Navigating Choppy Waters While Leading with Integrity in the Charitable Sector

Published by on April 22, 2024

As I settle in to write this blog, there’s a knot of anxiety churning in my gut. Stepping into the charitable sector, I never imagined the waters would be this choppy. Amidst the politics, funding struggles, and constant complaints from people within the sector, I’ve still found some truly inspiring people. 

But, I’ll admit, scrolling through social media—especially LinkedIn—can be disheartening with those daily gut-wrenching posts. It’s a challenge to stay upbeat amidst it all. 

So, join me as I share my journey of trying to lead with integrity in the Canadian charitable sector’s often tumultuous seas.

My Life Before Cameras For Girls

I never set out to work in the Canadian charitable sector. Before starting my charity, Cameras For Girls, I worked as a mortgage broker for 5 years in the financial industry. Before that, I worked in the Toronto Film and Television industry, starting my way up from caterer to wardrobe assistant (my last film was American Psycho) to working as a production manager (mostly Canadian TV shows) to producing my own work and that of others. Between my two major gigs, I worked in the for-profit sector, mostly as a solopreneur, always and continually as a photographer, and later as a travel and tour operator. I was trying to find myself – and my purpose in life.

Throughout my various careers, I learned viable skills such as budgeting and scheduling, especially in my role as a production manager/producer. I also learned time management, financial planning, teamwork, and much more. All of these skills have been highly valuable in my current position as executive director of Cameras For Girls.

Working in the Charitable Sector – A Whole New World

But learning how to navigate the charity sector was something I did not have any previous skills in, especially when it came to fundraising. If somebody says fundraising is easy – they are lying!  Fundraising is a skill set I thought I knew, as I had to do this as a producer, but it is entirely different talking to somebody on the phone, asking them for money, and learning how to actually write “grant speak.” It’s an underrated skill; my hat goes off to these folks.

I never set out to work in the Canadian charitable sector. Before starting my charity, Cameras For Girls, I worked as a mortgage broker for 5 years in the financial industry.

To give you an idea of how little I knew when it came to fundraising, earlier in my journey, I joined a Canadian Fundraising Course, which was led by a woman with over 30 years in the industry. We met once per month to learn how to spread awareness of our organizations and how to effectively fundraise. She offered to fundraise for me, BUT I had to pay her a retainer of $48,000 – wtf! I would not need her if I had $48,000 at that time or anytime! I asked her what the guarantee of success was, and she said there was none! I think my jaw hit the floor – I quickly moved on to find other resources. More on that later, so keep reading.

Navigating the Storm of Social Media Posts

I hate being on social media (even though it’s a necessary evil), but in the midst of all the places to post about our work and ourselves, I have found comfort on LinkedIn. However, I don’t like going on LinkedIn and finding “influencers” in this space who have nothing better to do than rant. These social impact influencers can be hard for someone new to the sector to handle – they rarely share anything of value, and their posts can be disheartening about the state of nonprofits for someone looking to belong. Worst of all, they rant about the system but have no real suggestions on how to help support change in the sector.

And what about when they are friends? Can you or should you block them? I have not, and here’s why: I have something to learn from everyone—the positive and the negative. I might not agree with what they say, but our view is heavily biased if we silence them completely. I choose not to engage, not to like their posts, and/or not to comment.

We all know that social media, and sadly even LinkedIn, can be a space where people who don’t have another way to spread information can disseminate harmful rather than helpful information, which ultimately can affect your mental health.

Choose what you look at, what you comment on, what you share, and what you like – by not agreeing with them, you reduce the chance of their posts appearing on your feed. It’s all about the algorithm, baby!

Inspiring Figures in the Charitable Sphere

However, don’t lose heart—it’s not all negative. Early on in my career, I started researching people in the charitable sector—both in Canada and the US—and made a list. I started reaching out and making connections or seeing what others were positively reacting to, and I would like to do the same for you in this blog.

1. Tasha Van Vlack and David Norris of The Nonprofit Hive. I LOVE THIS COMMUNITY. Through 30-minute chats once per week, I have met amazing founders and executive directors worldwide, such as Ade Olowo, Roywaiye Olanrewaju, Jody Steinhauer, Karen Mitchell, and Angie Holzer, just to name a few.

2. Second, Jon McCoy and Becky Endicott from We Are For Good. I love reading and/or listening to podcasts about the charity/nonprofit space in my spare time. I found Jon and Becky in my research and reached out to Jon to share my feedback on LinkedIn. Not only was he gracious enough to respond, but he also invited me to be a guest on their podcast. That’s not the only reason I love these two. They have formed a community of like-minded people in the We Are For Good community who love to share – they are all in this community to spread kindness and goodness in their communities and across the world, and I am so grateful to be a part of it.

