Michigan nonprofits: Where are we now? MNA's new president and CEO has her finger on the pulseThe Nonprofit Journal Project

"We don't want our nonprofits to be thought of as a last resort, which is what often happens," says Kuhn. "There's this amazing infrastructure in the sector, that if leveraged, is efficient, effective, and understands the community, and its needs."
Kelley Kuhn
Through our reporting at the Nonprofit Journal Project, we're continually learning of the creativity, resiliency and commitment with which our region's nonprofits are serving their communities, all in the face of a pandemic.

Recently, Issue Media Group had a chance to chat with Kelley Kuhn, new president and CEO of Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA). Kuhn stepped into this role on Jan. 1, having previously served as MNA's vice president and twice as its interim president and CEO.

As leader of a 700-member statewide association, Kuhn shares her perspective here, on what challenges Michigan's nonprofits are facing, the work her team's doing to offer support, the perspective she brings to this new role and her thoughts on the sector's future.

Founded in 1990, MNA is a nonprofit itself, dedicated to strengthening Michigan's diverse nonprofits by promoting anti-racism and social justice. Its statewide membership achieves its mission through advocacy, training, technology services, and civic and community engagement.

Issue Media Group (IMG): To start, at a time when nonprofits are needing increased support, what are some of the benefits MNA offers?

Kelley Kuhn: The number one benefit is being a part of a larger network of other charitable organizations. You’re connecting with others who share interest in benefiting the community, and are having similar experiences in service, and in daily operations. Our advocacy and public policy work is also a huge benefit to nonprofits, especially during this time of COVID-19. MNA is currently advocating for a nonprofit relief program. We know there's been a lot of relief dollars allocated to small businesses, and rightly so, but there hasn't been a lot of support to nonprofits, whose needs are very similar.

GrantStation is a benefit our members recently ranked number one. Nonprofits can use this tool to access information around foundations and grant opportunities. We know how vital grant writing is to the revenue structures of nonprofits, and so we offer a way to broadly explore and connect with those who can support our member organizations' missions.

IMG: Can you share more about how MNA is advocating for nonprofit relief?

KK: There's a significant amount of ARPA dollars and other dollars that've been earmarked to support communities all over the country, and Michigan is no exception. We're advocating, with our state legislature in particular, that some of those dollars be allocated to support nonprofits through a nonprofit relief program.

We've been working very hard on this for over a year. We have bipartisan support with key legislators who are in important seats around decision-making for those ARPA dollars. The governor included it in her investment recommendations, as well. We're keeping our fingers crossed that as dollars continue to be designated to the community, this relief program is top of mind.

What does funding look like right now for our state’s nonprofits?

KK: Early in COVID-19, there were a lot of relief funds created within the community,
and some nonprofits, especially those who were providing basic needs to people, were able to benefit. We're not seeing as much emphasis on this now. Our data tells us that individual donations are down. Some nonprofits have seen 50% less donations than in years past. We’ve yet to see the economy begin to point downward, as we did during the Great Recession, but we're getting some indicators of that now. And when dollars are tight, or individuals who were donors become recipients of services, access to capital for our nonprofits becomes a concern.

What’s currently top of our minds, is how do we ready a sector that’s just beginning to adjust to life in a pandemic to potentially face additional economic impacts? There could be negative implications that go beyond COVID-19. We're concerned about what that will mean for nonprofits down the road, and how we prepare them to think about an even longer game than what the last two years have brought forward.

IMG: You've stepped into this position during a difficult time. What’s something you learned while leading alongside MNA's former president and CEO,  Donna Murray-Brown, that's serving you now? Also, what’s a uniquely Kelley perspective you bring to this role?

KK: Donna is often described as somebody who always makes people feel they belong. Watching, and leading with her side-by-side, something I took away, for sure, is that people matter. At the heart of anything, it's about the relationships you have with people. 

As for me, I often say, if you've experienced a nonprofit, you understand how impactful they can be. In my life, I've been a direct recipient of nonprofit services. I know they can change people’s lives in positive ways. There are many families who would go in a different direction if it weren't for the nonprofits who provide utility assistance, food security, scholarships and more. All over the state, nonprofits create access to what isn't otherwise accessible for people. Having others understand the important role they play in communities is really important to me, personally.

Can you tell us about the surveys you’ve been doing around BIPOC leadership, and what your goals are with these?

