Building house in Mexico during high school spurred ASU graduate's nonprofit plans
Lauren Kuhman says 'real, positive change starts with individuals'
Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.
As Lauren Kuhman tackled her coursework in nonprofit leadership and management, she came upon what she called one of the biggest revelations in her time as an Arizona State University undergraduate.
People, not organizations, are responsible for effecting change.
“It isn’t that organizations aren’t effecting change, but ultimately real, positive change starts with individuals,” said Kuhman, who is graduating with her Bachelor of Science from the School of Community Resources and Development, with a minor in global health. She is also the spring 2023 Outstanding Graduate for the school, which is located within the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.
Kuhman, a Phoenix resident, said her decision to pursue a degree and career in nonprofit work stemmed from participating in her high school’s annual spring break volunteer trips to Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, in Mexico. During this three-day trip, the students were hosted by a nonprofit organization to engage in the local community and build a house from the ground up.
“A staff member was talking about how the organization started and was created. You hear ‘nonprofit’ and you don’t associate it with a job. But people go to work in it every day,” Kuhman said.
Before listening to the staff member’s presentation, Kuhman said she did not know what nonprofit meant, only associating it with charity or volunteerism.
“But after it, I began to consider it as an actual career,” she said.
Nonprofits are not ultimately about blind hope or optimism, Kuhman said.
“The sector does something that’s very good – but ultimately if you don’t acknowledge the flaws within it, it won’t live up to its potential,” she said.
As she graduates with her degree – plus a certificate in special events management and a certified nonprofit professional credential – Kuhman said she is researching nonprofit fundraising and development as a career, possibly in the health field or in economic development, somewhere policy and nonprofit can intersect. Data analysis may also be an option, she said.
Kuhman said she is grateful for the financial support of the following: the Rita M. Hylle New American University Scholarship, sponsored by Helios Education Foundation; Arizona Cactus Pine Girl Scouts; Father Joseph N. Patterson Foundation Inc.; Camelback Kiwanis Award; and the Thelma G. Wolff International Scholarship.
Read on to learn more about Kuhman’s ASU journey.
Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Question: You say your high school homebuilding trips helped create an “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in. Tell us more about that.
Answer: I do not know if it was the atmosphere the host organization offered, the interaction with the family we were helping or the relationship I built with my peers. But this trip was always the best part of my year – especially during a difficult time in my life. However, I only realized that I wanted to go into nonprofit work during my sophomore or junior year, when a representative of the organization gave a speech about the inception of the charity.
The speaker detailed their passion for the mission and the results of their work, but what made me think “aha” was their description of building and managing the organization. They made it obvious that the organization and the work they were doing was not something that people do on a volunteer basis, and it was not just a passion, it was a job.
I think I became so attached to this idea in part because ever since I was a child, I felt the desire to have a positive impact on my life and through my career (truthfully, I probably just wanted to be famous at the time). As I grew older, this notion was accompanied by the notion of wanting to do something I loved. Once I realized that this organization, this environment, this community, this activity that I had been participating in and which has brought me so much joy was an actual career, I wanted to become a part of it.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
A: The biggest and probably most challenging lesson was learning about some of the internal and external ethical challenges faced by nonprofits. Specifically, when I entered my degree program, I, like most people, imagined my future work in the sector to be nothing but good; nonprofits were a pure way to help others. However, through coursework, self-learning and general curiosity, I began to unfold this very complex dynamic of good and harm that the nonprofit sector often faces.
To have something I believed to be so purely good suddenly be known to perpetrate, or sometimes cause harm, was disturbing.
In my college sophomore and junior years, I would read or do research about these issues, from the ethics of donor-advised funds and big philanthropy to the systemic challenges and harm brought on communities by ineffective, uneducated and ill-managed organizations/people.
I love to engage in discussions and learn more about these topics. However, in the last year, this goal has become less about blindly criticizing the charitable sector for its flaws, and recognizing that educating others is the first step to change. I undertook this degree to learn how to make a positive impact through my career, but ultimately, I learned that it is not always the organizations that have this ability, but rather it is the people.
Q: Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A: Anne Kotleba was the first professor to introduce the ethics of nonprofits and philanthropy to me (by pure accident, too, through conversation). This discussion opened a world of inquiry for me and changed my perspective on so many things. But overall, it made me a more well-rounded individual and professional. Anne was also one of the first professors whose class offered me a sense of community on campus.
Additionally, Gordon Shockley taught me an interesting perspective on the nonprofit sector and the understanding of changemakers. I struggled with aspects of the sector, and during lectures (especially in the last year) I would feel annoyance or anger towards the materials we learned. Often in courses like NLM 410, we would highlight the purpose of the sector parallel to the incredible harm people and organizations can do in the name of charity. I brought this up to Professor Shockley, and after discussing it with me, he said — and I’m paraphrasing here — that ultimately what he wanted me to gain from these classes is that the change is within the person and not the institution. It helped me accept my discontent while understanding how I can change my perspective on what my career and impact will look like beyond college and beyond whatever sector I join.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you would give to students?
A: I think it depends on the type of student or person they are (people need different things) and truthfully, I would not have listened to myself when I was starting college. Nevertheless, I think the one thing that I had to learn myself was first, not to undervalue yourself or your dreams, no matter how big or small, and second, to learn to separate yourself from your academic standing. While succeeding in school is important, there is so much needed in a career and in life that is not articulated in a standardized classroom. You will grow more as an individual if you follow what you love. Understand that whatever your standing is in academia, it is only a small part of a whole.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: I currently plan to continue working at Children’s Action Alliance as their development assistant while exploring other professional development opportunities. I particularly want to look into health, global health and economic development. My coursework for my global health minor introduced me to a lot of international subjects, and I think it would be an interesting area to create a career.
However, I also really enjoy data analysis and could see myself in program or business evaluation, research or continuing to strengthen my development and fundraising skills to ultimately work on grant management. I could also spend some time studying or partaking in reformative efforts to change the nonprofit sector to ensure that organizations are properly helping communities and donors are not misusing the charitable status of organizations for their financial benefits.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: I do not think I should be the sole person in charge of $40 million, so I would probably start by creating a small, diverse group to manage and negotiate how the money will be used. I do not have one problem or issue area which I am most passionate about, but I do know how I would want the money to be managed for:
- Adequate health and sexual education for youth.
- Sustainable infrastructure projects and improvements within the United States, with a particular emphasis on low-income and small communities, including a comprehensive campaign to fix the U.S. Tax Code to address the loopholes used by "big philanthropy" and the rich, more rigorous credentials for the nonprofit establishment and the professionalization of the field.