Creative New Jersey: Beautiful Questions

Posted on by Kacy O’Brien, Director of Programming, Creative New Jersey

woodblock questions

In an age of declarations, assumptions, and sound bites it’s refreshing to come across a book like Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas where curiosity reigns and questions are the goal, not answers.

Berger’s search for beautiful questions – questions that he defines as, “an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change,” takes the reader through an exploration of the science behind questioning, into the minds of breakout innovators, and practical approaches to becoming a better questioner in our work and our lives.

Creative questions like these populate the book:

  • If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a decent foot? (Van Phillips designer of Olympic-athlete prosthetics)
  • What if a video rental business were run like a health club? (The birth of Netflix)
  • What if we spend the next hundred years sharing more of our stuff? What if access trumped ownership? (Questions the founders of Airbnb are now asking)
  • Can a school be built on questions? (Deborah Meier, pioneer of “small schools” movement, and MacArthur “genius” award winner)
  • How do we continually find inspiration so that we can inspire others?

Van Phillips’ talk at the 2011 Cusp Conference outlining his experiments to develop, cheap, easily assembled and customizable prosthetics for people in poverty around the world.

Berger looks at innovators such as Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera, and organizations like The Right Question Institute, IDEO, Acumen and Gore (creators of Gore-tex fabric) among many others in his search for common ground on what makes an innovative questioner.

Strategies and examples of how to increase divergent thinking, connective inquiry (the idea of taking bits from seemingly unrelated topic areas and putting them together to solve problems), and collaboration with diverse teams pepper the pages, which Berger argues makes your questions stronger and your solutions more creative.

Berger poses a loose framework for creating beautiful questions in three stages, referred to as the, “Why? What If? and How?” phases of questioning. And if you’re feeling stuck, Berger includes a “Questions Index” that includes every question posed in the book for a quick inspirational kick-start.


In our work at Creative New Jersey, we start our community gatherings by posing questions for discussion, because questions work to open up our minds to different points of view, to ways we’ve never thought before, and yes, to the possibility that what we think we know may not be the full story. And for me, that’s exactly what makes those gatherings so beautiful. There’s a particularly juicy question I discovered in Berger’s book that was posed by education innovator Deborah Meier about encouraging skepticism and empathy in her classrooms:

I believe you have to have an open-mindedness to the possibility that you’re wrong, or that anything may be wrong. […] If you can’t imagine you could be wrong, what’s the point of democracy? And if you can’t imagine how or why others think differently, then how could you tolerate democracy?

My role at Creative New Jersey is to help bring people in communities with different life experiences, different backgrounds, philosophies, training, professions and passions together.

Each time, I see Berger’s questioning framework playing out – Why, What If, How? I watch as people listen, ask questions of each other, get past the declarations, assumptions, and “easy answers” (because there aren’t easy answers to complex questions) in order to collaboratively tackle issues. Those beautiful, ambitious, actionable questions that seek change light up the people in the room.

So tell me, what’s your beautiful question?  Send your questions to us – we want to start a Question Index of our own! Email me at with the subject line “My beautiful question.”

Kacy O'Brien

Kacy O’Brien

Kacy O’Brien is Creative New Jersey’s Director of Programming and is a Lead New Jersey 2015 Fellow.

Creative New Jersey is dedicated to fostering creativity, collaboration, and inclusion by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.

Creative New Jersey’s leaders and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog.




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Introducing: Our new, streamlined Board Leadership Series

Posted on by Wendy Liscow, Technical Assistance Director

Getting Started 2015

For more than a decade, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation has provided a comprehensive Board Leadership Series free of charge to our grantees to ensure nonprofit boards and staff access the training, resources, and peer-to-peer mentorship that enable them to accomplish organizational goals and deepen impact.

We often hear from graduates that the series laid the groundwork to help them better understand why their board work is important and provided the tools to map and effect change in their organizations.

We’re excited to once again offer this series starting on October 14, 2017, but with a new workshop design and support offerings.

We heard from you that it can be difficult to carve out the time to attend an eight-month series of all-day workshops, even when you understand it is important mission-driven work.

So we have streamlined the series to a four-workshop series that leads to an opportunity to apply for a “Day of Clarity” retreat for the full board. You can find out more information here.

We are only offering spots for 10-12 grantee organizations to participate, and you must commit upfront to attending all four workshops with your executive director and board president. We will be giving preference to first-time attendees, but all interested parties should register as soon as possible. Now is the time to mark your calendar and make your reservations.

Please register your team no later than October 7. Spots will fill up quickly!

Please reach out to Elaine Rastocky or Wendy Liscow if you have questions.

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Pro Bono Partnership Pundit: The ‘duty to read’

Posted on by Christine Michelle Duffy, Pro Bono Partnership

Read Sebastien Wiertz

If you have attended one of the workshops presented by Pro Bono Partnership that includes a discussion on nonprofit governance, you likely have heard us talk about the three legal duties of nonprofit trustees and officers.

In New Jersey, these duties arise out of the New Jersey Nonprofit Corporation Act, which includes the requirement that “Trustees … shall discharge their duties in good faith and with that degree of diligence, care and skill which ordinary, prudent persons would exercise under similar circumstances in like positions.”

The first duty is the duty of care, which obligates trustees and officers to take reasonable measures to ensure that the nonprofit has adequate resources, prudently manages those resources, and doesn’t violate the law.

The second duty is the duty of loyalty, which requires that trustees and officers put the best interests of the nonprofit first and disclose any actual or potential conflicts of interest.

The final duty, which some — including me — argue is subsumed within one or both of the first two duties, is the duty of obedience, which mandates that trustees and officers ensure that the nonprofit operates in accordance with the mission and purposes set forth in its filings with its state of incorporation and the IRS.

I recently read a court decision, In Re Preliminary Contract Financial Settlements on The Center for Family Support’s Contracts, which made me think that perhaps we should break out a fourth duty, one that likely is subsumed within the duty of care: the duty to read. This duty, like the other ones, would apply to both trustees and officers, but would also apply to anyone with the responsibility to understand and implement contracts entered into by the nonprofit.

According to the decision of the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court, The Center For Family Support (Center) entered into two contracts with the NJ Division of Developmental Disabilities (Division), which is within the NJ Department of Human Services (Department). Like many contracts, especially government contracts, the contracts in question incorporated by reference standard terms and conditions that were set forth in appendices, regulations, and contracting manuals.

One key clause of the contracts stated:

“In the administration of this [c]ontract, the Provider Agency shall comply with all applicable policies and procedures issued by the Department including, but not limited to, the policies and procedures contained in the Department’s … Contract Policy and Information Manual [(Manual)] (as from time to time amended). Failure to comply with these policies and procedures shall be grounds to terminate the contract.”

One such policy document is Policy Circular P1.10, which sets forth the procedures a provider must follow in order to modify the contract during its term. According to the court, pursuant to this circular, “if the provider has agreed in the contract that it will spend a specified amount for a particular service during the contract year, it may not exceed that amount without first obtaining a written contract modification approved by the Division. In addition, the provider may not transfer funds from other budget categories to cover cost overruns in a different budget category unless it has obtained prior Division approval.”

