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Nonprofit

Are You or Your Nonprofit or Foundation Being an Askhole?

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ACE

You may have read my previous article about Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE) ,which is a frustrating phenomenon that each year causes many executive directors (EDs) of grassroot organizations to daydream about abandoning civilization to live with adorable woodland critters, foraging for grubs and berries. (Note to self: Stop writing blog after watching Disney movies with toddler). Today, I want to touch base on a related phenomenon called Askhole Community Engagement (ACE). TDCE and ACE are connected, like two peas in a dysfunctional pod.

So what’s an askhole? Here are some Urban Dictionary definitions. Basically, you know that one friend who keeps coming crying to you about something, asks you for advice, and so you hit pause on Netflix, listen to them attentively, empathize, and give them reasonable suggestions, and then later you find out that they completely ignored you or did the opposite of what you recommended? That’s an askhole. Or someone who keeps asking for advice until they get an answer they agree with. That’s also an askhole.

In the nonprofit field, just like anywhere else, we have a lot of askholes. At the individual level, it could be coworkers or supervisors who ask you for feedback on their performance or quality of work, and then basically disregard everything you say. Or someone who recruits you to join a committee and then scoff at your brilliant suggestions. If you are not going to take my ideas seriously, annual dinner decoration committee, then stop asking me! People would love glowsticks and a fog machine at our annual fundraising dinner!

Askholism is very annoying, but at the community level, it is dangerous. Now that diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competency are as popular as quinoa and coconut water, we have a lot of “Let’s ask the communities of color for their input on stuff!” “Yeah, it’ll make them feel important that we’re listening to them!” If I get invited to give my opinion on one more thing that I know from experience is going to go nowhere, I am going to lose it. And by “lose it,” I mean “drink at work.”

All right, listen, it’s very sweet, but we communities of color are getting tired of being “listened” to:

First, it’s insulting to assume we haven’t already done our own “listening.” A year ago, I was asked to join a committee to figure out an effective information delivery system to be implemented among the Vietnamese community during weather and other emergencies. The organization got a grant and wanted to do some focus groups, surveys, and interviews. Problem was, my previous organization three years ago had already done a lot of that research and came up with this beautiful report. They could have called us up before writing this grant, got that information, and focused the grant instead on actually piloting a communication system, which would be a much better use of funding and would waste fewer people’s time. Save yourself some time: check to see if the communities you want to listen to haven’t already listened to themselves.

People are sick of all listening and no action. “Listening” is not an outcome. It is a required component, the first step, to effectively achieving outcomes. And yet, irritatingly, the session itself is touted as some amazing accomplishment. A shiny report or plan may come out, with lots of pictures of the diversity of the attendees present. Then everyone feels good and goes get some organic ice cream. These reports and plans are then usually placed on a shelf, sad and lonely, until people have forgotten about them, and then they rally to do another listening or planning session, which was the original plot for the movie Groundhog Day.

It raises false hopes and makes people jaded. These sessions are often high energy and very kumbaya. They give people a sense that their voices really do matter, that things will change. When there is no follow-through, it is very annoying and disappointing. I’ve seen passionate community members leave inspired after a summit or community forum, only to become jaded later when they see little follow up. Worse than doing nothing is raising people’s hopes and then doing nothing. And we community organizers who bring people to these events bear the wrath of our communities when these things end up being pointless.

Only ideas that organizers and funders agree with are implemented. If you’re just going to cherry pick the ideas that align with your organization or foundation’s priorities, then stop wasting people’s time. If you just need community support for a particular priority that is unchangeable, just be transparent. Don’t give people false hopes when you have no intentions of changing your agenda.

We’ve been giving the same answers for, like, forever. Communities have been asking for these things for years: General operating support, funds for direct service, catalytic grants and not just tiny amounts, funding for grassroot efforts and not just bigger organizations or collective impact efforts, multi-year funding, full-time staffing, capacity building support, leadership support, closer and more equal partnerships with funders, streamlined grantmaking and reporting processes, etc. No matter what topic you plan to address—the environment, homelessness, mental health, economic disparities, education, or whatever—communities will always need these above things in order to carry out whatever priorities are identified at these listening sessions.

