After the Future Foundation had achieved a 100 percent success rate (seeing every one of their participants graduate high school, and 99 percent move on to post-secondary education), CEO Qaadirah Abdur-Rahim was pleased – but not satisfied. Rather than let success get in the way, Abdur-Rahim set out an entirely new strategy, launching an ambitious pilot aimed at no less than nation-wide poverty disruption. The results of that pilot recently won the Atlanta-based nonprofit a $4.5 million grant, ensuring five more years of research into the community-raising approach developed by one determined young nonprofit leader and her team.
In her opening address to the 2017 YNPN National Conference & Leaders Institute, Abdur-Rahim shared her methods for advancing the cause by embracing personal and professional growth. The following piece is based on that address.
Young leaders: We are living in the most extraordinary times. Technology and education are opening up new vistas, barriers to entry are lower, access to information is better than ever. The impact on business in America has been undeniable. What makes me truly excited is considering the impact this disruptive thinking can have in the nonprofit world: how one ripple can inspire another and another and another until it becomes a wave – a tide – of change, making the world a better place for generations to come.
The world needs us more than ever. Seize this moment: a time to create and build on the ripples you’ve created, and amplify the impact of opportunity.
Embrace continuous learning. Two years after founding Future Foundation, I had quadrupled the budget. That created amazing opportunity for impact, but also amazing business problems. I succeeded by embracing my curiosity about those problems: I went to Emory for my MBA, which helped me learn strategies to take our nonprofit to greater heights. Professional development opportunities should be on your priority list, and your team’s priority list, annually. If not, you will be left behind.
Collaborate often. Look for partners who do not do the things you do, or who do things better than you do. Unusual collaborations are taking place everywhere, and they are maximizing stakeholder value and experiences.
Challenge what you think you know. Poverty statistics haven’t changed in 50 years. So how do you disrupt the sector and challenge the possibilities? By surrounding yourself with networks that don’t look like yours. Immersing myself in other-industry learning networks enabled me to see what’s possible in the nonprofit world today. Good and challenging ideas come from working across sectors.
Disrupt yourself. Companies that don’t examine their surroundings don’t make it. Look at some of the companies that have been around for 50-plus years: It’s not the strong that survive, it’s those that are most adaptable. Just like a company, you must always examine how you are growing in relation to where you are now, personally and professionally.
Embrace your mentors. Build your “second family” by embracing your mentors, and embracing mentorship. Don’t be afraid to stand on the shoulders of giants: One of my mentors has encouraged me to go back to school, another has shared her network. But I have also learned just as much from my mentees – they help you think about how you do what you do.
Be resilient. They say failure teaches us more than success; that courage is grace under pressure; that when things are not going smoothly, those are the times you’re being tested. It’s true: This is when you will be forced to come up with solutions you never could have under normal circumstances. Don’t be afraid. Instead, ask a new question. Explore a new path. Think differently. Employ positive self-talk. And never give up on something you believe in deeply. I can tell you first-hand: It really works.
Be well. This work is hard. We cannot be an inspiration or lead change if we are not well. Establish a weekly routine that allows for physical activity and meditation. I don’t know if work-life balance is real, but I do know that such a routine has helped me become aware of when I’m pushing myself too hard, and the level of warmth and kindness I’m exhibiting as a leader. Above everything else I’ve said: Be well.
We are gathered here today as a second family, some of the greatest thinkers ready to change the world. Let’s bind the uncommon partners. Let’s discuss the ideas we are holding inside. Let’s rethink the 50-plus years of policies and strategies, and find the courage to do something different.
Qaadirah Abdur-Rahim is CEO of Future Foundation, which seeks to improve the life chances of youth through a five point, wrap-around strategy helping Atlanta-area families take the hard steps up and out of poverty. Find out more on their website, or by following them on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.