The Center exceeded its budget for particular line items and shifted funds from other budget categories to those line items. It never sought Division approval to do so.

The Division sought to recover nearly $900,000 in allegedly improper expenditures and misspent funds. In the ensuing legal battle, which is still ongoing, the Center argued that it was improper for the Division to incorporate the Manual by reference into the contracts.

I won’t bore you with the details of that legal argument, as it isn’t relevant to the three morals of this story and the court flat out rejected it. The litigation will continue with respect to other issues, such as the exact amount that the Center might eventually need to repay.

The first moral of this story is simple: don’t sign a contract until you have read all the terms and are willing to abide by them. You have to read through those annoying, often small-print appendices, regulations, and contracting manuals. You are not a legislator, who can get away with voting to approve legislation without having read the 100 pages of text.

If you aren’t willing to read all of the provisions of contracts, then don’t sign them, and forget about ever seeking any government contracts or grants in the future. Foregoing contracts and grants the nonprofit might easily qualify for simply because you won’t read the “fine print” might itself be a breach of the duty of care to ensure the financial well-being of the nonprofit.

The second moral is equally simple: if you execute a contract that requires the nonprofit to jump through hoops A, B, and C in order to modify the terms of the contract, then start jumping before you change the contract terms or deliverables. If you don’t, you put your nonprofit at significant risk and yourself at risk of breaching your duty of care to the nonprofit.

The final moral is that trustees need to be sure they have put officers in charge who understand the first two points. Trustees should also consider adopting a signatory authority policy that sets forth at what levels in the organization contracts need to be approved. In such a policy, higher levels of approval are required as the dollar value of contracts increases and/or based on the subject matter of the contract.

For samples of such policies (and related matrices), see Rutgers’ Signatory Authority Policy and Tufts’ Signatory Authority Policy.

PS: The duty to read also requires trustees and officers to read, understand, and follow the terms of the nonprofit’s Certificate of Incorporation and Bylaws. If the trustees are unhappy with the requirements of these documents, they need to amend them instead of ignoring them, as was the case in Sparks v. Doby, another case decided by the Appellate Division, a year ago this month.

Want to learn more?  Check out:

Christine Michelle Duffy cropped

Christine Michelle Duffy is a senior staff attorney with Pro Bono Partnership and a participant in the Members Consultative Group for The American Law Institute’s (ALI) Restatement of the Law of Charitable Nonprofit Organizations.  At its 2016 annual meeting, the ALI membership approved Chapter 2 (Governance) of the draft Restatement, which rejects the concept of a separate duty of obedience.  Earlier this month and on the same day, Christine celebrated Christine’s thirtieth wedding anniversary and the twenty-eighth birthday of Christine’s daughter.  To learn more about Pro Bono Partnership, or to donate, please visit or call (973) 240-6955.


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Ask a Poet: Ellen Hagan

Posted on by Dodge Poetry

This fall, we’re hosting a High School Regional Mini-Festival at the Paul Robeson Center in Newark. Through readings and performances, Q&As and discussions, a group of poets will engage with hundreds of Newark high school students over the course of one school day in October.

For the next several weeks, we will be featuring short Q&As with some of the participating poets on the Dodge Blog each Friday. This week, we’re talking to Ellen Hagan.

Ellen Hagan is a writer, performer, and educator. Her latest collection of poetry, Hemisphere, was published by Northwestern University Press, Spring 2015. Ellen’s poems and essays can be found on, in the pages of Creative Nonfiction, Underwired Magazine, She Walks in Beauty (edited by Caroline Kennedy), Huizache, Small Batch, and Southern Sin. Her first collection of poetry, Crowned was published by Sawyer House Press in 2010. She is Director of Poetry & Theatre Programs at DreamYard Project and directs their International Poetry Exchange Program with Japan and South Korea. Ellen is a member of the Affrilachian Poets, Conjure Women, and is co-founder of the girlstory collective. She lives with her husband and daughters in New York City.

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Hagan_Headshot_BWWhat is a misconception about poetry that bothers you? Why?

There is a big misconception out there that you can’t make a living being a poet, or that you will go broke following the path of poetry. That’s simply not true. The poets I know curate their lives in beautiful and thrilling ways. They travel the world, they craft brilliant collections of poetry, they teach in community centers, colleges, they edit books, they jump genres and write novels, screenplays, young adult books. They have families, they have massive communities – they make their work. It is possible to do what you love and be both financially and creatively successful. You just have to create the best path for you – and figure out the kind of life you want – and how to build that vision. It’s all possible!

What was your experience with poetry in high school? If you wrote poetry as a teenager, who were your influences then and what did you write about?

I absolutely loved poetry in high school. I went to the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts – a summer arts intensive program, and was taught by my mentor, and now friend: Kelly Norman Ellis, who exposed all of us to poets such as: The Affrilachian Poets, Nikky Finney, June Jordan and Jayne Cortez, to name a few. We were exposed to poetry as a way to define our identity, a way to speak back to the world, confront injustices, write our hearts, craft what mattered most to us, and do the work. My high school experience was transformative because of poetry. I always say it saved me. It gave me a home to harness all of my feelings – it gave me the space to explore who I was and who I wanted to be in the world.

Do you have any advice for those who are trying to help students engage with poetry?

Read and travel and celebrate life. I think the best way to engage with poetry is to witness it all around us. Poetry is on our bus routes, on the train, in the cup of coffee we order at the diner. It’s hanging out after school, it follows us home. It dances and spins – poetry can be found everywhere, so it’s just finding new ways for young people to open their eyes – and finding ways to capture that spirit and energy – with words.

Do you have a favorite spot in Newark? A park, restaurant, open mic venue, etc.?

Lower Broadway! I did a Dodge Poet visit to Barringer STEAM High School in April, and walked from the train station. I ended up on Lower Broadway early in the morning, and was blown away by all of the brilliant murals on the gates covering the stores. There was so much joy and celebration – such color and expression. The whole city feels energized and alive to me. I love that Newark supports the arts – and they have a way to honor that in such a real and vivid way.

What are you currently reading?

I just re-read The Panther and the Lash by Langston Hughes. I used it years ago to find poems for a 2nd grade residency through The Community~Word Project, and saw it again. I wanted to revisit those poems. I also recently joined the board of the I, Too Arts Collective, a non-profit based in the home of Langston Hughes, founded by Renée Watson. I love being in Langston’s House – there is such brilliant creative energy there! It’s such a perfect home for poets and artists. I also recently read Beasts Behave in Foreign Land by Ruth Irupé Sanabría. She’s such a lyrical and socially engaged poet. Her collections stay with me – I can’t wait to teach some of the poems during the school year.

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Ask a Poet: Jonterri Gadson

Posted on by Dodge Poetry

This fall, we’re hosting a High School Regional Mini-Festival at the Paul Robeson Center in Newark. Through readings and performances, Q&As and discussions, a group of poets will engage with hundreds of Newark high school students over the course of one school day in October.

