Skip to main content

Nonprofit governance isn’t easy, because it wasn’t designed to be. But with curiosity, and the right guidance, all Boards will be positioned to fuel their organizations towards meaningful social impact.

As we honor Black History Month at Cause Effective, our focus turns to the powerful legacy of sheroes like Phillis Wheatley, whose resilience and intellect challenge and inspire us to this day.

Cause Effective has introduced the Thrivability model to enhance our program and consulting services that we provide to nonprofit professionals and boards. The Thrivability framework is a nonprofit management practice that operates through five pillars to help organizations center diversity, equity and inclusion, and organizational collaboration as they work to raise awareness, engagement, and funding to achieve their missions.

Sonya Shields stepped into the role of Executive Director and President of Cause Effective in July. In this interview, she reflects on her journey to this role and the future of the organization and the nonprofit sector.

National Hispanic Heritage Month underscores the importance of representation and recognition. It acknowledges the enduring contributions of Hispanic and Latino individuals across various domains, including the arts, sciences, politics, and community leadership. Beyond the colorful parades and joyful events, this month serves as a catalyst for social justice and philanthropy. By acknowledging the past, addressing disparities, and uplifting the voices of Hispanics and Latinos, this celebration fosters a more equitable society for all.

At Cause Effective, we believe that the nonprofit sector must look at philanthropy through a wider lens. Philanthropy is not the purview of the wealthy; it’s for all of us. People from all walks of life engage in it and benefit from it every day, whether directly or indirectly, and they always have. During this Black Philanthropy Month and always, it is important to remember Madam C. J. Walker’s legacy and make a commitment to adapting her paradigm of giving for the future.

At Cause Effective, we believe that the nonprofit sector must look at philanthropy through a wider lens. Philanthropy is not the purview of the wealthy; it’s for all of us. People from all walks of life engage in it and benefit from it every day, whether directly or indirectly, and they always have. During this Black Philanthropy Month and always, it is important to remember Madam C. J. Walker’s legacy and make a commitment to adapting her paradigm of giving for the future.

On July 1, I became Cause Effective’s fourth Executive Director and President. A forty-year-old leading nonprofit capacity builder that has partnered with over 7,000 organizations to fuel social justice and human rights. I am the organization’s first leader of color, following Judy Levine, who held the position for sixteen years. Being a Black queer woman, to take the helm brings me tremendous pride. I’m especially energized to lead Cause Effective into this next chapter during a time of continued racial unrest in this country. I am fully embracing this position as an opportunity to center diversity, equity, and inclusion practices within every area of our work in partnership with the staff, Board, and stakeholders.

Today, as we reflect on the SCOTUS ruling on affirmative action, we remember Thurgood Marshall's words, "In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute." Our dedication to uplifting BIPOC leaders and challenging systemic biases remains unwavering. Stand with us. Help us build a world where equity, justice, and humanity are at the forefront.

The Board is very pleased to announce that Sonya Shields, a long-time nonprofit executive, will succeed Judy as Executive Director and President starting July 1. We are thrilled that Sonya, who currently serves as Senior Director of Strategy and Innovation, so expertly engaged in the rigorous selection process to emerge as the best candidate to lead the organization into the future. Sonya’s demonstrated leadership experience, proven innovation, and extraordinary passion for this work are precisely what is needed to advance the next phase of Cause Effective’s mission, vision, and strategy for growth. 

For the past several years, Cause Effective has highlighted Ida B. Wells in our workshop trainings because Wells was a forceful communications strategist and fundraiser. She saw communications as an essential tool to move social change. She understood the power in reporting the truth about the violence and discrimination that African Americans experienced at the hands of White supremacists.

I think deeply – and often – about my role in bringing about the world we want to live in. What I don’t think about as much is how to nurture the “we” in bringing about this vision. My sabbatical during the month of September was both a chance for me to re-charge – and an opportunity for the Cause Effective team to spread its wings. 

How often do we treat a Board of Directors as a collective entity – grouped by requirements, rules, expectations, and accountability? 

Three years ago, we launched the Cause Effective Fellows Program: Advancing Leaders of Color in Fundraising with the intention of strengthening a diverse pipeline of leaders in the nonprofit sector. As we come to the close of this year’s cohort of 16 dynamic development professionals, we have now worked with 41 Fellows at some of the most well-respected social justice and human rights nonprofits in the country.

As Black History Month comes to an end for 2022 and we launch into Women’s History Month, Cause Effective reflects on the complicated history of people of color and philanthropy. Inspired by the Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy during Jim Crow, Cause Effective will be dedicating space through our work to highlight our incredible clients. Most notably, we are reflecting on how they have been resourcing their communities. The rich history of identity-based philanthropy and fundraising, and female-led philanthropy, lives within these innovative, mission-driven, community centric organizations.

Imagine the last year and a half – with all we’ve experienced living through this unprecedented pandemic. Now imagine every time you saw or heard about a nonprofit organization in action -- providing emergency shelters, handing out groceries, pivoting to virtual learning, advocating for immigrant rights, and mental health care.  
Can you imagine this period in time without the lifesaving and life-transforming services that these nonprofits provide every day to people throughout the world? The nonprofit sector is, indeed, the epitome of care. 

