Nicky Yates, Deputy Director of The Adventure Project, took a side quest to the for-profit world to discover her real home is in the philanthropy sector. Hear her sage advice on learning from your mistakes and how to talk about anything other than work at networking events in this episode of Create Good Podcast.
Proud of her Native American Echota and Alabamian roots, Nicky has been in New York since 2004 (and still loves it!). She holds a Master of Arts in Forensic Psychology and got her start in NYC alongside Becky Straw at charity: water in the early years of the organization. From providing direct services at the New York County District Attorney’s Office to leading the first NGO to reach 1 million followers on social media to leading NGO’s and tech startups in their partnerships and social impact efforts, Nicky has over a decade of experience in growing nonprofits, building startups and forging social impact relationships that scale with technology. When not in the office or field, Nicky enjoys traveling and taking on new challenges, from climbing Kilimanjaro to learning to scuba dive!
Brian Crawford 0:02
Welcome to the Create Good podcast. I’m Brian,
Dawn Crawford 0:06
and I’m Dawn.
Brian Crawford 0:07
And we’ve spent the last decade plus working with passionate communicators activist and do-gooders around the country. We also host a conference called Create Good, where we gather folks to share their work, and create a community for people trying to make the world a better place.
Dawn Crawford 0:25
The Create Good podcast is a conversation with changemakers and rabble rousers to find out what makes them tick, and how they create good. Let’s get started.
Hello, and welcome to the Create Good Podcast. Today, we have Nicky Yates, and we’re so excited to have you today.
Nicky Yates 0:48
I am super excited to be here. Thank you so much for having me,
Dawn Crawford 0:51
Really excited to have all of our listeners get to know you better. So why don’t we go ahead and start with just sharing your title and the organization you’re currently working for?
Nicky Yates 1:02
Yeah, so I am the Deputy Director of The Adventure Project. So we focus on ending extreme poverty by empowering entrepreneurs in developing countries, all those entrepreneurs then go on to improve their communities through life saving services. So that means helping provide water access, helping provide health care services, helping provide nutrition and food access, and then helping reduce environmental impacts through stoves, environmentally friendly stoves, or solar lights.
Dawn Crawford 1:29
Fantastic. That is great. And how long have you been in the wild world of nonprofit communications?
Nicky Yates 1:36
Well, I am the weird one who started off in nonprofits thought I’d see if I can make an impact in the for profit world and then circled back because I did love the nonprofit world. So altogether, it’s been about 12 years, but it’s been broken up.
Dawn Crawford 1:50
It’s great. Yeah, I had a very short stint, I had three months in for profit. And I figured out that it’s not the people
Nicky Yates 1:56
very different. They’re very different beasts. I did five years, I did two different orgs. And you know, appreciated the orgs I worked with, but I think it was important for me to know I am a nonprofit girl.
Dawn Crawford 2:07
Yeah, there are people that is our people. Well, great. So we’ll get into the bulk of our 20 questions. So share about your career in 90 seconds or less.
Nicky Yates 2:16
As I mentioned, I’ve kind of gone all over the place started in forensic psychology, worked in direct services, then really kind of wanted to work in something smaller and help build something. So I was fortunate to be employee four at Charity Water helped them grow, get a lot of on the job training there. And really, really excited about that. Went to see if I knew what I was doing. If it was just luck at Charity Water, worked in suicide prevention, then decided to try my hand in the for profit space to see if I can make it a little make more impact using bigger delt lot of dollars from other people decided, nope, I do like the for profit the nonprofit side. And so came back and I’ve been at TAP for four and a half years now leading all of our operations programs and helping with our comms.
Dawn Crawford 2:59
Very cool. Yeah. So Charity Water was that at the beginning of the organization, and were they pretty well established?
Nicky Yates 3:05
Yeah. No, we were I was employee four so they’d been around maybe about eight, nine months. So very early on.
Dawn Crawford 3:12
Nicky Yates 3:13
Yeah. Scott’s apartment to an office that was donated, and yeah, yeah, bunch of kids figuring it out.
Dawn Crawford 3:21
Like, absolutely, yeah, they’re such a juggernaut of communications. You know, I think that there is a bar and a goal of like, how do you hold up things against their work? So great job on being the start of all that. That’s fantastic.
Nicky Yates 3:36
Thanks. I learned a lot, and made a lot of mistakes. And I think that’s the best way you learn, but
Dawn Crawford 3:42
Absolutely. Great. So why nonprofits, why this work?