For the next several weeks, we will be featuring short Q&As with some of the participating poets on the Dodge Blog each Friday. This week, we’re talking to Jonterri Gadson.

Jonterri Gadson’s debut poetry collection, Blues Triumphant, was published in 2016. She is also the author of two chapbooks. She co-directed Writing from the Margins at Bloomfield College, a literary studies institute with workshops that centered the writing and voices of marginalized writers. Her poetry has appeared in Callaloo, Los Angeles Review, The Collagist, and other journals. She writes for an all-female comedic panel show and her comedy writing earned her selection to the 2016 NBC Late Night Writer’s Workshop.  She currently serves as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing/English at Bloomfield College in New Jersey.

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GadsonWhat is a misconception about poetry that bothers you? Why?

It bothers me when people assume that poetry has to be some code to crack and that it only matters if it makes sense to the person who wrote it. If it only needs to make sense to the poet, then the poet might as well leave it in their secret diary that no one else will ever read.

What is the funniest/strangest response you’ve ever gotten to telling someone you are a poet?

It was the strangest thing when I was online dating a few years ago that all of my first dates bought at least one copy of my chapbook from me to try to impress me. They often bought more than one so they could give it to their moms because everyone likes a man who treats his mom right, right? So I discovered that dating new people is a great way to sell books.

Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?

I challenge myself to write whatever it is that I am most afraid to say, so I’m definitely afraid to share it. But I have to get over the being afraid to say it part first. I worry about sharing later.

Do you have any advice for those who are trying to help students engage with poetry?

Don’t let students get away with writing poems about nothing, as if poems don’t
really matter. Teach students how to be vulnerable by demonstrating your own vulnerability. That’s one way writing poems can change anyone’s life.

What are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading/studying a lot of television scripts so I can become a TV writer. My life and experience as a poet has directly led me to even greater possibilities as a writer. Poetry is the foundation for everything I write.

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Ask a Poet: Kyle Dargan

Posted on by Dodge Poetry

This fall, we’re hosting a High School Regional Mini-Festival at the Paul Robeson Center in Newark. Through readings and performances, Q&As and discussions, a group of poets will engage with hundreds of Newark high school students over the course of one school day in October.

For the next several weeks, we will be featuring short Q&As with some of the participating poets on the Dodge Blog each Friday. This week, we’re talking to Kyle Dargan

Originally from Newark, New Jersey, Kyle Dargan is the editor and founder of Post No Ills online magazine and an Associate Professor of Literature and Assistant Director of Creative Writing at American University (Washington, D.C.). His debut collection, The Listening, was awarded the 2003 Cave Canem Prize and his sophomore collection, Bouquet of Hungers, won the 2008 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for poetry. Dargan’s poems and non-fiction have appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger, New York Times Magazine, Poetry, American Poetry Review, BuzzFeed,, and other venues. His most recent poetry collections are Logorrhea Dementia and Honest Engine. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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KGD (Print Quality)What is a misconception about poetry that bothers you? Why?

That one needs to understand—if not have a mastery of—all the terminology and craft minutia to read or write poetry. The most important thing is being able to find and articulate what moves us about poetry. Once you know that, you can bring in the technical understanding to identify how the poem was able to create what you felt.

Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?

Of course. I mean, I think there should be a little fear in sharing any of yourself and your passion in poetry because the fear means you care. If you did not care how the poem and what you say in it would be received, you aren’t invested in saying something sincere and vulnerable—the type of writing that allows you to grow as a human being and for people to grow closer to you through the writing.

Do you have any advice for those who are trying to help students engage with poetry?

Yes. I think we go about it all wrong when it comes to teaching poetry to young people, especially young brown people in America. We start with the canon’s “classics” (which isn’t very representative) and then get frustrated when the students aren’t engaged. But if you start with poems that reflect the realities and specific experiences of the students you are teaching, they’ll be invested enough to actually want to do the work to understand how this art form is capturing and rendering something they recognize, something that validates them. It makes a difference. You need to introduce people to poetry with poems they can see themselves within.

Do you have a favorite memory from time spent in Newark?

Newark is such a huge city. It isn’t just downtown, like many people outside of the city think. I came of age in City Hall. I fell in love at Branchbrook Park. I watched the world from high up in an apartment building on Elizabeth Avenue. I helped conduct research as a Minorities-in-Medicine fellow at UMDNJ. I mean, the way I grew up, I got to experience all of the city, and in that way it all runs together for me. People talk about east ward and north ward and south and west ward, but it was all just Newark to me, and I have great memories everywhere.

Do you have a favorite spot in Newark? A park, restaurant, open mic venue, etc.?

Newark is changing. A lot of the things I loved aren’t there anymore, Je’s Soul Food Restaurant on Halsey Street is gone. Queen’s Pizza … it’s still there but it is owned by different people now—the flavor has changed, and it is essentially gone to me. The kind of gentrification I saw over the past ten years in Washington, D.C. is finally coming to Newark, as I suspected it would. But that is the nature of cities—they “reface,” they change. But I have a good friend who works as Mayor Baraka’s chief policy adviser, Tai Cooper, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone whose love for Newark runs deeper than hers does. She’s always showing me or telling me about some new cultural event or some new restaurant that the people seem to be enjoying. Cities need energy, and it is heartening to see all the new energy Newark is attracting and generating. And just as it was important for me to write about my Newark, we need the young people there now to write about theirs. That’s the only way the facts and the feeling of our time in our cities get remembered—which is something you can’t fully appreciate until your city changes and the people and places of your past become the ghosts and rubble of the present.

What are you currently reading?

Blud, by Rachel McKibbens

Bestiary by Donika Kelly

Wild Hundreds by Nate Marshall

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram x. Kendi

Race, Class and Politics in the Cappuccino City by Derek Hyra

Posted in Ask A Poet, Poetry, Poetry in the Schools, Poets, Tidbits | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ask a Poet: Eduardo C. Corral

Posted on by Dodge Poetry

This fall, we’re hosting a High School Regional Mini-Festival at the Paul Robeson Center in Newark. Through readings and performances, Q&As and discussions, a group of poets will engage with hundreds of Newark high school students over the course of one school day in October.

For the next several weeks, we will be featuring short Q&As with some of the participating poets on the Dodge Blog each Friday. This week, we’re talking to Eduardo C. Corral. 

Eduardo C. Corral is the son of Mexican immigrants. His debut collection of poetry, Slow Lightning, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 2011. He has received numerous honors and awards, including the “Discovery”/The Nation Award, the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize from Poetry Magazine, a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Holmes National Poetry Prize from Princeton University, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the MFA program at North Carolina State University. During the 2017-18 academic year, he’ll be a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University.

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Corral_Eduardo(c-Matt Valentine)What is something you have recently discovered about poetry?

I keep forgetting that poetry can tell lies. Poems don’t have to stick to what actually happened. Poetry can reveal and illuminate personal experience and memory, but I often find my poems are a mixture of both the actual and the imagined.

What is the funniest/strangest response you’ve ever gotten to telling someone you are a poet?

