"Philanthropy will follow" Choose 180 shows that change begins within

"Philanthropy will follow" Choose 180 shows that change begins within

January 11, 2022
30 minutes

Sean Goode · Executive Director, Choose 180 | Just one conversation with Sean Goode makes previously sticky concepts seem obvious, possible, and right. As Sean would say, he focuses on possibilities instead of problems.


Sean Goode has a way of clearing up murky waters, idea-wise. Just one conversation with him makes previously sticky concepts seem obvious, possible, and right. As Sean would say, he focuses on possibilities instead of problems.

As the Executive Director of Choose 180, Sean's focus on transforming unjust systems led his organization to make an overdue-yet-unheard-of change in 2021: they moved to an organization-wide living wage policy. You heard that right; every employee at Choose 180 makes a living wage.

But rather than being a one-off problem-and-solution, Sean sees this as part of a larger journey toward justice. In this interview with Justin Wheeler, Funraise CEO and Co-founder, he points out that this step is exactly the type of injustice-busting action that his donors, engagement partners, and community are looking for—and they've stepped up to support Choose 180's choice.

Take a break and truly listen to what Sean is sharing in our conversation today. You'll walk away with clarity around his philosophy, "Philanthropy will follow" and the inspiration necessary to begin your own transformation.

Through Amplify Voices, Sean has a podcast of his own called (what else?) Possibilities Over Problems. Listen in as Sean exposes what success looks like in unorthodox ways.


Hello, I'm Justin Wheeler, and welcome to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit!

Sean Goode has a way of clearing up murky waters, idea-wise. Just one conversation with him makes previously sticky concepts seem obvious, possible, and right. As Sean would say, he focuses on possibilities instead of problems.

As the Executive Director of Choose 180, Sean's focus on transforming unjust systems led his organization to make an overdue-yet-unheard-of change in 2021: they moved to an organization-wide living wage policy. You heard that right; every employee at Choose 180 makes a living wage.

But rather than being a one-off problem-and-solution, Sean sees this as part of a larger journey toward justice. He points out that this step is exactly the type of injustice-busting action that his donors, engagement partners, and community are looking for—and they've stepped up to support Choose 180's choice.

Take a break and truly listen to what Sean is sharing in our conversation today. You'll walk away with clarity around his philosophy, "Philanthropy will follow" and the inspiration necessary to begin your own transformation.

Through Amplify Voices, Sean has a podcast of his own called (what else?) Possibilities Over Problems. Listen in as Sean exposes what success looks like in unorthodox ways.

Let's dive in!

Justin Wheeler Welcome back to Nonstop Nonprofit, I'm very excited for today's conversation with Sean Goode. He recently posted about a bold move that he's leading his nonprofit through. And before we jump into that conversation, which is going to deal with employer compensation and transparency, and paying a living wage, all of those good things. Sean, you run a fascinating organization doing important work. Can you tell us a little bit about your story and how you got involved in the work that you're doing today?

Sean Goode Yeah, certainly. So I started an organization called Choose 180, where we're actively working to transform systems of injustice while supporting the young people who are impacted by those systems. And it's deeply personal for me because my journey in this work began when I was six and at six, I visited my brother, who at the age of 13, was put into a kid jail until he was a 21 year old man. And that's the earliest memory I hold of my brother, and I don't have any new memories until I was 13. And fortunately for me, when he got released back into community, he showed up in my life at about the same time, I was beginning to demonstrate some of the same risky behaviors. But because he had lived through it, he could see it, recognized it and didn't make me wrong for it. In fact, he did something that was absolutely transformative. He saw me as a possibility and not a problem, even though my behavior was problematic, even though I was doing challenging things. He was able to see beyond that because he had lived through it and know that there was something redemptive there. And because of the impact he's had on my life, I've really committed the way that I serve in the way that I show up in the space to create those same opportunities for young people to be seen as a possibility and not a problem, regardless of the situations they may be growing up in the midst of.

