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(00:48): Hello everyone. Welcome to our second month of NetIP Spotlight: Live Your Potential where we invite guest experts to speak on a variety of trending topics that matter to you. I’m Jasbina Ahluwalia, your host. I want to warmly welcome you to our show this evening.
Today’s guest speaker is Deepa Iyer, former Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, SAALT. Today, Deepa will be sharing with us her insider perspective on leading and working at non-profits. I’d love to introduce Deepa. Deepa has been a civil and immigrant rights advocate for 16 years.
An immigrant who moved to the US when she was 12, Deepa has devoted her professional career to research analysis and advocacy on issues such as race and race relations, immigration, the post-9-11 environment, language rights and access, census, political participation and voting rights. Prior to her nine-year tenure at SAALT, she served as the Legal Director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, Trial Attorney at the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice and Staff Attorney at the Asian American Justice Center.
Deepa’s writing has been featured in the New York Times, the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Detroit Free Press and Huffington Post. She served as Guest Editor of Field Notes from the 9-11 Moment, an academic journal, and was the Executive Producer of a 26-minute documentary about hate violence, which has been screened at college campuses, conferences and film festivals.
She currently serves in a consulting role as SAALT’s Strategic Advisor, teaches at the University of Maryland and is at work on a book about the changing racial landscape in America. Thanks for joining us, Deepa.
(2:45): Thank you so much, Jasbina.
(2:49): I know everyone is busy these days, and I appreciate your investing time and joining us this evening. To give you a lay of the land, Deepa and I will be discussing her insights for about 20 minutes. After about 20 minutes of discussion between Deepa and myself, you will have the opportunity to ask Deepa any questions that the discussion may spark in you. With that said, let’s jump in.
Deepa, I’m sure our listeners will be fascinated by your story of building a non-profit from scratch. Please tell us about that.
(3:23): I’m so excited to join you and the NetIP community today. Thank you for having me this evening. As you mentioned when you were going through my bio, I’ve had a number of different jobs in the non-profit sector and the government sector. My entry point into non-profit work is an example of a lesson I learned in my mid-twenties. It’s always a good idea to take detours in your professional journey.
A detour is what led me to the non-profit sector to begin with when I was about 25. I had been following the straight path of going to college, followed by law school and working at a law firm. I realized that I wasn’t fully satisfied. I felt that something was amiss. I moved to DC for a job with an Asian American civil rights non-profit. I took a 50% pay cut. It was really the best detour I’ve ever taken, until the one I’m on right now, which I can tell you a little bit about as we keep talking. That’s really what jump-started my entry point into the non-profit sector.
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(4:27): From those different experiences, how did you go about building this non-profit from scratch?
(4:37): SAALT was created by a number of people all around the country in 2000. I was asked by the board at that time to join the board of directors of the organization. It was a very new organization. I was really excited to be on board. I asked if the organization could focus on an issue that was very dear to my heart at the time. That was around hate violence and the fact that South Asians were reporting very high incidents of hate violence, bullying and harassment.
That led me to work on a documentary around hate violence. Shortly thereafter, September 11th occurred. As you and the audience knows, it was a real watershed moment for the South Asian community in terms of the impact, backlash, bullying and profiling that South Asians, Sikhs, Muslims and others faced. At that point, SAALT took a stand in order to address the post-9-11 environment. We spent a number of years trying to raise money and build some credibility.
In 2004, the organization was able to hire its first staff, which was me. I still remember starting at SAALT in August of 2004. We were in a one-room windowless office in midtown Manhattan. When you opened the door, you would hit my desk. That’s how small it was. We were severely under-resourced, under-staffed and untested.
The board of directors, volunteers and myself had a concept and a vision. It was to create a progressive voice for South Asians at the national level and build meaningful relationships with community members and organizations around the country so that we could address issues like civil rights, immigration and other issues that we address now.
