For The Love Of Raising Money For Good: Literacy CEO Fuels Nonprofit Mission

Brenda Langstraat, CEO of Working in The Schools, raises money a public schools literacy mission.

Brenda Langstraat, CEO of Working in The Schools, raises money a public schools literacy mission.

“Can you pick up Susan Sontag at her hotel?”

“Can you take Tom Wolfe to the airport?”

Brenda Langstraat, CEO of Working in the Schools, the largest literacy organization that partners with Chicago Public Schools, says these sorts of tasks involving literary giants were part of her job as an intern for the Chicago Humanities Festival in 1998.

Since then she has stayed on a career path involving literacy, philanthropy, social justice and educational development in the nonprofit direct service space.

Read more in Take The Lead on women leaders in nonprofits

“I thought I would be a teacher,” says Langstraat, who after graduating from University of Illinois-Chicago, with a masters in literary criticism, planned to earn her PhD.

Working with Chicago Humanities until 2002, Langstraat went to the Parkways Foundation as executive director, raising private funds for public schools, and has worked in the private and public sectors, raising money for capital projects, development, civic events and education initiatives. One of her events was Lollapalooza.

“I love raising money,” says Langstraat.  “It’s a strange creature who loves raising money.  But I am asking people to invest in organizations that resonate with their value systems.”

Invest in organizations that resonate with your value system. #SisterCourage #Philanthropy

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In her first year, she says, “We went from raising $40,000 per year to raising $350,000.” Langstraat adds, “It shows how ready the corporate community was to invest, they just needed to be asked.” At the 2017 annual gala, Blackboard Affair, the organization raised $700,000. Hopes are high for the November 2018 event.

The organization she has led since 2012, Working In The Schools, serves more than 10,000 students in 90 Chicago public schools kindergarten through 8th grade.

Read more in Take The Lead on how female philanthropy changes the world

It is Chicago’s largest literacy nonprofit, training 150 teachers and enlisting 70 corporate partners. The organization has the largest corps of volunteer mentors working with the Chicago Public Schools to provide literacy support for students, creating positive and collaborative communities of teachers, volunteers, principals, and investors.

“Literacy keeps us out of isolation,” Langstraat says, “Going from learning to read to read to learn is a transition that is absolutely critical,” says Langstraat who serves on the  Chicago Literacy Alliance Board of Directors, Forefront Mission Sustainability Oversight Committee and the Mentor Illinois Leadership Council.

“Literacy leads to equity.”

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a recent study shows students who cannot read at grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school by age 19 than a child who reads proficiently by third grade.

Working In The Schools has  no school funding goes towards any programs—they are all funded privately.

@WITSchicago is Chicago’s largest literacy nonprofit, serving 90 public schools, training 150 teachers and enlisting 70 corporate partners. #LiteracyLeadsToEquity

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Langstraat says she relies on a network of female colleagues also in the nonprofit sector for support, ideas, brainstorming and connections. “We are CEOs, executive directors, all in our 40s and taking a social entrepreneurial approach to the work,” Langstraat says.

“There is less of a feeling that we are competing for dollars and more of the feeling we are all in this together for the greater good,” she says.

Read more on women in philanthropy in Take The Lead

“It’s not a work life balance, it’s a blend. We are making our personal lives more meaningful and our professional lives more productive.” Langstraat adds, “We do eat strategy for breakfast and lunch.”

Still, Langstraat is conscious of the possibility for burnout and has strategies to avoid that.

“It’s OK when you don’t know everything. You build teams of people around you with well-rounded skill sets,” Langstraat says.

“Be sure you are grounded in understanding your strengths and hire people who complement your strengths, not mirror you.” She adds, “I hire people I would have healthy conflict with and that has liberated my career.”

Langstraat says she has learned a valuable lesson in that. “If you carry it all on your shoulders, your shoulders will never be big enough.” She adds, “It keeps us above the burnout fray. Women need to know that.”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project.