Justin Wheeler Wow. Well, thank you. Thank you so much for sharing that. In regards to the organization, tell us a little bit more about the type of programs or the work, whether it's on the policy side, taking down systemic sort of, or addressing systemic racism and injustice in this space I can imagine, is incredibly challenging. And so talk to us a little bit about some of the key sort of areas of focus or anything that would be helpful for our supporters. A lot of individuals listening are not just from the nonprofit community, are donors, board members would love to kind of dig in a little bit more to do your guys' programs as well here.

Sean Goode Yeah, absolutely. So our work began about 10 years ago in partnership with our district attorney's office. And essentially, what happened at that time was our elected D.A. acknowledged the fact that the work they were doing wasn't truly supporting young people who are black and brown in our community. And in fact, it was failing them. And so he leaned in to a community leader named Doug Wheeler, and the two of them together co-created what at that time was called the 180 program. And in its infancy, what the work was was what's called a profiling diversion program. And essentially, what that means is this when young people live in neighborhoods that are overly policed, their behavior is criminalized. And typically, when that behaviors criminalize police, refer those young people to the prosecutor and the prosecutor to the courts. Because of our relationship with the district attorney, the young people would go from police to D.A., back to community so they could receive community instead of a criminal conviction and grace instead of guilt. And through that historical programming, we now serve young people aged 12 to 24 as an alternative to the criminal legal system where they participate in our programming. The charges get dismissed, and they have the opportunity to commit to a new direction for their life. And I'll tell you 90% of the young people who go through that programing don't return to the criminal legal system within 12 months of participating in our programming. And so it's demonstrated to have greater and more significant impact than the antiquated ways of prosecution that we've historically leaned on as a country. And from there, the work expanded. We started serving in schools as an alternative to the suspensions and expulsions, and that work has been transformative. And we grew from there and offer entrepreneurship programs, teach young people how to be advocates for systemic change and even support young people who have been impacted by gun violence to help reduce the likelihood that they in turn get caught up in gun violence as a victim or someone who's accused. And so on from a programmatic lens, those are the different places we serve. But I will tell you equally as significant is the work we do on the other side, which is to change the systems that cause the harm that necessitate the existence of our organization in the first place. And we partner closely with prosecutors, superintendents, law enforcement, people who are in these discretionary positions to co-create programmatic alternatives to lessen the need on those antiquated systemic practices and increase the desire for community-based alternatives to be present instead, which begins to alleviate that dynamic where young people, particularly black and brown young people get courtrooms and convictions before they get community and caring people who are really there to lead-in and see them develop as a possibility and not a problem.

Justin Wheeler Wow. So I'm sure you're you're proud of a lot of things that you've accomplished as a result of the work you're doing with the organization. What's one of the things that you're most proud of? And I'm sure it's evolving, right? This is not a challenge that gets solved overnight. But if you think about the work that you've done with your team, what's one of the two or three things that you're, that you think of that first comes to mind of something that you're incredibly proud of accomplishing as a result of the important work you all do?

Sean Goode Yeah. Well, I'll say, first and foremost, I'm really proud of our team and the way that we've served throughout this pandemic season and how as essential workers, they continue to show up every day and find new and innovative ways to accomplish our mission, regardless of the many barriers that manifested themselves as it did for any of us operating in the nonprofit space across the country. And I'll also say I'm incredibly proud of some of the legislative victories we've had. Most recently, we had an ordinance passed which requires young people to have access to a public defender before they acquiesce their rights to law enforcement so young people can now get expert advice from a vested adult who's interested in what's best for them before they surrender their rights and potentially criminalize themselves without the appropriate counsel. That's been pretty cool. We got that passed first locally, then regionally, then on a state level.

Justin Wheeler Wow.