Community Engagement can be powerful when the right people—the communities most affected—are doing it, and it is done right and has support. For example, I learned of a community engagement effort rallying Latino parents around education. Parents of a particular low-income school were asked what their top priorities were, and their answer was school uniforms. This is a public school, so the concept of school uniforms was interesting, but that’s what the parents wanted. The school and the District listened and negotiated. Now, all the kids at that school wore uniforms. It was awesome. To come together, to have your voices heard, to have your suggestions implemented—what something like that does for a community’s morale cannot be overstated. They felt hope and they wanted to work harder and to be more engaged civically.

So, in summary, if you or your org or foundation do listening sessions or community forums or summits or whatever, raise people’s hopes, then don’t follow through, or only follow through on the crap you like, you’re an askhole. Luckily, it’s preventable and treatable. Here are some recommendations:

First, admit to times when you and your team have acted like askholes. The first step to not being an askhole is to admit that we are capable of being an askhole (This should be on a t-shirt somewhere). Don’t feel ashamed. We’ve all done it. I’ve been an askhole on many occasions, both personally and professionally. It’s important for us all to reflect on listening processes in the past and analyze where we screwed up. Did we include the right people? Did we follow through? Vow to not make the same mistakes.

Second, before launching some listening forum, check around to see what work has already been done. You may think it’s brilliant to get diverse people to come together to determine a “policy agenda” or “community priorities” or something, but chances are, they’ve already done that, and the plan is just sitting on some shelf waiting for funding. If a plan exists, fund the implementation of that plan instead of another exhausting input process.

Third, be where people are; attend existing community processes. Communities by their nature usually already have gatherings where they discuss concerns and solutions. And most of the time, it is like pulling teeth to drag funders and leaders of large organizations to attend them. It’s frustrating when you don’t attend when people ask you to come to their things, and then you turn around and expect people to show up when you call. Take time to build those relationships.

Fourth, if you insist on doing a listening process, get your org or foundation mentally ready and committed to trust the community’s feedback and act on it. If you are not willing to change your priorities or strategies based on what you hear, there is no point wasting your time or the community’s time. Be prepared to hear stuff you may not want to hear and do stuff you may not want to do. Within reason, of course.

Fifth, get your org or foundation committed to providing funding to act on the feedback you receive. Don’t raise people’s hope if you have no funding set aside and don’t plan to work on securing funding. Funding is what is required to implement ideas, and if there’s no plan to secure support somehow, or at least the commitment to searching for it, again, don’t waste everyone’s time.

With that, I’m going to go research fog machines. I don’t care what the decoration committee says, I’m the ED and I want a thick layer of fog on the ground at my next annual fundraising dinner. And, I want some woodland critters.

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Vu Le, MSW, is the Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps [link: rainiervalleycorps.org], which aims to bring more professionals of color into the nonprofit sector and develop the capacity of people-of-color-led nonprofits. He writes weekly at his nonprofit humor blog, nonprofitwithballs.com, and is the humor columnist for Blue Avocado [blueavocado.org].

          
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Nonprofit

Your Group Wants to Become a Nonprofit — What Now?

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It’s one thing to have hobbies and interests; parlaying them into a nonprofit organization is another leap entirely.

Expansion is an easy concept to imagine but a difficult one for most of us to execute.

In a hobby or interest group’s case, it’s tough to identify the right time to venture into nonprofit status. For molecular biologist Nina Dudnik, her epiphany started when she was studying rice in Ivory Coast. Conducting research in a developing country without enough equipment proved challenging, so after she began her Ph.D. program at Harvard University, she and a few fellow students collected extra supplies and equipment to send to labs in developing countries.

From that effort sprang a nonprofit venture that eventually became Seeding Labs, a firm that trains scientist and provides equipment to developing nations. Dudnik’s idea sprouted from a cause she had personal experience in, and she quickly found a way to translate it to a broader scale.

