Getting to Know You Series: Meet Rusty Stahl of Fund the People

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By Elisabeth Rapport

Editor’s Note: We’re back with the latest installment in our Getting to Know You Series, which highlights Foundation friends, grantee partners, and more. For today’s piece we spoke with Rusty Stahl, Founder, President & CEO of our grantee partner Fund the People. His organization seeks to maximize investment in the nonprofit workforce, and recently launched the Talent Justice Initiative, which addresses talent-investing and intersectional racial equity at three key stages of the nonprofit career lifecycle. Read on to learn more about Rusty, Fund the People, and the new Talent Justice Initiative!

Tell us a bit about your professional background, and what led you to Fund the People.

Rusty Stahl (RS): I came into the field through a year-long fellowship at Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy. Ever since that experience, I’ve been thinking about how the sector could do a better job of increasing awareness and recruitment of diverse young Americans into nonprofit careers. After completing graduate work at IU, I was fortunate to be part of a Program Associate cohort at the Ford Foundation. It was a full-time, two-year apprenticeship experience. While at the Foundation, I worked with colleagues to start Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP), an affinity group for young foundation professionals looking to learn the craft, get support from peers and elders, and advance social justice. When my term at Ford came to an end in 2002, I spent 10 years as founding Executive Director of EPIP, and made an intentional transition off-staff in 2012 as part of a three-year strategic plan. 

One of the things we did while I was at EPIP was research to understand how foundations invest in the nonprofit workforce. Once I left, I continued this line of research as a Visiting Fellow in Residence at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. My studies became the R&D for what is now Fund the People, which I launched in 2014 as a project of Community Partners with the support of The Kresge Foundation.

Fund the People is all about investing in the nonprofit workforce. Why do funders often overlook the need to cultivate nonprofit talent? How is Fund the People addressing this problem with its programming?

RS: Numerous rigorous evaluations offer evidence that funders who have invested in grantee staff find that such investments have created substantial and significant value -- for the staff, their organizations, the communities they serve, and for the funders themselves. You are right to ask why this type of funding has not yet become a norm. I think there are several reasons:

·       There is too little funding for research on the value of investing in grantee staff. So there is too little data to show the value. Which enables funders and others to say it’s too soft and squishy, and impossible to prove how it impacts the effectiveness of programs. That’s one vicious cycle.

·       This is how we are used to doing the business of grantmaking, fundraising, and nonprofit management.We are all inculcated into a sector-wide norm and culture of scarcity, sacrifice, and the exploitation of nonprofit workers from all directions. 

·       Demand is artificially tamped downbecause nonprofit executives perceive that it is against their organizations’ interests to discuss the need for increased staffing, staff-development, and staff support systems with current or prospective funders.

·       The need is a major blindspot for funders. Funders are taught to focus on things like the financial health and programmatic strategy of prospective and current grantees. They often frame this as monitoring, which shows an implicit lack of faith in grantees baked in to the funding system. Unfortunately, funders are not often taught as part of this process to understand and support the human healthof grantee organizations. Grantmakers don’t signal their support for grantee staff issues, and don’t ask questions or collect data that would help them to see the need for and value of investing in staff.

·      Talent-investing is treated as icing on the cake, rather than a key ingredient.When funders do address issues of nonprofit staffing, they often focus on leaders at the top, rather than the full team, and they enable individuals to benefit from fellowships, sabbatical activities, or trainings that are highly valuable but remain largely external to the nonprofits themselves and how they function in an ongoing way. 

·      Funders consider it risky. Grantmakers are often concerned that if they support better salaries and benefits, for example, it will only increase the dependency of grantee organizations on them. Too many funders want to just pay for the narrow program activity of interest to them, while leaving all the necessary organizational costs up to others. This makes talent costs every funder’s issue, but no funder’s responsibility.

Talk to us about your relationship with the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. What does their support mean to Fund the People and achieving your organizational goals? What do you think of the foundation's Trust-Based Philanthropy approach?

RS: The team at Robert Sterling Clark Foundation have been great allies and colleagues. The lack of bureaucratic procedures and paperwork is a significant departure from the systems that many other foundations have built up over time. By leading with trust, the Foundation has been able to streamline the amount of time grantee and foundation staff spend pushing paper around in ways that are (a) unnecessary and (b) that keep us from focusing on our core work. For an organization like Fund the People -- fiscally-sponsored, nimble in our approach, with a modest budget and a small team -- this is very helpful.

You've recently launched the Talent Justice Initiative. What inspired you to launch it? What are the near- and longer-term goals?

RS: We’ve been preparing for this launch in the background for several years, so it’s really exciting that Talent Justice is now out in the field as a concept and offering a set of unique resources for funders and nonprofits. Since 2014, one of the guiding principles of Fund the People’s theory of change has been that equity and inclusion are essential to building a strong nonprofit workforce. This initiative is our attempt to incorporate that principle in a program. Talent Justice weaves together what we call “talent-investing” with “intersectional racial equity” (a term we borrowed from Borealis Philanthropy). We’ve seen too many people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, students, immigrants, and others funneled out of the nonprofit workforce because of inequitable conditions at the points of access, advancement, and ascension. 

The near-term goal is to show how these problems -- and the changes we seek -- are deeply linked need to philanthropic practices of fundraising and grantmaking. Talent Justice will become part of our overall message and programs, so that our talent-investing framework is infused with this justice-based approach. The longer-term goal is to shape grantmaker and nonprofit fundraising practices based on our Talent Justice recommendations and toolkit. 

What advice would you give to a funder interested in investing in nonprofit talent, and specifically in investing in advancing racial equity across the nonprofit workforce?

RS: My advice to interested funders would be: ask tons of questions about the human health of your prospective, current, and past grantees. (Think: recruitment, including going beyond the usual places; paid versus unpaid internships; compensation levels; benefits packages; staff retention and advancement efforts; mentoring and stretch assignments; preparation for executive transitions; levels of burnout and turnover rates). Send the signal that you are asking because you care and want to support the people who do the work, not because you want to find fault or punish organizations for their challenges. And then respond to the needs and opportunities that the groups articulate. Consider the major pain points -- depending on context, they may look different. 

Start by experimenting with modest amounts of funding as part of larger grants or on top of existing support. Learn from the experience. Actively watch for what happens, and share it with your board. Many of the funders that invest in grantee talent find that their grantees and their trustees comes to see it as one of the most valuable things they do as a foundation. But it is worth taking the time to learn and layer-on investments. For more ideas, I would invite funders to check out the Fund the People Toolkit, which includes tons of original (and free) resources for both fundersand nonprofitsto help you make the case at your institution, and prepare to take action. Funders may be most interested in one of our signature products: The Guide for Investing in Grantee Talent

In terms of advancing racial equity, this should be woven into talent-investing conversations and interventions. At every stage of careers and leadership journeys in the nonprofit sector, equity issues are just below the surface. For example, the Talent Justice studyfound that some of the nuts and bolts practices that impact everyone (like poor compensation for the entry-level jobs) are key to addressing inequities facing people of color. I hope folks will use our Talent Justice Toolkitto make the case for these critical issues to support the access, advancement, and ascension of nonprofit leaders from across our diverse American society.