Transforming the Nonprofit Sector by Advocating for Systemic Change

By Cynder Sinclair, D.M.

[previously published in]

If you are involved in any way with a nonprofit in Santa Barbara, chances are you know Ernesto Paredes. He’s that charismatic, buff, brainy guy who runs Easy Lift Transportation. Paredes is an executive par excellence who has plenty of ideas on how to improve Santa Barbara’s nonprofit sector. Since he has also led the United Boys & Girls Club and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) as well as Easy Lift, he has a broad experience with many of the challenges facing nonprofits and their executives. He sees plenty of opportunities to transform our nonprofit sector.

It’s not easy catching up to Paredes since he’s training for his seventh Ironman competition. Thankfully I was able to snag him for this interview. What follows are Paredes’ thoughts on the importance of nonprofits advocating for causes that affect our entire community. He is convinced that by working together with funders, businesses, and local government nonprofits can significantly improve their own sector. This passionate tri-athlete, community leader, and nonprofit executive calls all of us to a higher level.

Don’t Believe Everything You Think.
One of my favorite sayings is, “Don’t believe everything you think.” As nonprofits we seem to think we must take whatever is given to us and make the best of it. I think we should really be proactively advocating for more of what we need to fulfill our mission. One of the weaknesses we have as a sector locally is the inability to truly advocate for our cause, our mission, our vision. We often advocate on behalf of a grant or before the Board of Supervisors or City Council, but I’m talking about advocating for real systemic change in our sector. I believe we can accomplish this deep change in several ways: working more strategically with funders, not being afraid to fail, transforming nonprofit managers into leaders, minding the three Ps, and thinking bigger.

Nonprofits Can Advocate For Systemic Change Through Funders.
Often it seems that foundations come up with a new set of policies and initiatives while nonprofits wait on the sidelines to find out what is new. Then we have to adapt our approach in seeking funding from them. I believe nonprofits can play a more powerful role. We nonprofits need to do a better job of advocating to and sometimes with the foundations to let them know what we believe what are the most important issues. We are in the trenches and it is our responsibility to do this. There often is not enough representation at the funder’s level to help them understand what we’re doing on the ground level. It is hard when I see really good foundation boards dictate what the priorities of the community are; rather than nonprofits advising them about the priorities. I think we, as nonprofits, are missing the big picture here. Not being more proactive with foundation relationships has limited our ability to imagine and dream and think about what our organizations and communities can truly be because we‘re struggling to fit into funding boxes.

Don’t Be Afraid To Fail.
We’ve heard people say that nonprofits need to operate more like a business. There are pros and cons to this way of thinking. Nonprofits could benefit from using a business model by having an expectation of failure. One of the assumptions is that it is okay to fail in business but not in nonprofits. If a nonprofit tries to meet an unmet community need by initiating a new program based on new information, they often don’t have a sustainability plan. Sometimes, like businesses, you just have to throw it against the wall to see what sticks and then figure out the details. Sometimes by jumping in to start a new program we often discover areas that need attending to that we didn’t realize would be a problem. Nonprofits need to be able to let programs develop organically so they are more effective.

Transitioning From Being Managers To Being Leaders
Many nonprofits started in the 1960s and 1970s and were based on true grass roots advocacy. But many executive directors of my generation were given blue prints of the past and were told to keep doing everything the same way and add three percent every year. Often executive directors today don’t have an opportunity to lead. We are good managers, but not the best leaders.

One good thing that came out of the economic downturn is that now there seem to be two types of boards. The Chicken Little sort of board thinks the sky is falling whenever there is a crisis, especially a funding shortfall. They point fingers at everyone, especially the executive director. They make rash decisions without using critical thinking. Then there is the Super Chicken board. These folks roll up their sleeves and get to work, especially when there is a crisis. This type of board allows executive directors to move from being managers to becoming leaders. Boards that stubbornly maintain their original business model and have not evolved over time are the ones that have the biggest challenge. They immediately emphasize their urgent fundraising needs while neglecting their programs until they become mediocre or even substandard.

When boards begin to see their executive director as a leader and an equal partner in achieving the mission, they will transform their organizations and the entire sector to a higher level.

Mind Your Three Ps.
An evolving organization is going to look at the three Ps: People, Product, and Process. It is great if you have good programs. Programs are a nonprofit’s “product.” But that’s not good enough. You have to also engage the best people you can find. People make the program and donors will go to the organizations with good people. Then there is the process you use to deliver your programs. If you don’t understand community needs you will offer obsolete programs to our community. Identifying the broader community needs is not easy—it takes time and intention. One of the reasons I’ve been successful as an executive director is I love going to other nonprofit events. This is how I learn about what’s going on out there. I take that information to my organization and figure out if there’s an opportunity for Easy Lift to be part of the solution or to be a matchmaker in the community. I can do this only because I have taken the time to understand the issues.

Take Time To Really Understand The Deeper Issues.
One great opportunity I had was when I left Easy Lift and went to CASA. While there, I learned about abused children in our community. I had no idea we had this sort of problem in Santa Barbara. But by working as executive director for CASA for four years I came to understand this issue. When I returned to Easy Lift I was a much more informed executive director. This experience allowed me to dream differently to include a segment of the community I didn’t know existed. As a result the CAT Program (Children’s Accessible Transportation) was born. CAT provides transportation for other programs around the community that don’t typically offer transportation. Rides are free of charge to kids, families, and organizations. With this unique program, one vehicle transports kids to a wide variety of programs around town rather than forcing nonprofits to enter the transportation business.