Nicky Yates 3:47
I for me, I grew up in the rural south in poverty. And one of the things that did help me was, you know, the kindness of others was teachers who helped me with after school programs. You know, we had food pantries, we had people who helped me get to college and the impact that that had on my life and how it helped to break that cycle of poverty is something that I felt I wanted to help others with. And so because I got out I wanted to dedicate my life to helping others in that way. And I think that’s what’s important is recognizing I’m privileged and how did I use that privilege to you stop the pain of poverty, stop the hardships that others unnecessarily have to face. So that’s, that’s my why.
Dawn Crawford 4:30
That’s incredible. That’s a great story. Thank you. Yeah. Yeah, it’s amazing to see how far we can all go right with just a little bit of help. Yeah,
Nicky Yates 4:38
I think it’s something that I don’t think we do enough. Enough. There are times where I get disappointed with my career or something and I can look back and I’m like, no, like, let’s not in a braggy way but let it look in an honest real take like let’s look at what we have accomplished. And you know, I’m proud of myself that I have been able to get out of poverty. I’m proud of myself, you know, my career trajectory and may not be the what I had in my head at the time but it is still something that I can look back at and be excited about and be proud of and have some great highs.
Dawn Crawford 5:05
That’s fantastic. So what’s your favorite thing about what you do?
Nicky Yates 5:08
My favorite thing I love building systems I love. It’s one of those things that I think is overlooked oftentimes, especially in communications, one of my favorite things I love doing and we learned this at Charity Water was to build a lexicon. Are we all using the same words? Are we all talking about the same thing? When we talk about it? Are we using commas the same way, which sounds so silly, but it does button everything up. And it gives a guide for people. So creating that foundational stuff, where you know, it’s a lexicon, it’s a tone of voice, it’s those entities that everybody coming in knows what we’re using, how we’re talking, the the structure of how we’re setting up sentences, I think it for me is the exciting, fun part, and then watching that grow from there, and then building systems on that from that. And so I think that part can often get looked, you know, looked over in the communication space, but it’s for me, it’s that nitty gritty stuff. Not that the creative high-brow stuff, it’s the Oh, like, how do we make it? How do we template this? How do we build this? How do you make sure emails look fantastic?
Dawn Crawford 6:16
Absolutely. And I completely agree that I think that’s the difference between good and great for nonprofit communications is actually creating processes and systems to have consistency. That, yeah, that’s one thing that we find that we bring to our clients is, yeah, like, strict consistency. Like, No, you’re not your newsletters gonna go out the first Thursday of every month, like it’s gonna happen. Like we’re gonna do it. Because also, I think a lot of nonprofits hold themselves back with the lack of completion. Yep. Right, that they’re like, oh, but it has to be perfect. I’m like, No, it just go out.
Nicky Yates 6:50
You’ll get consistency you will get there and perfect is the enemy of great is what I like to say. Everything can always be improved upon, but no one’s looking for perfect. And a great analogy that I like to use when people try to be like, Well, I just want to get it right is people love records, because they’re analog, because there is that like, slight imperfection in it. That’s why like, we are going back to CDs, we’re going back to our records, we want that connection. So yeah, there’s a typo in there. It’s not the best thing, but there is something that’s relatable to it.
Dawn Crawford 7:21
Yeah, typos are always a great opportunity to send a mistake email be like, it’s like we’re human.
So magic wand time, what is one thing you wish you could change about your work life?
Nicky Yates 7:36
My work life? Um, I think for me, it would not be as I think it wouldn’t be about my specific work. But I think it would be about the Industry Focus. There are some unrealistic expectations that I do think that the nonprofit world has set up. And it makes it harder in the communication and the operations areas. You know, and as much as I love my time at Charity Water, I do actually regret the 100% model because nonprofits have to cover their operations, they have to pay for good people good resources, and the 100% model has been sold to the donor that that is realistic when it’s not. And that’s one thing where I wish we could undo and we can’t and explaining to donors that nuance. Explain to donors why that’s bad. Or, you know, I have problems with the sponsorship model. Like I get that donors love that connection. But it’s there’s a little white savior component to it. And, and so it is one of those things where those are the magic wands, where if I could undo and be like those never happened, I would use it on those. Absolutely, that consequentially would make my life easier.
Dawn Crawford 8:45
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. But yeah, I mean, nobody questions the overhead cost of a Coke, right? Like nobody questions how much money it takes to get that to, you know the vending machine?
Nicky Yates 9:00
Nobody thinks twice about how much the CEO of Coca-cola is making. You go, wow. Yeah, yeah.
Dawn Crawford 9:07
Yeah, that person really should be really, really be making that much money to do good. And it’s like, well, yes, but it’s dramatically lower than they could be earning someplace else.