Once, on a flight to Los Angeles, after I told the business man sitting next to me that I was a poet, he asked me to write a poem about unicorns for his young daughter. He added that he would pay me five dollars for the poem.

Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?

Yes. I’ve trained myself to follow my imagination on the page. Sometimes I arrive at places I don’t want to explore, but I continue writing until I’ve explored every nook and cranny of that specific place. Why do I continue if it makes me uncomfortable? Because I know I don’t have to show the poem to anyone. I can write it. Then delete it. Or save it in a file for a long time. I give myself the freedom to explore my imagination and the freedom to decide when the work is ready for publication.

What was your experience with poetry in high school? If you wrote poetry as a teenager, who were your influences then and what did you write about?

I didn’t write poetry in high school. But I did write outside of high school. I wrote lots of song lyrics in the privacy of my bedroom—I never shared them with anyone. The song lyrics were usually about loneliness and broken hearts. I’d often imitate my favorite song lyricists. Musicians like Morrissey, Madonna, Michael Stipe, and Juan Gabriel.

What are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading two books of poems. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar and Lessons on Expulsion by Erika L. Sanchez.

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Pro Bono Partnership Pundit: Raising Unrestricted Revenue

Posted on by Nancy Eberhardt, Pro Bono Partnership

Are you tired of endless grant applications, expenditure tracking, report writing? Do you know that you have great services and could probably market more great services or products through a natural expansion of your programs? Are you thinking it would just be so much easier if you could raise your own revenue through earned income?

In this challenging fundraising climate, organizations are becoming more creative about how they bring money in the door. Creative thinking is great, and the desire for revenue with no restrictions on use is attainable, but requires careful planning to understand all the potential results.

Income-generating activities may involve tax implications, including taxes on possible unrelated business income, and might even impact tax-exempt status. Nonprofits must understand the legal considerations for monetizing existing resources (e.g., licensing and renting space) and carefully control and manage the corporate structure of social enterprises. These issues are interrelated and should be analyzed thoughtfully and thoroughly.

Unrelated Business Income Tax

It’s important for 501(c)(3) nonprofits to understand that not all revenue is tax-exempt. Income is taxable to otherwise tax-exempt nonprofits when it results from:

  • A trade or business (in which there is a profit motive) that is:
  • Regularly carried on (i.e., not once a year at an annual gala/golf outing/gift wrap sale) and
  • Not substantially related to the organization’s own specific exempt purpose (i.e., not any tax-exempt purpose, but the particular organization’s own stated tax-exempt purpose).

The rationale for taxing is to prevent unfair competition with for-profit (and nominally tax-paying) businesses. Nonprofits sometimes struggle with this concept, believing that if all the revenue goes back to the charity, it should not be taxed. But it’s the way the revenue is generated that determines its taxability, not the money’s ultimate purpose.

Sidebar: To learn about how it came to pass that unrelated business became taxable to nonprofits in 1950, see The New Yorker article from 1977, The Law School and the Noodle Factory. That article is behind a pay wall, though you can learn a little bit about the situation that prompted the tax in The First Annual NYU Law Pasta Commemoration.

There are many exceptions to Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT), and if a nonprofit is making money using one of these methods, then it doesn’t have to worry about taxes. These exceptions include royalties and licensing fees from use of intellectual property, such as curricula, trademarks, and patents; rental income (with some limitations); income from activities conducted entirely by volunteers; and income from the sale of donated merchandise (such as in the case of thrift stores).

It’s important to remember that income-generating activities are not taxed if they are conducted as part of, or closely related to, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit’s exempt purposes. Examples include scientific research and sale of patents if there is a benefit to the public; aids in education, published and thus available to the public; disease research; provision of childcare or home health care; job training; and provision of low-income housing. There are many more examples, and nonprofits should consult with a tax professional for advice about a particular activity.

Too Much Unrelated Business Activity

A charity is permitted to engage in unrelated business activities so long as it pays the appropriate tax. And for many nonprofits, the tax is manageable in light of the revenue it raises. But at a certain point, even if the nonprofit is happy to pay the tax, taxable income may become too great a percentage of revenue to allow the charity to meet the public support test or otherwise impact the substantiality of its charitable activity. There is no bright-line test to determine how much non-exempt activity is too much to undertake; the calculation is not percentage-based, although the public support test must be met.

Tax-exempt status is generally not at risk if the activity has a direct relationship to a non-commercial exempt purpose of the organization; the revenue generated is relatively small compared to the organization’s overall activities and not greater than necessary to accomplish the exempt purpose; and the activity is not competing with activities carried on by the business community. Special attention will be needed to account for staff and other resources of the nonprofit used to support the revenue generating activities.

Many groups decide to avoid the UBIT risks to the nonprofit by forming a for-profit subsidiary, from which the profits can flow up to the “parent” non-profit as non-taxable dividends. In this case, the nonprofit must use caution in how much investment the nonprofit makes in this sub – is it adequately capitalized? Will the income cover the sub’s tax obligations with enough to spare to truly benefit the charitable parent?

Also, it’s critical that there are arm’s length agreements between the two corporations and that the charity receives fair market value for its services. If control of the sub is too close, however, liability issues might cross corporate entity boundaries and come back to the charity. Separate boards; separate board meetings; separate corporate records – all are important to monitor and document. See our article, Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Entities Forming Affiliations With Other Entities: Benefits, Risks, and Structural Considerations.

Some nonprofits form a separate, uncontrolled corporation to conduct the activity. Obvious disadvantages of this option are a lack of control, which might affect revenue back to the nonprofit and thus eliminates the reasons for starting this activity in the first place.

Charitable organizations should consider the many available ways to earn money and strengthen their revenue stream and flexibility. With careful planning and tax advice, a nonprofit can improve its self-sufficiency and decrease its reliance on highly restricted funding.


Please contact Pro Bono Partnership if you have questions about the legal aspects of revenue-generating activities.


Nancy Eberhardt is the New Jersey Director of Pro Bono Partnership and a regular contributor to the Dodge Blog. Pro Bono Partnership provides free business and transactional legal services to nonprofits serving the disadvantaged or enhancing the quality of life in neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. To learn more about Pro Bono Partnership, please visit or call 973-240-6955. Photo at top courtesy of Creative Commons /

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Sustainable Jersey: From New Jersey public school gardens to your table

Posted on by Renee Haider, Associate Director, Sustainable Jersey

SJ gardens 1

Long Branch Public School students practice agripreneurship

Although school is out for summer, a group of students in Monmouth County are hard at work harvesting vegetables and herbs to sell at the local farmers market.

Long Branch Public School students from the School-to-Work program are selling a bounty of produce at the West End Farmers’ Market, while learning important business and nutritional lessons. Zucchini, squash, basil, green beans, oregano, rosemary, chives, mint, parsley and beets are some of the recent crops for sale.

Long Branch Public Schools use the school gardens to incorporate job skills training into the special education curriculum by teaching students how to create and sell products. Some of these students have unique challenges in the classroom, so being able to use the garden as an outside classroom has had great results and the student response has been very positive.

