Communicating for Impact with Rae Oglesby at UpTogether

Rae Oglesby is VP of Communications for UpTogether and she brings rich experience their work accelerating initiatives in undervalued communities and improving lives.

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This week on the show, we welcome a storyteller with a passion for social justice, equity, and service. That makes her a triple threat with a particularly astute eye on how the stories we tell can unintentionally move to separate us. Rae Oglesby started her career in broadcasting, working at CNN producing stories across Atlanta and South Carolina, before transitioning to non-profit marketing and communications.

Today, Rae is VP of Communications at UpTogether, a poverty-focused non-profit dedicated to lifting those in underrepresented communities in poverty into the middle class by helping families to invest in themselves. It is a movement, a platform, and most importantly accelerates the initiative that people in historically undervalued communities are taking to improve their lives and to move up together.

“It’s not about us as, as an organization,” says Rae. “It’s not about what we are doing, but it is about the community. It is about our members. We’re very much focused on relationships and not transactions. We understand that we need to take the time to get to know people who we are engaging with. We need to talk to them. We need to also recognize that communication is a two-way street, which means that we need to listen as well.”

This is not a story about charity. It’s a story about empowerment, about allowing communities to stop seeing themselves as others, but as valuable contributors in the effort to lift one another out of poverty. Rae offers powerful insights into how other non-profits might paint a stronger picture of those they serve by communication with intention. We’re honored to have this time with her and to share her story with you this week.

Episode Transcript

Rae Oglesby: Sometimes we tend to separate ourselves from the community that we are engaging with. We tend to otherwise. And so when you other and distance yourself, you tend to see yourself, or you can tend to see yourself as being better than, as being other than, as being savior like, as being there to rescue. And that comes out in everything you do, right? So it comes out in your flyers, it comes out on your website. It definitely comes out in your storytelling. I have seen that come out in your storytelling. It even comes out in the images that you use and the video, it comes out everywhere.

Carrie Fox: Hey folks, and welcome to this episode of Mission Forward, where each week we bring you a thought provoking and perspective, shifting conversation on the world, around us and the role that communications plays in helping us make sense of the world. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm, and certified de corporation. I have such a special guest with me today. I was thinking about this season a few months ago, as I was starting to plan it and thought to myself, I don’t know how I could ever have this season without having Rae Oglesby on the show. And so let me tell you a little bit about her. Rae is a storyteller with a passion for social justice, equity, and service.

Carrie Fox: That is a trifecta that I love. She started her career as a broadcast news journalist working at CNN and local stations in Atlanta, and South Carolina, before transitioning to nonprofit marketing and communications. Today, she’s the VP of coms for UpTogether. Previously Family Independence Initiative. UpTogether is a community, it’s a movement, it’s a platform it highlights invests in. And most importantly accelerates the initiative that people in historically undervalued communities are taking to improve their lives and to move UpTogether. In full disclosure, before we get into this conversation, I had the opportunity to work with Rae in the rebranding effort of UpTogether. And I have seen her in action, which makes me even more excited to get into this conversation today. So Rae, welcome to the Mission Forward podcast.

Rae Oglesby: Thank you, Carrie. I’m so excited to be here and it is an honor.

Carrie Fox: I know you are busy managing a lot of different, amazing initiatives that UpTogether, but before we get into this and we’ll talk about UpTogether in a few minutes, I want to hear more about you. Tell me about this path that you’ve been on that took you from a newsroom to a nonprofit marketing organization or nonprofit organization. Where’s that spark in you and how’d you get to where you are today?

Rae Oglesby: Yeah, good question. I think I just always from just childhood, just always had a desire for passion and serving. I talk a lot about when I was maybe five or six years old being in school and really being introduced to supporting and giving to other people. So we got a little, little, a little milk box, right. And it was for uni stuff and we had to collect pennies and ask people for their change. And I was like, "What is this thing for?" And so realized, oh, this is really to help children that live in other places that are, children like me who may not have what I have and all these other things. So that was kind of introduction to service in a more formal kind of way. And ever since then, I’ve just always been the type of person who’s wanted to give back and tutor and volunteer and all these different types of things.

