Leaning Into Leadership

To ensure a strong nonprofit sector for our future, we must develop strong nonprofit leaders today

There are myriad challenges facing local nonprofit leaders, and just as many threats to the sustainability of their organizations. What is required to address those challenges, so we can strengthen the nonprofit sector in our community?

Results from a recent survey of local nonprofit stakeholders revealed that a significant number of nonprofit leaders feel isolated in their roles, struggle to diversify their governing boards, and lack the resources to build capacity in their organizations. In fact, 38 percent of respondents reported their operational needs are not being met—that is, they do not feel equipped with the appropriate resources and skills to fulfill their organizations’ missions and respond effectively to our community’s needs.

What they do want, according to the survey, is leadership training—and, specifically, the opportunity to help design that training.

Learn more about our capacity building work

As the Foundation aspires to foster a thriving and impactful nonprofit sector, addressing this issue has become a priority. That’s why we partnered with Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies to collaboratively create The Lab Capacity Building Program, thanks to funding from the Foundation’s RCA Community Fund, the County of Sacramento Transient Occupancy Tax program, and the Foundation.

The approach is direct and in-depth: The Lab provides a hub for an established and an emerging leader from each of ten local nonprofits to innovate and problem-solve. The program’s curriculum is a rigorous undertaking.

Read about one participant's experience in The Lab cohort

Cohort members participate in full-day, in-person sessions each month to identify and address a specific challenge that has stymied their organization’s ability to increase its community impact. Through this investment in nonprofit leadership, we seek to transform our region and create a more just, equitable, and vibrant community for everyone.

These leaders are indeed the future of philanthropy, and the future looks bright.

The first iteration of The Lab wraps up soon, and we invite you to meet three of the leader-pairs and discover some of their learnings-to-date.


MICHAEL STEVENSON, Producing Artistic Director

KEITH RIEDELL, General Manager

Challenge: Theaters nationwide are struggling to acquire younger, more diverse audiences. How can capital stage’s Michael Stevenson and Keith Riedell ensure their theater’s audiences better reflect the demographics of the community?

Learning: “We can brainstorm a prototype until it turns into applesauce. But, if we get it out there and try it, we can learn even more than if it were a ‘perfect’ idea that we implemented on a large scale,” says Stevenson.

To fulfill Capital Stage’s mission to entertain, engage and challenge audiences with bold, thought-provoking theater, Stevenson and Riedell aim to broaden the theater’s reach by engaging a more diverse audience.

“Participation in The Lab has allowed our staff to talk about what broader community engagement really looks like,” Riedell says. “It’s not just filling the seats—it’s about going out into the communities we’re trying to reach and bringing artists into those communities to get people engaged with the show even before they enter the theater.”

Stevenson has worked as an actor and director for Capital Stage since its early days as a professional theater company. In transitioning his role from actor to nonprofit leader, Stevenson’s journey through The Lab has been an opportunity to lean on other members of the nonprofit community to help guide him through the challenges he is navigating in being a relatively new executive leader.

“There’s a lot of experience in the cohort to  tap into,” Stevenson explains. “Oftentimes, to be able to think out loud to somebody who is sharing the same challenges and financial limits is incredibly helpful, because you don’t always have the freedom to just ideate and think at this level. So, it’s been an incredible release in that way.”

Riedell agrees, and sees opportunities to bring their learnings to the rest of the Capital Stage staff. “Michael and I have had the opportunity to talk about how our particular leadership styles mesh and how we have the right skills represented in our work together—he’s got strategic thinking covered, and I focus on getting tasks executed. We’re going to expand that kind of thinking to our entire team.”


DEBRA OTO-KENT, Founder and Executive Director

AMANDA BLOOM, Director of Programs and Impact

Challenge: Health Education Council (HEC) is good at implementing programs and engaging communities, but how can Debra Oto-Kent and Amanda Bloom measure their organization’s true impact?