SJ gardens 2

“Our students are gaining real life experience in agripreneurship as they sell the school garden produce at the farmers market,” said Diego DeAssis, the Long Branch Public Schools Social and Environmental Sustainability Officer. “I have definitely seen how our students find that the experience changes their perceptions of where food comes from, and what it takes to produce it.” Because the kids get to taste what they grow, the overwhelming conclusion is that the fruits and vegetables are good, which should lead to future healthy eating habits.

School District Hires a Sustainability Officer

This year, Long Branch Public Schools stepped up their commitment to sustainability and traditional gardening by allocating funds for the provision of a sustainability officer. Mr. DeAssis is the Long Branch Public Schools Social and Environmental Sustainability Officer. It is a long title, but an inspired move on the part of the school district to create a position for someone to oversee implementation and communication of the sustainability initiatives the district is doing. After spending two years in North Carolina operating his own family farm business, Mr. DeAssis returned to the District to lead their sustainability program. He has been working hard in the gardens with the students and their teachers this summer.

The Long Branch Public School District is a leader in sustainability. All nine schools have achieved Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification and two schools–George L. Catrambone Elementary School and Long Branch Middle School–were each recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a National Green Ribbon School.

School Gardens Enrich Learning in Nine Schools

SJ gardens 3

In addition to the School-to-Work students, the gardens provide benefits to all of the students in the district. Each school has a student green team that designs, outlines, plants, waters and collects the harvest. To help with this work, the school district coordinated with the non-profit, Providing Hope. The outdoor garden classrooms allow students to learn lessons—not just about nutrition, but also about science and math, even business skills. The school gardens were extended this summer with the help of summer school staff and students.

The lessons related to the garden within the classes of Long Branch High School varied based on the course level. For example, the Biology students focused their lessons on testing seed germination and the factors that may affect it. The students conducted their own experiments to get a first look at what affects plant growth and photosynthesis. The Environmental Science students go further in depth to discuss the different type of garden plans and how best to make them sustainable and still have high yields.

Aeroponic Greenhouse Enables Gardening All Year

When the fall harvest draws to a close, the gardening focus will shift to the indoor mobile units to keep the production and learning experiences going throughout the year. In 2016, Joseph M. Ferraina Childhood Learning Center received a $10,000 Sustainable Jersey grant funded by the New Jersey Education Association for a 1,000-plant aeroponic greenhouse that was installed with district matching funds. Students from across the district work in the greenhouse as part of the curriculum.

SJ garden 4

Educating children about where food comes from and how they can and should take responsibility for their own good health now and in the future, is an invaluable lesson. Mr. DeAssis said, “Our School-to-Work students are becoming increasingly invested in the project. The school gardens have afforded the opportunity for them to learn new skills and understand the value of sustainability.” Sustainable Jersey for Schools applauds this effort; we look forward to seeing what these students will accomplish next!

For more about Sustainable Jersey for Schools: Website  Facebook  Twitter   Instagram   LinkedIn

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Ask a Poet: Marina Carreira

Posted on by Dodge Poetry

This fall, we’re hosting a High School Regional Mini-Festival at the Paul Robeson Center in Newark. Through readings and performances, Q&As and discussions, a group of poets will engage with hundreds of Newark high school students over the course of one school day in October.

For the next several weeks, we will be featuring short Q&As with some of the participating poets on the Dodge Blog each Friday. This week, we’re talking to Marina Carreira. 

Marina Carreira is a Luso-American writer from Newark, NJ. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University, and is curator of “Brick City Speaks,” a monthly reading series in Newark. Marina’s chapbook, “I Sing to That Bird Knowing He Won’t Sing Back” was published May 2017 by Finishing Line Press. Her work is featured in Paterson Literary Review, The Acentos Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Hinchas de Poesia, among others.

*   *   *

author photo 2017What is something you have recently discovered about poetry?

Poetry has always been a way for me to process experience, particularly sadness and joy. Most recently however, it has been a mode I employ to process trauma. Poetry has a way of revealing the many ways trauma affects us physically, spiritually, emotionally, and even politically. Poetry is literally helping me cope with some of the hardest moments in my life right now.

What is a misconception about poetry that bothers you? Why?

That it is an elitist art form.

Poetry is one of the earliest forms of proletariat, grassroots artistic and political expression. It has been around since biblical times (Songs of Solomon, Psalms), used as a means of relaying oral history by many indigenous peoples and as the essential mode of storytelling in hip-hop. Poetry has always belonged to the people, so when I see it being eye-rolled and dismissed as a “bougie” or “hipster” art form, I laugh at that. It’s the anti-thesis of both, I think.

Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?

I used to be afraid to share anything I wrote until I started the Rutgers-Newark MFA and ended up starting my own reading series/open mic shortly after. I truly believe that when a poem is “done”, it no longer belongs to you, but to the world.

With that in mind, I read my work knowing the poems are not about me anymore but the collective “we”: my family, my friends, comrades and extended immigrant/other-American, activist, and queer communities.

What was your experience with poetry in high school? If you wrote poetry as a teenager, who were your influences then and what did you write about?

I was already writing (truly, awful, angst-ridden) poems by freshman year, mostly work emulating Dickinson, Angelou, Neruda, and Jewel (yes, the country/pop singer, lol).

Music also inspired me to write, everyone from Mary J. Blige to Joan Baez to The Cranberries and Jay-Z. But it wasn’t until the beautiful Laura Boss came to my high school as a Dodge poet during my senior year Honors English class that I knew I wanted to be a “professional” poet.

Do you have any advice for those who are trying to help students engage with poetry?

Teach Shakespeare alongside Ocean Vuong, Robert Frost together with Kaveh Akbar, Plath in conjunction with Claudia Cortese, Khalil Gibran with Andrea Gibson, Bishop beside Natalie Diaz.

Bridging the gap between “classic” poets and (the future classic) poets of today will really instill the idea of poetry being for everyone, that it can speak to every experience, therefore making it accessible to populations of all kinds, especially younger readers.

Do you have a favorite memory from time spent in Newark?

Grabbing a Dairy Queen soft-serve Vanilla cone before going to Riverbank Park every Sunday with my Grandfather, rest his soul.

Do you have a favorite spot in Newark? A park, restaurant, open mic venue, etc.?

I love Casa D’ Paco for tapas, Pao da Terra for coffee, Military Park for laying on the grass/the Dodge summer reading series, and Gateway Project Spaces for art.

What are you currently reading?

Two amazing new poetry collections: Darla Himeles’ chapbook “Flesh Enough” and Lynne McEniry’s “Some Other Wet Landscape”. Shout out to Get Fresh Books!

Posted in Ask A Poet, Poetry, Poetry in the Schools, Poets, Tidbits | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Opposite of Hate

Posted on by Dodge Poetry



For a direct response to the events in Charlottesville, see Dodge President and CEO Chris Daggett’s blog.

As a team of poets who have read, written and presented poetry throughout our lives, we believe it can do the opposite of hate speech: poetry can put us directly inside someone else’s state of mind, perspective and emotions. Poetry increases our ability to understand someone else’s experience, and, as a result, expands our capacity for compassion.