We've always been in the capacity building space, but we're beginning to understand, through things like the Detroit Nonprofit Leadership Census survey, and the statewide survey we've recently completed, where our BIPOC leaders are, how our boards are made up, and whether they're reflective of the communities we serve. More importantly, it's giving us an opportunity to lean into what our BIPOC leaders are looking for in the areas of capacity building, and to better understand barriers, such as access to resources, and the opportunity to network with other leaders, especially BIPOC leaders.

With both surveys, we have a commitment to do no harm. That's critically important. It’s also important to note that for Michigan, as it was for Detroit, this is the first survey of its kind. That achievement was the first goal. Another is to have a good data set that helps us understand our geographies a little better. Hopefully, this changes dialogue, planning, and future work that'll be put into understanding the support our nonprofits need.

It’s about creating a different narrative, as well as helping to inform decision-making, not just at the Association, but maybe decision-making in the communities where we have this information, on how they understand the makeup and needs of their community, and how it can better help nonprofits carry out their missions. We'll work again with Data Driven Detroit, and the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy to analyze that information, with a report likely coming out this summer.

You’re also conducting a Compensation & Benefits survey. What's the importance in that for nonprofits?

KK: Each day, we’re learning more and more about the impacts of the pandemic on the nonprofit workforce. In our organization, we have come to understand the needs of our own staff, and how important a benefit like a flexible work schedule has become. Our compensation and benefits survey is designed to collect data on compensation and benefits specifically for Michigan nonprofits, from Michigan nonprofits. Participating in this survey is critical, as we all want to better understand the impacts of the current workforce crisis. Having data from this resource will allow us to do regional benchmarks, which could continue to shed light on pay disparities, as well as help those seeking jobs understand compensation trends. The results are only as good as the data that is provided from the field, and we are strongly encouraging any nonprofit to complete the survey which has a deadline of June 6.  

The last two years have drastically changed the way many nonprofits operate. As we move into a new normal, what things are organizations carrying forward, and what are they leaving behind?

Many nonprofits are not going back to offices. They're centering the needs of their people first, and realizing they want flexibility and a work-life balance. In an already under-resourced sector, that can be a real positive. How amazing would it be to not pay rent and other overhead expenses? Some nonprofits do, however, need that physical space. Our data tells us most are moving to a hybrid model. But we may continue to see an interesting shift in operational structures, and in people feeling like they don't have to be inside an office to be effective, and to create change. 

The Great Resignation is rippling through the nonprofit sector. People are no longer able to say they're “mission-driven” when they can't make a living wage, afford childcare or attend any of their kid's soccer games. In response, some nonprofits are making permanent changes to invest in their people. This is the very best investment, because when your people are supported, and feel they belong, they pour into the mission. Mental health is also going to continue to be a huge issue. Nonprofit staff are carrying not only the burden of working in the capacity they do, but also the burdens of those they're serving, and the hardships they may be facing. We have to ensure that we've got the right benefits for people, including flexibility in the work schedule, and support services around employees’ mental, physical and spiritual well-being. 

When we spoke last summer, you wondered if, through the pandemic, we'd see an increased awareness of the vital role nonprofits play in communities? Has that happened?

If we only had two more hours to talk, because this is my jam right here. Maybe, but probably not. I think those who've found themselves in a situation where they've needed nonprofit services have an additional awareness about their importance. But with decision-makers, legislators and corporate leaders, there's still a gap in understanding how significant nonprofits are to the fabric of community. But, this excites me, because as president and CEO of MNA, my goal is to continue raising the profile of the important work nonprofits do in communities every day.

I often use this example: If your house catches on fire, the police and fire department arrive to put it out. That's government. You pay tax dollars for those services to exist. But what happens when you don't have a house to go back to? It's a nonprofit who provides you a place to stay, food and clothing, should you need it. When the pandemic hit, and people were no longer employed, it was your local nonprofit who mobilized working with your schools to make sure breakfasts and lunches went out, and there are hundreds of other examples that speak to the important ways nonprofits have responded to the needs of community during the pandemic. Nonprofits come and fill all these spaces naturally. 

And they are just as critical to the economy as small businesses, and as government. There has to be opportunities for us to be, not only a part of decisions, but also the action of helping to solve issues in our communities. We don't want our nonprofits to be thought of as a last resort, which is what often happens. There's this amazing infrastructure in the sector, that if leveraged, is efficient, effective, and understands the community, and its needs. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.


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