Rae Oglesby: But oddly enough, I never thought about it as a career. So I decided to go into journalism again with the desire to really be able to tell stories and influence things that really shape communities and support and help people. And then I think a lot of people, I ended up getting laid off the show that I was working on, started to make some cuts and was eventually canceled itself. The last show I was working on and I used that as an opportunity to really pivot at the time I was also in grad school, full time earning my MBA. And I started to take a lot of social enterprise classes, marketing classes. And I saw just how transferable my skills as a journalist were in nonprofit communications. And so after I was let go at my job, I decided that I did not want to go back in the newsroom that I wanted to pursue a career in nonprofit communications and marketing. And I’ve been doing that.

Carrie Fox: That’s awesome. So what about UpTogether called you to that organization?

Rae Oglesby: UpTogether at the time Family Independence Initiative. I had never heard of an organization doing what UpTogether was doing. So most nonprofits present, and there’s nothing wrong, present themselves as they are helping. UpTogether in the sense was we don’t help. We trust our families. We invest in our families and we get out of the way we learn from them. So for those who may not know, we are in a poverty focused nonprofit and a of poverty focused non-profits will tend to provide food or clothing or job training and different types of resources to help and to assist families who are earning low incomes. That is not what we do at UpTogether. What we do is we have what we call our strength based approach that is centered and grounded on community. So we know that communities have for generations, for eons supported each other and worked together, especially when resources are limited, that communities come together to support one another.

Rae Oglesby: I think we saw, we all saw that during the pandemic, right? We’ve seen people who lost jobs, who really came together in relatives, communities to support each other. That’s what happening for eons and so UpTogether, in which we were founded 20 years ago based on the community component. And so we believe that when you combine community with cash investments and allow people the choice and the freedom to use that cash, how they see fit, that the combination of those three will allow families who are experiencing poverty to accelerate their own growth and their own pathway out of poverty, right? They don’t need favors. They don’t need help, what they do need and what they lack is financial resources.

Rae Oglesby: And so with the financial resources, and we now have an online platform that allows them to grow and strengthen their community, we don’t provide community for them. Those communities already exist. We simply provide a platform for them to grow and strengthen those. So we do believe that the combination again, of community capital and the choice to use those dollars are really the pathway out of poverty. And so I’m excited about the organization. I never heard of an organization doing that before, and that’s really what drew me to UpTogether.

Carrie Fox: So I’ve known about Family Independence Initiative since about 2013. And I remember the first time similar that I heard about the initiative, there was both so common sense, and yet it was going to be eye opening, how rare it was. Right? And it maybe reinforces for me some words that you just use that I feel are so important for us to get into in today’s conversation, choice, community, capital. You never once said charity. There’s a really big difference. I think in how nonprofit organizations view their work as charity and what that then creates is how you are asking for money and how you are thinking about beneficiaries and how you are reinforcing the power dynamics inside that versus what you all really do is take a very different approach to community, capital, choice. And how has that felt coming into that organization? Because I suspect it was very different from the service opportunities that you probably were part of that you mentioned at the top of this call, when you were younger.

Rae Oglesby: Yeah, absolutely. It was a different, it was really refreshing, honestly, because a lot of it and no shade to any of the other nonprofit organizations or even charitable organizations, I think organizations are doing great work. I think where I would like to challenge my fellow nonprofit workers is in a sense that sometimes we tend to separate ourselves from the community that we are engaging with. We tend to authorize. And so when you other and distance yourself, you tend to see yourself, or you can tend to see yourself as being better than, as being other than, as being savior like, as being there to rescue. And that comes out in everything you do, right? So it comes out in your flyers, it comes out on your website. It definitely comes out in your storytelling. I have seen that come out in your storytelling.

Rae Oglesby: It even comes out in the images that you use and the video. I mean, it comes out everywhere and it may have a positive impact on your donations, right? It may work for that particular audience, but for the audience that you’re engaging with, it may make them feel less than, it may make them feel like you think you are better than them. You are there to fix their life. They don’t have the capacity to do that for themselves. And that without you, somehow their life would just be a complete wreck. And that’s not the case. And again, I know that this is not the intent from non-profit organizations and all non-profit organizations do not do this, but I have seen enough to know that it, it tends to be a pattern and it is something that we as communicators need to be more intentional about and aware of.