Building the non-profit had a couple of elements to it. One was a strong vision and idea of what it was that the non-profit would stand for. Second was to make sure that we were bringing into the non-profit people who could reach that vision and help us fulfill it, whether that meant staff, board members or volunteers. The third was to take risks to try to make sure that we were being creative in our thinking and alliances. We wanted to take risks that would end up paying off. Those were a few ways in which we began to build the non-profit in the early years.
(7:18): You bring up a lot of great points in terms of taking risks and building meaningful relationships. Of all of those, what were the greatest rewards? Looking back now on that whole experience, what were the greatest rewards of leading the non-profit? What do you look back on now and say, “Wow?”
(7:38): I always say that, being an executive director of a non-profit, there is no degree that you can get in it. There are no courses in it. There is no roadmap. There aren’t as many non-profit executive directors of our generation or our background and ethnicity. A lot of what I figured out as I went along was to really build the bridge while you walked down the bridge and try to learn from others as much as possible.
I learned a lot on the job. There were some things I was good at. I needed to learn the rest. I needed to hire and bring on people who could help me to make sure that we were moving in the right direction. Outside of that, even though there wasn’t a roadmap or set way of doing things, I found that my years working at SAALT were some of the most rewarding years I’ve ever had.
I think that’s because of a couple of reasons. I felt like I was aligned with my own personal purpose, or my calling. In the post-9-11 moment, I felt that it was a moment where I knew I had to use the privilege that I had in terms of my education and background in order to step in and try to lead in a community that was really being devastated in a lot of ways. The work was very personal to me. It was fulfilling.
A second reason was the community. For those in the audience who might be interested in working at a non-profit, I think that non-profit work is very community centered and people centered. I met different types of people that I met along the way, like community members.
I remember working with a group of workers who were walking all the way from New Orleans to Washington, DC in order to press for changes because they had been exploited in the workplace. I remember working with a number of undocumented students who were trying to get their education. These were the people, along with the people that I worked with day to day, who really made an impression on me.
The connection to purpose, people and issues that are important to me are what stand out in terms of the work that I did over the last nine years at SAALT.
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(10:14): Those are fascinating experiences. I’ll bet you have a lot of stories. Are there any anecdotes from those years?
(10:29): A few always stand out for me. In 2007, SAALT held our first national conference called the National South Asian Summit. It was the first time that we had about 150 people representing different South Asian organizations. Students, community leaders and professionals come together to talk about issues. How do we address civil rights? How do we address immigration? How do we address access to health?
I remember that first conference very well because it was put on by five people at SAALT. It was a conference that stands out to me because I felt, for the first time, that we were really building this beloved community, this community of people that were connected to each other, that wanted to create some sort of social change. There were moments in that summit that will always stand out for me.
Another moment that stands out was a meeting with President Obama that I was fortunate enough to be part of in May of 2013. He sat down for the first time at the White House with a group of national leaders representing Asian American organizations. I had been asked to facilitate that meeting with the President. Being across the table from him and being able to directly engage him on issues that affect South Asians and Asian Americans was definitely a moment of privilege and honor.
There is a third moment that stands out for me, which also solidifies for me what SAALT can do. I’m sure that you and the audience will remember the tragedy that happened at the gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in August of 2012. There was a white supremacist who came in and targeted that community of worshipers. I remember two pieces around that. One was being in Oak Creek a week or so after that incident had happened and being at the memorial service. I was feeling the depth of that tragedy on the community there, but also on so many people around the country.
Then there was a moment in Washington a few months later. I was standing with other organizations and allies as we held a press conference after a Congressional hearing on hate violence in the Senate and knowing that these are the issues that we need to stand up for. These are the people that we need to be advocating for. Those are a few moments that stand out for me in the nine years.
(13:13): Momentous. You mentioned a great visual of building a bridge and walking down the bridge at the same time. I imagine that there have been numerous challenges. Are there one or two challenges that are foremost in your mind in terms of your experiences leading SAALT?
(13:39): There are so many challenges. A lot of them are of my own doing or lack of skills. In many ways, it can be a lonely job. You feel that the buck stops with you. You have to be responsible for a range of decisions from hiring or firing people to raising money to making sure you’re communicating the organization’s interests properly to stakeholders.