So how can an interest group widen its scope into a serious nonprofit? It starts with identifying the desired end goal and detailing the steps necessary to arrive there.

What Giving Gets You

When looking to invest more time and effort into a cause, going the nonprofit route makes sense. Nonprofits are highly credible entities that can exert social influences on broader audiences because a nonprofit donation elicits a stronger emotional response in the giver than spending money at a for-profit, even if the end result is the same.

Nonprofits are also eligible for certain federal tax exemptions. Provided they agree to be audited, corporate income tax is waived, and that money can be reinvested into the organization. Additionally, state and federal governing bodies and some private groups also offer nonprofit tax credits for nonprofits, so even if a nonprofit owes some taxes, these credits give organizations other options to stretch their operating budgets.

When homing in on a nonprofit cause, start with pinpointing a mission that’s the company’s sole focus. You’ll be fighting for a share of limited charitable giving, so don’t make your efforts more difficult by taking up a cause that another group has already embraced. Both the group and the cause itself would likely suffer.

Next, make sure interest is sufficient and funding is locked in. Ensure that the resources and support for your initiative are in place and that your plan of action is clearly outlined. This will help convince potential donors you’re a good candidate for their contributions, which most people don’t give out easily. In the long term, nonprofits need business plans that minimize operating costs to ensure sustainable organizations. Getting your group to that next step isn’t easy, but the benefits are tangible.

Make a Nonprofit Pivot

If transitioning your group to a nonprofit seems like a good fit, these to-do items will help make the process as smooth as possible.

1. Network as much as you can. Your nonprofit’s effect is only as strong as the people advocating for it. Make sure as many influential people know about it and talk it up as possible.

Take an active approach to networking. If you attend an event such as an NGO conference, think of questions ahead of time and share your plans with your organization. Whenever possible, get feedback from people who are already well-established in your group’s field of interest to figure out the best course of action.

2. Research regulations. Regulatory requirements may sound like a chore, but you’ll need to know how they work to understand the legal side of the transition to a nonprofit. Regulations are not only complex and different from state to state, but they’re also constantly changing.

Even though you’re passionate about your group’s subject matter, consider taking a class at a local college to get the most up-to-date guidance on your specific situation and how to get any compliance issues squared away. Setting up your nonprofit only to find it doesn’t comply with certain legalities isn’t the best way to get it off the ground.

3. Work with an accountant. Embrace the first lesson of nonprofits, and get ready to get lean. Utilize an accountant or financial advisor, and make sure that person has experience working with nonprofits.

These professionals identify specific steps a nonprofit will need to take in order to best protect itself financially. For instance, not-for-profits should create a statement of financial position instead of a traditional balance statement, or a statement of activities detailing revenue and expenses instead of an income statement.

Fundamentally, nonprofits are created to meet specific societal needs. If your group has the drive and resources to merit pursuing the advantages afforded to a nonprofit, take these steps to heart and take your cause to the next level.

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Entertainment

The Y Wants Everyone to Take a #SelfieWithSomeoneNew

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Today, the YMCA of the USA (Y-USA) is launching a new social media campaign, #SelfieWithSomeoneNew. Inspired by the Y’s new “Us” national campaign creative, #SelfieWithSomeoneNew is an opportunity to highlight how the Y uniquely brings people together. To help raise awareness for the campaign, the Y will partner with long-time member and supporter, actor Ethan Hawke.

Photo Credit: (YMCA of the USA)

The Y is encouraging people to meet someone new, strike up a conversation and discover what they have in common, then, take a selfie and post it to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #SelfieWithSomeoneNew and tag @YMCA.

Whether it’s a new neighbor down the street, a parent at your child’s school or a person you see every day on your commute home, the Y hopes people will take a few extra moments to get to know one another in order to build a stronger, more connected community.

To encourage participation, the Y is partnering with Oscar-nominated actor, Ethan Hawke, a long-time Y member and former Y camper. To help drive momentum, Hawke will be taking a selfie with someone new at his local Y while encouraging others to do the same.