Carrie Fox: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that’s a really good point. You’re right. It’s not universal, but I also think that it’s, in a lot of cases that the status quo, it’s almost the expected when you are fundraising, there’s going to be probably an appeal. There’s probably going to be a story that’s shared. And from what I have seen and found over my time, working with nonprofit communications organizations, nonprofit organizations, is that it’s almost, we’re going to do this because it worked really well last year.

Carrie Fox: And that I think is the opportunity to say, sure, it may have worked last year, but what if? What if you thought about it differently, then what could happen on a multiplier scale in terms of the opportunity that you’re leaving behind. And that’s what I want to ask you about, because you think about your own marketing and communications differently, you think about engaging with families differently perhaps than another nonprofit would. And I’m curious if you can share some of those, how do you think about that and what are maybe the pieces that are in place for you all keep that approach that UpTogether has flowing through how you also communicate?

Rae Oglesby: Sure. I think the first and most important thing is that we realize that it is not about us. It’s not about us as an organization. It’s not about what we are doing, but it is about the community. It is about, and we call the people who we invest in, we call them our members. So it is about our members. It is about the relationship. We’re very much focused on relationships and not transactions. And so, because of that, we understand that we need to take the time to get to know people who we are engaging with. We need to talk to them. We need to also recognize that communication is a two-way street, which means that we need to listen as well. So it’s not just about us pushing out our messaging to people, but it’s about also, how do people respond? What do they have to say?

Rae Oglesby: And in particular, the audience, our primary audience who we look to hear from are the members that we engage with the most. So what are they saying? What is the feedback for us? So I would say number one is that we recognize that it is not about us. I think two, is that at the same time. And I’m being very intentional about this, both in my professional and my personal life is to interrogate our intentions, right? So why are we writing what we’re writing? Why are we saying what we’re saying? If in interrogating your intentions, you recognize that I’m doing this to call more attention to my organization, to raise money, to make myself feel better. I think whenever the focus turns back to yourself and your organization and away from the community and the people who you are investing in and serving that you need to take that time and pause and really think about why is this about me at this moment?

Rae Oglesby: Why is this not about the people who we say we are here to support and engaging and serve? So I think that, and again, I’m doing this both in my professional and personal life, but I think it’s very important for us to really interrogate our intentions. And I would say probably the third one is to never say, do share photos of videos, of anyone in a way that you would not like done for you. So I would not have a conversation and talk about you, Carrie, from all of the negative things about you, right? I would never use that deficit framing in a conversation with you, or to talk about you with someone else. So why would we use that deficit framing when we were talking about our audiences? Why would I say someone who is in need, why would I say a poor family?

Rae Oglesby: Why would I say a homeless individual? Why would I say an at risk child? Why not say a child who is overcoming obstacles? Why not say a hard working family who by their ingenuity is able to stretch a dollar? Why not say an individual who is experiencing homelessness because they’re not homeless. That’s not an adjective that describes them. It is a temporary condition that they have themselves in. So I think when we’re putting together our words and our images and our videos, if we were the people focused on that, would we like someone to say those things about us? Would we like someone to say those things about our loved ones and people we care about? And if the answer to that is no. Then why would you say that about someone else?

Carrie Fox: That Rae is what folks need to hear and actually go back and replay again. You just said everything that we needed to say in this episode, but with, I hear it in your voice, the emotion, the commitment, the passion, these aren’t just words and practices that you apply as a communicator. This is a way that how, it’s a different way of valuing one another, right? It’s so much deeper than telling a story. It’s how are we bridging the divides between us? It’s how are we coming together in a place of joy? It’s how are we celebrating one another’s accomplishments and initiatives and why that’s been so hard? I wish I understood, but what you just said, Rae, and I’m going to lift one more thing up because I’m going to hold onto this, interrogating our intention, what an awesome phrase and reminder that feels like something that should be on your laptop, that you look at it every day, as we’re working on communications, it’s think about why, what’s behind that. Wow. Rae. Thank you.

Rae Oglesby: I am very passionate. I am very passionate about it because I don’t see myself as being separate from the community that I engage with. I am a part of the community. I am them. And so I take things very personally when it comes to our communications and the work that our organization does, but then and more broadly the work that other nonprofit organizations do and the way that they talk about their work, I take it very personally.