When we worry that we may not be up to the challenges before us, we can think of the poets, writers, actors, artists, and musicians who have endured terrible hardships and, instead of bringing more suffering into the world, chose to bring art. We can think of teachers, nurses, physical therapists, counselors and other care-givers that we’ve met, some who suffered abuse themselves, who have dedicated their lives to nurturing, supporting and healing. They confront human frailty every day, and do it with gentleness and compassion; these brave people remind us that whatever happens, our responses can be destructive or creative.

Assembled by the Dodge Poetry staff, here are some reminders of what we can do when we choose the latter:

To Live in the Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldúa

On the Gallows Once by Kofi Awoonor

Poem Resisting Arrest by Kyle Dargan (video)

from The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay

Remember by Joy Harjo

Frederick Douglass by Robert Hayden

Black Confederate Ghost Story by Terrance Hayes

Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes

male bonding by Quraysh Ali Lansana

Instructions on Not Giving Up by Ada Limón

For the Confederate Dead by Kevin Young


Stay updated on the Dodge Poetry Program!

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After Charlottesville, moving toward a more equitable society

Posted on by Chris Daggett, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation President & CEO


All who believe in a just and civil society have a duty to stand up and condemn the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend. Violence of any kind is abhorrent — violence bred by racism, white supremacy, and other forms of intolerance is simply unacceptable and must be called out for what it is and overcome.

Ours is a society fiercely protective of free speech and assembly. Rightly so, as they help form the foundation of a democracy. But the language and the props of white supremacists and neo-Nazis are repugnant and morally wrong.

For anyone who was there or watched news coverage, and particularly those who have seen the full 22-minute Vice News Tonight report of the protests and violence in Charlottesville, it is clear that we need to respond firmly and resolutely to xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry.

We need our leaders to say that hate-filled speech is wrong and that it will be countered on every front. It is easy to say that the event happened in another community and is not our issue. But what happened in Charlottesville is everyone’s issue.

We also need education and empathy — education that helps bring people together, that helps us see the world through others’ eyes. At Dodge, we have been working to better understand diversity, equity, and inclusion for ourselves, our organization, and our work. We are listening to each other and to those who are able to advance our understanding, working to build greater cultural awareness.

At the same time, we are exploring the support and assistance we might provide to our grantees, our partners, and the communities they support, so that we can all move together toward a more equitable society.

New Jersey will soon become one of the first states where no single racial or ethnic group will be in the majority. As we do so, we must continually work to understand and address the shifts that will be taking place in every sector of our society. It is hard work, it is difficult to discuss, it is emotional, and, ultimately, it is transformational.

We need to celebrate and embrace our diversity. It is what makes New Jersey a great state. It is also why we have such vibrant arts and culture, creative and successful businesses, stellar schools, and strong communities.

Let’s work together to move away from the divisive and destructive words and actions of the marchers in Charlottesville and strive toward the greater ideal and promise of our country’s motto — e pluribus unum — out of many, one.

Chris Daggett is President and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. For more than 40 years, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation has nurtured leaders, ideas and institutions that foster sustainable, creative and engaged communities. We fund ArtsEducationEnvironmentInformed Communitiesand Poetry initiatives that are innovative and promote collaboration and community-driven decision making. For more information, please visit

Posted in Collaboration, Community Building, Diversity, equity, inclusion, Leadership, Philanthropy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Detroiter feels kinship with Newark on 50th anniversary of rebellion

Posted on by Guest Blogger
Creative Commons / From "Radiophonics of the Vietnam War. A Collection" by Jan Philip Müller

Creative Commons / From “Radiophonics of the Vietnam War. A Collection” by Jan Philip Müller

This year marks a somber anniversary for many urban communities around the United States. It’s the 50th anniversary of 1967 rebellions that occurred in cities across the nation, including Newark, Oakland, and Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

As a native Detroiter, I’ve heard stories most of my life of the “67 riots.” As an adult with the lived experience of growing up in the City and understanding the time historically through the memories of my family, I characterize the four days of violence and fear that began on July 23 as a rebellion.

I believe the enormity of the occurrence has been embedded in the collective DNA of many of us, even those of us who were not directly involved. I have siblings that were youngsters during that time who have vivid recollections of the dawn-to-dusk curfews, looting at businesses on the commercial strip, and the National Guard patrolling their neighborhood.

I’ve also lived with the aftermath of the once vibrant commercial corridor on 12th Street, the epicenter of the Detroit rebellion that never recovered. My parents and family elders would talk about the activity on 12th Street — now Rosa Parks Boulevard — and how the sidewalks were sometimes so crowded with people you had to step off the curb to get around them.

As an adult, I understand the decline of Detroit and other urban cities was not the result of the rebellions, yet somehow they came to define Detroit. I talk about how those perceptions and stereotypes impacted me in my 2014 TEDx talk, Connected Fates.

I believe we as residents internalize those myths. I grew to know better.

Detroit is a large city — 147 square miles — that yes, had pockets of disinvested and blighted neighborhoods, but for the most part had strong, intact neighborhoods. In fact, growing up, most of the people I knew lived in single family homes on tidy, tree-lined streets. The automotive industry and other supporting industries created the largest numbers of middle class families in Detroit, a majority of them Black.

Disinvestment in urban communities began in earnest after World War II as a result of federal programs like the GI bill that perpetuated and funded housing discrimination. Police brutality and lack of economic opportunity contributed to the rebellions. The subsequent and exponential population loss, dwindling tax bases and shifting political attention in Detroit and other similar communities resulted in decades of decline, and lack of opportunity for citizens.

I’ve come to learn more about Newark and its rebellion through numerous conversations with educator, historian and author Junius Williams. I’m currently devouring his book, Unfinished Agenda: Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power.

As a newcomer to New Jersey, I felt a certain kinship with Newark. Perhaps because it, too, like my hometown, is an older industrial city that became home to thousands of Southern blacks fleeing the Jim Crow South as part of the Great Migration, and looking for a better way of life for themselves and their families. It was considered a place of opportunity, but many found a still harsh reality and oppressive conditions.

Williams has created RiseUp North, a multimedia website to collect and share stories of the resistance movement in Newark and other Northern U.S. cities. As the nation appears to be speeding backwards toward policies and ideologies that separate us, the website reminds me that we are more similar than different, and the country has the capacity for great change. But the struggle is not over.

Ironically, the 1967 rebellion likely contributed to my family’s stability. My father was able to buy a small grocery store in Detroit as white merchants started to move their businesses to the suburbs. He opened the business in 1969 and operated it for more than 40 years before he retired. As a result, my parents were able to purchase a home in a working-class neighborhood and raise me and my five brothers and sisters.

The film Detroit premieres this week.

But in the meantime, I encourage you to view a colleague, friend and native Detroiter, Bruce Harper’s documentary Summer 67. The film debuted on Detroit Public Television on July 25, and will kick off a series of community conversations and engagement throughout the rest of the year.

The retelling of these stories, remembering the lives lost, and the neighborhoods and people forever changed are important commemorations this year.

