If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my two years in Philly, it’s the Power of Penn. Inclusion. Innovation. Impact. These three words underline Penn’s commitment to the community through collaboration and creativity. For 25 years, The Netter Center for Community Partnerships has lived this mission by “building a movement for democracy and social change.” That movement includes the Center’s Nonprofit Institute under the direction of Associate Director Isabel Sampson-Mapp.

Offered in collaboration with Penn faculty and staff and local community leaders, the Nonprofit Institute is a two-week course offered twice a year (June and December). The course has both theoretical and practical components. The practical was designed to reinforce the theoretical, creating a strong holistic approach to student engagement.

The course is free, and admission is on a first-come, first-served basis. This iteration was spread over 6 days (Wednesday to Friday) for two weeks. The course hours varied each day, but we were generally in class from 8:30 am until 3 or 5 pm. A delicious lunch was provided each day. At the end of the class, we received a certificate after we presented our practical course assignments.

Every day, I took home at least one major lesson from the class. Here are my top 6 lessons:

  1. It isn’t enough to want to change the world. You must also have a plan.
  2. Forming a nonprofit is tough, and not everyone should do it.
  3. The Power of Penn is its people.
  4. Be extra careful when using people in your messaging, including social media photographs and videos.
  5. Sometimes, ethics matter more than winning.
  6. I have value, and so do you.

It isn’t enough to want to change the world. You must also have a plan.

Our practical required us to create a business plan for our 501(c)(3). During one presentation, a classmate quoted Mahatma Gandhi’s famous line, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Our class had many change makers, dedicated community activists, and volunteers who had ideas they thought would change the world.

No change can happen, however, without a strong business plan. 501(c)(3) organizations are many things, but they are businesses first. Philadelphia is home to over 8,000 such organizations, and the failure rate is high. In part because while many people have ideas for programming, they lack a plan for the business. According to Asset Panda, this lack of long-term financial planning means that fluctuations in revenue often hit the organizations hard. A 2017 report by the Philadelphia Foundation showed that 40% of Philly’s nonprofits operate at a loss, and that 7% are insolvent.

Financial planning was a key component of our business plans. We had to list our income sources and create a detailed budget.

Forming a nonprofit is tough, and not everyone should do it.

On our first day, we learned how to form a nonprofit from Dr. Wesley Proctor, founder of Wesley Proctor Ministries. His organization specializes in helping people set up their nonprofits. Later in the class, we learned how fiscal sponsorship works from Beth Warshaw at CultureWorks. Finally, on our penultimate day, Eric Grimes (Brother Shomari), a lecturer at Penn and radio show host on WURD, examined the challenges of nonprofit management and offered alternatives to 501(c)(3) formation, including the social enterprise model. I am planning to use this model for my freelance editing business. Social enterprise is a great way to give back to organizations already doing great work in your local community. At the beginning of class, almost everyone wanted to form a nonprofit. By the end, many had realized that many paths to change exist; not all paths led to 501(c)(3) formation.

The Power of Penn is its people.

I love the Power of Penn messaging. I really do. I love the energy it evokes, and the playful way it conjures that famous quote about the pen being mightier than the sword. Inclusion certainly informed the speaker list. Sampson-Mapp drew many speakers from Penn, of course, including Netter Center Associate Director Joann Weeks and Business Office Grants Manager Debra Sokalczuk as well as Rebecca Clayton from Penn Law. Community-based speakers included lawyer Jettie Newkirk who helped us understand board responsibilities and Terry Guerra who discussed publicity.

Be extra careful when using people in your messaging, including social media photographs and videos.

I’ve had corporate clients who only used employees in photos. If the employees left, their photos had to be removed from any marketing collateral. So, I am familiar with many rules around photography. But social media has changed the game about consent.

Lawyer Ashley Mapp spoke about the need to obtain signed releases from anyone whose image might be used for publicity, including children. In our social media driven world, we all take photos and videos of our experiences. But for nonprofits, those photos and videos can pose risks, if for example someone doesn’t want to be photographed or doesn’t want their face to represent your organization. The biggest challenge is with children, whose images can be misused online. Mapp’s presentation clarified many issues that will help me as I get ready to market a large street festival on the Parkway in September.

Sometimes ethics matter more than winning.

As part of our time management class conducted by Colleen Winn and Darin Toliver from the African American Resource Center, we were given several point-weighted tasks to complete. One task worth 20 points (the maximum) required us to explain why a particular politician was so great. I asked my group if they could make the argument. None of us wanted to. That decision negatively affected our overall point count because some other teams did it. We came in last because we made a judgment call.

Knowing the result, I asked myself whether I would make the argument if we played the game again. I would not. Ultimately, for me at least, that task required me to cross an ethical line. We all face such choices every day, and nonprofits must be more careful about where they draw that line. Often that line gets blurry around funding opportunities. In this case, it was just a game, but what if you could win by faking your revenue numbers or accepting funds of questionable origins? What role does politics play in our decision making, especially for an organization that serves the public good? Do we set politics aside? Or do we decide that as long as it doesn’t conflict with our mission, we should do it?

These questions might seem like unusual lessons from a time management exercise. But, time management is often about resource management and has a direct impact on revenue. That was my job as a Creative and Shared Services Manager. I had to decide which people to put on which projects and when. In my job, resource management led directly to revenue. In deciding not to complete the political argument task, my team lost revenue.

What would you have done?

I have value, and so do you.

In March 2017, I relocated back to the US after 5 years overseas. My life had taken an unexpected turn. In August that year, I took a leap of faith and moved to Philly. Another turn. Over the last two years, I’ve taken many more turns. None has resulted in a job. Yet.

My experience at the Netter Center is potentially another turn. Maybe toward full-time social entrepreneurship. I’m not sure.

But what I am sure of is that I have value. I sensed it as I critiqued my classmates’ business plans. I was not easy on them. Not because I give criticism for the sake of criticism, but because I am a marketing communications professional, and my opinion about their messages has value. I was tough because I know potential funders will be even tougher. I was also tough because I believe in them, even if they don’t believe in themselves. I see the potential each and every one of them has.

For each of them, there will come a season to turn, turn, turn as I did. I look forward to watching them as they walk their paths.

4 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for such a thoughtful assessment of the Nonprofit Institute. I believe you captured the Netter Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s efforts to create mutually beneficial relationships, and to be good neighbors. It was a pleasure having you in class.

  2. I, too am impressed with your very articulate and accurate description of the purpose and effects of the Non-Profit Institute. It warms my heart and spirit to see that it is doing what is is intended to do, make its participants think, analyze, and evaluate prior to making major decisions.
    Thank you for taking the time to shae this with us, and I wish you God-Speed on the balance of your journey.
    Jettie D. Newkirk

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