My first entry-level job at a nonprofit as I grew my skills in the sector was with the team at Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly, a nonprofit dedicated to helping alleviate isolation among the elderly. I started out as an assistant in the programming department, and I still think of my time there as one of the most welcoming environments I have ever worked in.
Thanks in part to the series of transitions the organization was going through, over my time there I worked with a variety of departments. I was able to switch to full time when I transferred from the program office to the advancement office, and there I worked among some of the best fundraisers and grant writers in the country. Much like my time at the manufacturing company in California where I had my epic day alone, I was able to learn from my coworkers and colleagues, all of whom were so open and generous with their time and skills.
This set the foundation for Altered Esthetics’ early development work and would greatly inform my future work as well. The nonprofit owned a large building on Lake Street with offices upstairs and down, along with a big social room and adjoining kitchen on the main floor. I remember that kitchen so well. We’d use the space to prep for Thanksgiving dinners and other events hosted for elders and volunteers, along with the occasional staff parties. It was also in the kitchen where I received an exciting call from the IRS, notifying me about the approval of Altered Esthetics’ 501(c)(3) status. A long two-year process finally completed, I shed a few tears of joy as my colleague Emily gave me a big, congratulatory hug.
During this time I was taking classes on nonprofit management. I learned more about board governance, fundraising, and pretty much anything I could get my hands on. As I discovered more about this fascinating nonprofit world I also discovered Minnesota is a solid state for it and an industry leader in many ways. Altered Esthetics, in addition to being a community resource, was for me a safe space to practice this work. It was a good place to experiment with structures and deviate from the norm when we needed to.
Eventually I felt I had exhausted what I could learn from classes and workshops. I had implemented the new board structure at the gallery and wasn’t finding many resources on how I could improve that nontraditional role-based board structure. It became clear that I needed to do more intensive research, trying to find similar models and boards to learn from. The formal degree programs I found at that time were not what I was looking for, as most programs in nonprofit management involved traditional instruction in fundraising, governance, and programming. Never one to be satisfied with the status quo, I was looking for ways to evolve the traditional nonprofit model. Eventually I found myself in the Master of Liberal Studies program of the University of Minnesota, crafting a hybrid degree in innovation, communications, and nonprofit management.
I worked with John Moravec and Sudha Shetty, great mentors who encouraged me to do a thorough and philosophically vetted literature review to accompany my thesis. The literature review allowed me to explore the current research around nonprofits and board structures to see if there were current conversations around what seemed like the nonprofit abnormality I was trying to create. The premise of my thesis: a shared-power,role-based board structure is an exceptional alternative model, particularly for volunteer-driven nonprofit organizations. I used my research and a case study of Altered Esthetics’ structure to show that an alternative structure to hierarchy is possible and could be successful in practice as well as in theory.
I tried to make the most of my time at the University of Minnesota. The libraries at my fingertips were a resource for my insatiable quest for information at the time, giving access to all sorts of research. Doing an extensive and ambitious literature review under the guidance of my advisors allowed me to learn about the current conversation and how my work might contribute to it, both in theory and in subsequent practice. For those so inclined, the academic world boasts a fascinating amount of information on business structures and great ideas for communicating and organizing.
I finished my master’s degree in 2010. All the while, AlteredEsthetics’ model continued to roll. Around that time I was offered a position with the Northeast Community Development Corporation, which I gleefully accepted. A nonprofit neighborhood organization focused on economic development, the NECDC was going through its own intense transition and change. All this time, Altered Esthetics kept chugging along, at a rate of fourteen group exhibitions a year.
This post is adapted from It’s Never Going To Work: A Tale of Art and Nonprofits in the Minneapolis Community. Book includes illustrations by Athena Currier. ©2019 Jamie Schumacher.
It’s Never Going To Work is a light-hearted, illustrated book that offers real-life insights on founding a community space and nonprofit. It provides tools, tips, resources, and camaraderie to community organizers and anybody attempting something new.