As Detroit and Newark are characterized as the next “Brooklyns” de jour, we must remember those that came before, sacrificed and perhaps never received the return on their investment.



Sharnita C. Johnson directs the Foundation’s Arts grants, which foster a diverse and vibrant arts ecosystem, create broad-based public support of the arts, and support communities engaged in creative placemaking in New Jersey.

Prior to joining Dodge, Sharnita managed a $25 million grantmaking portfolio in education, health and family economic security at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Michigan.

Posted in Community Building, Diversity, equity, Nonprofit, What We're Learning | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Board Leadership: Want a Stronger, More Diverse Board? Start Here

Posted on by Laura Otten, Dodge Technical Assistance


Diversity on boards has long been a hot topic. While it has always been a best practice to have a board of directors that is reflective of your constituency, too few have lived up to that best practice.

In the last decade or so, however, more and more nonprofits have been paying attention — from serious to lip service — to diversify their boards, in part because there has been increased pressure coming from external sources, primarily funders.

But, creating a strong, diverse board is more challenging than it might at first appear.  Sometimes an organization’s failure to do so isn’t for lack of trying, but rather misguided efforts. Other times, there really hasn’t even been any trying. But when an organization tries and fails, it is due to several reasons.

  1. Too few boards have a solid, thoughtful on-boarding process, essential if an organization wants a strong, well-performing board, regardless of its diversity. Rather, most boards replace outgoing board members by asking those already on the board whom they know.  Sadly, in this country, people’s networks still tend to look like and think as they do.  If that is how a board “recruits” new board members, diversification will be a long time coming.
  2. Too few boards give careful, intentional thought to what diversity means for their board and how that diversity will be of benefit. If we don’t truly believe in something, if we don’t truly understand its benefits, we are far less likely to pursue that outcome with any degree of vigor.
  3. Too few boards think about the conditions necessary to be a welcoming culture to diversity.

To build a good, solid board that has the capacity to be a high performing board, the board — not the executive director — must begin by being strategic. The board, with input from the executive director, must identify what is needed on the board to help increase the chances that the board and organization will be successful in achieving its strategic priorities.

It must consider what is needed in terms of: demographics; skills and knowledge areas; those to whom they wish access, as the need arises, through board members; and what kinds of characteristics/personality traits will be necessary for the group and successful group dynamics.

Once all the needs are identified, a board must prioritize. By thinking of specifics — such as a younger female or someone from this region of our service area or someone who has access to a politician — board members will be forced to think beyond their smart phones and into particular places.

For example, every profession has at least one professional association, to which many in our local communities belong. Reaching out to the local chapter of a professional association with a request to find board members stretches a board well beyond its own spheres. Going to faith organizations in new communities to extend an invitation to consider board service reaches beyond current circles. With clear priorities identified for new board members, the process of finding new board members moves from “who do we know” to “where should we look.” That, in and of itself, may add diversity.

But achieving diversity is far more than adding those who look different from everyone else in the room.

Diversifying boards needs to be tied to something beyond the push to diversify. It must first and foremost come from a position of understanding what diversification will bring to the board and the organization. It must come from a place of knowing why this is important and not simply that it is important to do if we want to be funded.  Diversification looks different to different organizations.

For some, it may be diversifying along race and age, or sex and communities or any number of axis. But it all must be led by what is it we need to achieve in order to be the best stewards and protectors of our mission. Thus, diversifying a board should very much be driven by an organization’s mission.

While there is absolute important value in clients seeing themselves on the board of directors, it is equally important to understand what diversification will bring to the board table.

We think of diversity bringing a variety of perspectives to the table: those who are different, be it because they grew up in different neighborhoods, different financial situations or different generations, will bring different ways of thinking about a situation.  The more ways we have to consider a situation, the thinking goes, the more thorough we will be in our decision making. (This, of course, assumes that people listen and hear what others are saying, even if it is foreign or different than their own thinking.)

But some of the diversity that would be of value to a board is difference that we cannot see, such as a person’s political views or the way s/he approaches a new situation or how s/he deals with disagreement.

To be a successful diverse board, boards must, before they go looking for that diversity, be clear as to the goals of the diversity they seek. If we simply want to look diverse, the on-boarding process may be more superficial: we bring in candidates, interview them, make sure we “like” them, and bring them onto the board.

If we want our board to be diverse at a functional level — by which we mean in how the members think, discuss and make decisions — then the on-boarding process will be more involved and would necessitate greater opportunities for interaction and observation before extending an offer. It might even include some of the personality and problem solving tests favored by HR departments of many for-profit companies. And/or, it could become a requirement that a potential board member serve a year on a board committee before being eligible even to be considered for board service.

(Requiring time on a committee as a pre-requisite for board nomination is always a good strategy for helping to bring on only the good-to-great board members.)

Being clear as to why we want to be diverse should not only influence the on-boarding process, but also the degree of commitment to achieving the goal. When diversity is simply a public relations gesture as opposed to an understanding of the value of being a diverse group, neither board member selection nor achievement of the goal get the attention they need. Organizations that seek diversity simply to put a number larger than zero on a grant application, or to pat themselves on their backs that the board doesn’t all look alike, will fail to achieve true diversity, and the benefits thereof.

When boards have not reflected on the what and why of diversity, they also won’t be sure that they have a culture that is welcoming of diversity, even if they have to create it from scratch. A group that isn’t prepared to be diverse is a group that won’t even have a semblance of being diverse for very long.

First and foremost, to be successful as a diverse group, a board must be a group that is open to learning and change. By adding “different” you are almost guaranteed to have things questioned, the “way we have always done things” challenged, and alternatives viewpoints raised. If the knee jerk response is to quash these new ideas, dismiss them as “not how we do things,” diversity will quickly leave.

If, however, the group is a learning one, one that stops, listens, and considers and isn’t threatened by the possibility that there are alternative — and perhaps even better — ways to do things, the diversity will stay.

A culture that welcomes isn’t one that puts up a divide between the we who have been there and the you who are new; instead, it expands the we to include the you. Part of the way we do that is by never bringing on just one of whatever it is on which we seek to diversify.

One is a token, and a token is never a commitment to being a truly diverse group. One cannot and does not represent the whole, nor speak for the whole. One also increases the chances that the diversity will either a) never feel comfortable honestly speaking up or b) speak up, but very quickly shut down, if not in fact leave.

If true diversity is the goal, we must bring “newness” in groups, so that until the integrated we happens, the newness has a we of its own and its ideas and concerns are harder to dismiss.

We want to hear from you!

If you have a board diversity success story to share, we’d love to hear from you.

laura-head-shot-500Laura Otten, a Dodge Technical Assistance faculty member, is Executive Director at The Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University. 

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Feeling Burned out? 7 Steps to Get Back Your NGO Mojo

Posted on by Yvette R. Murry

Stressed CC aaayyymm eeelectriik

You’re probably so busy that you don’t have time to read this post. But, please stop multi-tasking and resist the pull to check your phone.

