June 22, 2015

Influential Director Transformed a Training Ground for Young Leaders

Trav Williams/Broken Banjo Photography

Trish Tchume tells young activists not to wait till they've climbed the ladder to a nonprofit leadership position to work for big changes. "We need all hands on deck," she says.

Trish Tchume knows that the sense of urgency, even impatience, to create change that she and many other young nonprofit professionals bring to their work can rankle more senior colleagues.

She encourages it.

"We need all hands on deck," said Ms. Tchume. "The things that are happening right now are not only going to be addressed by executive directors. And they are not only going to be addressed by organizations."

Ms. Tchume, 37, modeled this attitude as the inaugural national director of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network. It may be one of her biggest legacies.

Ms. Tchume said Monday that she would step down from YNPN, as the association is commonly known, in December after what will be a little more than four years at its helm.

YNPN, which provides leadership training and other services for young nonprofit workers, grew from 27 loosely aligned groups to 42 strongly organized chapters under her leadership. She also orchestrated a subtle but meaningful shift in focus away from teaching the next generation the traditional, laborious routes to nonprofit C-Suite positions and toward emboldening young people to lead today.

A 50,000-strong farm team it is not.

"We will continue to prepare our members to lead organizations someday," she said. "They are so great that is eventually where they are going to end up. But we cannot keep them in a holding pattern until then."

Ms. Tchume said she timed her departure to make the job an "exciting proposition" for her successor. Most notably, YNPN National is rolling out a customer- and content-management system that will allow it to collect, analyze, and share detailed data about its roughly 50,000 members, among other functions.

A search is under way for Ms. Tchume’s replacement.

"We have a vast, totally vibrant network of the smartest, most creative, thoughtful and committed young people in the sector, and now we’ve actually got the infrastructure in place to do something with them," Ms. Tchume said. "That’s going to be the fun part for this next leader. We’ve built the bus. Now they get to figure out with the network where to take it."

Being Told ‘No’

The Young Nonprofit Professionals Network started as a single chapter in San Francisco in 1997. Within a few years, others sprang up in cities including New York, Washington, and Denver. Membership climbed steadily, a national board was formed, and the national organization was recognized as a 501(c)(3) in 2004.

Members described being attracted to the group in part after failing to find satisfying leadership opportunities at their jobs.

"At my work, I had ideas all the time and got told ‘no’ all the time," said Malcolm Furgol, who joined the Washington chapter of YNPN in 2008 while working at an education association.

At YNPN, members conceived and executed ideas without the constraints of the traditional nonprofit bureaucracy, Mr. Furgol and others said. They created networking events, professional-development workshops, and volunteer opportunities. Active members lent one another emotional support. They commiserated about tiny paychecks and out-of-touch bosses. Perhaps more than anything else, they bonded over a burning desire to have an impact on the world.

"I have always identified as someone who wants to have a social-change career," said Jamie Smith, who joined the Chicago chapter in 2009 and who now serves as the communications and network-engagement director for YNPN National. "In the nonprofit I was working for at the time, that wasn’t the way most of the people in the organization identified."

Fears Over Leadership

In the background were bubbling fears about the nonprofit sector’s leadership pipeline. In 2006, Bridge­span Group published a much-circulated report stating that nonprofits would need to hire 640,000 senior managers in the subsequent decade and could face a tough time doing so.

YNPN was seen by many as an antidote.

"Clearly people are going to be moving on, and you need to be paying attention to the pipeline," said Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. "You want people to be well prepared and well rounded."

The national organization began hosting an annual conference, and its board members were increasingly tapped to speak at conferences put on by other nonprofit groups. But as YNPN’s profile climbed, so, too, did the demands on its all-volunteer leaders. They squeezed YNPN work in between their day jobs and personal lives.

By the late 2000s, it was clear that if YNPN was going to successfully pursue strategic goals including building a database, publishing research, and developing a robust national voice, it needed a dedicated leader.

Big Footprint

Nonprofit work is in Trish Tchume’s blood, although she didn’t recognized it until well into adulthood. Her parents founded an organization for Ghanian immigrants, and it featured heavily in a childhood spent in the Philadelphia suburb of Willingboro, N.J.

Ms. Tchume’s leadership with YNPN has been long and her footprint large. She was hired by the YNPN national board — she was a board member at the time — as the first national director in September 2011. But she first became involved at the chapter level in Philadelphia not long after taking a job with ­ in 2004.

She, like many of her peers, was looking for a professional community. The city’s YNPN chapter was just forming, and she jumped in. Ms. Tchume helped establish a steering committee, hire a consultant to develop a board, and establish subcommittees. She and her colleagues started to build programming, including a low-cost multiweek course that prepares young people to serve on boards.

After speaking on emerging leadership at a YNPN national conference in 2006, she was approached by national board members and invited to join their ranks.

"She stood out," said Daniel Dobin, who has served both on both YNPN’s Washington chapter board and on the YNPN national board. "Trish was extremely conscious of the need for her team to be not only working well together but also to be extremely inclusive."

By 2011, the national board had secured grants from the American Express and Annie E. Casey foundations to bring on a full-time director. They had a number of applicants but hired Ms. Tchume.

It would have been easy, said Mr. Dobin and others, for her to focus on YNPN’s most active chapters in the biggest cities. She championed a different approach.

"She wanted to make sure that the resources, the tools, the networks that were being built in some of the more concentrated nonprofit areas were also being thought about in the less concentrated nonprofit areas," Mr. Dobin said.

Preparing and Inspiring

Under Ms. Tchume’s leadership, YNPN leaders said that the concepts of diversity and inclusion have been integrated into the core of their work.

"We talk about YNPN as a movement now," said Amber Cruz Mohring, a YNPN national board member. "I think that can totally be credited to Trish. She took this loosely affiliated group of chapters that were popping up in different places across the country and built this cohesive network that feels collectively like you are bigger than just yourself and your community."

She has also affirmed a sense of urgency for change that many young nonprofit professionals share. It’s an attitude that irritates some older leaders, those interviewed for this story said.

Still, Ms. Tchume and other YNPN leaders said that they want to prepare and inspire their members to lead from whatever position or job title they currently hold. They cite the recent work of young activists — much of it facilitated by technology tools — in places including Ferguson. Mo.

"We don’t have time to wait for the formal titles," Ms. Mohring said. "We don’t have time to wait for traditional structures to catch up with where things are moving. The issues that are facing our community require us to take action today and not 10 years from now."

Writing and Traveling

The time is right both for YNPN, and for her personally, to step down, Ms. Tchume said. She does not have another job lined up but hopes to write and possibly spend time in her parents’ native Ghana.

Ms. Tchume, whose salary was $73,500, according to YNPN’s 2013 Form 990, is the first to acknowledge that she is leaving behind a lot of unfinished business. YNPN is entirely grant-funded. Total revenue was $327,000 in 2013. The model is not sustainable, she said. Her successor will have to find new sources of revenue.

In addition to the director position, the organization has two staff members and five part-time fellows

Her tenure as director was heavily dedicated to developing YNPN’s technology infrastructure, she said, leaving limited time to forge partnerships with other networks and to expand the group’s national voice.

Still, she and others said the future is bright. Among other things, the new technology infrastructure is setting the stage.

"I think that our potential to be a voice for young nonprofit professionals, to be more effective in engaging members, to increase the services and support we are providing them is just going to increase exponentially," said Ms. Smith, the communications and network engagement director. "We are poised."

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.