Nonprofit Coffee Break: Tahir Atwater
In the Nonprofit Coffee Break video series, Nonprofit Connect CEO Luann Feehan sits down with a different nonprofit leader each month to chat about leadership, learning, and life over a cup of coffee. Tune in to each episode to learn from these leaders' experiences and challenges and help us highlight our sector as an important and vibrant part of our city.
Nonprofit Coffee Break is presented by FROST Media Group.
This month, we sit down with Tahir Atwater, Director of Donor and Volunteer Engagement at Jackson County CASA.
In one sentence, please describe who you are what you do.
I'm the Director of Donor and Volunteer Engagement for Jackson County CASA, meaning I'm tasked with building our Donor and Volunteer Base while ensuring Equity is apart of our growth strategy.
How did you get started working in the nonprofit sector?
I began as a Volunteer while working on the corporate side. I was never passionate about the work, only the paycheck. But I found my volunteering gave me more purpose and fulfillment than my 8-5 day job. My wife suggested I look into making a career switch so I reached out to a non-profit I'd been volunteering with for roughly 7 years and asked about entry level positions. Now I can say I'm passionate about the work. During that time, my work with youth also helped me focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives which really expanded my learning and personal connections to the work and world around me.
On what day did you feel proudest of your work?
You never go into this work with a goal or expectation of thanks. We're not saviors.
Sometimes though, you are met with gratitude and it always reminds you to be humble and continue forward. Just last year, a child I worked with years and years ago, randomly texted me one day to just say he was doing well and that he appreciated the time we spent together. I was surprised as I didn't think he remembered me but it was a good reminder that the work we do has an impact. That was enough for me.
"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." - Maya Angelou
What is the biggest challenge you face in your role?
The constant challenge is building equity into the expectations and operations of the non-profit space. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is a driving force behind everything I do and I try to advocate for those ideas in every space I'm in (personally and professionally). So the intersection of youth based non-profit work and the DEI space has become my focus for the last 11 years now. This is not transactional work. You have to be intentional about the relationships and opportunities you develop. You have to build equity into EVERY aspect of our work as Non-Profit professionals . Otherwise we create and uphold a savior mentality, where we center our jobs, donations, and volunteering at the heart of our mission instead of the very people and communities we sought to help in the first place.
What is a trend you see in the nonprofit community that excites you, or worries you, and why?
I've been happy to see some of the funders and foundations adjust their expectations and funding to meet the emergent needs amplified by COVID. It showed a humility and willingness to be of more service to the institutions and communities seeking support.
The challenge is ensuring the recent focus on Black Lives Matter and other social justice campaigns become a part of long term strategy and not a trendy band wagon. History tells us that more often than not, the energy around these tragedies can fade and the allies along with them. I hope non-profits are able to view the larger context of racial injustice as systemic and then pool resources to attack bad policies and practices upstream rather than focus on only the negative outcomes.
What is your advice for a new nonprofit professional?
Remember to see the communities and people you serve as human beings who are more than their circumstances. When you are discussing the work you do and/or the communities you serve, always pretend as if they are standing right next to you when you are speaking (or pretend as if they are reading what you write about them). Are you describing these communities with dignity or are you reducing them to a series of statistics? Are you discussing the larger social context that often lead to these situations or are you summing up a person's life by their hardship(s)? Everyone deserves dignity and you are fortunate enough to possibly help (NOT save) someone. Treat their stories with respect and center their voices as often as you can.
What is your go-to drink after a board meeting?
Sweet Tea (I never got a taste for alcohol believe it or not).
What is your favorite Nonprofit Connect resource?
I appreciate that there is a hub that makes connecting a little easier. I also like that nonprofit can have its own space and take pride in itself rather than constantly compare ourselves to corporate/for-profit partners. There's a since of strength that comes from being a in room or virtual space with strangers that are also focused on building/re-building our community into a more inclusive and equitable space.
What is your call to action?
For CASA: We are always looking for more supporters. You can sign up for one of our weekly info sessions to learn about becoming a CASA Volunteer, you can help with School/Holiday drives, or donate to our cause. We serve over 1,250 children annually who've shown tremendous resiliency and courage after being removed from their home due to abuse and/or neglect. So we hope more help people consider getting involved and lifting up that child's voice as they seek a safe permanent home. In general: Please find some cause that benefits people other than yourself or your network and get involved. Then be intentional about asking people to join you. Don't just talk about the work you do...directly ask someone you know, "Have you ever thought about getting involved with (fill in the blank)?" If you aren't asking direct questions, people assume someone else will do it. That goes for volunteering, donating, and standing up for the communities we serve.
Connect with Tahir
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