This blog post is part of our series getting to know the La Piana team. This week we spoke with Mike Allison, Senior Manager. Mike joined the firm in May 2016 and is based in Oakland, California.
Why did you decide to focus your career on the nonprofit sector?
I didn’t know the nonprofit sector existed, per se. Coming out of college, I just knew about the kinds of things in the world that bothered me, and I wanted to find a way to be part of addressing those things. I began working with a policy organization dealing with global hunger, but even though I found it compelling, it was hard to see much change occurring. I wrote to Pablo Eisenberg (this was when he was at the Center for Community Change) for advice, and knowing I was in Connecticut, he recommended I talk to a friend of his there. That’s how I got introduced to the field of community organizing at Hartford Areas Rally Together.
Working directly with people to bring about change in their own lives and communities really appealed to me, and we dealt with issues like tenants’ rights, public safety, and employment. Organizations like this can sometimes be unstable, though, and I worked under two different executive directors in as many years. At 25, I became the executive director. I did that for four years. It was a lot of fun, and we were able to grow the organization and do some good, but I’d also begun to see the limits of what neighborhood groups could accomplish in the face of such intractable economic forces. It got me wanting to learn more, so I pursued an MBA and got into organizational development — which is kind of like community organizing, but in an organization.
For me, it was a great fit: to bring similar skills to bear in helping organizations that work on such a range of issues that I care deeply about. That’s how I got on the track of not only being dedicated to the nonprofit sector — which I see as being one of the major forces for positive social change in the U.S. — but working as a consultant.
What did you learn from your experience as a community organizer about how social change really happens? Do the same lessons apply today, or have things changed?
I learned two fundamental lessons that I’m still completely guided by. One is that for organizations to do anything they need to be organized, and that has to do with how people work together. So helping people work together better is how I think of what organizational development work is largely about. The other lesson is that social change is a function of power…and shifting power. There are many ways of doing this, but it’s fundamentally about strategy: devising strategies that allow a given group of people to take advantage of the assets they have and to exploit opportunities or weaknesses in whatever system or situation they’re trying to change in a way that is successful.
What are your favorite types of consulting projects? What have you found most enjoyable about being a consultant to the sector?
The projects I really enjoy most are when people — the leadership especially, and enough of the rest of the organization — are on board with looking at both those things I mentioned earlier: how they work together and what their strategy is. Being able to engage with groups at the human level as well as at the strategic level — I love doing that.
I feel like some of the smartest, most ethical, and good human beings I’ve ever met choose to spend their careers in the nonprofit sector. And people who hang around the nonprofit sector for a while have to have a sense of humor — it’s the only way you can survive! So it’s being around smart, ethical people who have a good sense of humor, and that’s a good way to spend the day.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I have two daughters who are college-age and love spending time with them. I also do a lot of bicycle riding,. And I like backpacking and camping. I grew up on the east coast and camped a lot there, but I love the Sierras — their scale and grandeur…the mix of wide open mountains and the forest, lakes, and rivers. [Photo: Mike Allison, with his wife Jennifer Chapman, at the top of a 12,000-foot pass above Rae Lakes in Kings Canyon National Park.]
What do you see as the top challenges and/or opportunities facing the sector today?
I think something that’s both a challenge and opportunity — and an absolute imperative — is the wide realization that most of the issues nonprofits are working on can’t be addressed in the way they need to by a single organization. So I think it’s important for organizations to individually and collectively work on those two things: strategy, and how they work together. It’s an exciting area right now with a lot taking place, but it’s also really complex because you’re trying to engage in larger systems change and that’s hard work.
Do you see many organizations struggling with that shift to a systems-level perspective? What do you think are the elements of success in making that transition?
Increasingly, organizations that have a history of being organized and funded primarily to provide services are seeing a need and opportunity to play a greater role in policy and system change. I think every strategic plan I’ve done in the past few years with a service organization has included finding ways to strengthen their ability to play that second role. Some are reluctant to go there, but together the board and staff seem to inevitably come to the conclusion that they have a role to play. Especially the most effective service providers — they have a leadership role to play. They know a lot about the issues and communities they serve, so they have a huge contribution to make in terms of developing sound policy and advocating for change. There’s a credibility that comes, too, from actually doing the direct-service work as well as advocating for system change. They can go hand-in-hand very well.
It’s still really hard to get money from funders to do this work. Some foundations are on board with it, but more often organizations are using general operating funds. That said, you don’t have to have a dedicated policy staff or department to engage meaningfully in policy and system change. There are public hearings, task forces, a lot of venues in which staff wearing their regular service-delivery hats can be active as part of their job. So you can find ways to engage in system change without a ton of resources. Not to say that it’s easy, but it’s not all-or-nothing.
What advice would you give new and emerging nonprofit leaders?
One huge issue that’s societal, not just for nonprofits, is working in a much more multicultural environment — within your staff, your community, etc. So being aware, and doing the individual work to know more about yourself and to learn how to work well with people who are different from you, is just fundamental and really necessary.
There’s also a sea change that’s taken place over the last 15-20 years around accountability for results. And that’s a really good thing, but it requires major internal organizational change in terms of how you define the change you’re trying to bring about, gather data, and assess success. There’s also a lot more data available now about all different fields in which nonprofits work, so it’s possible to do benchmarking in a way that wasn’t possible before. But you have to have that awareness. It’s not just “What are we trying to do?” but “How well are we doing it?”
I’ve also been impressed by the growing creativity and willingness to look at different organizational structures, partnerships, strategies, and ways of engaging the people you’re trying to help. It’s sort of broken wide open, the ideas about leadership and organizational structure and who’s involved and who could be potential partners…there’s more complexity, but it opens the door to all kind of new possibilities. So the challenge to emerging leaders is to embrace the need for creativity and to be open to new ways of doing things.
Finally — and this is huge — there’s much more awareness of the need for self-care. The ethic I grew up with in the sector was, “If you’re not miserable, you’re not working hard enough,” and I think the younger generations are like, “F#*& that! I’ll go someplace else if that’s what you’re looking for.” And it’s not like they won’t work hard! It’s just that it’s not about martyring yourself; there’s no nobility in doing that, it’s stupid and it doesn’t work.
If you could have lunch with anyone, who would it be and why?
I would love to take a walk or have dinner with President Obama. I’m really inspired by him. I’d be very interested to ask him how he stays hopeful.
Is there a particular book or movie that has recently made an impact on you?
I’d say Malcom Gladwell’s latest: David and Goliath. I found it fun to read and really provocative, particularly on the issue of strategy.