“I am excited to support the Y and help shine a light on the work they do,” said Hawke. “They are so much more than a gym. They create community. I started going to the Y as kid when my parents didn’t know what to do with me all summer. Since then, the Y has been a staple in my life; my refuge when I am an out of work actor, or the place that has taught my children to swim. I hope we can raise awareness about everything the Y does in communities all over the country.”

Because of the Y, people who may not have met otherwise, come together, whether they are kids in an afterschool enrichment program, adults in a cancer survivorship group or families volunteering. These are natural and easy ways for people to find commonality and even unity among perceived differences.

“For more than 160 years, the Y has brought people together – no matter their differences – and helped build stronger, more connected communities,” said Kevin Washington, President and CEO, Y-USA. “#SelfieWithSomeoneNew is a great way to illustrate how we can all take small, but meaningful steps towards unity with something as simple as a photo.”

The Y is one of the nation’s leading nonprofits strengthening communities through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Across the U.S., 2,700 Ys engage 22 million men, women and children – regardless of age, income or background – to nurture the potential of children and teens, improve the nation’s health and well-being, and provide opportunities to give back and support neighbors. Anchored in more than 10,000 communities, the Y has the long-standing relationships and physical presence not just to promise, but to deliver, lasting personal and social change. ymca.net

For more information on how to participate in the Y’s #SelfieWithSomeoneNew campaign and to learn more about the Y’s “For a better us.” campaign, visit ymca.net/forabetterus.

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Disability

How Disability Culture Can Inform Mentoring Girls with Disabilities

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Photo Credit: Big Sister Association

I am a social work intern at the Big Sister Association of Boston. This is a unique organization, as it is the only gender-specific branch of Big Brother Big Sister in the United States. This is also an important fact as research suggests that girls experience mentoring relationships differently than boys do.

Additionally, research suggests that girls have gender-specific needs that can best be addressed by gender-sensitive support. One of the values of the Big Sister Association of Boston is cultural responsiveness, as the agency finds it important to learn about and embrace cultural differences – and this is where Disability culture comes in.

Disability social workers Romel Mackelprang and Richard Salsgiver discuss the emergence of Disability culture and assert that it is not only an identity but a ‘way of life,’ similar to race or ethnicity. I feel that it is critical that when conceptualizing how to be cultural responsive that Big Sister mentors keep Disability in mind as a type of culture. Recognizing Disability culture is important because we work with Little Sisters ages seven through twenty, as well as volunteer Big Sisters over the age of eighteen, and any of these girls and women may have a disability.

In addition to being aware of the language and history of Disability culture in order to show respect, we must also understand that there is a community aspect of Disability culture that can have great social benefits for the people we work with. The goal of our mentoring program is to strategically match girls with mentors who have similar interests and experiences as them. Therefore, making an effort to match girls and mentors with disabilities can have the added benefit of sharing an understanding of a common experience and culture, therefore making the match relationship even more impactful.

In their book, Romel Mackelprang and Richard Salsgiver share the story of Carolyn and Marnie, two women who met and “developed a sisterhood formed from shared circumstances….their self-concepts and meanings they ascribed to their disabilities were similar.” Further, the authors note that Carloyn and Marnie had “few or no role models with disabilities, their disabilities were defined as negative, shameful…were isolated from others like themselves.”

The concepts of sisterhood and community are two more of the Big Sister Association of Boston’s values, and increased confidence is an outcome goal held by the program. As the relationship between women can be so powerful, it is important that Big Sister staff recognize this potential and thoughtfully seek to make matches between women and girls who share experiences as people with disabilities.

Big Sister Association of Boston values gender-specific programming, and it is important that this specificity carries over when thinking even further about what it means to not only be a girl, but to the intersection of being a girl with a disability in our society.

One way that Big Sister staff can work on developing knowledge about Disability culture as it relates to girls could be perusing the Gimp Girl website. As a refresher, the Georgetown Health Policy Institute defines cultural competence as “the ability of providers and organizations to effectively deliver health care services that meet the social, cultural, and linguistic needs of patients.”