Around the country this is the time of year when nonprofit organizations send fundraising appeals to their donors – current, lapsed, and prospects – asking for financial support for their mission and work. For some organizations this is a stressful period of the year. The pressure of bringing money in the door, particularly during a time when millions of people are still living through the continued negative impact of COVID…people are experiencing an increasing rise in prices to cover some of the most basic household necessities…organizations, institutions and businesses are navigating tricky personnel and financial challenges – the reality is, we are still living with so many unknowns. 

Cause Effective has partnered with dozens of organizations since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 to help them reexamine their vision, mission and strengthen their case for support. This strategic exercise is important for nonprofits to embrace as part of their practice – especially during difficult times like the time we are living in now. When world events have sparked political unrest and fueled division within communities, nonprofit staff members are sometimes not aligned to engage donors and funders. What has also made this time more demanding is the continued economic challenges of COVID on fundraising.  

In 2017, as part of a DEI discovery process for Cause Effective, our clients asked us to support them by addressing how structural racism plays out in fundraising. As a white executive director of an organization whose service has been deeply rooted in communities of color for almost 40 years, I heard their request. I resolved to embrace how Cause Effective in general, and myself in particular, could play an essential role in creating change. 

In 2018, I sat in my office and took a call from Judy Levine, Executive Director of Cause Effective.  She wanted to talk about my experience working in development as a Black woman. I was open to the interview as I had worked in the field for over twenty-five years. I wanted to be helpful to Cause Effective’s examination of issues around money, power and race through the eyes of seasoned development professionals. The questions from Judy ignited a lot of old emotion.

Cause Effective decries the recent anti-Asian hostility, within a centuries-old context. With anger and despair, we recognize, and call out against, the white supremacy and privilege that allow – in fact encourage – individuals to express their anger by taking up arms against an entire people.

Today Cause Effective joins with organizations around the world to honor International Women’s Day. Throughout the years Cause Effective has had the privilege of partnering with hundreds of women-led organizations that are committed to empowering women and girls in New York City and throughout the world. We are proud to celebrate this day to recognize the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.

As we approach Dr. Martin Luther King Holiday weekend, we are living at a time when our country just experienced a domestic terrorist attack on democracy. The images from the mob riot at the Capitol are horrifying and we are saddened by the volatile state of this country as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris prepare to take office.

In the week since the senseless murder of George Floyd, we have witnessed a range of intense emotions play out across the country. This painful time has led Cause Effective to re-examine how we can take greater accountability to address the inequalities and injustices that Black people experience, in order to work towards lasting social change and equity.

For the past year Cause Effective has been very proud to partner with Community Healthcare Network (CHN) to help them leverage their fundraising work to provide quality comprehensive healthcare to New Yorkers. As the pandemic hit New York and quickly began to affect the city’s most vulnerable citizens, CHN team did not hesitate to partner with the Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo to operate the Jamaica, Queens COVID Testing Site, one of five sites available to all New Yorkers.

Today, Cause Effective lifts up Trail Blazers as a great example of nonprofit resiliency! The executive leadership and board of directors met early on when they knew COVID-19 was becoming a real threat to the residents of New York City, New Jersey and to their program services. The Board of Directors and Executive Director convened a special Task Force that meets on a weekly basis to ensure the sustainability of the programs and staff. Furthermore, the full Board of Directors convenes every other week.

As the world continues to deal with the devastating impact of COVID-19, the leaders of many nonprofit organizations are making tough decisions that threaten the very core of their organization and whether it will be even in existence. There are many executive directors and boards of directors having to cut back programs and services, lay off staff and cutting salaries.

Cause Effective partners with hundreds of organizations each year that make a difference in communities throughout the Tri-State area. One of our nonprofit partners is Children of Promise, NYC (CPNYC) an organization that for ten years has provided after school programs and services to children and youth who have parents that are incarcerated. Like so many nonprofits, COVID19 has affected the ability for many organizations to serve the needs of some of the most vulnerable people in New York City.

We learned after 9/11, the crash of 2008 and Hurricane Sandy that the first steps in any crisis is not to jump into tactics, but to explore whether your organization’s internal culture and case for support are clear and inspiring to meet the challenge. Strengthening your culture and case for support not only prepares you to navigate this pandemic, but also positions you for success in the future.

There’s a lot being written about the nonprofit sector’s need to prepare for a changing of the guard of nonprofit leadership – generational, racial, cultural, demographic... But in the fundraising realm, so dependent on relationships, how might this leadership transfer impact how nonprofits are finding support, and who is raising money on their behalf?

It’s hard not to be riveted to the national political scene nowadays. When every day brings new twists and turns, it can feel like stepping back for even a few hours means missing a crucial development.

The dollars can be deceiving. As in: “Our Board give/get is $10,000 and most board members make that number.” Or: “Our board all gives quite generously.” What’s wrong with that picture? What’s wrong is what’s missing – the board as ambassadors.

The 2018 numbers are in: Giving to nonprofits is down, especially small and mid-sized gifts - and increasingly, mega gifts are carrying more of the load. Is this good – or bad? What does it mean for those of us on the front lines of relationship-based fundraising?

I’ve seen a couple of boards lately that are paralyzed by the materials paradox – they can’t get started going out and asking for money because their materials aren’t ready, and they’re running out of money and volunteer enthusiasm because they’re not going out and asking for money.

Put a group of fundraisers in a room and there’s likely to be some griping about how difficult it is to raise money, especially in these times. The political climate is diverting from our mission.