Learning: “There is incredible value in seeking out feedback from our nonprofit colleagues who aren’t intimately entrenched in the day-to-day activities of our organization. Building a community of nonprofit professionals is essential to our collective impact in driving social change in our community,” says Oto-Kent.

Oto-Kent and Bloom represent HEC in its mission to lift those in underserved communities by providing the tools they need to enact change, increase economic prosperity, and improve health outcomes.

Since its establishment in 1979, HEC has partnered with healthcare providers, food banks, and other civic leaders to enact and advocate for change in neighborhoods throughout California.

As HEC’s emerging leader, Bloom explains that this program couldn’t have come at a better time for their organization.

“Year after year, we have internal conversations about how to measure impact and address the issues that our region faces. Through our work in The Lab, we understand that we can’t just do business the same way,” she says. “We need to figure out how to innovate, and this program allows us that time to explore how best to move the needle on these issues. It’s exciting to be able to talk about how the nonprofit sector could do business differently and approach problems differently.”

For Oto-Kent, who has participated in other leadership development opportunities, The Lab is a unique experience unlike others she has engaged.

“Exploring ways to infuse innovation and impact into our work is not an opportunity that nonprofit organizations are often presented,” Oto-Kent says. “We are gaining clarity and direction as we move through some issues to ensure that we have a really clear vision of the impact that we have had in how we create change in communities.”


MICHAEL LYNCH, Co-founder and CEO

JADE PARKER, Development Director

Challenge: Improve Your Tomorrow (IYT) is growing rapidly. After only six years in operation, it serves 1,000 students across 17 schools in Sacramento and San Joaquin counties. As it prepares to expand into Stockton, how must its organizational structure adjust?

Learning: “Developing a personal leadership statement helped me understand how my vision of the world and the work we are doing helps guide IYT’s growth. I have to ensure that the story I am telling is both true and truly inspiring,” says Michael Lynch.

Over the past six years, Improve Your Tomorrow has grown to become the largest direct service education nonprofit that specifically serves young men of color in the nation, according to Lynch.

Through its programming, IYT increases college retention and graduation rates, and prepares students to enter the workforce through student development, weekly tutoring, internships, college tours, parent engagement, and mentorship. Now the organization is embarking on one of its largest projects to date with an expansion of its programming to the Stockton area in partnership with AmeriCorps, and Lynch and Jade Parker are committed to scaling the program efficiently and effectively.

“We recognize that young men of color, in general, aren’t doing well. The data show low academic performance is strongly correlated with poverty, unemployment, and poor health. Young men of color disproportionately grow up in communities that lack basic systems of social mobility, including adequate public transportation, employment, healthcare, poor air quality and ‘feeling safe.’ The life outcomes for boys of color is bleak, so it’s an emergency,” Lynch explains.

“We also need to focus on sustainable growth, and what that looks like over time,” Lynch continues. “As we go into year seven, we understand that we’re going to be here for a while, so we need to be able to think through delivering high-quality programs as we expand into Stockton. By being able to have the time to focus on the problem statement, we’re able to work through the process of scaling our program.”

Parker came to IYT with more than ten years’ experience creating sustainable college, career, and mentorship programs for various schools and nonprofit organizations. “There’s a lot of knowledge in the cohort,” says Parker. “Having a support system like this is invaluable. There are so many nonprofits in the area, and we’re not using each other as resources, so I think being in this cohort has taught me that we have to lean on each other a lot more.”


This is just the beginning. As we wrap up our work with the inaugural cohort of The Lab, we will work with participants to reflect on what worked—and what we can improve for future efforts, too. We look forward to sharing key insights from this work and its local impact with the community.

We invite you to learn more about the Strategic Initiative behind our programs to build nonprofit capacity, including The Lab and Big Day of Giving, Expanding Philanthropy and the Social Economy.



By focusing on the root causes of local challenges, seeking solutions with long-term results, and supporting the organizations that tend to the vital needs of the capital area, we help create the conditions for meaningful transformation in the Sacramento region. 

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