by Kiesha Davis

With a multitude of challenges, the nonprofit sector working with community to support those needs are often pushed beyond their own capacity to do so. Sector leaders, and those all to often focused on serving communities of color, are routinely faced with a barrage of competing interests calling for their attention and limited access to resources to address all of the challenges that lie ahead. Those competing factors sometimes leave little room for visionary and aspirational thinking to help support their capacity to fulfill their best and highest version of their community-centered missions or even responding to community needs. At Memphis Music Initiative, we move in tandem with the ecosystem to respond to the ever-shifting needs of the neighborhoods in which these organizations are rooted. We endeavor to collaborate with black arts organizations by relinquishing the normative funder/grantee dynamics for a deeper partnership toward fostering space for transformative music and art engagement to occur for black and brown Memphis youth. In lieu of rewarding organizations that have capacity to make the best case for funding, we recognize that organizations committed to the communities that matter most to our work may not always be appreciated for their distinct ability to create environments for communities of color to use creative expression in order to navigate life.

Over the past 10 months, MMI’s charge through its Institute for Nonprofit Excellence (INE) has been to chip away at some of the barriers impacting local music engagement organizations. A cohort of five organizations went through a transformative learning process by which they can not only have the opportunity to build a network of their peers, but also continue to grow as leaders in a safe and supportive environment to develop strategies that will impact the sustainability of their organizations and in turn positively influence positive impact for the black and brown youth that their organizations serve.

The Institute was launched with an approach to develop real-time solutions to support real-time organizational issues, including:

Transformative operating grant funding – cohort organizations received up to six figures in funding awards for operational, programmatic and infrastructure needs. Our goal is to have the teams reflect on their most pressing needs and give substantial funding toward rectifying those areas so that there is more room for the real work with youth to thrive.

Opportunities for communal learning and ecosystem building – participant organizations met throughout the time frame to learn and share their own organizational experiences with one another both in person through learning modules and through check-in webinars. These opportunities were designed to not only create a place for leaders to reflect on areas of organizational development that sometimes get pushed to the side, but also share among their peers the progress made in those areas from session to session and cheerlead for one another for achievements attained.

Tailored Expert Support – cohort leaders did not walk this journey alone. A program manager, executive coach and organizational consultants were all on hand to work with participant organizations to encourage and give insights on how teams could move closer to self-identified goals. From debriefs with the executive coach following each learning module session, to tailored consultant engagements around marketing, strategy building or data assessment needs, we worked to bring as much human capital to the table to further jumpstart the momentum building at cohort organizations.

As we come to the close of the first year of the INE, we’ve been deeply engaged with cohort organizations reflecting on their collective experiences to inform how we continue to walk in partnership with INE organizations over the next year. Along the way, we’ve captured data about cohort organization progress individually and as a cohort so that we can continue to be agile in our approach to meeting organizations where they are for greater sustainability. From those points of reflection, we’re adjusting parts of the INE to move further along the continuum with organizations in the coming year.

Our approach to amplifying access to high quality music engagement has taken a course from the classroom (through our In-schools Fellowship) to the communities we values most in Memphis. Once youth connect to community based organizations, ideally those organizations will be well suited and have the tools necessary to deliver music engagement to youth. This fall we are launching a pilot referred to as “Community Fellows,” which will take the ethos of MMI’s existing In-schools Music Fellowship and create a pathway from local school placements of skilled musicians to placements in community based organizations offering music engagement programming for black and brown Memphis youth.

Additionally, while the pilot year aimed at capturing where organizations would be with a heavy dose of supports and six figure investments, we know this work does not happen overnight. Our aim for year two is to take a step-down approach in supports that extends the support given in year one, but also allows space for an expansion of organizations in a second cohort class. Organizations in the first cohort have already expressed interest in providing support and insight to new organizations in the next cohort of the INE to be a sounding board and encouraging ear to their journey. We’re excited about this development, not only as an opportunity to dig deeper with the teams that we’ve been invested in, but also to witness the leadership of those organizations model and share with others in the field on how to make strides to taking their work to the next level.

How else will the INE evolve? We know that the expanse of organizational development needs varies and that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. In our first year, we provided half-day training through our learning modules for cohort members. In the next go round, we’ll explore ways to conduct in person learning opportunities in shorter time frame and more frequently to better accommodate schedules but still offer dedicated time for shared thinking in the work.

We support cohort participants in measuring organizational progress using partner developed goal dashboards that reflect on the team’s progress in meeting identified goals for the year. That dashboard, in addition to other organizational assessment measures, serve as a benchmark to where our journey with cohort organizations begins. It is the roadmap as it were to how the organizations goals to strive for, but also evolve based on the changing needs of the organization over time. As we reflect on the data from dashboards in prior year, there have been some big wins as well as some areas that continue to evolve for our partners.

Young people in Memphis can reach their fullest potential when the supports and systems around them are functioning at their highest capacity. As we look to foster a strong network of music engagement organizations through the Institute for Nonprofit Excellence, our goal is to create access to an ever evolving landscape of spaces for youth to creatively express themselves.


Kiesha Davis is the Director of Grantmaking and Capacity Building with MMI. Davis joined Memphis Music Initiative in October of 2016, to lead the stewardship of MMI’s grantmaking strategy supporting music engagement organizations based in Memphis, Tennessee. She brings to the initiative extensive experience in building and fostering grantee relationships notably with black led community-based organizations, amplifying collaborations to address community level outcomes for youth and expertise in developing large scale multi-million dollar grantmaking frameworks.