3. But there are so many amazing people spreading goodness, such as:

Kevin L. Brown – maximize your fundraising with great writing tips.

Jon DeLange – tips for Canadian charities in the mission-inspired space. While our initiative is not faith-based, I still think there’s much to learn from people in this space.

David Harstein – love love his tips to increase website copy, and recently thanks to David, I overhauled ours.

Sarah Hoshooley, from Connect For Good, has started a Canadian resource directory.

Sarah Ali works with Muslim-focused charities to help them fund their initiatives through smart digital media strategies.

Mark Petersen from Stronger Philanthropy is a godsend. He runs a great, closed, fee-based (very affordable) community for Canadian charities and acts like a matchmaker for grants with the Family Foundations he represents. It’s brilliant, and I am lucky to have found them.

Maryann Kerr and Katherine Smart—two amazing women who have supported, advised, and guided me from the very beginning of my journey.

Find the people who will support your journey and connect and follow them.  They will help you succeed.  

Building Resilience in Rough Seas Makes For Stronger Leaders

Lately, I have been hearing a lot about how people are leaving the charitable sector in droves, which made me wonder about the reason. The pundits all had their own views. Did it come down to being underpaid, undervalued, or burnt out, or is there something else going on?

There’s also been a lot of talk, especially since the pandemic, about self-care and stress management.

I’ll be the first to admit that self-care is not my strong suit. When fundraising does not go according to plan, I have a difficult discussion with a potential sponsor, or I do not get the result I was hoping for, I take it personally.

However, learning resilience is a key trait of leadership. While I don’t have a team YET, I keep reminding myself that if I burn out or lose hope, who will be there to right the ship? 

But resilience is not just self-care; it’s learning best practices in the charitable sector. It’s learning how to sustain your mission or pivot when necessary when funding has fallen through. It’s about learning all the ways to build partnerships and collaborations. That means looking outside our Canadian borders to Africa, as that is where our work takes place, and I am grateful for the amazing connections I have made in this space.  

It’s about cultivating a positive mindset—back to the previous comments, about getting tied into negativity—it’s your choice. There’s positivity and negativity in every sector. You can make a difference by treating others, both inside and outside of your network, and allowing others to treat you.

When things get tough, and they will, seek support from your peers, mentors, and advisors. They will help you through challenging times with their encouragement, guidance, and perspective.

Be an effective communicator—both with stakeholders and donors. The other day, I admitted I messed up with my donor. I apologized immediately, and she responded, “I love what you are doing, Amina. I know it’s not easy, so keep going.” That not only helped me learn from my failure in stewarding my donor but also showed that I have humility and make mistakes—we all do.

Finally, celebrate your successes. Even the small ones will make you resilient when shit hits the fan, as it inevitably will. Maintain your long-term perspective, and keep your eye on the ball, which is your mission and vision. Finally, lead by example – if you show resilience and perseverance, it gives grace to others to do the same.

Lessons Learned and Paths Forward

So, in closing, I still have a lot to learn as I venture down the choppy waters of the charitable sector, but here are some lessons I have learned and how I will continue to maintain my optimism against all the negativity I read about every day.

First, I want to stay positive. It’s not easy, as I already explained, but I have a choice. So do you! 

Second, I am a sharer, so I naturally look for others who share, whether it be advice, opportunities, or other ways. I love spreading grant opportunities with others. I am in too many WhatsApp groups, both locally and internationally, and when I come across a viable grant opportunity, I will share. I think too many times people hold things too close to the vest, with a scarcity mindset instead of an abundance mindset, and feel that there’s not enough to go around. There’s always a funder for you, so please do yourself and others a favour and share. It might not benefit you directly, but it does indirectly because you helped them get the funding to do their work, ultimately making our world a better place.

Third, I will keep learning. I love reading, listening to podcasts, and absorbing golden nuggets that can help me learn better practices in fundraising, leadership, development, and everything else that will make me a better leader in this sector.

I hope this blog inspires you to lead your way forward in a way that is comfortable for you—be your authentic self. The world needs you to be strong, resilient, and lead with purpose.

Amina Mohamed, Cameras for Girls

Amina Mohamed has always had a passion for photography. In 2018, Amina designed an initiative called Cameras For Girls to teach photography and business skills to women and girls in her home country of Uganda. She provides a camera to keep + a 4-phase skills-based curriculum for girls and wome who want to become journalists and photographers in male-dominated Africa but face gender-
based barriers to employment. She has taught 64 young women via an in-person workshop in Uganda, 15 in Tanzania as of recently, and 10 women online in South Africa during Covid, and 74% now have full-time jobs in journalism, photography, and communications-related jobs, but more importantly, they are
confident young women ready to take on challenges that define gender-inequality in this sector.

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