I have an important question: Lately, when you walk into your non-profit job in the morning, what’s the first feeling that hits you?

If your answer was some variant of “stress,” you’re not alone. According to the World Health Organization, stress causes 300 billion dollars in lost productivity each year for US businesses due to absenteeism, reduced productivity, and employee turnover. Over 75 percent consider it to be a major concern; half aren’t taking vacations; and half are looking for new jobs.

Non-profit employees are certainly no strangers to workplace stress. Whether your organization is large or small, your employees are likely to wear several hats. You may wear at least 10 yourself, from running board meetings to changing toilet paper rolls. But even big-hearted, tolerant, non-profit staff have a breaking point.

Financial uncertainty, infrastructure, attracting and retaining board members, improving branding/communications, affording and retaining quality staff, the changing public policy landscape, and meeting the increased demand for program services — some of the biggest concerns cited by non-profits in the Center for Non-Profits’ most recent non-profit survey — and countless other day-to-day issues all fuel to heightened anxiety in our teams.

How do you know if you or your staff are at risk for burnout? If you’re currently suffering from three or more of these symptoms, you need to take a closer look and consider making adjustments.

  • Absenteeism – While supervisors should encourage staff, and themselves, to take sick days and mental health days when needed, you’ve got a real problem when employees continue to show up late or if no one is showing up at all.
  • Inability to concentrate – Are you not crossing off even the small tasks on your to-do list? Are you easily distracted by social media, noises in the hall, bagels left in the conference room? Do you have brain fog?
  • Loss of memory – Are you forgetting meetings, co-workers’ names, to pick up your child from school, etc.?
  • Anxiety – Are you no longer confident in your ability to handle familiar tasks? Are you easily panicked?
  • Depression – Just can’t shake a bad mood? (Don’t take this symptom lightly. Take a look at Symptoms from the Mayo Clinic and talk to your healthcare provider- Free, confidential mental health information and referral available at New Jersey Mental Health Cares.)
  • Inappropriate outbursts – Do you take it out on others, no longer following office etiquette, engaging in excessive office gossip, etc.
  • Lethargy/exhaustion
  • Avoidance – Lately are you procrastinating, missing deadlines, always having an excuse?

There’s no way to completely rid ourselves of stress and it’s actually not all bad. But here are seven steps we can take to manage stress and bring back enthusiasm for the mission.


Work smarter, not harder

Try separating your day into productive chunks of time. Tackle the most important tasks during your natural energy peaks. If you need total brain power and a quiet office for grant writing, schedule that task for early morning before the rest of the staff arrives. Procrastination is often the result of not wanting to do something or not knowing how. Discuss realistic deadlines with your staff and check in on progress. Lack of planning is a huge cause of stress. Learn more about project management for non-profits.

Show technology who’s boss

Is technology truly our friend? The reality is technology is how we work and how we play (we like the birthday post from our college roommate; glad the library sent us a ping our book is in). However, too much IT, or out-of-date equipment and software, can make our day harder, not easier. Take technology breaks – make a phone call instead of sending an email and enjoy a two-way, human connection. Give yourself a social media timeout and stop comparing your “status” to others. Technology moves rapidly but our brains don’t. Just because someone sends you a message doesn’t mean you have to respond immediately. Consider checking email only three times a day instead of continuously. Set limits with a new staff policy: All emails will be responded to within 24 hours.

Get organized!

While some of us claim to thrive with a messy desk, we’re in trouble if we can’t find our to-do list or our car keys. Make prioritizing a priority. Ask for your supervisor’s input on what needs to be done that week. Have your supervisor work with you on priorities. When managing capacity, think of the “triple constraint” of scope, cost and time. Most likely you won’t have all three so pick two and work within those parameters. By not over promising, you’ll feel more in control and less stressed.


Go with the flow. Easier said than done, but our approach to stress is how we see the world. When something unforeseen happens, is the world against you or is it just an isolated moment? I’m a magnet for the longest grocery store lines. It’s not my intention, but I always pick the one that will soon be changing cashiers, the paper will get jammed, the person in front of me will need a price check, etc.  I can stand there huffing and puffing and rolling my eyes, or I can take a moment to relax and catch up on my magazines.


Take care of yourself

Get your 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Don’t skip that healthy breakfast. Strap on a pedometer and take your 10,000 steps per day — get everyone moving by initiating walking meetings. Drink enough water! Do what you can to make your workspace healthy with gentle full-spectrum lighting, cross ventilation — open a window — cut back on noise pollution by instilling quiet hours, etc.

Take breaks — 15 minutes in the morning, afternoon and at least 30 minute lunch. Help build a culture of health in your organization.

Be present in the moment. Find time to laugh, have an organizational puzzle to work on together or by yourself for quiet time in the corner of the office. For adults, play is often considered “goofing off” but it’s where creativity can start.

Inoculate yourself from toxic individuals

Poor relationships at home or at work can cause burnout. Acknowledge your own feelings and protect yourself. While some of us may have supervisors with unrealistic expectations, we often put time pressures on ourselves. However, it’s not uncommon to see post-traumatic stress disorder come from the workplace. We can be traumatized by clients that come in for services, coworkers, etc.

  • Reacting versus responding – In a difficult situation, start with taking a deep breath. By responding and not reacting, we’re moving from our primitive brain to an executive brain.
  • Share the responsibility  Take turns having someone on call if you’re a crisis organization. When dealing with negative people, remember you’re going home to your life, not theirs.

Learn to say NO

Just because you’re legally allowed to work 50-60 hours a week doesn’t mean you should. Saying no doesn’t make you a bad person; it makes you someone who knows your limits. Take charge of your own work/life balance. At the end of the day, you will never conquer your inbox.

Take your allotted vacation and actually “vacate” from work. Even if you can only afford, or prefer a “stay-cation,” make sure to stay away from work. No checking emails while gone. Make the day before you leave the office a prep-day without taking on new projects and don’t schedule anything for the day you return to catch up. Leaders must respect their staff’s time when they’re not in the office and must lead by example by not staying late themselves.

Don’t be a work martyr!

Understand that good self-care makes you a good provider. Talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to creating more work/life balance. Take steps toward changing policy and procedures to put wellness front and center as an integral component of your organization’s culture.

Talk to your board and staff about implementing a variety of work format options including flex-time, telecommuting and job sharing which can significantly boost morale. Consider making wellness plans part of each staff member’s performance measures. Your staff absenteeism, health care utilization costs and turnover may go down, while staff productivity will upswing. Start by putting your life vest on first so you don’t drown, and then your staff won’t drown and you can focus on keeping afloat the people, causes, and communities you serve. 

And think about leaving work on time tonight. 

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Yvette R. Murry (MSW, LCSW) is the president and CEO of YRM Consulting Group, LLC, a firm specializing in the areas of non-profit excellence, executive leadership, team engagement, cultural competence and community engagement. Yvette is also the chairperson of the Center for Non-Profits, New Jersey’s statewide umbrella organization for the charitable community.


Posted in Center for Nonprofits, Leadership, Nonprofit, Philanthropy, Technical Assistance | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment
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