The Gimp Girl website can be used as a resource for Big Sister staff to assist them in the task of continuously working on their cultural competence by becoming fully informed about the views and needs of girls with disabilities in particular. As a non-disabled person, I have permission to access articles and presentations on the site and join their online public forums. The website also includes links to many blogs written by and for girls with disabilities, which can raise awareness of the most current issues and interests of this particular community.

Tuning into Gimp Girl can help me practice cultural responsiveness by making me aware of the issues and concerns of interest to this population in order to most effectively meet the needs of girls with disabilities in a respectful and accessible way. Realizing that some people might prefer the term ‘gimp’ to the term ‘disabled’ might be important for Big Sister staff to realize vis-à-vis the debate between whether to use person first or disability first language.

The website will also help staff to practice cultural humility by reminding them that girls with disabilities have distinct and individual needs, as they describe what it means to experience the intersection of gender identity and disability. Reading about girls’ varying experiences will encourage Big Sister staff to consistently check their own biases and assumptions as well as maintain their position as learners when interacting with girls.

In addition to increasing any given Big Sister staff members’ knowledge and awareness about Disability culture, staff will also be able to share this website with Little Sisters if they are not familiar with it. Our agency constantly provides Big Sisters with information, resources, and activities they can use when spending time with their ‘Littles,’ and this website could be a great resource.

Big Sisters could explore the website with their Littles to find blogs that their Littles can relate to, or even help Littles join a Support Meeting in the online chat room. I think this resource is something that can benefit all of our staff and the girls and women we serve – and perhaps this will be true for you as well!

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News

NBC Nightly News Headline on the American Red Cross is Deeply Misleading

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Photo Credit: @Redcross Twitter

Recently, NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt headlined a story entitled “American Red Cross Fails to Pay Funds Promised to Many Harvey Victims”. The report discussed the failure of the American Red Cross to disburse funding to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. As a volunteer with Red Cross, this report raised my concerns for several reasons, and I immediately contacted them in order gain some insight into the causes preventing the Red Cross from distributing emergency funding.

According to the American Red Cross website, the primary function of the charity is “providing relief to victims of disaster, blood to hospital patients, health, and safety training to the public, or emergency social services to U.S. military families.” For more information on how the American Red Cross spends its donations, you can visit their website. After speaking with staff, I am now able to provide some clarity on the issues causing the delay with the disbursements.

Website Crashed

The website crashed from the 1 million displaced people trying to access it (plus repeat tries). Not only is the Red Cross attempting to aid those displaced by Hurricane Harvey, they are also handling an equally major crisis in Florida due to Hurricane Irma. Both Hurricanes have left a destabilized communications infrastructure with limited wifi and cell phone access in which to process aid. Everyone in flood areas is also still fighting the shaky access and embattled communication infrastructure in place. Many residents were showing up at the Red Cross HQ in hopes of gaining connectivity through the Red Cross. Unfortunately, the office has been experiencing the same connectivity issues.

Headlines about “High Overhead” feed into Confusion for Donors

When donors don’t understand that upgrading systems and IT staff, hiring volunteer coordinators and trainers, and other administrative staff duties are necessary to make it possible to handle 1 million plus displaced victims in multiple disasters at the same time, it breeds confusion and misinformation. The American Red Cross is not a governmental agency, but it is responsible for the bulk of relief efforts when a disaster happens. With Congress continuous cuts to FEMA, the American Red Cross will not be able to continue mass scale relief if they are denied donor support due to misinformation. This is a dangerous way to share information about life-saving charities. Without the American Red Cross, who else is equipped to handle natural disasters on this scale?

Emergency Funding

The $400 funds allocation from the Red Cross is an attempt to fill the gap that insurance and governmental delays create for desperate families. However, the reality is that it is dangerous to have volunteers standing on street corners handing out cash. However, this crisis may help the Red Cross identify innovative ways to distribute funds to help expedite funding to families. Currently, funds are being distributed to local centers like Wal-Mart for a more orderly disbursement. However, each disbursement center in affected areas is also still dealing with their own infrastructure issues.