Sean Goode I'll say another really cool win was we launched a program with some other nonprofit organizations last year called Restorative Community Pathways. And essentially, what we did was in partnership with the Prosecuting Attorney's Office, we co-created an off-ramp where it's 800 young people to no longer have to be processed through the courts at all, but immediately get access to community. And that's not just young people who have been accused of causing harm, but also young people who have been harmed. Like those types of system changes are the things that get me most excited because it's my very deep conviction that as a nonprofit organization, we only exist because suffering does. And so we should be steadfast, committed to eliminating that suffering and alleviating the need for our existence altogether. And so those are the things that really inspire me the most.

Justin Wheeler How do you, working on such a challenging topic, how do you stay inspired? How do you stay motivated to really keep pushing forward, especially if we look back, you know, I mean, over the last two years, just with the climate being at an all-time, sort of, the attention has definitely been there. But there's also been a lot of just things that have surfaced that have that have become even more challenging. So how does, how do you and your team stay motivated despite what's happening across the country to keep pushing forward?

Sean Goode Yeah. You know a couple of things. One of the principal values that we carry as an organization is to lift grace over guilt. And we believe that grace is the greatest agent for change that anyone can ever experience. And we watch that playout for the young people who engage in our programming. And we believe that grace, selectively applied, is favoritism. So what that means is we need to apply that same grace to our partners when they cause harm, as we do to the young people and our families when they've been harmed. Otherwise, we're just playing favorites and we're essentially doing the same thing that's been done historically and these very antiquated and harmful systems. And so I'll tell you that this foundation of grace is what continues to inspire us daily to know that that's always accessible because it's something we can always give.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Sean Goode The second thing I'll say is I am not persuaded that our journey that we're on, I call it this journey towards justice, is linear. That impact is measured by how far we travel along some sort of imaginary continuum. I believe justice is a place that we draw not to externally, but that we draw to within and that as we continue to reorient ourselves to the world around us and we become more just practitioners because we see what's possible, then the world around us will eventually get better. It is complicated, it's heavy and there is absolutely days where you see things happen, both locally and nationally that are disturbing and disheartening. At the end of it all, I know that for every one of those things we see, there's hundreds of moments that we don't see where something is happening that's moving us along and bringing us closer towards a more just place together.

Justin Wheeler Hmm. So it's that hope that perspective is very inspiring. You know, one of the things that you decided to do as a leader, and, you know, while most nonprofits during the pandemic were cutting back, cutting personnel, cutting programming, not necessarily sure how it was going to shake out in terms of funding and so forth. You went in a different direction and you decided to increase wages. Can you talk to us a little bit about the process you went through to bring your team to? I think what you call the living wage salary a minimum salary that would be paid to your team regardless of position. Can you talk to us a little bit about the decision-making that went into coming to the decision you guys landed on ultimately and just share with our listeners what the process look like to where you guys are at today?

Sean Goode Yeah, absolutely. So let me first start by saying that there were in our region, there's other nonprofit providers that have launched their organization from a place of wage equity. So I have some peers who do flat wages where the executive director makes the same as the person who's delivering programing. I have other friends who are peer organizations where it's where there's really minimal gap between those roles. And so when you start that way and you carry those values into the creation of your cause, it almost, it's an enviable position to be in.

Justin Wheeler Hmm.