There were some of those pieces that I was good at, and there were some that were very difficult for me. I think trying to round out my skill set and understanding what my blind spots were was a challenge. I think people expect you to know it all and multitask when you’re at that level. For me, it was understanding my blind spots and figuring out how I could ask for help. That was a challenge that I had to deal with and overcome time and again.
Another piece was that we often felt like we were constantly responding to external crises that were happening in our community, whether it was the Oak Creek tragedy, campaigns in the community that needed to be addressed, immigration or anti-immigrant laws around the country. There were always these sorts of crisis moments or external moments that we had to pivot and address.
That’s the other thing about non-profits. For those folks who are interested in working at a non-profit, I think you have to develop a work style that can be aligned to the culture of a non-profit. Those were some of the challenges that, being an executive director, come to mind for me.
(15:35): That’s very interesting. You mentioned at the outset your experience regarding taking risks and detours in your career. You mentioned a very diverse skill set. Do you have any guidance that you’d like to share with our listeners who are contemplating making a move or taking a risk and detour in their career?
(16:05): Yes. I’m a big believer in taking those detours in your professional journey. I think it’s important because it can take us out of our comfort zone and allow us to develop different types of skills, going beyond our blind spots, as I was talking about earlier with my own experience. It can really open us up to meeting people such as mentors and colleagues that we may not have otherwise. I think that if there is a possibility to take a detour, whether it’s a short one or long one like mine was, it’s important to challenge ourselves to do that.
I have a couple of thoughts around people who are interested in working at non-profits. For those who are thinking about working in the non-profit sector or making a switch to the non-profit sector, there are two pieces that I would point out to thrive. One is to understand and find your purpose or calling.
Non-profits, in many ways, are part of the “beyond me” sector. It is the sector where there is some sort of service that you might be providing or you’re trying to change the status quo. You’re trying to change a system. It’s very community and people centered. That’s why I call it “beyond me.” It’s a growing sector in our country in terms of the number of people that it employs.
There are about 2.5 million non-profits on the country today. It is employing more people than business or government since 2008. These are some facts from the Urban Institute. I get a lot of young people asking me, “How do I get into the non-profit sector?” One response that I always say is, “What’s your purpose? What’s your calling?” That’s usually connected to your values, your own experiences and what stirs up a fire inside your belly. What gets you excited? What are you ready to burn the midnight oil for?
For me, I grew up as an immigrant. I moved to Kentucky when I was 12. Those experiences of feeling, oftentimes, as an outsider, on the margins and not in the mainstream, even though I couldn’t really articulate it until I got older, those experiences really shaped my connection to community and led me to understand my purpose, which is to make sure that immigrants and people of color have equity and equality in this country. I think that finding that purpose and calling is important. You might not be able to articulate it in an elevator speech, but learning to understand the contours are very important.
The second piece of advice for those interested in thriving at non-profits is making sure that your work style really is connected to the culture of the non-profit sector. I’ve employed and supervised a lot of people in my tenure in the non-profit sector. I found that the people who thrive are the ones who tend to be very adaptable and very flexible. They are people who can go with the flow and shift when priorities, deadlines and needs shift at the non-profit. They are people who are okay with being in an environment that is often under-resourced. You’re ready to make your own copies. I think that having that sort of work style is a really good fit for the non-profit culture.
(19:51): Deepa, I’m wondering about our listeners who recognize in themselves that they may not have those work styles but they have a purpose. They feel a draw towards their purpose and calling. They want to contribute and support the non-profit sector in some way, but they’re not in a position to do so professionally. Do you have any guidance for those people who would like to contribute in some way?
(20:22): Yes. Not everyone can work at a non-profit for financial reasons. Not everyone feels that the culture is a good fit for them. There are so many ways that everyone can support the non-profit sector or organizations that you are personally connected to.
