Lived Experience, Nonprofit Expertise
Where We Go From Here
Aisha Benson, CEO, Nonprofit Finance Fund and Henry A. J. Ramos, Board Chair, Nonprofit Finance Fund
This special edition of Where We Go From Here welcomes Aisha Benson as Nonprofit Finance Fund’s new president and CEO. Aisha comes to NFF with a wealth of social sector experience, from leadership at nonprofit banks and community development organizations to running a mobile food pantry and providing youth mentorship, all of it informed by a drive to support communities like the one she grew up in.
In a candid conversation with NFF Board Chair Henry A. J. Ramos, Aisha describes her journey from growing up in Harlem to leading a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and shares what she’s learned along the way. Aisha shares her vision for crucial issues in the social sector, from supporting community-centered organizations by channeling capital and transferring power, to capitalizing on advances in philanthropic support for nonprofits, to bringing belonging into diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
In this video:
- Introducing NFF’s new president and CEO, Aisha Benson. (0:23)
- How Aisha’s journey from Harlem housing projects to leading a CDFI informs her perspective on wealth, power, and supporting communities. (1:54)
- Bringing belonging into diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). (3:36)
- Sustaining the momentum of philanthropic funding and support for nonprofits spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and racial unrest. (5:17)
- Aisha’s life outside work: family, dancing, and supporting her community. (7:26)
- How direct service work with nonprofits informs Aisha’s actions as a CDFI leader. (8:37)
- Henry’s thoughts on NFF’s work and leadership within the nonprofit sector. (9:35)
HENRY: Aisha, do you feel like we missed anything or that you might want to redo or restate?
AISHA: I didn't get to ask you a question!
HENRY: Okay, hit me! I'm fair game.
HENRY: Hi, everybody. I'm Henry A. J. Ramos, the board chair of the Nonprofit Finance Fund and, by day, a senior fellow at the New School Institute on Race, Power, and Political Economy. I am thrilled to be joined today by Aisha Benson. Aisha is the new CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, I am so proud to say. And she comes to us through the TruFund Financial Services organization, where she was, for some time, the executive vice president and chief operating officer.
She is the chair of the New Markets Tax Credit Coalition board of directors. She's also a leading board member of the Opportunity Finance Network. Aisha's a woman of great purpose, dynamism, and achievement. We are so happy to have you on board and excited to learn more about your great story.
AISHA: Thank you. Thanks for that kind introduction. And what I would add to that is just that I have been a practitioner and a leader in the community development finance arena for over 28 years. I spent the first 10 years doing work at commercial banks. I spent three years with a minority depository institution and CDFI. And then the last 12-plus years was with a CDFI loan fund.
And so I really want to bring my expertise, and my lived experiences, and the core values from which I operate to lead this exceptional organization into its next phases of growth and deepening impact.
HENRY: We're thrilled. And what a remarkable and varied career trajectory you have followed. What took you from where you started to where we find you now at the Nonprofit Finance Fund? What were the motivations? What were the inspirations that took you from one place to where you land now?
AISHA: So I've always had a genuine concern and a deep interest in making change in the community in which I was raised and communities like where I was raised. I grew up in the projects of Harlem, and I struggled through poverty. I went to high school at a prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts, and my eyes were really opened to the stark disparities between the conditions which I lived in and the community where I was from and communities of affluence. And I really got a firm grasp of just the unequal distribution of wealth, and privilege, and power.
And so when I had the opportunity to work for a financial institution that had a department that was focused on shifting that paradigm, I was drawn in. Right? Just to know that I would be able to influence and then later help direct the flow of capital into communities of color, communities that have been traditionally under-resourced and underserved, was very important to me, and it's become my career and a big part of my life's purpose ever since.
HENRY: You have obviously shown a dedication throughout your life to diversity, equity and inclusion, which, as you know, at Nonprofit Finance Fund are significant and growing priorities. What is important about the DEI calculus for the community lending field? Why is it important? What difference does it make for us to be a more inclusive space and to be a more diverse field?
AISHA: So let me first say that I know what it is like to be invited into rooms where there are not many people that look like me or think like me. And I've even been invited to express myself and to bring contributions in these settings, but at the same time, to not truly be heard or made to feel like I belong.
