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On Being Young in Philanthropy

Allie YeeAllie Yee is a fellow at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and an EPIP member. She responded to the EPIP summer challenge asking EPIP members to share the ways they are exercising leadership this summer.
This is Allie’s story. 

“I don’t know anything about nonprofit financials.”

That’s what I said to a program officer last summer when I started at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in North Carolina. After a month on the job and just three months out of undergrad, I was about to start my first grant cycle and felt completely unprepared to make judgments on which nonprofits to fund, much less assess their financial health with any sophistication. Thankfully, my first grant cycle consisted largely of shadowing program officers, so I skated by on just an introduction to the basics and an assurance to just use my common sense.

Still, I wanted to better understand this aspect of grantmaking, so I looked for opportunities to learn more about nonprofit financials. I read some guides and attended some trainings, including the session at the EPIP national conference last April led by Jessica Prue of the Nonprofit Finance Fund. Jessica’s presentation really made things click for me. Unlike other sessions I had been to, Jessica talked less about ratios and financial statements and more about the broader context of how nonprofits financed themselves. Where funds are coming from? What kind of restrictions are on them? How are they used to build the capacity and sustainability of the organization? Finally, I had a frame through which to make sense of the numbers and to think about how the foundation’s dollars impacted a nonprofit’s ability to function.

This summer, we brought on board a summer intern and a new fellow, neither of whom were familiar with nonprofit financials. I arranged a brief presentation to give them some context but prefaced it by saying, “I don’t know anything about nonprofit financials” because I felt I still hadn’t grasped all the complexities. I used this phrase again when I sent out a request for other staff to join us and lend their expertise during the session. Before beginning my presentation, I again found myself saying, “I don’t know anything about nonprofit financials.”

But that’s actually not true. I had been to a number of trainings on nonprofit financials and read books and materials since coming to the foundation. Before that, I had taken an introductory accounting course during my last semester of college. I had gone through two grant cycles and reviewed 72 grant applicants’ financial statements in the past year. These credentials do not an expert make, but to say that I did not know anything about nonprofit financials was false. I knew something about them—enough to be able to share with others who were newer to the work, anyway.

As a young—very young—professional in philanthropy, I often feel a tension between recognizing how much I still do not know, even being daunted by it at times, and taking ownership of what expertise I have. While it’s important to be humble and to honor the experience and expertise of established colleagues in the room, what this experience taught me was that I need to be intentional about finding and owning my voice in this work. In this and other settings, I have something unique to offer as a young person in the field. I can ask other staff to help me co-lead a session, which adds to the richness of the discussion because more perspectives are shared. As young, emerging leaders in this field, we can ask questions that others might not be able to ask, and we are not wedded to a certain way of doing things or to a particular legacy or reputation. We have the opportunity to be flexible, constantly building, learning, and connecting, and that can have a powerful effect on the people we are working for and those working around us.

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