I’ll offer a couple of suggestions. One is to really think about taking on leadership at a non-profit in terms of becoming a board member. Becoming a board member is not something that one can do just because they’re interested. There are a number of skill sets that non-profits are often looking for, usually people who understand finances and budgets. They look for people who are ready to go out there and fundraise as well as people who might have some skills related to communications or social media. Those are all types of skill sets that many listeners might have that a non-profit would really like to have on their board of directors. That’s one way.
If you’re not interested in being on the board or you don’t have that much time to commit, the second way is to support non-profits with your financial donations. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is to a non-profit. I know that at SAALT, for example, we really rely on our own community to support us. Even if we raise money from foundations or corporations, for us, it was always important that the South Asian community supported us, because we were and are a South Asian organization.
Whether that is allocating a certain amount every year that you’re going to give away or a certain amount every month that you’re going to make a donation to a non-profit of your choice. Thinking about that deliberately and understanding how your values are connected to the organizations you support can make a world of difference for a non-profit and also in your own life, to know that you’re putting your money where your values are.
A third way is to identify what sort of skills you might have and offer those skills to a non-profit organization. We’ve had a lot of luck at SAALT in that way. For example, lawyers at corporate law firms came to us and said, “We’re really interested in SAALT documenting the barriers that South Asians face who are running for elected office.” We thought, “That sounds like a great idea.” We asked them, these volunteers, to start us off and they did.
It led us to putting out a national report a few years ago on xenophobia in political discourse, which was cited and used heavily by media, other non-profit organizations and stakeholders. An idea like that can actually help out a non-profit quite a bit in terms of expanding their scope of work.
Don’t be afraid to go to a non-profit event and talk to the executive director or staff and say, “I’m interested. These are the sorts of skills that I have.” I think it always helps a non-profit when you can tell us what you’re interested in rather than saying, “What can I do?” People who come up with ideas or direction, it always helps us on the non-profit side of things be able to plug you in properly and appropriately to the type of work that we do.
(23:49): I could keep asking you a million questions with your wealth of experience and your enthusiasm. I appreciate you sharing your insights with us, Deepa. I’d love to open up questions so that our listeners can also ask a question. I’m wondering if you have any last thoughts or messages that you’d like to share with our listeners before we jump into Q&A. I’m sure they’d love to hear how they can connect with you as well.
(24:18): I’ll leave you with three things. One is that I hope that folks will check out SAALT. The website is www.SAALT.org. We have a wonderful new executive director who just started, Suman Raghunathan, and an amazing staff of people. I hope you’ll check out the organization and think about ways that you might want to get engaged with our work and programs. When you’re on that website, you’ll also see a list of our partner organizations all around the country. They might be located where you are.
If you’re in Atlanta, there is a great organization by the name of Raksha. If you’re in Los Angeles, there is another organization by the name of the South Asian Network. If you’re in Chicago, there is the Indo-American Center. These are all groups that are in your backyard that you could play a role with and support. I hope that you will check out SAALT, our partners and figure out how you can play a role in supporting us and the community.
Secondly, if you are interested in the non-profit sector, please feel free to reach out to me, other mentors and people who really want you to join us. We need more folks with high energy, dedicated, interested people who want to commit to these different causes in the sector. To the extent that you can reach out to many of us, I know that there are people who would be willing to give you advice and sit down with you for informational interviews. Please feel free to reach out to non-profit staff so that you can get an in with them.
In terms of reaching me, I would love folks to follow me on my website. It’s www.DeepaIyer.me. On that website, there is a way to contact me. You can also follow some of the writing that I’m doing right now. I’m looking at our shifting American racial landscape, how we’re quickly becoming a minority/majority country. I’m looking at what that means for South Asian Americans in particular. I hope that folks follow me on Twitter and the website so that you can stay connected to me.
(26:35): That’s excellent. Thanks, Deepa. Everyone, now is your chance to ask Deepa any questions that may have come up for you. If you have a question, please press “1” and we’ll get to as many questions as we can in the next few minutes. When I take your call, feel free to share your first name if you’d like or just launch into your question. Let me start with the first question. Welcome, and please ask Deepa your question.