At the end of the day, the American Red Cross is an organization run by 90% plus volunteers working at least 15 hours per day in harsh conditions because they want to help others. More paid employees would help with consistency and efficiency (deployments are only weeks long), but it would also create higher overhead in which donors don’t want.

With all of the disaster pile-ons we are experiencing with even more looming in the distance, we need to take a good look at our charities and how we expect them to function like a governmental agency or corporation while relying on donor support. How does the Red Cross run operations that cover a million people in a single disaster without the funding to hire people at salaries that will attract those with the talent and the willingness to risk such public scrutiny?

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Business

How to Grow Your Nonprofit With Little Budget

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It should come as no surprise that devoting time to a cause can be fulfilling. When you start one of your own, you will transform your life.

But establishing a nonprofit to take up said crusade comes with lots of barriers, namely financial. Traditional businesses often must figure out where the money will come from to make their vision a reality, and nonprofits are no different.

For nonprofit leaders with know-how and ideas but scarce financial capital, it’s an uphill battle. But it’s those who recognize their new nonprofits’ non-monetary value and how to translate that into viability who can bring those causes to fruition.

A Little Marketing Goes a Long Way

What nonprofits lack in budget, they more than make up for in positioning and branding. Organizations can mask their financial shortcomings by properly marketing each themselves and spotlighting who they are and what they can do.

That starts with communicating your purpose or company “brand.” Identifying your brand lets people know who you are and what you can do for others, which can go a long way in creating long-term relationships. From there, you want to avoid potential conflicts of interest or even the appearance of one: As owner, officer, or director, you should never personally profit from any transaction with your organization.

Once you’ve settled those things, you can market your nonprofit to its fullest potential. The next step is to take those attributes to events and platforms that feature opportunities to rub elbows with financiers with values similar to your own.

For nonprofits with limited funds, I suggest looking to corporations to sponsor a campaign. Dress for Success, for example, held a “clean your closet week” by asking professionals to donate clothing, and the campaign generated $400,000.

And when you find an actual sponsor, it can be a useful way to find other organizations that align with your mission. Let’s say you connect with a corporation known to work with homeless youth. It’ll have relationships with many other corporations that work with this same service sector, which can establish a ripple effect.

Do Good on a Discount

Outside of knowing how to sell your cause, the following tips are useful to help your growing nonprofit continue to scale:

1. Think intangible. When you’re on a tight budget and don’t have money to involve your nonprofit in initiatives requiring a cash investment, start off by marketing non-financial resources, such as your time and industry knowledge.

Not only will it provide your organization some much-needed exposure, but it’ll also give you and your other teammates a better idea of the work involved and a brief overview of your chosen nonprofit sector. Plus, it’s not a bad way to make connections.

2. Give in to the youth movement. Look for volunteers at area high schools. Talk with the local school councils and ask whether it’d be possible to create a partnership that would allow teens to volunteer for a school credit or as an extracurricular activity.

Position the volunteer opportunity as a way for teenagers to prepare for the future. After all, volunteering improves not just communities, but also participants’ social and communication skills. In fact, they often reap better advantages at college and on down the line.

3. See how the pros do it. Follow the activities of larger nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations. Check with international organizations like the United Nations; you may find opportunities for involvement and gain access to their funding pool.

Take NeedsList, for example. The online platform was created to help small grassroots groups connect with NGOs across the world in need of shoes, SD cards, and other supplies. Donors can choose to donate goods, money, or time, which brings us full circle.

As the adage goes, it’s not what you know but whom. No other sector exemplifies this more than nonprofit. For foundations on a shoestring budget, make connections, think about what you have to offer, and deliver on your purpose each step of the way. Then, you can let your personal transformation begin.

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Education

How to Get Rid of Your Student Loan Debt While Working at a Nonprofit

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student loans

All across the country, graduates are taking advantage of various loan repayment programs to help lower their monthly payments and improve their lives. If you plan to work for a nonprofit or in the public sector, it’s smart to explore all of the loan repayment options in front of you – including loan forgiveness.

When Michelle Argento graduated college with $25,000 in student loans, she knew the path forward wouldn’t be easy. As a music education major with little earning potential, she was right to worry about her new $290 monthly payment.

