This article comes from the winter 2020 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly.
Transparency rules are embedded in the governance structures of the U.S. social sector, because nonprofits are tax-exempt organizations with missions of public social trust. Compliance with federal financial transparency and public accountability stipulations is a threshold requirement for U.S. nonprofits.1 Nonprofits operating in good faith strive to meet this legal and financial framework by acting and communicating honestly about the nature of their work and how they do the work.
But how might nonprofits practice transparency toward their primary internal constituency—i.e., the staff who daily carry out their missions? What might be some of their thinking around their obligations to their staff?
These questions have particular poignancy currently, as many nonprofits are facing existential challenges, navigating the pandemic, the heightened racial justice crisis, climate emergency, and the economic free fall all at the same time. Which nonprofits are looking out for the workers on the front lines of social mission work?
Knowing that organizations exist whose practices include centering worker interests, I sought to lift up their internal practices in order to demonstrate what is possible in terms of transparency and staff support at a time of crisis in the nonprofit world. I took a qualitative case studies approach, interviewing a small, representative group of three executive directors who were willing to put their stories “on record.”
The chief executives I interviewed work in human services and community development in the border region of San Diego County, worker advocacy in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, and capacity building in the greater Seattle area. Their stories, which include the personal journeys that led to their current positions and the organizational perspectives of their staff, provide intimate access to the framing for each organization’s programs and internal culture.
The forthrightness with which they shared with me the institutional push to do right by their staff is itself a model of transparency. The descriptions, by no means exhaustive of all that their organizations do, represent the executives’ viewpoints and provide snapshots of how these organizations are acting to support their staff during these challenging times.
CASE STUDY 1: Lisa Cuestas, Casa Familiar, San Ysidro, California
“I have worked for twenty years at Casa Familiar,” says CEO Lisa Cuestas. “I came originally as a volunteer. I had just moved to San Ysidro from Tucson, Arizona, with my husband, who took an Enterprise Rose Fellowship, and Casa was the LIHTC [Low-Income Housing Tax Credit] partner, the primary federal funding vehicle for subsidized rental housing. I didn’t know anyone, and Casa became an entry point. I became a youth coordinator for the teen center. I went through seven different roles before becoming the CEO. I was the COO for the previous CEO for seven years.”
Living Rooms at the Border: Representing Casa’s Mission
“It was challenging when I became the CEO, because we were cash poor after acquiring properties, and we were stabilizing through LIHTC projects. Living Rooms at the Border, a mixed-use [residential and commercial] project, was in planning for eighteen years and our first NMTC [New Market Tax Credit, another federal funding vehicle] project. We rescued a historic church, [and] incorporated a classroom space with UCSD [University of California, San Diego], to house some service spaces and ten housing units. It’s also a social enterprise training site. We secured financing because we identified a steady stream of revenue for the services.
“Casa was building projects again after not doing development for a while. We had board support and a good consultant. We wanted the Living Rooms project to be a reflection of Casa’s history for the past forty to fifty years. Everything we use to guide us in our mission and vision needed to be in this project: organizing and engaging residents, using arts and culture, environmental justice. The pieces helped define the role of that project in the community, doubling down on Casa Familiar’s mission.
“As the leading social service provider in a park-poor area, we got the support of donors and the PARC Foundation. The conversation can’t be just about affordable housing; it’s also about quality of life. The church is now a black box theater. Seniors, families, and couples live there. Baristas get training on site, and access to financial education and coaching.
“We heard that the rents were still too high as we were doing that project. This was frustrating, because we didn’t want to displace folks. The idea of using AMI [area median income, the midpoint of a region’s income distribution used to assess housing affordability] ruins everything when it comes to ‘real’ affordable housing. AMI for the City of San Diego is $60,000 to $70,000 for a family of four. San Ysidro’s AMI is $30,000-plus. No one is building [for folks making] 30 or 40 percent of AMI, because it doesn’t pencil out.”
The Journey to Do More
“We are looking at [developing a] community land trust as our next journey. How do you advocate for something better in a broken affordable housing system? The system of building affordable housing and pulling together financing doesn’t work.
“[In low-income communities, there are] new norms of individuals having to pay 40, 60, 70 percent of income toward rent. I question why we have to keep feeding support systems while health disparities widen. As a part of a coalition led by LISC [Local Initiatives Support Corporation] San Diego, we’re starting to look at how single-family zoning is a product of racial inequities and a clear evidence of redlining. As we were shutting down in the pandemic, we sent a letter to San Diego City Council.”
Casa Operation Post–Black Lives Matter Protests and COVID-19
“We said we have to be advocates and put it all forward, bec