Moving Nonprofit Leaders Forward

The Center hosted its inaugural Nonprofit Management Institute from September-October 2020. Sixty-five nonprofit leaders graduated from the program and share their experience. Below, Ivan Canada, executive director of NCCJ of the Piedmont Triad, shares his commencement remarks.



Congratulations! You did it.

First of all, you not only successfully completed the Center’s Nonprofit Management Institute, but you also prioritized your own professional development and growth while also working in your organization, perhaps while homeschooling your children or taking care of others in your family during a global pandemic. Completing this program in 2020 is a BIG DEAL! 

Trust me, I know firsthand as I’ve been working to complete the CAP (Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy) certification with a small cohort of folks in the Greensboro community through our local community foundation. There have been weeks where I was on top of my assignments and readings and times where I’ve been weeks behind in my assignments. Like you, I’ve stuck to prioritizing making this happen because I was committed to the nonprofit sector and the role I play in making my community better as well as my own growth and development. 

You may think we are over-congratulating you on completing the Institute, but I’m here to say we aren’t. We aren’t because our sector needs each of you striving for success, learning new skills, networking across focus areas, and supporting each other. Especially if we provide mentors to students, provide meals to those in our communities that are in need of a meal, ensure the arts are reflective and accessible to all in our communities, protect and preserve our environment for future generations, and all the other worthwhile, important, and needed work that happens daily in your organizations. 

Personally, I think we’ve got to a do a better and more equitable job of supporting, providing, and encouraging professional development within our sector. I’ve been a part of this sector for almost 20 years in some capacity, whether it was as a volunteer board member or as an executive, and I know that we as a sector don’t prioritize investing in ourselves and our organizations. Now there are a lot of reasons for that: (i) we’re busy doing the work; (ii) our budgets won’t allow for professional development – mostly due to lack of available funds or funders not providing those dollars without cutting our programmatic funds; or (iii) our leadership doesn’t see the value in professional development. I’m proud that we have the Center helping to fill that gap of providing accessible and relevant training to strengthen nonprofits that in essence strength communities across our state. And we’re in good hands with Salima Thomas [Chief Education and Member Services Officer] and her team constantly thinking about how we can best support the needs of nonprofits and equip them with the skills needed to be successful. 

So, I know “commencement speakers” are usually charged with providing advice or some kind of inspirational message to graduates. However, I’m not going to follow that plan today. For starters, all of you and the work you’re doing is inspiring to me and others, and I hope that just participating in this program and connecting with others doing great work across the state has been inspiring and uplifting for you. And I don’t like giving advice because in our culture that usually feeds into this idea that one person or a position can provide answers or solutions that will work for every person and/or situation that’s faced (We here at NCCJ have an operating assumption that’s used sometimes in our work that sums up my feelings on this – No one knows everything; but together we know a lot.) So, rather than provide advice or inspiration to you, I want to remind you of a few things that I’ve found important to me in my own professional journey (I intentionally say remind because I know we probably all know these things on the surface level at least, but we just need to be reminded about them from time to time and know it’s ok to embrace them.)

  1. Constantly reconnect with your ‘why’ in this work.
    • Nonprofit work is tough, fundraising isn’t fun, we are all under-resourced, yet more and more is being asked of us. However, we all are here because we believe in making a difference and impacting people’s lives.
    • I know for me, when I’ve been in too many meetings and had too much administrative junk to deal with, I’ve got to connect with our mission in a hands-on-way, which usually involves going to a program and being around young people that are working to make their schools and communities more inclusive. After spending that time with the “actual work”, whatever has pushed me over the edge (that board member, budget meeting, or whatever) has faded in my memory, and I am ready to pick myself back up and go at it again.
  2. Continue to seek out opportunities to grow your skillsets and grow as a leader.
    • This may be enrolling in a 60-minute webinar and actually being present and participating in it (as opposed to signing up for it to receive the slide deck and presentation and never going back and watching it).
    • It could also be signing up for newsletters from organizations like BoardSource, Equity in the Center, or Nonprofit AF and reading articles from time to time and apply what you’ve learned in your own work.
    • Also help your organization become an organization of continuous learning that prioritizes professional development and capacity building.
  3. Lead from the seat you’re in.
    • I prescribe to the following leadership theory: social change comes from the leadership of many.
    • For example, if we look at an example that I grew up with being born in Greensboro – The Sit-In Movement and the Greensboro Four. Everyone knows Joseph, Franklin, Ezell, and David. But there were many other important people that played a role in making and supporting that change to happen.
      • Jack Moebes – Photographer with the morning paper, the Greensboro Daily News and the evening paper, the Greensboro Record. He took the only photo of the four sit-in participants as they left the lunch counter on the first day.
      • Willa B. Player – President of Bennett College during the time of the sit-ins. Player’s overwhelmingly positive response was unique among local college presidents as she openly supported sit-in involvement from her students.
      • And others like: Warmoth T. Gibbs, Sr. and Ralph Johns.
    • We need all kinds of people to step up and play different roles to achieve social change. You can take any part of the civil rights movement (or any other social movement) and tell a similar story and you can add many more names to this story. It does not diminish the courage of Joseph, Franklin, Ezell, and David to acknowledge that their leadership was part of a larger leadership narrative.
    • We need to see leadership as an action many can take, not just a position a few can hold. Leadership is a muscle everyone has and it only gets stronger with exercise and practice. We need to build the collective leadership muscles or our organizations and communities if we want to create change.
  4. Spend some time figuring out what replenishes your cup and how you can take care of yourself.
    • No, seriously, write this list down in a journal or in your phone on the notepad app.
    • Be sure to list things that don’t take much time to do or don’t cost any money, as we know both of those resources can be limiting for us at various times.
    • During recent months, something new for me has been “the power of a walk”. I try and take some calls on my cell phone so that I can walk while I talk, and then my partner and I do at least one long walk together.

So now, I’d like to invite you all to type in the chat a few reminders that you’d like to share with everyone. Perhaps we can get the Center to compile this list and share it with everyone as part of the wrap-up closing documents. I’m being a bad board member here by asking staff to take on more work. However, I’m also willing to do it if someone will send me the chat transcript.

[Participants shared what replenishes them and how they care for themselves.]

Thank you all for sharing with me and the rest of the group. 

I know this has been a really tough year for ALL of us, and I want you to know how much we at the Center value you, your hard work, your compassion, your resiliency, your commitment to making your communities better/stronger. We also need each one of you to continue to take care of each other and yourselves – we’re going to need each of you and your organizations more than before as we rebuild our communities after COVID-19.

I hope to see you all at Center events in the future.

– Ivan Canada, Executive Director, NCCJ of the Piedmont Triad


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