I wanted to write a blog about RLI and how my experience in grad school has shaped me as a nonprofit leader. People see little snippets of my life on Facebook and Instagram, and since I post like one thing a month at most, people get a rather vague picture of what I do. Some people think I spend all day in the metroparks catching bees, or roasting coffee and making chocolate-covered espresso beans. They think RLI is this weird nonprofit that is mixture of bees, coffee, missions trips, urban gardens, and ecology. Since I’ve been talking about RLI and asking people to be a part of our support team, I thought I should talk about how the things I’m doing in grad school help make a RLI a better nonprofit.
When we started RLI back in 2013 our team had dreams, vision, and passion. We knew we wanted to change the world. And when we got that letter from the IRS saying we were an official 501(c)3 nonprofit, we had the legal status to actually go out and do it. However, the one thing we lacked was experience and expertise in the functioning of nonprofit world. This is one of the primary reasons I decided to go to grad school. I wanted to learn about nonprofits, writing grants, international development, education, growing food, etc. Four years later, I’m still in grad school (almost done) and I’ve gained a lot of insight and met some really good people that influence the way I view nonprofits. So I wanted to share with you some of the ways my time in grad school as changed the way we do things at RLI.
What have I learned in the past four year of grad school?
1. Have a narrow focus. You find success when you have a narrow focus. Grad school is all about honing in on an excruciatingly narrow topic that nobody has researched. As an undergrad I took all those random classes that had nothing to do with my degree (i.e. history of jazz). My focus was insanely broad, and I learned a little bit about a lot of different topics. It’s kind of like when you go to a restaurant that has a 40 page menu, and you just know that the food is going to taste like ‘meh’. Grad school is the opposite. It’s like this restaurant in Brooklyn that only serves avocado-based foods. The menu is 1 page and every item contains avocados. And I think nonprofits benefit when they actually identify their focus. That’s why RLI has strategically narrowed our focus to 3 things: food, education, and health. Rather than do a bunch of stuff and be ‘meh’, we want to do a few things and do them right.
2. Ask questions. The most fundamental part about being a successful grad student is the ability to ask good questions. My job as a PhD student is to ask a lot of questions, and to design experiments so that I can answer those questions. I read a ton of papers so that I can get information to help me answer questions, and to learn what others have done to answer similar questions. Nonprofits are also in the business of asking and answering questions. Almost every nonprofit exist to address and solve the problem plaguing society, and the nonprofits that find success ask really good questions. Why do homeless people remain homeless after years of assistance? Why does 40% of the food we grow end up in the trash and not in the bellies of hungry people? Why does Africa remain the poorest continent when it has received the most aid over the past 50 years? We at RLI want to be continually asking questions, critiquing our methods, and ensuring that we do what we do well.
3. Set goals regularly. Throughout the majority of my undergrad, I was a major procrastinator. And I do admit that I would stay up all night writing papers for a few of my classes. But you can’t procrastinate your way to a PhD. I mean, when you have to write a 100+ page dissertation, it’s not really a one-night deal. Similarly, nonprofits shouldn’t expect to go from A to Z in a night. We set goals to keep us on track, and so we can tell all the cool people who support us that we’re using their money wisely.
4. Meet people who are different than you. Grad schools are filled with students from all over the world that have different cultural, religious, and home-life backgrounds. And these differences are encouraged and celebrated. It’s part of the experience of grad school. Nonprofits need this. We need to spend time listening and hanging out with the people we serve. That’s why we’ve been working in the same communities for 5 years. We don’t want to walk in with our agenda in order to do our thing. We want to first listen and hear from the people we serve. And then work with them to implement change.
5. Do your research. I’ve collected a ton of data on the diversity and health of bees across Northwest. I’ve collected around 50 species of bees, and I know super specific information about them. The exact coordinates where they were captured; the humidity and temperature the moment they were captured; the soil moisture and the species of flower they were pollinating; their exact weight and length and how much water was in their body the moment they were collected. Collecting good data is the reason I can analyze and make conclusions about what factors influence bees. We want to do the same thing at RLI. It’s so important for nonprofits to collect data on their programs so they can actually see if the programs are effective. Many nonprofits don’t. We want to collect good data so we can improve and be the best at what we do.
There are tons of other things I’ve learned about mentoring, teaching, dealing with conflict, failure, etc. While I’ve learned a lot of things in grad school, I’m excited to be done. To be able to devote all of my time to RLI and to working with communities to implement change.
Interested in hearing more? Some people have asked to read about some of the research I’ve done in the Toledo area. Send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I can send you some of the papers I’ve published in the past few years.
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