(27:16): Jasbina, thank you. Deepa, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. I do work for two non-profits during my free time. You mentioned the idea of having to know it all when you are launching a non-profit. Would you please provide us with some advice regarding how to achieve that level, especially when you are speaking with sponsors or folks who are interested in working for your non-profit?
(27:47): I think that when you’re launching or starting a non-profit, you’re not going to be able to know it all. I think that’s okay. Know what your skill sets are, if you’re the one starting it off, or what your blind spots are, for example. There are a couple of things that I would say for people who are interested in launching one on their own.
First, be really clear about your mission and vision. What does it mean that your non-profit actually exists for your community? What will the community look like if your non-profit is successful? Really thinking about what the mission and vision is will be so important.
Secondly, be able to articulate that. You need to be able to do that elevator speech that I talked about. You can very quickly communicate your vision to other people, whether they are sponsors or stakeholders in other ways. You want to make sure that people connect to what you’re talking about, can understand what your non-profit is and what it does.
The third thing is to build a community of supporters who are going to help you in different ways to launch your non-profit, whether that is to support it financially, to publicize it or to draw others into the non-profit community. You’re trying to build that non-profit’s community.
Those are three suggestions that I would have for anyone who is thinking about launching or starting a non-profit, which, in this day and age is not an easy task. Certainly, I think if you have your mission and vision and you can articulate it, you can understand who your community is and build that community. You will definitely have success.
(29:38): Thank you.
(29:41): Let’s take our next question. Welcome, caller. Please feel free to ask your question.
(29:54): Hi, Deepa. This is Aditi. Thank you so much for joining us today. You have an amazing wealth of knowledge that really helped me understand non-profits better. I have a two-part question. One of them is mine and one we have on our Facebook event. You mentioned adapting your work style to be successful in non-profits. I wanted to find out more about what that would look like. How would one adapt their work style to be successful in a non-profit?
(30:26): I think it’s important to understand the culture of the non-profit first. Every non-profit is different, but there are some characteristics that all non-profits share, especially if they’re on the smaller end. Some of those characteristics are that it is usually a very rapidly changing environment. Things are moving very quickly. One would have to be able to be flexible and adapt to some of those changing priorities, timelines and needs. That’s one example of making sure that your work style will align with a small non-profit that tends to change very quickly because of the needs in the community.
A second one is to be really invested in trying to shape the culture of the non-profit. In a lot of non-profits, you will have directors that set the tone and culture. It’s really important that all staff, from entry level and onward, feel like they want to help to change the culture. They want to set a certain culture. For example, I was just talking to a director at a non-profit who said that it’s mandatory that everyone sit down around their conference room table and have lunch together.
Usually, we’re used to eating lunch in front of our computers, going out for lunch or skipping lunch. This non-profit really takes the time to make sure that everyone sits around the table. They don’t answer phone calls, check their emails or iPhones during that time. They use it as a time to connect. I think it was a staff member who had come up with this idea. Those are ways to help to change the tone and culture of the non-profit. That will be really important.
There are people who tend to be really interested in being around other people and create that sense of community. Those are some characteristics of people who I think thrive at non-profits and enjoy working at non-profits, especially the smaller and more under-resourced ones.
(32:36): Okay. That makes a lot of sense. You just answered the question of the person on Facebook. Alverna was asking, “Adapting work style is one thing, but how could you bring change about that could potentially benefit the non-profit?” You answered that about shaping the tone. Thank you for answering both of those questions.
(32:57): You’re welcome.
(32:59): Thank you, Deepa. Let’s go to our next caller. Welcome, caller. Go ahead and ask Deepa your question.
(33:09): Hi. Thanks, Jasbina. Hi, Deepa. My name is Ritu. I’m President of NetIP North America. A lot of what you were talking about today has been really insightful and great information. I have a two-fold question.