Think About The Bigger Picture And Learn From Others.
Focus on what you do and do it really well. Easy Lift focuses on transportation and we do it really well. It took us a little time, but we have earned the trust of the leadership of many organizations so we can change the culture by encouraging them to not be so overly protective of their own clients. We are helping to change the mentality from “mine” to “our” community. Executive directors can benefit the community by thinking outside the walls of our own organizations. The possibilities are so exciting. I have to say that transportation doesn’t wake me up in the morning, serving people with services they need energizes me.

There are plenty of top notch services coming out of Santa Barbara. We can be a model for other communities—look at Direct Relief as an example. At a recent Partnership for Excellence conference I heard Jon Clark, executive director of the J.S. Bower Foundation, say in reference to providing human services that if it can’t be done in Santa Barbara it can’t be done anywhere. We have everything we need to do anything we want to here. What keeps us from doing it is leadership, organization, and checking our egos. Often if a nonprofit is doing a better job providing a certain service, people don’t know about it. Look at the Foodbank—they are doing amazing things but people don’t realize they have a great model we can all learn from and bring back to our own organizations.

The Most Dangerous Phrase: “We’ve Always Done It That Way.”
The Internet has changed everything. The Nonprofit Support Center served for us well for a time until the Internet made it obsolete. The Nonprofit Support Center was not a failure. When we need a certain service it doesn’t have to last forever to prove its worth. Sometimes we have to let organizations die with dignity. Maybe we need a sort of Hospice for nonprofits.

I can see a day when there is no longer a need for Easy Lift. We focus on helping clients meet their needs, not on transportation per se. I’m in favor of redesigning communities so people live closer to where services are. For example, some senior services are so far away from where the people are that it’s hard to connect the two. Dual usage facilities make a lot of sense. The main question is how do we get program services to the people?

Executive Directors Don’t Have To Know Everything.
Thank God I don’t have to know everything. I used to feel I had to know everything or do a great job of acting to pretend I know everything. I learned that a great leader needs to do three things well: ask for help, recognize your strengths, and practice self-care. So many colleagues are driven by their organizations to be perfect. This is a recipe for an unbalanced life. We can love what we do but I want the best part of my day to be when I leave the office—when I’m with my family. I won’t apologize for wanting to have a complete life and not be driven by my job.

The one time when I was truly passionate about my job was when I was at CASA. I was so driven by the mission that I almost didn’t care if I got paid. This resulted in failures in my personal life because I didn’t prioritize my own family. I justified my over involvement in my job by thinking about Martin Luther King. I bet he missed some soccer games while he was sacrificing for the greater good, I told myself. If I don’t make the sacrifice, who will? Love is important, but passion can blind you so that it drives your every decision—in a positive way and a negative way. I’m so appreciative of my four years at CASA and I’m thankful for my decision to leave even though I still love CASA.

Do We Really Have To Be So Passionate?
Some people say you have to be passionate about your mission to do a good job. I’m not passionate about transportation; I’m passionate about my clients and our community. It’s about access to services not about vans. I must spend quality time in the other parts of my life or something will fail—relationships, personal dreams put on the shelf, mental and physical health. It’s good to plan for the future but not at the expense of today. Today is the only guarantee we have. I’ve seen seniors building their nest egg and just before they can make use of it, one of them has a catastrophic illness making them unable to use their precious nest egg.

Real Life Lessons Are The Most Powerful.
I understand the struggles of the elderly now because of being with my aging parents. I’m a trained gerontologist. But just because I’m in the field doesn’t mean I don’t have struggles caring for my parents. Because of my training, I understood the academic perspectives of caring for the elderly; but now I understand it firsthand on a deeper level. The fact is we are here to serve humans. If that is our core understanding then the mission, vision, and even the policies make a lot more sense, especially when communicating that to my staff. We need to understand the “why” of a service. I spent so much time on the “what” in the past—shiny vans, fancy computer systems. But the “why” drives you to better solutions. If you fixate on “what,” your model will never change or really serve humans—it will just look nice.

Biographical Information About Ernesto Paredes
Ernesto was raised in Goleta, attending local schools from elementary through SBCC before transferring to the University of Southern California. Ernesto completed his education at USC earning a degree in Gerontology in 1989.

His first job after college was with the YMCA as an associate physical director. A year later in 1991, he was named the associate executive director with Easy Lift Transportation, where he worked for eleven years.

In June 2001, Ernesto was named executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Santa Barbara County. As executive director, Ernesto has participated with a number of community groups: Santa Barbara City College Adult Education, Santa Barbara Village, and the County of Santa Barbara Kids Network. Additionally he served on the Hutton/Parker Foundation allocations committee and a board member of the Rehabilitation Institute at Santa Barbara, Hillside House, and Leadership Council for the Special Olympics of Santa Barbara.

He returned to Easy Lift in 2005 as Executive Director.

Ernesto has also been recognized for his efforts from the community. Recognitions include: Court TV “Every Day Hero” national award recipient, Santa Barbara Independent “Local Hero”, Pacific Coast Business Times “40 under 40” award, and Leadership Santa Barbara County’s “Distinguished Leaders Award” recipient.

Ernesto has been married to his wife Jenifer for 23 years and has two children, his son Peyton (20) and his daughter Reyna (15), he also has been a CASA volunteer to a 21 year old foster child for the past eight years. Ernesto is an avid tri-athlete and is currently training for his seventh Ironman competition.




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