Sean Goode And so as those peer organizations begin to create the standard regionally, for us, there was a desire that we began to lean in and consider what we can do as an organization because we absolutely were not built in that direction. I also say that the pandemic did a wonderful job exposing the shortcomings within our organization when we're able to convene together, be in space together when programing was happening in person and we weren't doing everything virtually. I will be honest, it covered a lot of our ills and a lot of our shortcomings because people were able to say, Well, you know, I may not make the most money, but man, I really love where I get to go to work every day, or I may not make what I think I should make, but look at the impact we're having in the lives of these young people. When we all had to go home and work virtually and we're sequestered in our own personal spaces, that became less obvious and that daily the daily reflection began to dissipate as people weren't actually in the space that we're in day in and day out together. And as a result, folks begin to think like, well, you know, I love what I do, and it's really hard to survive on the rate that I'm making. I really enjoy how we serve. But there's these other opportunities to show up and serve in other places that may not be as close to my community call. But man, I can really benefit from not having to worry about how I'm going to make rent or working the second job and slow. So slowly but surely, we had team members that begin to engage and talk to us and want to do something about their wage. And we heard enough of it that we decided to engage our board and a committee that we have on our board, our H.R. committee, and had them talk to our staff about developing a philosophy around compensation. We didn't want to make a whole bunch of one-time adjustments to the people who were speaking up the loudest. We wanted to come up with a comprehensive solution that would address a variety of different needs that we knew were present for those who were speaking up and those who weren't speaking up. But we're still experiencing that same tension. And so our H.R. committee convened, interviewed all of our staff members, our director team, spoke with me and there were several themes that resonated that were there were through lines with and one of them was, well how do we value folks who've lived experience and how do we value those with college degrees? What do we do there? Do we do merit rate increases? Do we do cost of living increases? Do we put caps on salary? If someone starts at this rate, does it only go up to a certain rate? Or do we take the cap off altogether so they could do the job that they love and continue to be able to grow and make more money as a result of that? All these different things came up. But at the base of it all was a call for a living wage, and we knew as an organization that there was so many more steps that needed to be taken. But first and foremost, people wanted this living wage thing to be addressed. And when I first heard about it, I said, Yeah, absolutely, I agree. And we work in a nonprofit space, so it kind of is what it is. You know, I'm regularly looking at regional comps and looking at our salary as it currently stood and was like, well, we're doing better than the average. And we, you know, have full medical, vision and dental. We have tuition reimbursement. We have, you know, we have a stipend we get for people to engage in self-care, right? So there's these different things we have built in. We're doing OK.

Justin Wheeler Right.

Sean Goode And because I grew up in a nonprofit space and I know what it feels like to make less than a living wage, I was persuaded into thinking that this trajectory of having to go from direct service to management to a director to executive director, like if you wanted to make money in nonprofits, that's just what you had to do.

Justin Wheeler Right.

Sean Goode And I felt comfortable with that until one of my team members really held me accountable and asked some very poignant questions around budget season that set this thing into motion and created the space that we're living in today.

Justin Wheeler And so from what I've read, it sounds like you've brought the minimum salary I think it was around $70,000, was what I read. It was like, this is the lowest an individual at the organization would make. Now the board was involved, which is amazing, and I think that's like a great use of ... We just recently had a conversation around sort of like the dos and don'ts of boards, and sounds like that was an exceptional way to utilize your team there. What about donors? Like, have you got have you seen any sort of like criticism around this move? Or have you gotten any pushback as a result of taking like this step? Or has it been overwhelmingly supportive across the board?

Sean Goode Yeah. From the people that lean into our cause... So let me first say that we sort of orient ourselves differently around philanthropy. We don't do donors in a way that historically nonprofits do donors. We really put everything under this lens of community engagement...

Justin Wheeler Okay.

Sean Goode And we work really hard at engaging our broader community and inviting them to lean in with their time, treasure or talent in ways that are personally meaningful to them. And so I think first and foremost, part of the reason why this hasn't been met with a lot of pushback is because the people who are engaged in our cause are engaged because they want to live in a more just world. And when they see that there's places where injustice is being upheld and they see us activating in a way that is counter to that injustice that's been historically in place, then they're all on board because that's what they signed up for, because they're making a commitment to Choose 180. And part of that commitment is being with us on this journey towards justice. And so we've actually had some of our foundation partners reach out and say, we love what it is you did. How can we help? I talked to some of the people who hold contracts with us, and we're beginning to have conversations about renegotiating those contracts to be able to reflect the living wage. Most people that I've spoken to have been really excited about it. The people who I've heard from that aren't nearly as excited aren't people who actually have served in the nonprofit space.

