the United States. This month is especially relevant to Cleveland, which has a long and thriving history of nonprofit innovation—the city is the birthplace of the first community chest (a predecessor of the United Way) in 1913, created the first community foundation in the world (the Cleveland Foundation) in 1914, and is home to a world-renowned healthcare infrastructure.
It comes at no surprise then that Cleveland's economic prosperity and wealth during the early part of the 1900s also spawned an active philanthropic movement here, resulting in over 2,000 nonprofits in the Greater Cleveland area today. It’s also why the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences began offering the Master of Nonprofit Organizations (MNO) program—it’s one of the first nonprofit leadership programs in the U.S. and one of just nine graduate programs to be fully-accredited by the Nonprofit Academic Centers Council.
Now more than ever, managing nonprofit organizations requires a commitment to doing good plus the skills to carry out an agenda of change.
In honor of Nonprofit Awareness Month, we’ll be spotlighting some of our MNO students and alumni.
Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Devon Jones (MSSA/MNO ‘21) and Katie Ross (MSW/MNO ‘21)
- Alumni, Mandel School
- Co-Founders of Crown Connections, a nonprofit consulting and development agency that elevates nonprofits to their highest royalty by helping them develop within five key areas: programmatic design and development, community engagement, revenue development, strategic planning and grant writing.
1. What are you most proud of having accomplished at your nonprofit organization?
Katie: Creating Crown Connections required us to really adapt and innovate as we came across new barriers and challenges with clients. As an example, we specialize in grant writing; however, when working with clients on grant writing we realized organizations didn’t have the tools and resources to maintain the grant management and relationships that are required to be a sustainable form of revenue. Therefore, we created a grant readiness intake process that allowed us to identify certain indicators around grant readiness so we could work with organizations before they began the grant writing process.
Devon: My proudest accomplishment as a nonprofit consultant was seeing one of our recent clients, the Phe’be Foundation, use our recommendations and advice in their day-to-day operations to improve their organization. To me, this affirmed our purpose and our ability to help nonprofits become more sustainable.
2. What is the biggest challenge of working in the nonprofit sector?
Katie: Crown Connections has allowed me the opportunity to work alongside some incredible organizations. The largest challenge the nonprofit sector continues to face is a lack of business entrepreneurial mindset when it comes to organizational operations and processes. We see organizations with amazing missions that want to have an impact on their community but need support in data-based-driven decision-making and revenue diversification.
Devon: In general, the biggest challenge of working in the nonprofit sector is the never-ending pursuit of funding and revenue that may lead to mission drift. Furthermore, you may see organizations shaping their operations and programs to meet a funder’s desires or requests. This is a problem because organizations should seek to develop their own identity and programs first and then seek funding based on their true capacity and abilities. This in turn allows nonprofits to have a better alignment with their funders which may lead to deeper collaboration and opportunities for sustainability.
3. What led you to attend the Mandel School, and how has your CWRU experience prepared you to work in the nonprofit sector?
Katie: I have been passionate about working with underserved communities ever since my Americorps experience in Baltimore City, MD. I knew I wanted to develop my tools and resources to better help nonprofits’ propel and meet their missions. What drove me specifically to the Mandel School was the dual degree program of social work and nonprofit management. There are very few schools with an entire master’s in nonprofit management and I was excited to have a dual program that I could complete in 2.5 years.
Devon: What attracted me to the Mandel School was the opportunity to serve individuals and address the needs of communities at large through organized professional efforts. My CWRU experience has prepared me for the nonprofit sector in two ways: it allowed me to understand the sector as a whole and how to find my place within the industry, and it offered connections to professionals actively working to make a difference in various ways.
4. What is your favorite memory of CWRU?
Katie: My favorite memory at CWRU was building friendships and a community with other like-minded individuals who were committed to the social work and nonprofit sectors and whose values and goals aligned with mine. This made it easy to be resilient during hardships and inspired me to continue to do the work.
Devon: My favorite memory of CWRU is getting a job offer to work with the School of Medicine's Department of Population and Quantitative Health Sciences doing Alzheimer’s Disease research focused on African Americans. This is because all the work I did and the connections I made during my time at the Mandel School culminated to that point, which ultimately allowed me to take the next step in my career. As a certified gerontologist, having the opportunity to work directly with older adults is not only opportune but serves a deeper passion and motivation within me. CWRU has been an integral part of discovering my purpose and finding ways to fulfill it.
5. What advice do you have for others hoping to work in nonprofit organizations?
Katie: In working with nonprofits you will feel at times like the work will never be done. The truth is it won’t, so it’s vital to learn how to balance your personal self-care and your work helping to change the world.
Devon: Find your pace but maintain a balanced approach to your work. Nonprofit work is rewarding but it does require a certain level of commitment and takes a toll on you. Thus, if you’re joining this field based on your passion to help people, find balance and maintain your self-care.
6. Knowing Cleveland is unusually supportive of the nonprofit sector, can you talk a bit about philanthropy in Cleveland?
Katie: Cleveland is full of incredible nonprofits working to achieve amazing goals. That being said there are foundations that have existed for decades working to fund organizations. However, at times I think the philanthropy culture in Cleveland is stuck in its old ways. We need to see new nonprofit leaders with innovative and collaborative approaches create systemic and sustainable change.
Devon: To understand the nonprofit sector of Cleveland, context must first be provided. Cleveland has a long history of segregation and economic exclusion. With this you have individuals being denied basic services and opportunities that result in positive outcomes. This is where the large service and resource-based nonprofit sector of Cleveland comes in. Philanthropic entities and initiatives have sought to fund organizations both large and small in order to help fill the gap and offer resources and opportunities to those in need. The large nonprofit sector in Cleveland is a direct result of its embattled past and current challenges to achieving equity. As a result, you see a large philanthropic presence in Cleveland designed to address the various inequities present.
7. What are some meaningful ways someone can celebrate Nonprofit Awareness Month?
Katie: Volunteering at your local nonprofit, seeking out corporate-matching donation opportunities, and sharing the work that local nonprofits are doing to help them build visibility and awareness.
Devon: Give to meaningful organizations that are serving causes you are passionate about. Find and commit your time to volunteer for organizations doing meaningful work within communities in need. Educate and inform yourself on the social and economic issues facing your fellow Americans.