Trish Tchume’s Path to YNPN and Cultivating Nonprofiteers
Growing up first generation American, Trish Tschume was presented with only three acceptable career options by her Ghana-born parents: lawyer, doctor or engineer. Eighteen years after choosing pre-med as her college major, Trish is the executive director of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN), a national nonprofit organization that supports the growth, learning and development of young professionals with the goal of promoting a thriving, sustainable and inclusive nonprofit sector. In this interview, Tchume and I discuss her not-so-linear path to the business of developing people, her thoughts on growth and why she can’t stop talking about her former employer Idealist.
Did you always know you wanted to be a Nonprofiteer?
I grew up as the child of immigrants. So naturally, I believed that law, medicine or engineering were the only acceptable careers. (laughs) In college, I went pre-med at the St. Joseph’s University—but it turned out to be a miserable choice for me. After almost failing all of my science courses, I realized that “pharmaceutical marketing” was a major I could pursue instead that would allow me to utilize the science credits I had and still graduate on time. So that became my major!
My work as a student leader in college was a true formative experience; it showed me how much I love developing people, and later on, that became my draw to nonprofit work. The director of Residence Life at my undergrad helped me get my first job working on college campuses. I worked in Resident Life and Civic Engagement, and found that I loved supporting the students. I even thought I’d want to work in higher education for life. In retrospect, it was really the people development part that I loved.
Over time, I began wanting to serve a population that did not have as much access to resources and opportunities as the college students with whom I worked. Soon after, I landed a job that allowed me to do that with the Community & Economic Development Office in Burlington, Vermont, where I had attended graduate school. I worked with AmeriCorps VISTA members in the community, nonprofits, local businesses and government agencies in the small city. The job was eye-opening in that it gave me the unique vantage point of seeing how all these different sectors could come together to support an entire city and help move it forward.
After that, I transitioned to a job at Idealist as a campus organizer, and then community outreach manager, and later director of training. At Idealist, I fell in love with nonprofit work.
Yes, you worked at Idealist, the famous nonprofit job and resource site that all nonprofiteers love to browse! That’s actually where I found the listing for my first job at iMentor. What was that like?
It was great! I was helping to develop a network of college students who did social justice work. My colleagues and I were building a platform to connect these students with the right resources, connections and networks in the issue areas in which they worked.
Just as important as the job was the organizational culture of Idealist—it taught me a lot. Even during the interview process, I felt that they didn’t just value what I could do but also who I was. My personality and quirks mattered to them. Unfortunately, I’d worked in other places where it was clear they were looking for a good enough brown person to satisfy their diversity goals. When the offer came from Idealist, though, it felt like they were validating who I was as a whole person, not just the “diversity” I could bring.
Compared to my peers in other organizations, I was making a living wage, and we had excellent, creative benefits. For example, each employee had a health and wellness budget that we could use however we wanted, as long as it contributed to our well-being. I took a pottery class for two years with that money.
It’s been six years since I left Idealist, and without exaggeration, not a single day has passed without my talking to someone about something I did or learned there, or with the people I met while I was at Idealist. They taught me that it is important to live your values externally and internally. If anyone compliments me on my leadership or management qualities, I say that I do what I saw there.
That is so great to hear. So then what led you to YNPN? Before you became its executive director, you were a volunteer and board member for many years.
While I was working at Idealist, my supervisor was helping to start a YNPN chapter. I began helping her with that, and when my job at Idealist moved to New York City, I began serving on the YNPN National Board.
When we board members were finally ready to launch our first national executive director search, I realized that I actually wanted that job! Even though I’m the one who helped draft the job description, I knew that I was not the most obvious candidate. There were so many gaps—job competencies I thought I was capable of developing but felt I didn’t have proof of yet.
I believe that the growth and development I’ve experienced volunteering and now working for YNPN is what it looks like when YNPN is doing what it is supposed to do: showing young leaders what they need in order to do this work, providing the space for them to practice, and encouraging them to advocate for themselves. It was on the YNPN national board where I developed my first budget and my first programs.
How big is the organization now?
We have 40 chapters, and 22 startup chapters in queue—which means they have already started the work and will become full chapters when they hit certain milestones. We’ve added almost 20 chapters in the last three years, with Birmingham, Alabama, and New Jersey becoming the newest chapters this month.
We do this with an annual budget of about $250,000, two full-time staff members, and five Launch Pad Fellows who commit 10 hours a week for ten months each year. During their service, the fellows completely own and execute a big piece of YNPN’s operation, such as our annual conference or communications. Our work is 100% focused on advocating for a stronger social sector and providing infrastructure and support for local chapters. We recently wrapped up a search for a full time Data Systems Manager to join the team.
What are your thoughts on growth?
We at YNPN have been thinking and talking a lot lately about what it means to grow. With our recent success, we’ve had a lot of supporters ask what kind of resources it would take to get us to the next level of evolution.
This interest in our growth is great, but it has made us careful not to allow our funders to completely control how we should grow. We know we must determine, on our own, what we need to do to continue creating and developing a platform and peer-learning environment for nonprofiteers.
Another thing we realize is that it may actually be harmful for the chapters and their volunteers if we create too much and don’t leave enough room for them to learn and do things on their own.
That is very thoughtful. Who funds your work?
We are mostly grant funded at this time. We are looking to strengthen our member and individual donor base. Our work is driven forward by volunteers who learn by doing, so it takes less cash to fund us than one might expect from our level of activities.
What do you think are the big issues on the minds of young nonprofiteers these days?
The first one that comes to mind is how we balance our desire to do meaningful work in the sector with our need to make a good salary.
I also think that many young nonprofiteers feel that they have limited opportunities to grow, both in terms of learning and in title and position. They might also find it difficult to have real impact when top positions seemed to be filled by long-tenured, very qualified senior executives. To address this, the sector could think more about how we can allow younger professionals to elevate their ideas and have a meaningful impact on their organizations, even if they are not promoted to senior leaders right away. We all want to contribute to solving problems. We all want to work in a way that aligns with our values. We can help push the sector to focus on equity, diversity and inclusion.
Wow. I love that. In my work with my clients, work life balance comes up very often. What is your point of view on the issue?
When I’m not traveling or in meetings, I work from home. Because I was YNPN’s first paid staff and director, my friends and mentors worried that I would work constantly and get burned out. They thought that I would feel isolated at home. One mentor advised me to spend the first three months working in a way that came naturally to me. She said I should keep track of how I spent my time, and at the end of that time, see what worked, and what didn’t, to adjust. For me, that turned out to be the most valuable advice.
I think that many people who work away from the office end up recreating the office structure, instead of thinking about what it means to create a different kind of work life. In the past when I worked in an office, I may have pushed through an ineffective hour in the afternoon after a rigorous task (or pretended to be pushing through and checking my Facebook instead)—but now I have no guilt about going for a quick walk or folding my laundry. I do what it takes to come back to the right level of energy. This is what has worked for me.
If you had to take one year off from YNPN—and didn’t need to worry about money —what would you do?
Ohhhhhhh. [Pause.] I feel most alive when I wake up and have nothing planned; those days are so shocking, because they are so rare, and I’m always pleasantly surprised by what happens. I would spend that year making no plans and seeing what happens every day.