Nancy Lublin, CEO of Do Something and Creator of Dress for Success

On April 28th, Nancy Lublin, the CEO of and founder of Dress for Success, became the first recipient of the NYU-SCPS Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising's Award for Nonprofit Leadership and Innovation. The award, presented to Lublin by Philanthropy NYU Editor Ann Paisley Chandler, is given to recognize fundraising excellence and innovation, and Lublin was an obvious choice. Since taking the helm at DoSomething in 2003, Lublin—an NYU law school alum—transformed the youth nonprofit from a struggling, largely unknown organization awash in red ink into a thriving, international youth advocacy powerhouse, boasting 2.4 million, 13- to 25-year-olds as members, and counting—largely through the innovative use of online marketing and social media campaigns. DoSomething recently launched Crisis Text Line, the nation's first texting hotline for teens, based on a groundbreaking text-messaging strategy that uses social media use-data to drive supporter engagement. Lublin writes a monthly column in Fast Company magazine and was named to the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders, and has been a featured speaker at the annual TED conference.

"We need to be more honest about failure in the nonprofit sector," Lublin told the more than 250 nonprofit leaders attending the Heyman Center's April 28th Women in Philanthropy Summit, where she received her award. "There are a lot of crappy organizations out there and a lot of crappy leaders and we don't review them as a sector. We don't talk about failure. Every year we all say the same thing, that this year was more wonderful than the last, that we're raising more money this year than last—and yet, literacy, homelessness, whatever the problem is, it's getting bigger than ever and we're not solving it. It's time that we be honest about this and review these things; create cultures within our organizations in which you talk about failure when you review people. That will lead to greater learning and greater impact as a sector, which is what we all want."

Just before the Heyman Center’s recent Women in Philanthropy conference, Summit chair and organizer Marcia Stepanek, who teaches online fundraising and social media strategy at the Heyman Center, interviewed Lublin briefly for Philanthropy NYU. What follows is an edited transcript of that interview:

STEPANEK: You've spoken in the past about the need for more collaboration among nonprofit leaders in the sector. In a 12-minute speech at the 2013 Personal Democracy Forum last year, you talked about the fact that funders don't collaborate with each other and asked the audience why nonprofits don't work together very well. [One of your theories was that real collaboration takes time, funding, and a shared vision, as well as putting aside the desire to get all the credit.] Why is more and better collaboration important in the nonprofit sector, and what's needed to make this happen? What do you think greater collaboration among funders and nonprofits will achieve for the social good sector?

LUBLIN: Unlike the for-profit world, we lack market forces to encourage M&A activity. Organizations don't ever completely die, they just muddle along. There are no incentives for swooping in and acquiring a zombie organization because there are no potential profits (ever)—just liabilities! I think the pressure has to come from funders. Why are there a million breast cancer organizations? Because cosmetic companies each have their own, and families that lose a family member start their own. Instead, come together! Eliminate redundancy, because pooling money and talent and planning is the best way to cure breast cancer. Put that mission before your own personal interests.

STEPANEK: DoSomething, under your leadership, has become a laboratory for some of the best new technology/new media/nonprofit talent in the sector today. What is the mix of talent and values you seek when you're hiring at DoSomething? And, what would be your advice to nonprofit leaders for managing bright young people to achieve remarkable things?

LUBLIN: We need the best minds on the world's biggest problems, not the best minds we can get. Three things: (a) Change your hiring rules. Stop looking for Master's degrees and years of experience. We have three simple rules for hiring and they are posted on our site. (See Nancy’s Summit speech in this issue) We don't even require a B.A. anymore. (b) Pay people a fair wage. Money is a dumb reason to lose someone amazing. (c) Make your organization an amazing place to grow, experiment, and fail. 

STEPANEK: How important is it today for nonprofits to experiment with communications technology, and what -- in your view -- are the most important ways that technology is reshaping fundraising? In the development of Crisis Text Line, what did you find most remarkable about your effort to fundraise for that initiative?