Fortunately, Argento started learning about the federal income-driven repayment programs available right away. And once she qualified for Income-Based Repayment (IBR), she watched her new payment shrink to just $27 per month.

While Argento’s situation has changed over the years, she still benefits on a sliding scale. A marriage and a toddler later, she and her husband pay $350 per month towards their $40,000 in combined student loans. If the couple were on the Standard Repayment Plan, she would owe more like $690 per month, she said.

Instead, the $340 per month they save has meant less stress and more opportunity.

“Having been on IBR for now six years, I have never, ever felt crushed or overwhelmed by my loans,” said Argento. “That flexibility also means being able to take risks in my career by moving to owning my own business, being able to splurge a bit on experiences such as traveling to Europe, and considering going back to school while continuing paying down debt.”

The icing on the cake, however, is that income-driven repayment plans like IBR will forgive any remaining after 20-25 years of payments (assuming there’s any debt left over). The only downside is that once the debt is forgiven, you’re on the hook for income taxes on that amount that same tax year.

Of course, IBR isn’t the only income-driven plan out there. Borrowers can also benefit from plans such as Pay As You Earn (PAYE), Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE), and Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR). While each plan works in its own unique way, they all base your monthly payments on your discretionary income and eventually lead to student loan forgiveness.

By and large, income-driven repayment plans were created for graduates just like Argento – people with large amounts of debt and lower-than-average earnings. That’s why many people who work at nonprofits flock to income-driven repayment plans; instead of struggling to afford huge monthly payments, they can enjoy reasonable out-of-pocket expenses and continue working in jobs that let them give back.

Another Option: Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)

In addition to income-driven repayment, students interested in working for the public good can look into Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).

With PSLF, graduates can have their student loans forgiven after working in a qualified public service position and making 120 consecutive payments on their loans. Payments made after October 1, 2007 qualify and the first round of PSLF participants will receive forgiveness beginning this October.

Ginger, a psychotherapist who blogs at Girls Just Wanna Have Funds, uses PSLF to make her student loan payments bearable. Thanks to the reasonable loan payment she has achieved through PSLF, Ginger figures she’ll save 15 years of payments and at least $100,000 on interest if she sticks with it.

And she should. Unlike other income-driven plans that require you to pay taxes on forgiven debt, PSLF wipes your slate entirely clean. If Ginger is able to stay on her current program for 10 consecutive years, she’ll have zero debt – and no trace of a tax bill – once it’s over.

Although she’ll need to work in public service the entire time, this is a huge benefit for her and others like her to look forward to.

Picking a Repayment Plan

With the right plan, you can settle on a monthly payment you can actually afford and move on with your life. Here are some steps that can help:

Step 1: Explore loan forgiveness options. While we touched on the main loan forgiveness programs in this article, you should research more on each before you sign up. There are also many state- and school-based repayment and forgiveness programs. Check out this comprehensive guide on forgiveness programs to find the right fit.

Step 2: Consider your long-term career plans. While income-driven repayment and PSLF can drastically reduce your monthly payments now, that can change quickly if your income surges or your career changes course. Before you sign up, consider how your future decisions might affect your loan payments.

Step 3: Determine how comfortable you are with debt. While loan forgiveness programs can lower your monthly payment and lead to total debt forgiveness, they also leave you in debt for a longer stretch of time. If you don’t like the idea of debt, you might be better off making extra payments and paying off your loans early instead.

Step 4: Sign up for a plan and stick with it. If you decide you’re okay with debt as long as it’s eventually forgiven, you’re a good candidate for loan forgiveness plans. To get the most out of them, however, you should stay the course and see them to the end. Ten to 25 years might seem like a long time, but it will be worth it when you’re finally debt-free.

If you’re worried how you’ll handle your loans as a non-profit worker, it’s smart to explore all of these opportunities to see if one might fit your needs.

With the right repayment plan, you could score an affordable monthly payment and complete forgiveness in the end. If you’re in debt and struggling, that’s the best thing you can hope for.

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