Nonprofit Learning Point: Helping boost RVA’s nonprofits for 20 years

The first organization in the nation to do what it does—make nonprofits better at achieving their goals.

When, in 1995, Nonprofit Learning Point began offering courses to help people in the nonprofit sector better themselves and their organizations, a 15-hour class cost just $25.

“We know that we were the only program of this type in the country,” said Rachel Douglas, Program Director1 of the program that provides professional development for nonprofit workers.” So I used to say, ‘Either we’re brilliant, or this is a really dumb idea.'”

Definitely the former.

For 20 years, NLP has helped people “do their jobs better, faster, more effectively, and efficiently,” Douglas said. To celebrate its history, NLP looks forward to even more community engagement and changing the way the nonprofit world looks in the future.

From two to 70 in two decades

The Community Foundation, a local organization that fosters empowerment across the region, saw an upswell of nonprofit activity in the early and mid-1990s. “The Community Foundation was seeing these grants come in and they saw the need the nonprofit sector had for some professional development,” Douglas said.

So The Community Foundation partnered with VCU’s Division of Community Engagement2 to offer the unheard of: two classes tailored to nonprofit workers that came with academic credit, which “enabled us to keep the cost of our classes really low3 so that it was accessible to nonprofit folks,” Douglas said. “The classes just filled up immediately. So they knew they were onto something.”

NLP now offers 70 classes spanning topics like communications, HR management, fund development, organizational development, and more. It also offers group and individual coaching for senior nonprofit leaders, as well as the Emerging Nonprofit Leaders Program.

NLP’s growth reflects that of Richmond’s nonprofit (or social) sector. “Nonprofits make up eight percent of jobs in the state, and we know that here in Richmond we have about 1,600 nonprofits,”4 Douglas said. “It’s a lot.”5

The NLP class enrollment and leadership program participation reflect the city’s diversity. “We have a lot of racial diversity and a lot of diversity in terms of education, anything from GEDs to PhDs,” she said, adding “Not a lot of gender diversity, but that’s sort of reflective of the sector in general.”

The represented nonprofits also vary. “We have everything from kitchen table nonprofits to $15 – $20 million organizations that are sending us folks,” she said. “We have folks who’ve always worked in the nonprofit sector, and then we have career switchers…we have board members who work in corporate who volunteer for nonprofits, and some people who are just dipping their toe in the water.”6

A sense of duty

Boosting growth in nonprofits, both locally and nationwide, is a feeling of responsibility, said Abbi Leinwand, Director of Development for the Partnership for Nonprofit Excellence.7

“There’s a lot of research about public service motivation, which has been primarily about working for the government,” she commented. “But with new generations, you’re seeing more of a nonprofit service motivation, a way to give back to their community and fulfill a sense of duty to their community.”

Rachel Douglas said a common misapprehension people outside the sector have about nonprofits is how those organizations run. “Nonprofits are businesses, and so you have to go and get incorporated. That process can be complex,” she said.

She says that a good idea or cause doesn’t necessarily require its own organization. Other avenues exist. “It’s not only about starting your own nonprofit, it’s looking around at what are some of the other nonprofits that are already in existence and saying, ‘Could my idea help them or fall under them’ or ‘Could this be a nice collaboration?’ instead of always just doing your own thing.”

What Douglas has seen in recent years, and what she expects will continue, are the “blurring of the lines” between businesses, governments, and nonprofits. Once they were three distinct, delineated states of mind. Now they’re bleeding into one another more and more. “There are a lot of businesses8 that do things that feel really good and are making wide social impact,” she said.

She hopes that these blurred lines lead to nonprofits joining regional partners making decisions that affect the area. “People naturally think of business and government as having a seat at the table when we’re looking at regional collaboration. But that nonprofit voice is super important, because I feel the nonprofit folks are the ones on the ground, doing the work to implement a lot of the priorities that come out of some of those regional task forces,” she says. “It would be great to be invited.”

Part of who we are

To celebrate its 20th anniversary, NLP will focus its next annual conference on the future of the social sector. “We wanted to do something big and exciting, so we’re going to do a TEDxNonprofit,” Douglas announces. “This is a chance to bring national and local folks together to specifically focus on what the next 20 years are going to look like.”

Douglas hopes discussions include “dismantling laws that have been on the books for a really long time that just aren’t applicable if we really want to move forward in a different way.”

Take the requirement that nonprofits must have a board of directors, which serve as a nonprofit’s governing body. Those on the board aren’t necessarily in tune with (and sometimes even aware of) their nonprofit’s mission. Yet they’re the ones who are legally and fiscally responsible for the organization. “Does that make sense?” Douglas asks. “To me it really doesn’t.”

So what does a more practical solution look like? “I have no idea,” she admits. “But I’d love to be a part of that conversation.”

No matter if or when archaic rules get taken off the books, NLP is still committed to helping the people that make nonprofits work. Abbi Leinwand believes local nonprofits, and the nation’s social sector at large, isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Just the nature of the American people in general is to be involved in their community and give back. I don’t think that’s going away,” Leinwand insists.

“That’s part of who we are as a nation.”


Photo courtesy of Nonprofit Learning Point

  1. After over six years of leading NLP, Douglas will become the executive director of Chrysalis Institute in early 2015. 
  2. By the end of 2014, NLP will have transitioned from a VCU partnership to a full Partnership for Nonprofit Excellence program. 
  3. NLP class prices are still affordable, although now based on a sliding scale
  4. Here’s the makeup of local nonprofit services, based on people who take use of NLP’s services: Health (21 percent); Personal development (21 percent); Youth (16 percent); Educational (15 percent); Community development (13 percent); Other (14 percent) 
  5. There are roughly 1.5 million nonprofits in the US. Roughly 1 million are classified as a 501c3. 
  6. For those new to the social sector, NLP offers “Nonprofit Organizations Crash Course” and “Starting a Nonprofit” classes. 
  7. The Partnership for Nonprofit Excellence is an umbrella organization that oversees four programs: Nonprofit Learning Point, HandsOn Greater Richmond, ConnectVA, and Organizational Solutions
  8. See how Mark Smith operates four local Midas franchises
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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