LUBLIN: Fundraising for Crisis Text Line was a bear, a big grizzly bear, surprising me from my slumber. I think I had grown comfy. I have a team at and they are incredible. We have a track record of real measurable impact. It had been a long time since I had peddled a start-up. I forgot how hard it is! The CTL idea is so simple and so obvious, and we were triaging it at yet, foundations all said the same thing: "You don't fit our buckets." No kidding! New things never fit old buckets!!! The whole experience made me feel sad about my own inabilities and sad for our sector. I literally gained 15 pounds (that I am still carrying). 

STEPANEK: DoSomething works very well with corporate sponsors (; it runs about 25 cause campaigns a year. DoSomething launched a new subsidiary, TMI, to consult with corporate brands and nonprofits on youth, social change and technology. ( and ( Your rules of engagement with corporations are a model for cross-sector participation in social good initiatives. They produce partnerships that keep nonprofit leadership in control. What would be your advice to nonprofit leaders seeking more corporate participation?

LUBLIN: Stop thinking it is about philanthropy. Corporate cause marketing isn't a gift, it's an investment. How will both sides benefit? How do you care about the same target market? How are your brands aligned?

STEPANEK: What would be your advice to students who wish to start up their own causes? What lessons from starting Dress for Success endure throughout your career thus far?

LUBLIN: We don't need more start-ups. The not-for-profit sector is growing faster than the American economy. What we need are better organizations, not new ones. Go be an entrepreneur. Throw yourself at a cause you love--and an org in that space that needs help. Pick a sucky organization and go make it better. 

STEPANEK: DoSomething keeps growing and just got a web site overhaul. What's next for DoSomething and when will we see your next book? Will it be a sequel to your 2010 book, "ZILCH: The Power of Zero in Business"?

LUBLIN: Last year, ran 26 campaigns. This year, we will run more than 200. And, you might have noticed that our entire platform just changed. I'm proud that we killed many great legacy programs, narrowing the focus on campaigns.

My next book is out this fall! I edited it with Alyssa Ruderman. It is a collection of essays from our staff. It's called XYZ, referring to a certain kind of company built for a Gen X /Gen Y/Gen Z generation and its challenges. 

STEPANEK: No doubt, we'll all have something to learn from you yet again! Thanks, Nancy and congratulations again for your NYU-SCPS Heyman Center Award for Nonprofit Leadership and Innovation.

LUBLIN: I'm so flattered you thought of me for this award. Thank you!

Marcia Stepanek is a multi-media journalist, new media strategist, an award-winning news and features editor, videographer and author of the forthcoming books, Swarms: The Rise of the Digital Anti-Establishment and, additionally, a Cause Video textbook based on her popular Cause Video lab at NYU, which is scheduled for publication in early 2015. Marcia develops new media curriculum and teaches social media strategy and cause video at the NYU-SCPS Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising and serves as a new media advisor to the Center. A former Knight Fellow in New Media at Stanford University and former Technology Strategies Editor at BusinessWeek, Marcia is a frequent speaker on the impact of digital media on society. She was Founding Editor-in-Chief of Contribute magazine, which covered the rise of online fundraising and social good advocacy, and before that covered Washington and served as Tokyo Bureau Chief for Hearst Media, as an editor and investigative reporter. In 2011, Marcia was a finalist for a World Technology Network award in media/journalism and an Internet Freedom Fellow at the US Mission to the United Nations.


PHOTOS: NYU Photo Bureau/Sleczak





I hate getting awards. It’s not really about me; clearly I didn’t do those things alone. I’d like to run this all back onto you and make some requests of you, women working in the nonprofit sector, so we can move beyond this conversation about women and get somewhere with it.

Why does it matter? Why do women in philanthropy even matter? That was solved in 1792 when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman," widely viewed as the first great feminist treatise, the first argument the world had heard for educating us and including us (women) in things. The basic premise? The world would be better if we participated in it, too. That was a pretty basic argument, but equal participation has remained a consistent problem, so I have six requests of you that I think will help to realize the vision of Mary Wollstonecraft and our capabilities in this sector:

Hire the Best. The biggest problems on the planet, which arguably everyone in this room is trying to solve, require the best minds. That is so basic. Why only have half of the great minds on the planet addressing some of the world’s biggest problems? So we need to hire the best. At, we have three rules when we hire. 1. Would I want to be in a bunker with you? I’m going to spend more time with you than my friends or my family. Do I like you? 2. Can you hit the ground running? Are you going to hit a home run in your first 90 days? Because as all of you know, not-for-profits are not about ‘Let’s all hold hands and figure this out.’ Not-for-profits are fast-moving. There isn't a lot of time or resources. 3. Are you capable of doing something amazing in 4-6 years? [And not necessarily at, but anywhere.] Those are the three rules for hiring. We no longer require a BA degree, let alone a Master’s. That opens it up for women, frankly women of older ages, too, because we’re not actually dominated by Millennials in this room, but women my age and older. The idea that you are requiring 20 years of experience to be CEO of your organization? You’ve just cut out women. If we really want the best minds, if we really want the best people we need standards. So my request to you is this: be on the hiring committee. If you can’t be on the board, be on the search committee and make sure the rules for the job are not exclusionary to women, because when you require those advanced degrees and all those years of experience, you’re keeping many of your potential candidates out of the running.

Size doesn’t matter. "How big is your org" is something we all need to stop talking about, that asks about staff size and budget size. Poll data shows us that men dominate larger nonprofit organizations and large organizations are not always the most effective. We know this. We need to stop talking about size. We need to start focusing on impact. We need to stop talking as if saying you have 100 people working for you is better than six people, because bigger isn’t always better. So my request is to please change your language and stop asking about size.

We can finally be the media we want to see. For a long time, stories of successful organizations were written for whoever could afford the best PR. But that’s changed. Now we can be the media we want to see. Stories now? You can be a popular blogger and get much more reach and traction. Many women are blogging. They are fast, free and open and blogs are meritocracies. So if you have good thoughts in your mind, you can tweet them at 2 am, when you’re breastfeeding your twins. That’s good. That time management thing? Social media is much more open for people who have time management and social media responsibilities. The opportunity is open for people to get out there with blogging. So my request for you is to please tweet, blog and video blog. Put your voice out there. We need to hear from you.

Failure. We need to be honest about it. There are a lot of crappy organizations out there and a lot of crappy leaders and we don’t review them. We don’t talk about failure. Everyone always says the same things: that this year was more wonderful than the last, that we’re raising more money this year than last year. But literacy, homelessness, whatever the social problem, is getting bigger than ever and we’re not solving it. It’s time that we are honest about these things. We need to review our failures and talk about them, which will open up more jobs for us and lead to greater impact, which is what we all want. My request for you is to create a culture at your organization where you talk about failure when you review people.

Term limits. Staff term limits. I’m not asking you to go anywhere, but look around your organization. Not-for-profits are public good organizations, not job security organizations—and we need fresh ideas and thinking. At many large nonprofits, especially, turnover is slow, and term limits don’t exist and you have men staying in jobs for 20 years and those jobs don’t open up. That’s a problem also. I’ve been at for 11 years. My COO has been there for eight years. We’re both women but maybe we should go. Maybe the best thing for would be fresh ideas, and fresh thinking. And I would be open to that. That would be sad, but maybe it would be the right thing for the organization. This doesn’t require legislation. We can do this. That’s what women do. We make sacrifices.

Pride. I worry, too, as does Mrs. Levine, that nursing and education are fields that went female, almost totally, and when they did, they became devalued. I do worry about that for our fundraising and nonprofit field, too, but I think this is something we can stop. And we can stop this by having more pride. I’m not asking for a flag or a march. I’m asking for chutzpah. We are smart people and we do really important work, and there’s all the stuff the for-profit world does because they think they can make money at it, and there’s all of this work that the government does because someone decided that this is what the public good is, so we need to take tax money and cover it. But those two sectors don’t cover all of our needs in society, and there’s always been a middle way—a third sector that we have to cover the needle exchanges and the homeless programs, but that don’t always cover the things that need doing. What we do matters, but when we continue to beg for little checks or honor people at dinners who we don’t even know or like (but we honor them anyway because we think that’s what’s going to make a lot of money) is ridiculous. So my final request is stop the sycophantic praise we heap on donors and stop giving awards to companies that are only marginally kind to us. Until we value our own sector, nobody else will.

Thank you for valuing me with this Award and thank you for your work in the sector but we all have much more work to do.

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