Philly nonprofit exec is frustrated: Here's why

Diane Cornman-Levy is the new Executive Director of WOMEN'S WAY, a non-profit organization fighting for gender equality and justice. Photographed with the Joan of Arc statue on 25th Street and Kelly Drive, BRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff Photographer

Diane Cornman-Levy worked in nonprofits almost her entire career and led a bunch of them. Now she's the new executive director of Women's Way, which is, of course, a nonprofit. But, truth to tell, they frustrate her.

"I’ve been the executive director of three nonprofits and I’m very frustrated with it and I’ll tell you why," she said during our Executive Q & A interview published in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer. 

OK, tell me why.

One, a lot of the funders dictate the priorities, and sometimes they don’t connect with the people on the ground doing the work.  They determine how much money and the length of funding.  Then they oftentimes tell you what outcomes they want to see.  The funding is not in line with the outcomes they want to see.  It’s unrealistic.  They want everyone to measure and evaluate their outcomes, but there’s never any funding to help these organization do assessment and evaluation.  Then they want to take these to scale and have national models and they fund for one, two, and maybe three years.  Social change takes many years, and if they really want systemic change it’s multiple, multiple years.

Then, you get funding and you’re starting to just make progress from a funder and then [they say] `Oh, we changed our strategic focus.  We’re not going to do it.  We’re now going to fund this [other initiative]. '  So, when you’re just making headway, then these funders pull out.  We’re just learning what’s working and what’s not.  So, then you spend a lot of time constantly raising money. 

Isn’t it kind of a flavor-of-the-month scenario?

Yeah, it’s like a flavor-of-the-month and it comes a lot of times from the foundation’s families or someone like that. They say, `Oh, this is really cool.  Let’s do this.  This is really hot.  We’re going to do this, because we’re going to get more publicity, it will look good on our portfolio.'

So, there are two problems there.

The other problem is they’re not strategic partners a lot of times.  What I mean by that is they give the money and they want a report.  At Women's Way, we want to be strategic partners.  We want to be at the table with our grantees.  We want to listen them.  We want to learn together.  We want to help support them.   So, when we make investments, [we'll say], `Let’s help build capacity, whether it means bringing in other partners.  What are the trainings that they need?'  So, be really strategic partners on this, not just, `Here’s the money and give us a report.' We also want to promote learning.

What do you mean by promote learning?

Learning means you’re going to make mistakes and some things aren’t going to work.  In fact, some things might fail, but let’s learn from that and adjust and revise.  A lot of funders say, `Oh, you didn’t reach your outcomes.  OK, we’re not going to fund you again.'  At Women's Way, we’re here.  We’re here for the long-term.  We’re going to learn together.  Why didn’t that work?  Let’s learn from that and adjust and modify and reinvest dollars that we think are going to be more impactful and more effective.  So, we really want to foster a community of learning. This is all part of collective impact.  Learning then guides us in terms of how to reinvest dollars into the initiative.  So, it’s very fluid and dynamic and solutions emerge as we learn.  We don’t have predetermined solutions.

Isn't that risky? After all, don't people want to fund something that works? 

In traditional philanthropy, they’re not risk takers.  Period.  They’re just not, because it’s more about their image a lot of times.  I hate that.  They want to make an impact, but they’re very cautious.  We want to say, `We’re going to take risks here,' because really, to make change you have to take some risks, calculated risks.  That means we’re going to fail some.  Through that failure though, we’re going to learn.  And the whole idea of emerging solutions, versus pre-determined solutions -- we don’t know what’s really going to work until we have the players at the table.  We’re not talking about just different nonprofits coming together.  We’ve got to get government at the table, the private sector philanthropy and people affected by these issues talking.  I’ll tell you that really happens.  I did some prison reform work with this and I had three funders, foundations at the table, who had invested in prison reform.  They never talked to someone coming out of prison.  

As long as we're talking philanthropy, I have to ask you about your 990 -- that's the federal tax form that nonprofits have to file. I realize you are new on the job, having just started this year, but last year's 990 raises some questions. It looks like Women's Way is spending most of its money on administration and not as much on grants to the organizations it funds, such as Women Organized Against Rape, Women Against Abuse and the Women's Law Project.

Part of what happened with Women’s Way was one of the previous executive directors really started going off on advocacy. 

I noticed a big lobbying component.

But, that took them away from the other areas. 

Oh, I see. The advocacy/lobbying money comes out from the administration bucket, not from the grant making line item.

Right, because there’s separate money for grant making. The money  started focusing on building this whole staff around advocacy. Also, it’s very hard to drive money to support advocacy, and it really wasn’t the primary mission.  So, there was a mission drift that happened.  They kept hiring more people and they’re like, `We’re in the red here, guys.'  The community is like, `Well, what’s going on here?  You’re spending all this money on administration, but there’s less money going out to the community. '

That’s exactly what I noticed.   

What did they have, like nine or ten staff?  That was part of it.  It was a lot of administration.  So, they got rid of a lot of staff. We, literally, have three people here right now, [including] myself.  We’re going to keep it very lean right now.  We did hire two interns to help us, because there’s a lot of stuff we’re doing.  We really want to say the majority of our money should be getting it out to the community. 

But what about the advocacy work?

Instead of us doing it, support the organizations that are doing that and have the expertise, right? That’s not one of our primary roles and it won’t be.  What we can do is help those that are doing advocacy by collecting data, which we will be doing, and communicating and putting that into reports and things and helping them use that to build public will, and talk to legislators, and also being a connector.  So, we want to bring legislators to the table and say okay, these are the folks doing advocacy around reproductive healthcare and we will help be that connector.  That’s not a costly thing.  You don’t have to hire a whole staff to do that.