Nicky Yates 9:15
The fact that social workers are paid $36,000, on average, a year is insane. You look at what teachers make. And it’s just not realistic to ask people to dedicate their life to doing good and shoulder that burden and not get burned out. And let the for profit world make all the profits. So I do think that overhead is necessary and it’s it’s a hard thing to talk about.
Dawn Crawford 9:36
Absolutely. So what are you looking forward to the next year of your career?
Nicky Yates 9:43
Ah, it’s exciting for me because I’ve been at The Adventure Project for five years, and we are really in a period of growth where we’re looking at diversity and inclusion, looking at how are we being more intentional about our hiring structure? How are we communicating that? One of our focuses has been We believe in, we’re creating good jobs in the field. How are we doing that here? And how can we be a leader here in the US with nonprofit hiring practices and pay transparency? And to me that is very exciting and exciting thing to talk about?
Dawn Crawford 10:13
Absolutely. Yeah, that’s fantastic. What do you still need to achieve in your career, you’ve done a lot bounced back and forth. You know, you have a, you have a good, good title now good leadership title, what else do you have to achieve?
Nicky Yates 10:26
I think, for me, my next step would be moving to a larger organization where I can grow, go from like small to medium or large. And that for me would be exciting. And I would love to lead a larger organization in these areas.
Dawn Crawford 10:40
Very cool. So what advice do you have for somebody who’s starting their career or transitioning to a career in nonprofits?
Nicky Yates 10:46
It’s not what you think it is. It’s not glamorous, don’t ask to go to the field.
But now, realistically, you one of the things about a nonprofit that I do love, but it’s hard to learn at first is it’s an all hands on deck, it was very much someone taught me the full phrase of jack of all trades, is it actually the rest of it ends with what is it it’s jack of all trades is a master of none, but is oftentimes better than a master of one. And we forget that last piece. And you know, being in a nonprofit means that you learn how to do so many things, you’re going to be put in charge of so many things. So be adaptable, be willing to learn. Do the research before you ask questions of those on your team, because everybody’s doing so many things ahead of time. But also be excited about it and look to what’s happening in the field. One of the things I love most about the nonprofit community is my professional network, I have some of the most brilliant contacts I’ve worked with who are so happy to share feedback, insights, like anything I’m working on, I’ll send that text over and they’ll jump in. And that collaborative nature is what’s amazing. So it’s about coming to the table with ideas and solutions and excitement, and being willing to collaborate and know you don’t have it all. What we know now is going to be different than what we know 10 years from now, and don’t be super idealistic, we’re gonna have to bend, there are things we’re gonna have to consider, you know, maybe taking money from Shell is some what you need to do. And you might not like that at first. But that’s the compromise. And those are the those are the things where I think when I started off, I was super idealistic and rigid in that I’ve learned that won’t help you grow. And that’s not how anything grows. And so know what the true values are, where you’re like, No, this is my firm line, but make sure those are your true firm lines. Is the other piece, they’re gonna give you like 10 pieces of advice. They’re sorry.
Dawn Crawford 13:00
No, it’s not true. But yeah, I think, yeah, just get your hands dirty. And I think that’s something that people, especially people transitioning, you know, to nonprofit world get really surprised. That was one of the things Brian was always surprised with of like, well, so who’s the brand manager? Like, who has the final decision? I’m like, oh, no, there’s no final decision person.
Nicky Yates 13:20
Yeah, I had. That doesn’t happen. I worked with one post a new transition from the for profit world. And he was like, so who’s gonna make my address labels and was like, Oh,
Dawn Crawford 13:32
Here’s some Avery labels, it is 6735.
So, next section of questions around feedback. So around how you process review edits, things like that in your own work, and also how you give it to other people. We’re really passionate about figuring out a kind way of giving feedback. So we’re kind of exploring this with a bunch of other people to see how they process feedback, and what are some things that have really worked for them? So how do you personally process criticism and feedback on your work?
Nicky Yates 14:14
Well, personally, I as you’ve probably noticed, I’m very direct. So that does help a bit. You can my motto with feedback is that it’s like searching for gold, you are gonna like, take it, you’re going to look through it, you’re going to find the nuggets in there. I personally believe that regardless of whatever the feedback is, even if I don’t personally ascribe to it, there’s a truth in there, there’s a reality for at least one person. So take it, listen to it, find out what I can adjust what I can modify, whether it’s creatively or verbally, are my management style, anything? Look at it from that perspective, and life is about growth. So it’s not personal. We’re always going to be growing, I’m gonna, I’m gonna make mistakes, don’t beat myself up over it and move on. And that for me, that last piece has been the biggest growth piece when I first started out criticism I could take very personally and let it you know, let it be something that like would beat myself down over. And that wasn’t helpful. It’s, you know, had to be like, learn to let that go and recognize it’s not indicative of my overall work pattern we grow, everybody’s gonna have a mistake, have some feedback, have a way for us to move forward.
