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Leisha Cason, ’20SPS, Nonprofit Management, on the Efficacy of Grassroots Organizations in Brazil

Leisha Cason is a Development Associate at GiGi's Playhouse, a Down Syndrome achievement center, in New York City. She directs all aspects of fundraising including individual giving, corporate and foundation giving, grant writing, and fundraising events.

How did your experience as an HBCU undergraduate lead you to the master's program? 

One of my professors at Delaware State nominated me to apply to the Columbia University HBCU Fellowship. This competitive fellowship offers free tuition and housing, as well as access to Columbia’s amazing faculty and networking opportunities. I was accepted into the Nonprofit Management program, which aligned with my bachelor’s in public health as well as experience directing a community health organization. When I enrolled, I was very excited to learn the comprehensive structure of how people develop charities and nonprofits. 

What are your long-term career goals, and did the program help get you closer to them? 

I aim to become a CEO of a nonprofit that helps communities in need and works toward collective impact. A collective is a nonprofit that engages in a variety of services, such as disability services, senior services, and general access to health services, so that the organization can create maximum impact in a local community. I’m also interested in advocacy, and efforts to change policy and laws to help the underserved. 

It’s easy for nonprofits put bandaids on problems. The program taught me that effective nonprofits require a comprehensive, strategic, data-driven approach. I want to lead an organization that is invested in multiple areas: direct services, research, and advocacy. In my career, I will always be asking: will this set of solutions get us to the root cause of the issues at stake? 

Which aspects of the program have been the most impactful for you? 

I had a study abroad opportunity that encouraged me to view the nonprofit sector from an international perspective. The International Fieldwork course brought together students from other master’s degree disciplines within the School of Professional Studies. The ten-day fieldwork convened in Brazil: seven days in Rio de Janeiro and three days in São Paulo. We learned about topics in peacebuilding, women’s empowerment, and youth development. We also met and worked with stakeholders engaged in various issues throughout the country.

I was particularly interested in how community involvement impacted the success of the nonprofits’ programs. I found that community outreach programs often fail when community members are not involved in the development of these programs. The grassroots nonprofits in Brazil that had more interactions with the people the programming aimed to help often had the most impact. Three nonprofits that I worked with in Rio stood out as bringing about positive change through grassroots efforts: Promundo, a nongovernmental organization that works in collaboration to promote caring, non-violent and equitable masculinities and gender relations; Cepia, an NGO focused on lobbying and advocacy of human rights, particularly women's rights; and Observatorio de Favelas, a social organization engaged in research, consultancy and public actions to take on challenges of slums and other urban issues. 

Did any classes or faculty members particularly stand out to you? 

What I love about the faculty at SPS is that they work in the field, and have a finger on the pulse of trends and best practices in their respective industries. This is also great for students as networking opportunities. Highlights include lecturer Timothy Higdon, CEO of Hearing Health Foundation, who instructed Nonprofit Governance, which is one of my first courses I took in the program. Even after the course completed in Fall 2018, I continue to periodically meet with him to discuss academic and professional updates. John Hicks, Principal and Chief Strategist, DLBHICKS, LLC, is another faculty member who continues to support my academic and professional development even after I took his fantastic course on Grant Writing in Spring 2019. I also learned a lot of information about fundraising from Leah Heister, Deputy Director and Chief Advancement Officer of the Guggenheim Museum, and organizational leadership from Gloria Cusack-Johnson, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Silicon Valley-based Firelight Foundation. 

Cason is featured on the January 2020 cover of AFP's Advancing Philanthropy. Read more about her career journey.

Learn more about the M.S. in Nonprofit Management program.