Carrie Fox: So I’m going to flip a little bit, it almost to the other side of this conversation of something that you also just started in on, which is, I often find in organizations when they’re talking about their work, that I’ll hear themes around. Let me just tell you a quick story that maybe gets at this easier. Several years ago, I was at an organization. They were doing a volunteering event and they were packing brown bags for individuals in a community.

Carrie Fox: And they said, "This is our record. Over the course of today, we have packed 10,000 bags from the community. We’re going to come back here next year. And we are going to double that." And I remember looking at my husband and saying, "What? They want to make the problem worse in a year. And so they can come back and do more of this? Shouldn’t they want to come back and do half as many or even better none? Right. But that’s, I think really hard for organizations to shift how they think about impact too, and how they’re measuring that impact. And that’s something else that I know you all really think intentionally about.

Rae Oglesby: Yeah. We really do. And I think the challenge with this is, and I hope this doesn’t come across as controversial, but charitable work, nonprofit work. It is a business and people don’t want to put themselves out of business. They don’t want to put themselves out of work, but if you’re really doing this for the right reason, that should be your intent. You’re intentionally to solve the problem, or at least work with communities on the ground so that they can solve the problems themselves, which they’re already working on. Right? You’re just there to support that effort and maybe accelerate that effort. But I think if we’re truly intentional and we truly mean what we say our missions are, our ultimate missions should be to put ourselves out of work. Because all of these kind of political ills and societal problems that we are addressing, which cease to exist, but people want to make sure that they have a job.

Rae Oglesby: People want to make sure that they continue to, in some cases. And again, I don’t want to generalize, but in some cases is people do like to feel needed and they like to feel wanted because it’s something internal for them. It’s not about the problem. It’s about who makes me feel good. So I’m going to continue to do this because it makes me feel good. Not because I’m solving the problem that our mission says that we are actually looking to solve.

Carrie Fox: Well, that’s the perfect opportunity to shift, to learning a little more about UpTogether. Because I think if folks have that fear concern of what if I put myself out of business, you all are operating through a lens of, we want to put ourselves out of business, right? We’re going to think totally differently about this. And yet it’s incredible. The impact you’re having. If I think about the COVID response more than a hundred million of cash moved, tell us more, tell us about UpTogether and the work that you do.

Rae Oglesby: So yes, last year alone, we were able to, with the help of more than 200 organizations, community groups, government partners, several individual donors move more than $130 million. Get that directly into the hands of families who were struggling financially due to the pandemic. So we were humbled to be able to do that work and just happy that we were positioned in such a way so that we had the technology, we had the infrastructure, we had the relationships that allowed us to do that. When we talk about our work and wanting to kind of put ourselves out of business in better term, that goes to our, the policy work that we’re doing. So we understand that as an organization, we can only touch and invest in so many families, right? There’s only so money that we have, so much money that we can invest, so much infrastructure that our technology can do so that families can connect and grow and strengthen their social networks.

Rae Oglesby: And so now we are being very intentional in what we have been over the last few months of growing our policy arm. Again, we are nonprofit. So I have to preface that by saying we’re of course nonpartisan. But we also understand that our work in the poverty space, we have to address policies that are contributing to poverty. There are. So I think, for example, about when it comes to what is called the cliff effect, so, and people have heard about it, maybe not by that term, but let’s say for example, that you are receiving government assistance, you get a raise of now 50 cents an hour, right? But now, because of that 50 cents an hour raise you no longer would qualify for the benefits that you were getting, but you can also not make up that difference. So let’s say you were getting support with food stamps, right?

Rae Oglesby: So now you have lost your food stamp benefits, but that 50 cents an hour is not enough to make up that difference. So now you end up in a deeper hole or you refuse to get the raise because you know that it will allow you to, it will cause you to lose your benefits. And then starts to contribute to, oh, people don’t want to work or they’re lazy or all these other things. And so we understand that as an organization for us to make the greatest impact and essentially put ourselves out of business, we need to be able to shift policy because that’s what changes things on a grand scale that benefits and impacts people by the tens of thousands and the millions. And so we are starting to have, and build relationships with local government agencies with the goal and the hope that in the next 20 years or so, we will be able to influence and shift federal policy.

