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Nonprofit CEO Torrie Dunlap on Inclusion, Service, and Finding a Cause That Speaks to You

November 08, 2017 | Filed in: Your Brain

Torrie Dunlap is the CEO of Kids Included Together (K.I.T.), an organization that “helps others meaningfully include kids with disabilities through inclusion training, policy development, and research.” When not at the office, she can often be found giving speeches on diversity and inclusion at conferences around the country.

The bulk of nonprofit donations come in during the last few months of the year (hence the term “giving season”), and there is no shortage of great organizations who need assistance. So we caught up with Torrie for some advice on how to navigate it all. Read on to hear how she discovered her own philanthropic calling, and her tips for finding your own. 

Lesson 1: Inspiration can come from anywhere.

When I graduated from college, I started working at a youth theater company as the education director. One day, a mom called to enroll her 10-year-old in one of my acting classes, and at the very end of the call she said, “By the way, I should tell you that my son has Down’s Syndrome.”

I was 22 years old at the time, with no prior experience with individuals with disabilities, and I froze. I didn’t know what to say to her—I didn’t even really know what Down’s Syndrome was. I said, “I have no idea how to do this, but I want your son to have an amazing experience. If you help me, I will figure it out.”

She said, “I will absolutely help you, and there’s also this small nonprofit called K.I.T., and if you call them, they will help you too.”

Other teachers in the theater started wanting to work with K.I.T. too, and it transformed our organization. I realized that this was my purpose: to help other families have this kind of experience. So I left my theater career and begged for a job at K.I.T. They hired me as a part-time coordinator in 2003, and I became the CEO five years ago.

Lesson 2: Think critically about where to give. 

The end of the year is a very critical time for nonprofits, and people are bombarded with fundraising messages. As a consumer, you have a choice of which kinds of fundraising you’ll support. It’s important to contribute to organizations that are reflective of the community they serve—with people who represent that community on the board, in leadership roles, on staff, and working as volunteers.

There’s a saying in the disability community: “Nothing about us without us.” If you’re supporting a certain group, it should be one that lifts up its community from within.

Lesson 3: Don’t be afraid to go straight to the top.

I like to encourage people to sit on nonprofit boards. Many organizations are really struggling to diversify their boardrooms: nonprofits need women, they need younger professionals, they need people from more diverse backgrounds, and it’s hard because their boards are often made up of a certain single demographic. And they keep recruiting from that same demographic, because those are the people who they know.

Serving on the board is a great way to have an impact on an organization, and you can create those opportunities by stepping forward and saying, “I’m interested in a board position,” without necessarily being asked.

Lesson 4: Prioritize impact over time.

People get intimidated by the idea of committing lots of time to volunteer, but there are many structured, efficient ways to do it. For instance, a nonprofit might need help from a human resources expert to review their employee handbook. That could take an hour for someone who has that expertise, but the impact could be huge. It’s also a good way to get to know an organization before going all in and joining the board.

I also find that volunteering is very energizing. In your work life, you have a set of challenges and problems that you have to solve every day, and they can wear you down. When you step out of that environment and use your skills to help other people solve their problems, it’s really rejuvenating.

Lesson 5: Take the time to narrow down your list of causes.  

It takes some self-reflection to identify what you care most about. For me, I’ve always known that my purpose was to make the world a better place for kids: I have a variety of nonprofits that I give money to, that I serve on the board and volunteer for, but they’re all about kids. I think when people reflect on what they are drawn to over and over again—it might be animals, seniors, kids, poverty—and can name the larger umbrella issue, it’s easier to get started and figure out which nonprofits in town are serving that cause really well.

A good way to learn about different organizations is to follow their social media channels (since it’s free, nonprofits use social media pretty heavily), show up to events, and just take some time to see if it’s a good fit. Whether you’re interested in providing direct service, doing policy and advocacy work, or making a longterm commitment to change, thinking about what moves and motivates you and then taking a survey of different kinds of organizations will help you find the one that really resonates with you.

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