Surveying the Field: Interviewing Erica Strother & Justin Spainhour-Roth

Erica Strother (left) and Justin Spainhour-Roth (right)

Written by Victoria Shadle

I recently spoke with Erica Strother and Justin Spainhour-Roth as part of Surveying the Field, the first series of The Nonprofit Collective Blog. For this series I’m individually interviewing 20 strangers in the nonprofit sector and asking everyone the same four big-picture questions.

Both Erica and Justin work in marketing — Erica as the AVP of Marketing and Public Relations for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio, and Justin as the Marketing Manager of Elm Street Cultural Arts Village in Woodstock, Georgia. Justin started as a seasonal/contract hire at his organization before joining the staff full-time a few years ago, and Erica has been working at nonprofits for the past 20 years, first in West Virginia before moving to Columbus, Ohio.

Keep reading to see how their thoughts about the sector aligned and differed in response to the same four questions.

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

Both Justin and Erica have found people not involved in the sector to not really understand the needs and difficulties of nonprofits. Justin sees a neutral ambivalence, with people assuming nonprofits are doing just fine, or at least well enough that they don’t feel compelled to get involved as a volunteer or donor.

“People don’t realize all of the work that goes into what nonprofits do and how much they add to a community — especially in arts and culture. It’s crazy to think what our community would be like if we didn’t have it, especially right now.” — Justin

Justin hopes the disruption the pandemic has caused for arts and culture organizations makes people appreciate the value of not just the arts, but community-based organizations of all kinds. He believes these organizations need help and community members need to come together and get involved now if the organization is going to continue to provide services for years to come.

Erica has spent nearly her whole career in the nonprofit sector, but it wasn’t until she moved from West Virginia to Columbus, Ohio that she noticed a difference in how people reacted when she said she works at nonprofits. In her new city she found people to be impressed when she shared her career path, people commented how amazing that was and told her she was doing great things.

While she’s heard friends in the sector comment on how people assume nonprofit employees are not as capable, don’t need to be paid well, or are volunteers — she hasn’t personally encountered those stereotypes.

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

Having worked at multiple nonprofits, Erica has seen both boards that are more of a figurehead for what the CEO wants and also active boards that are engaged and fully present in decision making. Her advice for board members is to be more like the latter.

“Be willing to contribute, roll your sleeves up and help out with the work. That’s what you’re there to do — it’s not just a resume builder, we need the man power, people to make connections and make sure the work gets done. Steer the nonprofit in the right direction, but also know that directions might change.” — Erica

Erica has spent the bulk of her career at organizations with massive volunteer bases where it’s not uncommon to have dedicated individuals spend over a decade with the organization; her main advice for volunteers is to keep at it! She’s also seen first-hand how the pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty around volunteering. Right now she sees that many people are feeling compelled to get more involved in their communities by volunteering, and at the same time organizations are unsure of how they can effectively use new volunteers.

“There is uncertainty. People want to give, and it’s important to find new and creative ways to plug volunteers into your organization.” — Erica

Erica has found that as long as people feel they are making an impact, they’re willing to give up their time to volunteer. If an organization can help individual volunteers see behind the scenes and share the impact of their work, they are going to be engaged and fulfilled.

Justin also lauded volunteers, especially having seen the impact they make at smaller organization like his where there are just a handful of full-time employees.

“We cannot do the work we do without the help of volunteers… we can’t do everything by ourselves, it would be impossible. We really do need all of the help from volunteers donating their time to board members and donors, even just advocacy and reaching out to peers to share what the organization does and why this organization needs to stay in the community and thrive.” — Justin

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

Justin believes there is a tendency for people to not see the long hours and large workloads nonprofit employees are managing — he’s seen some people think that nonprofit employees don’t do as much as for-profit workers. He’s certainly kept busy in his work and shared he supplements everyday tasks with webinars and other skill-building activities so that he can continue to learn and more effectively spread his organization’s mission.

Erica also talked about how nonprofit work is seen as lesser than work in the private sector, and her frustration with the backlash CEOs receive when critics argue their compensation is too high for a nonprofit leader. She also has an issue with funders who do not want to support general operating expenses while simultaneously asking for robust reporting on metrics. Erica sees this as especially difficult for social services nonprofits where they can track long-term outcomes for constituents after many years in a program, but it is harder to quantify in a short amount of time how meaningful a mentorship relationship is between a volunteer and student.

Erica has also seen funders ask for data that from the perspective of the staff, isn’t actually measuring their impact.

“Sometimes funders end up asking for things that aren’t really indicative of what you do… they want you to put a number to it, but what does that mean? You end up collecting data that doesn’t speak to the impact of your program.” — Erica

Erica also shared how in West Virginia there was one prominent institutional funder that encouraged local organizations to work together; by the end of her time there, nearly all successful funding proposals were joint proposals that combined the efforts and resources of multiple organizations. In Columbus though, there isn’t that level of collaboration. Erica speculates that many leaders feel confident their single means to an end is the best way and with the number of funders in the area, it’s possible to have many nonprofits with very similar missions all being funded.

“There are a whole lot of nonprofits, and a lot are duplicating services… when you have 1,300 organizations and some are doing the same things wouldn’t it be better to collaborate? When it comes to fixing our society, you have to have collaboration — everyone has to focus on the end goal.” — Erica

Erica would like to see more nonprofits working together. She knows leaders have different theories on which path will lead to a single desired impact, but believes there is likely more to be learned and gained by working together and merging paths than each going about it on their own.

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

Another positive trend Erica has seen is organizations encouraging employees to bring their whole selves to work and form real relationships with colleagues. She’s been impressed by how her current CEO has continued to keep that as a focus for senior leadership at her organization, despite all of the pressures and urgency of the past six month.

Erica also wants to see technology for nonprofits become more affordable, and truly effective. She doesn’t just want a parsed down version of technology built for for-profit companies, but solutions with the tools nonprofits really need to do their job well — not just do their job. This lack of sophisticated technology is compounded by funding restraints.

“No one wants to fund an app, but an app would make volunteering so much easier. I hate that for the sector it’s so difficult to get funding for technology.” — Erica

Despite the challenges, Erica is thankful to have found the path that she did working in the nonprofit sector and enjoys being mission-driven in her day-to-day work.

Justin is also happy to be part of this community and inspired by the future of what this sector can do. From his perspective at an arts and culture organization, he’s looking for nonprofits to really embrace the digital medium. They’ve had no choice since March, but he thinks this imperative isn’t going to go away and they need to embrace the digital era.

He also wants to see organizations continue to focus on making their work and workplace inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible. Justin has seen organizations have a wake-up call over the past few months and wants to see them continue to come to terms with the inequities, conscious or not, that they perpetuate. He calls on nonprofits to take a hard look at what they are espousing through their programs and the makeup of their board, staff, and volunteers.

“People are taking a hard look and saying we need to do better and we will do better. It starts by embracing that being inclusive and diverse isn’t just talking the talk, but requires walking the walk.” — Justin

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Thank you to Erica and Justin for sharing your candid thoughts on the sector! To hear how others like consultants Medha and Staci answered these questions, check out our blog post below. To learn more about The Nonprofit Collective Blog, you can find our other posts here and follow along on Facebook and Twitter.

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