Rae Oglesby: That is a bold goal is, is a stretch goal or something that we are looking to be able to do, because we can’t continue to do the work one offs we can, but you’re never going to have the same major impact that you will have when you shift and change policies. And we also have to acknowledge that some of these policies are based and rooted in racism and patriarchy. And I think I’ll be re missed if I didn’t say that part as well, but we definitely are working to ship and change policy. And we as an organization are not afraid of putting ourselves out of business again, because we understand that it is not about us, but it is about community.

Carrie Fox: Yeah. Gosh, Rae, I can’t think of any greater focus for you all to be having than to be advocating for that change because it’s interesting. I was thinking about the conversation we had just in the last episode with Ashton Lattimore and she talks a lot about justice requires the full story. What you just shared there is a perfect example of how perceptions or societal beliefs on what someone might be going through is often not the full story. But what you just outline there is a reminder that when policies are working against a person’s ability to move up, there’s something much bigger at play here, right? And so thinking about all those levers of shifting policy, shifting public understanding, and then shifting philanthropy to support it, then you’re really getting to the root causes of the issues that we see and issues of poverty.

Rae Oglesby: Absolutely, yeah. Things have root causes that are not personal. We just did a press conference yesterday with, so we are doing a guaranteed income pilot in Oakland, just did a press conference yesterday with the mayor. And she has said, and I agree that poverty is not a personal issue. It is a policy issue. And so we have to change you at that level.

Carrie Fox: Rae, we are somehow already at the end, but I want to ask you one more question here, which is really thinking back, you’ve given us some amazing, really practical tips. I think communicators can start to apply today, but let’s sum it up and maybe think about what are those things that you think communicators, who are more working to advance social justice? What are some of the best things they can be remembering to apply day after day if in fact they want the power of their communications to advance social justice?

Rae Oglesby: Sure. I think I’m going to repeat the communications is two way street. So listen, I don’t think there’s anything that we as communicators can do more or better than listening. I think we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how do I word this to get, someone to take a particular action or someone to feel a particular way? And we don’t always take the time to listen. So I think number one, we should focus more on listening and probably listen more than we actually do. Number two, I would say if you, as a communicator are not a reflection of your primary audience, then you need to surround yourself with people who are your primary audience. And that could just mean very simply building relationships with folks, writing something or presenting whatever your content is and getting them to take a look at it.

Rae Oglesby: But I don’t think you should ever allow anything to go live or go public facing that is for an intended audience without that audience or someone from that audience, having eyes on it, because you don’t know what your blind spots are. And we all have them. No matter who you are, no matter what you do, we all have blind spots and we can’t do this work alone. Communication is not an individual sport. It’s a collective sport. And so I think if you don’t look like your audience and I’m being very intentional by saying your primary audience, I don’t want to say your target audience. But if you don’t look like the primary audience who you are looking to talk to, to have a conversation with them, make sure that you have those people around you. And then number three, I would say, be open to feedback and criticism. Recognize that we don’t know everything.

Rae Oglesby: And we don’t know what we don’t know. Sometimes until other people call it out for us. So don’t necessarily be defensive. I know sometimes we can have a tendency, especially if we put a lot of hard work and time and energy into creating something, because this isn’t both an art and a science. Communication is both the art. And you can take things personally, try not to do that. Really allow and invite people to criticize and give you feedback. How did I do with this? What do you think about this? What could I have done better? And I think that’s really the only way that we are going to be able to improve and to really be effective communicators.

Carrie Fox: Awesome. Rae, I have loved the opportunity to listen to you and to learn from you. I do every time I have a chance to talk with you, thank you so much for everything that you’ve shared today and everything that you’re leading at UpTogether. And we’ll put some links in the show notes, so people can check out your work and support UpTogether and learn from you all as an incredible model for where I hope a lot more nonprofit communications goes in the future. So thanks for leading that amazing work.

Rae Oglesby: Yeah. Thank you, Carrie. Thanks for all of your support that you’ve given to us together over the years. And I look forward to continuing to work with you and other communicators as we work, especially nonprofit communicators to really just make this the better place for all of us.

Carrie Fox: Mission Forward is produced with the support of Nimra Haroon and the Mission Partners team in association with True Story FM, engineering by Pete Wright. Music this week is by [inaudible 00:28:19] and Josh Leak. If your podcast app allows ratings and reviews, we hope you’ll consider doing just that for our show. But the best thing you can do to support Mission Forward is simply to share the show with a friend or a colleague, thanks to your support. And we’ll see you next time.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.