I know this question has been touched upon earlier, about people expecting you to know it all. What steps have you taken to cement the areas that you did need more of a foundation in?
The other aspect is with fundraising and sponsorships. You touched upon how non-profits need to focus on this as well. It’s a very difficult thing to do. You might be very excited for a cause, but how can you get other people, not only engaged in the cause, but willing to contribute to it?
(33:57): Those are really great questions. Thanks so much, Ritu. The first one was around the fact that you don’t know it all. How do you take steps to know more and cement that knowledge? One is to understand where the blind spots are first.
For example, for me, they were around understanding finances, budgets and cash flow. I was not as familiar with going through cash flow statements and making sense of them. The way that I cemented that knowledge was that I built a relationship with our accountant. I made sure that I spent a lot of time with her to understand how I could, not just analyze the statements I had in front of me about SAALT’s finances, but that I could speak about them, whether it was to our board or foundations. I could speak about them feeling confident.
In addition to learning from someone else, which is one way that we can cement skill sets, I also took classes. For those who are interested in non-profit work, there are many different organizations that offer these sorts of skills building classes in your own community. Whether it is the Foundation Center, which offers a range of classes, or a consortium of non-profits in your own backyard, there are classes that you can take in order to build that knowledge.
I think it’s also important to be okay with not knowing it all. I think that, in non-profits, often the executive director is expected to know everything. I think it’s important that we move away from that sort of leadership, which forces so much on one person’s shoulders.
This might be different for a CEO of a for-profit. In the non-profit sector, you don’t have as much support for an ED. It’s important to move away from the thought of, “They do need to know everything,” and create support structures so that an executive director can lean on other people at the organization or the board who can fill in some of the knowledge gaps that they have.
Your second question was around how to get people excited about your cause. I hear what you’re saying. You might be excited, as you said, but how do you get other folks excited? I’ve found a couple of ways to get people excited. You really have to speak to something that connects to them personally. I think that is the reason that people give.
When you think about who you give to, I’m sure that all of us give to organizations or causes where something about what that organization does touches our heart or reminds us of an experience that we’ve had. For a lot of the time that I worked at SAALT, I would think about this. How do I turn a program that we work on and make it something that someone would say, “I totally understand why this is important. I’m going to give.”
I’ll give you a quick example. One of the things that we started to do was to work on a leadership program for young people in the South Asian community to connect them to policy. How can they, as they are thinking about the work that they want to do in the community or in their lives, make sure that they understand how policy works in Washington?
As we were trying to raise money for that, I thought about how I could talk about emerging leaders in the South Asian community and connect that with other people’s experiences. As you were going through your leadership training, what would have helped you? Would it have helped you to be around a group of peers that you could have talked to? Would it have helped for you to get training on different ways that you could contribute? Thinking about how you can connect to a person’s own individual experience and get them to understand why it’s important to give is very important.
A second reason that I think people give is because they know other people in their own network who are giving. You can create a network of people and ambassadors who will say to their friends, “I’m giving to SAALT because of such-and-such reason. I’d like you to join me.” You’re finding ambassadors who really believe in your cause and will go out and reach others. Those are two ideas that we’ve used in the past at SAALT that have worked.
(38:56): Thank you, Deepa. The time has flown fast. Deepa, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure and a real learning experience.
(39:09): Thank you so much. I really appreciate having the opportunity to talk with all of you. I really hope that you will stay connected with me. Thanks to you, Jasbina, and NetIP for making this possible.
(39:20): It’s been a pleasure. Thanks, everyone, for joining us. In case you’ve joined us late or would like to share this show with people in your life, I’d like to remind you that a recording of today’s radio show will be sent out. I appreciate you hanging out with us. Make sure to join us for next month’s show. We hope you will all be joining us at the 23rd Annual NetIP Conference this Labor Day weekend in Atlanta. Have a great night, everyone. Take care.
What do you think?
Would you like to add to the insights shared by Deepa Iyer? What are your experiences leading & working at non-profits? Share your thoughts in the comments below.