Dawn Crawford 15:33
Great. Yeah. So how do you like to receive feedback? And how do you communicate that to others?
Nicky Yates 15:40
I like I pretty much like a direct honest conversation. I also like, you know, if it’s based on my communication, just put it in there, I don’t need to have a five minute conversation. I like to understand your viewpoint around it if we have a discrepancy, but, you know, I’m not going to quibble over word choices or things like that, go ahead and throw it in there and change it. And I can learn from the pattern, what is expected from people like that, to me is the easiest way. Okay, I’ve noticed that you strike that word, that’s not a word we’re going to use going forward perfect. And words like that, you know, so like, I can read from the patterns, if it’s overall style, like a more direct honest conversation where we can kind of discuss what is happening. And I think that’s the same way, one of the things I’ve learned to do with anyone I’m supervising is to sit down at the beginning and ask them how they wanted to receive feedback. Feedback is not a one size fits all approach. Some people prefer my style, some people prefer much more soft tone, some people prefer to have templates. And so learning people’s individual styles of management and learning is important for that process.
Absolutely. So what style of feedback doesn’t work for you.
Subtle, just say what you need. And they don’t and I because again, I’m so direct, I mean, like if we’re gonna have a 20 minute conversation about it, then there better be 20 minutes of feedback for me, like I don’t want to beat around the bush for 15 minutes, because you’re worried about tippy toeing. I’m like, Alright, all right, like what’s happening?
Dawn Crawford 17:11
Let’s just do it. Let’s just get it there. Get it out there. Because then you can have a conversation about it afterwards. Right?
Nicky Yates 17:16
Yeah. So I prefer very, I don’t prefer being people being subtle, or trying to beat around the bush.
Dawn Crawford 17:23
Yes, absolutely. Cool. So, um, you know, we’ve all survived , you know, come through a pandemic, you know, but I think even before then, right there is we’re just kind of crashing into a lot of very exhausting things in our society and culture. You know, just being that, yeah, constant need to achieve, or politics or a pandemic, or wars, you know, all the things. So there’s a lot of opportunity for us to burnout and also nonprofits in general, right, that, that mission burnout is so real. So, you know, how do you avoid burnout? And what are some of your tactics to keep you coming back?
Nicky Yates 18:03
So for me, pre pandemic, I made sure to take two real vacations a year and visit two new countries. And that was something that was passionate to me. I also had a goal of learning a new skill. And so pandemic was learning how to scuba dive did not finish that. But for me, it was that fun bit of like adding some novelty to my life that was outside of work, where when someone asked me what, what I do in my free time I could answer and I also make it a concentrated point to never ask others and to see what they do for work. So that’s not my first question ever asked people I have a lot of friends, I don’t really know their professional life, because I want to make sure life is outside of what we do. And if someone does ask me that, right off the bat, I try to like guide the conversation to other things I do to help ensure that I remind myself I’m more than what I do.
Dawn Crawford 18:56
That’s really interesting. So what’s your kind of icebreaker question then at like, you know, a networking thing?
Nicky Yates 19:03
Oh, I guess it depends. You know, it really? I’ve used favorite coffee shop in the city.
Dawn Crawford 19:13
Nicky Yates 19:14
But it depends on the mood, the person I’m talking to you the person I’m looking you in engaging with. And so one of my good friends now, that was our icebreaker, we bonded over coffee shops. And then it also if it depends on if there’s a session, if there’s a session, I kind of go to like what they liked about the session. So I feel like there are other things than the job. And especially at a networking event, there’s often other tangible components that we can talk to if we’re at a networking bar, you can talk about the cocktails or the beer selection. If there’s speakers you can talk about something that you heard that was riveting to you are not riveting.
Dawn Crawford 19:51
Yeah. That’s really interesting. That’s a great approach. And I think, yes, so much of us are what we do, and I wonder if that’s The pandemic has helped break that a little bit. Right?
Nicky Yates 20:02
Yeah, I’m hoping so. And it’s not because I don’t think what we do is isn’t fascinating. It’s just we talk about it so much already. And like getting to it. I think people do appreciate when someone goes beyond that to get to know the real them. Yeah. And yeah, that’s that. Yeah.