Justin Wheeler Mm-Hmm. Yep, those are the people are typically the loudest. And you know, I'm a huge proponent, actually, just got out of a board meeting last week where we were talking about freezing wages for for the entire team and, you know, comparing it to a sort of market trends. And in this particular case, you know, they were below average in many positions. And you know, I think like if you searching at, you know, an organization like yours or organization that's on the board of called Liberty in North Korea, I mean, the we need these people doing this job day in and day out. Like this is some of the most important work. It's way more important than, you know, some software company like Funraise or some shoe company like Nike like to sell more shoes, like we're actually changing the world for the better. These people should be the well-compensated should be taking care of. Stress should be eliminated. And so, you know, I love that the pushback you've gotten hasn't been from your own community, you know, from the individuals that are on your team that are supporting you. They see that, hey, like by becoming more just internally, it's going to make us a more powerful unit for change in our community. And I think, you know, from my perspective, I know that this article that I'm referring to, that I that it came across my desk, a lot of nonprofit leaders are looking at. A lot of nonprofits are asking themselves these questions of how do we get better at compensation pay equity across the board? Like, Where are we majorly sort of need to be corrected in this way? And so, you know, I think that the steps you've taken have made a pretty big impact and will continue to make a big impact in the nonprofit community. And so with the sort of increase in overhead, if you will, you know, I say that tongue in cheek because I think it's such a ridiculous way to measure any sort of nonprofit. Has this had any impact on sort of like the operating expenses of the budget? Has it created a new, you know, new sense of more funds are needed? How has this all sort of like, I guess, extrapolated to the bottom line, if you will like, how does this impact the organization? Is it going to be tough to sustain or do you feel confident that this is going to be a very sustainable model moving forward?

Sean Goode Yeah. Well, in next year's budget, it's going to add about $400,000 to what it is we need to identify. And some of that will be met by renegotiating contracts that we've held historically. Some of that's going to be by, you know, new grant, civil right and community members that will step up and lean in because they believe in the significance of wage equity. I'm not concerned about the sustainability of it. In fact, what I've been encouraging other nonprofit leaders that I've had the privilege to speak to over these past couple of weeks is that look, philanthropy will follow us. If we begin to say this is the living wage and we collectively begin to write grants and proposals that capture a living wage based upon where you are in the country. The philanthropy will follow. I know often the relationship is somewhat toxic, and it feels like it's the other way around like we need to go to the funder and prove to the funder that we're worthy of their dollars. And I think that not only is counterproductive, I think it's wrong. I believe wholeheartedly that if you do great work and you do it in a meaningful way and you choose to be in a relationship with the funder, that's transformational and not transactional that the two of you can journey together with purpose, and these adjustments simply make sense. I've yet to meet a founder that tells me that they want to perpetuate systemic injustice. I have not met that funder, and when that funder understands that by paying people below a living wage, they're simultaneously liberating someone with the right hand and limiting someone with the left. We can't continue to have that net-zero gain and then pretend like justice is being had. And so I'm excited for what this means both locally and nationally. And I'm confident that if nonprofit leaders begin to step up and step forward and champion this effort, that the funders will follow. They absolutely will.

Justin Wheeler That's such good words right there. I mean, I think a lot of leaders I talked to are worried about, you know, the way donors would respond if they increase sort of wages or increase overhead, whatever it might look like. You know, they're chasing the donors essentially in that regards. But I love what you said. I think it's it's so brilliant, you know, philanthropy will follow. I think we need to create the new trend in philanthropy. We, as nonprofit leaders, need to be like, this is the way forward and it's the just way. It is the right way. And, you know, philanthropists and individuals that want to contribute will, and those who don't, will go about their way. I love that. That's such a great way to sort of think about building a nonprofit. Because if you think about, if you take a step back and you just look at sort of business in general, you're not chasing your customer, right? I mean, you're servicing your customer, you're stewarding your customer, but you're building out your vision as a company. Where you think you should be going, you know what you think it makes the most sense in three, four, five years from now. Not you know what one person down the street thinks. And so I think that in the same way, nonprofits need to be able to build their businesses, their organizations around that. I think the funny argument I hear quite a bit from people that aren't working in the nonprofit space. Maybe they're donating a little bit as like, well, wait a second. I thought, like, Sean, you know, your team is not, they're not volunteering. They're not volunteering 40 hours a week and, you know, working nights and weekends to provide for themselves, like, what kind of nonprofit are you running there? And so I think that this move to, you know, a living wage and having this conversation openly and publicly helps individuals understand that the nonprofit community, which is one of the largest employers in the United States, actually, you know, deserves to be paid fairly. And so, yeah, I just I love that. So I went on a little bit of a rant there, but your words inspired me to do so.