And so for me, there's no discussion about diversity and equity that does not include inclusion and belonging. Right? And so just as I've always wanted to have all of those things, I want the entire staff of Nonprofit Finance Fund to feel equally welcomed, equally valued, equally heard, and equally accepted. And I believe that when that comes together, then we'll be able to deliver that to our clients and communities as well.
We'll be able to gain trust. We'll be able to build innovation. I believe that we will actually reach the pinnacle of innovation and impact when all of that is working together.
HENRY: I don't have to tell you that the last several years have been anything but fun and easy for, particularly, community-based and nonprofit leaders who are on the front lines of the racial reckoning that we've been dealing with as a society, the COVID pandemic, the economic uncertainties of the time, the impact on jobs and income and families. How do you assess the landscape, and what are the challenges that you're most concerned about as you look ahead at the social sector's next, say, three to five years.
AISHA: So I think the pandemic really unearthed the vulnerabilities that community-centered nonprofits are facing. And these are the very organizations that were called upon to be first responders in the face of the pandemic. But many just were not resourced well enough to be able to do the best job that they could for their communities. And some of them didn't make it through the pandemic.
And I think those that have, have benefited from an outpouring of philanthropic support, which has come about because of the disparate inequities that were faced by communities of color, but also because of racial unrest. And so these organizations have benefited from unrestricted net assets and other forms of support that weren't there previously. But the question now is how sustainable is that?
And how can Nonprofit Finance Fund step up as an agent to make sure that our clients can capitalize on the momentum that has been taking place over the past couple of years? How do we bring our insights? How do we bring our advisory support? Financial strength? How do we bring that to community, and work alongside community, to ensure that funders can understand that this type of support has to continue?
HENRY: Tell me something that people are often surprised to learn about you that we might not know at first blush – just from your public persona or your LinkedIn site or other things that we have access to.
AISHA: Well, most people are surprised that I have six children and five grandchildren with two on the way. I think I'm still surprised by this because it's happening so quickly. But my husband and I, we both come from big, blended families, and so it excites us and it's what we really love.
HENRY: Modern American family right there. Thanks for sharing that. Also, on a more personal level, tell us a little bit about how you spend your time outside of work. What are your passions? What are your hobbies? What are your interests?
AISHA: I love traveling. I like reading. Dancing, whenever I can dance. I love my family time. I love spending time with my family. But I also do a lot of ministry work and community supportive activities. My husband and I run a mobile food pantry. We have a soup kitchen and work a lot with youth providing mentoring and other forms of support for youth in the community.
HENRY: That is so powerful because it tells me that aside from your very big day job as CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, you yourself are a nonprofit practitioner in community, delivering the services to the people where they're needed the most. So that must, by definition, give you some insights that you might not otherwise have in this important new position that you have. Would you want to comment about that a little bit?
AISHA: Absolutely. I mean, I've lived it. I experience it day to day. I no longer live in Harlem, but I support the communities of Newburgh and Poughkeepsie that have many of the same challenges. And as a person who's in ministry, I work very closely with community organizations and see how they struggle and see how the power when the faith based organization and the community organizations come together to serve the needs of community.
HENRY: Well Aisha, I want to thank you profoundly for answering all the questions I've thrown at you, and maybe you have a couple questions for me that you'd like to ask.
AISHA: So, Henry, tell me, as the chair of Nonprofit Finance Fund's board, what excites you about the work that we do?
HENRY: A lot of it has to do with facing the challenges of the time, with knowledge that although it's daunting, we have value to add. We have something to say. And in the context of the racial reckoning that we've been dealing with as a society, the economic uncertainties, the ups and downs, the COVID crisis, we need strong centers of gravity.
We need strong leadership, we need strong exemplars. And it's not just about what you do, it's about how you do it. And the Nonprofit Finance Fund, in the time that I've been engaged with the organization, has excited me because it has shown itself to be more than willing to not just talk about leadership, but to exercise leadership. And that is not always easy or common for a large, significant and long-standing institution like NFF.
So those are things that give me great pride and great hope for the future ahead for the Fund.
AISHA: That's very encouraging, and I'm looking forward to working with the board.
HENRY: As we are looking forward to working with you. It's going to be not only productive, it's going to be fun.
AISHA: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Henry.