Dawn Crawford 20:20
That’s a really good point. And that’s the thing. I feel Yeah. that I feel like I’m having struggle with, even with my own friendset. That’s so great. It’s like a breakthrough moment. But yeah, that’s it. Yeah. That. I want to know, yeah, what they’re passionate about, right. And then it always just comes back to work and like working through work. And it’s like, yeah, but I want to know, like, where do you want to travel to? Or? Yeah, but the skills thing is a good idea of talking to folks about Yeah, what they want to learn are those sort of things too. So yeah.
Nicky Yates 20:46
And that’s an easy one. And networking. If you don’t know, one, you kind of just like pulling up like, oh, like, what did you think about that? Or that I hadn’t thought about that. And like, it’s an, it kind of helps talk about different aspects in a way that’s not just about our work. And for me, that’s been fun. Yeah.
Dawn Crawford 21:01
That’s great. Great. So, um, what makes you come back to work every day.
Nicky Yates 21:10
I love what I do. And even if I’m frustrated with things at work, I actually love the actual job itself. And for me, that’s what I kind of keep in mind on hard days is like, I am fortunate to do what I like to do to feel like I make an impact and because of my job, get the opportunity to travel and see the impact in the world. And, and learn while I’m at it, I’ve learned so much. So I keep that in mind whenever I’m stressed out.
Dawn Crawford 21:41
That’s great. That’s great. Okay, so our next section is our rapid fire. You should use just one word. It’s very hard for communicators just use one word. We all feel the need to expand. But it’s up to you. But the goal is one word.
Nicky Yates 21:58
You should give everyone a scorecard at the end and be like you rated seven out of 10.
Dawn Crawford 22:03
Absolutely. Okay, so here we go. What’s your favorite word?
Nicky Yates 22:11
Dawn Crawford 22:12
Least favorite word.
Nicky Yates 22:15
Dawn Crawford 22:17
What’s your personal nonprofit cause/mission/passion.
Nicky Yates 22:22
Doctors Without Borders. I know that’s not one word, but I can’t help that.
Dawn Crawford 22:28
It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. So what nonprofit cause do you think gets too much attention?
Nicky Yates 22:35
This is gonna sound horrible, water.
Dawn Crawford 22:41
It’s funny. What’s your favorite curse word?
Nicky Yates 22:45
I feel weird saying it. But I love saying fuck, yes.
Dawn Crawford 22:49
Yes. What profession other than your own? Would you like to try?
Nicky Yates 22:54
Dawn Crawford 22:55
Oh, that’s a good one. And then what nonprofit professional organization communications team would you wish you could talk to on a podcast like this?
Nicky Yates 23:03
Honestly, Red Cross.
Dawn Crawford 23:05
Great. Perfect. Well, thank you. You did very good. You scored of solid nine out of 10 on that one. Good job.
Nicky Yates 23:12
I was like, okay, they just pause and think that I can do it in one word.
Dawn Crawford 23:19
Very interesting. Yeah. Doctors Without Borders has come up a couple times. I think that’s interesting. Yeah.
Nicky Yates 23:25
I mean, I do understand there’s some problematic components that have come up recently. But I love the work they do. I love that they do remove the politics. I love that they do focus on the mission of ‘We’re just there for emergency situations.’ And they are working to train more people. They also wrote a fascinating book. I’m blanking on the title, but it actually dealt with the compromises they had to make. So for example, their decision to either bribe Somali pirates to work in Somalia, or not. And what’s the right answer there. There’s not one and those are the nuances of the nonprofit world that I don’t think get enough attention and are important to discuss and kind of go I don’t know, we made the right decision. But we made it and here we are.
Dawn Crawford 24:08
Yeah, absolutely. It is interesting. Yeah. How much? Yeah, mentioned nonprofit world is not seen, right, that our communications filter, like keeps a lot of stories behind the scenes of things that just aren’t necessary, rigth, to the work
Nicky Yates 24:21
And it’s I think those comments I think, what I appreciated the transparency about it, that they were willing to put forth a book and say, Hey, these are the decisions that aren’t cool to talk about but we did them. And to me, I respect that intentionality and that transparency more than, you know, trying to hide it and act like it’s not part of the their decision making process.
Dawn Crawford 24:45
Well, cool. Thank you so much for your time today.
Nicky Yates 24:48
Not a problem. I hope this was helpful.
Dawn Crawford 24:50
It was amazing. No, it was really good. I think. I hope all of our listeners agree that this is it’s such a cool series because we get to know and just get to hear from people In a very personal, intimate way, that, you know, I hope that people really enjoy and really glean some new a-ha moments from so thank you so much for everything.
Nicky Yates 25:10
Well, thank you. You have a great podcast voice. You’re super friendly. I loved this.
Dawn Crawford 25:14
Thank you so much. Thank you. And so to all of our listeners out there, have a great rest of your day.
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