Helping nonprofits build from the inside out

Photo credit: Asian American Arts Alliance
Stephen Kaplan, right, artistic director of Chinese Theatre Works, shows the audience a traditional Chinese shadow puppet on February 9, during a Town Hall hosted by the Asian American Arts Alliance.

Helping nonprofits build from the inside out

March 2, 2016

Rhea Wong, executive director of Breakthrough New York, has to write reports for donors a few times per year. Until recently the process involved dozens of Google docs and Excel spreadsheets with various records about the nonprofit organization and the students it serves. Sometimes staff members provided missing details from memory.

“We needed a best-in-class data management system,” Wong said of the nonprofit, which helps gifted children and young adults from low-income backgrounds succeed in college and start their careers. “We’ve been shoestringing our way along for the last 16 years.”

What she needed was a system that gathered all of the information about each of the 370 students the organization now serves, including school records, report cards, extracurricular activities and internship information, in one place. Last year, with the help of a $35,000 grant from the Communities of Color Nonprofit Stabilization Fund, a project launched in 2014 by the New York City Council and several nonprofits, Wong was able to jumpstart the process.

The Communities of Color Nonprofit Stabilization Fund, the first of its kind in New York City, is designed to help small nonprofits build capacity. To be eligible, nonprofits must serve communities where at least 51 percent of residents are people of color, and they must have demonstrated an effort to reach out to communities of color in selecting their leadership and board of directors. Funds can be used to support database management, to develop and train leadership and to conduct financial assessments, among other projects, according to grant application materials. Organizations with budgets of less than $2 million are given preference in the application process.

The fund responds to a recognized need. “Historically speaking, the larger organizations get more money,” said Sheelah Feinberg executive director of the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, one of the organizations coordinating the grant.

Smaller, community-based organizations generally don’t have the access to funding for capacity-building projects Feinberg explained.

“The organizations that serve communities of color tend to be smaller organizations.”

Grant recipients said these funds provided much-needed finances for capacity building and in some instances helped organizations better understand themselves and plan for the future.

Last February, 80 nonprofits throughout New York City received a total of $2.5 million in funding to invest in capacity building and infrastructure projects during the first year of the grant. This February, an additional $2.5 million was awarded.

The grant is coordinated by the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus as well as the Hispanic Federation, The New York Urban League, The Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, the Asian American Federation and Black Agency Executives. It provides funding in areas including data management, leadership development and planning. It is administered by the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development.

Lobbying efforts for the fund had been underway for several years, said Arva Rice, executive director of the New York Urban League.

“We felt that nonprofit organizations are clearly the lifeblood of New York City,” and in particular the smaller ones that serve specific neighborhoods.

Planning for the future

“We wanted to assess our programs” as well as whether members were getting the information they needed, said Andrea Louie, executive director of the Asian American Arts Alliance, a 35-year-old organization that supports artists and cultural organizations in New York City and has a membership program. The nonprofit used the $32,000 grant to hire a consultant that evaluated its website and social media engagement. The consultant also conducted 20 phone interviews and two focus groups with members.

The results, Louie said, “confirmed our suspicions that having a robust member program as well as a really robust online engagement takes a lot of resources.”

Considering that membership-based organizations have changed a great deal over the years, Louie added that the consultant’s conclusion led the organization to consider its future more carefully. “It might be that we decide to eliminate the membership structure altogether,” she said.

The organization received another $32,000 during the initiative’s second round of funding this year. Louie said it plans to hire another consultant to evaluate how well its programs and fundraising activities align with its mission.

Tia Powell Harris, executive director of Brooklyn-based Weeksville Heritage Center, suspected that the sprawling, 16-building public housing complex located steps away from from the nonprofit organization is where its potential audience lived. But she needed to be sure.

The small African-American cultural institution, which houses a museum dedicated to preserving the history of one of the country’s first free black communities, did not have enough staff to do the research and outreach work, Harris said, so it applied for a Communities of Color Nonprofit Stabilization Fund grant last year.

With the $35,000 the organization received in funding it hired consultants to work in four focus areas: marketing, community engagement, programming and graphic design. Part of the contractors’ work included in-person outreach at the Kingsborough Houses. They talked with residents, completed a small oral history project and developed branding materials such as a logo and activities calendar.

Based on the work the contractors completed and recommendations they provided, Harris said she now knows how to move forward. Harris learned that the nonprofit’s audience looks to the organization as its provider of history and that Weeksville should be reaching out to the Kingsborough community in particular because of its proximity.

The $33,000 grant the organization received this year will be used to analyze and develop its board of directors.

A “more seamless” process

Despite the positive impact the grant money has made, Harris and other grantees said the slow and sometimes disorganized documentation process for the grant, and the fact that the money had to be spent by June 2015, was a challenge.

“I would have liked a little more time to bring the project to fruition,” Harris said.

Because of how the grant was structured, Wong could not spend the entire $35,000 on the consultant customizing her data management system. City Council guidelines restrict spending on for-profit consultants to 60 percent of the grant, Wong said. The remaining funds were spent on staff and materials for the project. Wong sought additional funding to complete the database project.

Breakthrough New York received an additional $33,000 in funding from the grant this year. Wong is using it to develop a data management plan for the organization’s fundraising and volunteer databases.


Feinberg said the organizations that managed the administration of the grant are working together to create a “more seamless” application process. Releasing the RFP two weeks earlier this year helped.

The coordinating organizations hope the grant will continue, Feinberg said.

Councilwoman Margaret Chin, one of the leaders of the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, said she and other council members will push for more funding in the next budget.

“We want to continue the support – one-shot deal is not going to work,” she said.


Alice Popovici