Sean Goode Yeah.

Justin Wheeler So what's next for you as you think about continuing to really double down on this aspect of I imagine your employees are happier and obviously time will tell. But how do you see sort of this decision impacting sort of your team in the mid to long term as well?

Sean Goode Yeah. Well, first, let me say that we didn't do this just for our team. We did this for nonprofits across our country. First in our region and really with a broader lens. We could have done this privately, but we did it publicly because we knew good and well that this is a conversation that's being held in every single nonprofit, wherever it may be, and all of us are struggling with the same thing. I have not met a nonprofit leader that said, you know, I don't want our team to be making a living wage. I have not met a nonprofit leader that said I want our team to be eligible for the same services that we're providing. Those are conversations that I have, but I do hear is people who are afraid, they're afraid of the risk. What happens if we raise salaries and that's not sustainable? What happens if we raise salaries and programing goes away? What happens? What happens? Well, I would say that if we raise wages so that people can live and serve at the same time and programing goes away, then that's actually still a positive because the programming that remains is being done by people who can be consistent in their service and are navigating the many other stresses that come from being under-resourced as an employee in our country and for our team in particular. I'm excited about the continuity that it's going to bring, the fact that we'll have less transition. The fact that there'll be a deeper level of commitment. The fact that the young people we're serving will be able to look at those that are serving them and see those roles as professional roles that they can envision themselves in one day because it's not a job that somebody who can afford to do, it does. It's somebody that is there to serve. Shows up and as resourced as someone who's willing to serve, you know, those are all things that I get really excited about as I envision the residual impacts that will come from this public statement and this internal commitment.

Justin Wheeler  Hmm. Well, thank you, Sean, for leading the way and being bold and, you know, not just thinking about your team, but thinking about how can we transform the greater nonprofit community? There's so much to be said, and this is such an important time, especially as we think about, you know, the challenges we face in society today. If we're going to solve them, if we want to solve them quickly, if we want to put ourselves out of a job, eventually, you know this is the type of investment we need to be making in the nonprofit community, in the people, on the front lines. And so thank you for leading by example, for sharing your story with us. I would be remiss not to ask, how can our community, how can our listeners support you and your important work? What's the best way for them to learn more about the organization and ways that they can contribute towards your guys' mission?

Sean Goode Yeah. Well, the first thing you can do is be bold and courageous and not let me be the one crazy guy dancing on a hill by myself, right? The more of us that get together and begin to dance to the rhythm of whatever it is that we're hearing, the less crazy we'll all look, and the more this becomes less of a moment of one organization speaking up and saying loudly, This is wrong. But it becomes a movement of organizations pushing forward towards a more just outcome. So please join me on this journey towards justice and assure that people, wherever they are serving in our country, are doing from a place where they're able to show up fully and make a living wage as specifically as it pertains to our organization. You can find out more about us, said choose that's choose180.org. And there's plenty of information about us on our website there and different ways to tap in and lean in in a way that's meaningful and connects you personally with our very important cause of transforming these systems of injustice.

Justin Wheeler  Well, Sean, thank you so much for spending time with us this morning. You're a busy man and doing important work, and so I appreciate you taking 30 minutes to speak with us and to share your story and to really inspire a generation of leaders across this country to take this step. This right step, this necessary step. So I really appreciate your time and look forward to staying in touch and watching the organization grow and continuing to learn from the important work you guys are all doing. Thank you so much, Sean.

Sean Goode It's an honor to be here. Thank you.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit!

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