Surveying the Field: Interviewing Benjamin J. Sessions

Written by Victoria Shadle

As part of Surveying the Field, I recently interviewed Benjamin Sessions, Executive Director of CIRCLES Salt Lake, a nonprofit working to alleviate poverty in their community. Benjamin was a unique guest in a few ways, he is the first active ED/CEO that I’ve spoken with and this position is his first in the nonprofit sector having made the switch roughly two years ago. Below is a recounting of our conversation and how he answered our four big-picture questions:

- What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about the nonprofit sector?

- If you could tell nonprofit volunteers, donors, or board members one thing — what would it be?

- What do you believe people think about working in the nonprofit sector, and how has that aligned with or challenged what you’ve experienced?

- What cultural or structural norms have you seen at individual nonprofits or the sector as a whole that you would like to see change?

One of the biggest misconceptions Benjamin sees about the nonprofit sector compared to the for-profit sector is the general assumption that working at nonprofits is easier or less intense. Benjamin was quick to add that now that he’s done both, he does not think that’s the case and this work is equally as challenging. From the standpoint of the staff leader, the work surrounding operations, payroll, HR, forecasting, strategy, and technology is very similar, especially compared to start-ups and small businesses. He’s also found the nonprofit landscape to be very competitive in regards to pitching to funders.

While the challenges may be slightly different, Benjamin has found working at a nonprofit to be just as difficult and time intensive as working in the private sector.

One perhaps surprising aspect about his transition to nonprofit work is that when Benjamin was exploring this path he faced resistance not from the corporate colleagues, but rather from those he sought advice from who already worked in the nonprofit sector. While no one explicitly said his skills wouldn’t transfer, he got the feeling from people in the sector that he needed to have a special skills or knowledge to go after philanthropic funding; in actuality, Benjamin found his sales skills to transfer easily and be incredibly valuable. While private industry might seem like a different beast, he found the sales cycle in the private sector to be very similar to fundraising in the nonprofit sector — both benefit from developing relationships, honesty, and integrity.

Despite many similarities, Benjamin’s experience in private industry left him bemused at some of the norms in the nonprofits sector when it comes to power dynamics with funders. He’s found that some donors will love what his organization is doing, send a check for $10,000 and trust the organization to do their best with it; while another funder might give $1,000 in gift cards and want quarterly reports and to jump in to tweak things if they see something they don’t appreciate with how the staff is managing times.

“If the nonprofit is doing a great job. . . I don’t know why they require so much paperwork and the intensity of the management of the process.”

Benjamin shared that in the private sector it feels like businesses revolve around the product they’re producing, not the process — whereas in the nonprofit space it doesn’t always feel like all eyes are solely on the outcomes. Rather, organizations need to jump through hoops to continually prove their process for some funders who require frequent updates and have strict spending restrictions attached to funds.

Benjamin has been especially frustrated by funding restrictions on operations. He’s finding a lot of caps at 15%-20% for overhead and is asking himself how a nonprofit can be competitive, especially with private industry, with these restrictions on salary.

“What if I find a graduate that is phenomenal, their productivity is higher, they’re more able to operate and manage a program than someone else, and maybe it was 30%-40% of overhead to bring that person on as staff but it translates better and our outcomes are better? I don’t understand where this battle between 15% or 30% of overhead lies.”

Beyond these funding restrictions and disproportionate oversight, Benjamin would also like to see more giving directly from funders to smaller nonprofits, rather than going through pass-through donor-advised funds or larger community foundations as those larger nonprofits can take a substantial amount from the donation and have their own set of reporting requirements. He would like to see philanthropic funding resemble the model in the tech startup space — large unrestricted dollars thrown at up-and-coming new, innovative ideas. Benjamin sees this as both bringing in a healthy amount of competition, and breaking down some of the entrenched structures that currently exist.

The innovation potential is already there, organizations just needs the financial support to make it sustainable.

“Smaller nonprofits have to innovate, it’s do or die. I’m raising dollars, managing operations, doing some programming — if I’m not moving us forward, we’re moving into irrelevance.”

Benjamin reflected on the model of angel investors as a possible path forward. These funders can be very involved, but they give a significant chunk of money. He sees this as a sharp contrast to the major funders who are giving a large sum, but spread across so many nonprofits that it’s not enough to keep them from having to secure significant funds elsewhere.

Switching to advise volunteers and then board members, Benjamin shared that he loves the volunteers that take charge of their volunteer experience. While he doesn’t see this as just a nonprofit issue, he shared his organization constantly feels like they’re underresourced for the level of need they see. This scarcity of resources means sometimes they’re not as good at managing the volunteer experience and so volunteers who step forward to be upfront about their level of commitment and really drive the relationship eases the burden for nonprofits.

For boards, Benjamin said it is important to have a board that trusts the CEO to do their job, giving them flexibility to make decisions knowing they have the greater good in mind. He’s lucky to have that type of relationship with his organization’s board and sees the value. Benjamin believes nonprofit leaders go into this line of work for reasons other than purely monetary compensation and boards should recognize that leaders will run into challenges, but they care about the work and ultimately — barring egregious misconduct — are doing the best they can for the long-term outcome of the organization.

When I asked Benjamin what we haven’t covered that he would like to share, he wanted to close by sharing his enthusiasm for this work.

“While there are lots of challenges, when you work in private industry for a large company you’re just one small piece of a large operation and don’t always get to see your work outcomes on a daily or weekly basis. Here, we constantly hear stories from participants about how we’ve dramatically shifted their lives.”

This proximity to constituents and the real-life implications of his work keeps Benjamin going and inspired to persevere any challenges that arise.

Thank you to Benjamin for your transparency in sharing your story and your optimism for this work! To hear how others like Therese, a nonprofit consultant from the Bay Area with 20+ years in the field, responded to these questions, check out her interview, linked below, along with all of The Nonprofit Collective Blog posts here.

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