Meet Wethos CEO & Co-Founder Rachel Renock
By Nora Rosati
More than a third of the U.S. workforce participates in the gig economy, and that rate is only going up. A decade ago the word “freelance” might not have inspired images of a stable, fulfilling and flexible career, but today freelancing allows for growth, professional development, and opportunity.
If you haven’t heard of Wethos, freelancing probably looks like a for-profit company hiring on a project by project basis. Two years ago, three women changed that: Claire Humphreys, Kristen Ablamsky and Rachel Renock banded together to launch Wethos, the first platform matching freelancers with mission-driven organizations. Wethos is the product of two realizations: 1) Nonprofits are cash strapped and often project-specific talent strapped, and 2) they don’t get the recognition they deserve.
Wethos knows nonprofits depend on access to quality resources to affect change: The platform makes this possible while maintaining low overhead costs by connecting nonprofit initiatives to talented teams of freelancers. It doesn’t end there: Wethos is committed to championing the important work of the impact space. The #NonprofitRevolution blog advocates for nonprofit professionals by busting damaging stigmas and highlighting stories that shift the narratives told about the institutions tackling some of the most intractable and far-reaching challenges.
Rachel is the CEO and Creative Director of Wethos. If you’re lucky enough to hear her speak— on a Women in Tech Panel, on the Elevate podcast or say, on the phone for 40 minutes, like I did, you’ll be hard pressed not to sit back, shut up, and absorb every insight.
We dove into a range of topics: what it’s like to lead a tech company coming from an arts background, insights gleaned from closely collaborating with nonprofits across a spectrum of causes, and observations from engaging with the public perception of nonprofits, to name a few.
What were you up to before Wethos was born?
I used to work in advertising; I’d do a bunch of digital work for big brands like CoverGirl and Hershey, which is actually how I met my two co-founders [Humphreys and Ablamsky].
In the beginning, I was freelancing on the side for a bunch of nonprofits in New York. I was starting to get tastes of what it was like to apply my skills to problems outside of trying to sell makeup and chocolates, and I had a very visceral reaction those projects. I knew I wanted to do more of that kind of work.
So I went out and got some connections through my network, and I started freelancing for nonprofits, shooting for events, mailers, little things. I found that they were constantly asking for more resources, which is kind of how Wethos came to be.
As an “outsider,” what were your first impressions of the nonprofit space?
My introduction to the nonprofit space-- as is the case for many-- was fully word of mouth driven, which is a bubble we aim to break open.
At first, as a regular person who didn’t know the nonprofit space, I knew nonprofits were resource strapped and cash strapped, but I didn’t necessarily know why-- other than you know, maybe the org isn’t that big or they don't have many donations. Over time, the more we worked with organizations, the more we understood their struggles. One of the most important things we did at our start is-- which feels so simple-- we listened. We listened to their needs and their challenges.
Can you describe how Wethos approaches the business of supporting nonprofits?
I think a lot of for-profit companies that try to approach the nonprofit space take a very prescriptive approach; “it’s an operational problem” or something. They often come in with assumptions that are wrong. From day one we made it our mission to simply listen, to ask questions, to understand what the struggles were, and why they were struggling that way.
There’s so much that the general public doesn’t know or isn’t aware of, like how nonprofits can physically spend their money. A lot of it is grant specified: certain grant money comes with fine print, so nonprofits have to spend it in very specific ways. As the general public sees it, they want to see their money go directly to a cause. What many people don't understand is that nonprofits exist as institutions because they want to scale solutions to these problems.
The Wethos solution is twofold: The platform provides concrete, actionable solutions to nonprofit needs, while the blog is an outlet for advocacy and thought-leadership.
Describe how collaborative freelance teams make sense for nonprofits:
First and foremost, hiring people on a short term basis is a much more cost effective way to get things done. Whether you’re a for- or nonprofit, everyone knows that.
Most companies want to keep their overhead low, but nonprofits are forced to do that. So of all fields, nonprofits especially benefit from freelancers. The value proposition is in the flexibility of the resourcing and the highly specialized skills that are offered to nonprofits--which can’t be justified to bring in-house full-time.
What we see now is orgs that have their core roles, their director and heads of departments, and then we come in and supplement as needed with collaborative teams on a pro by pro base, rather than one individual
The structure of nonprofits-- where the head of the department is usually expected to do all the work within the department-- makes collaborative freelance teams a really effective solution.
How do your blogs- The Nonprofit Revolution and the Wethos Collective- serve your mission?
From day one it really bothered me how horribly condescending people are toward the nonprofit space. The level of dismissal from people, many times men if I’m being frank, is astounding to me. Absolutely astounding. The very DNA of our brand is to dispel that stigma. We really wanted to flip how people thought about this space.
We always say that the people solving our toughest problems deserve the best talent. I mean, you name it and the nonprofit space is trying to fix it.
We’ve gotten to the point where we’re taking the for profit space exponentially more seriously than the nonprofit space. We’ve totally dismissed the space that is actually solving really complex issues. My dream is to unite these worlds because there is so much additional talent that can be tapped into in the for profit space that when applied to a real problem a complicated problem could do wonders for society.
So we like to publish stories that help us dispel the stigma and shed light on the people doing this hard work. If we don’t start taking these organizations more seriously, we’re not going to get to the place where we really want to be, and people are going to continue to ask “why”.
You’ve used your voice- on Twitter, the blog, and in other interviews- to draw attention to the general regard for nonprofits. Let’s unpack some of the flaws and misconceptions you’ve observed.
Part one: The cash flow. We have organizations that are set up to scale solutions, but we don't let them scale. So we’re setting them up to fail, or to work within insane constraints, that nobody can be fully successful in. Organizations set up programs to solve these problems, and these programs need people to run them, to communicate what the program is, and to reach the people needing help. It’s all about people-- but we don't let nonprofits spend money on people.
Part Two: Non and for-profits aren’t so different from each other. One of the most interesting things I’ve found in the last few years is that there is so much overlap between nonprofits and for-profits, but there’s just this completely different language. It’s actually pretty incredible: What a nonprofit calls a “program” is extremely translatable to the for-profit space, but both worlds feel so at odds with each other that they don’t realize how much they have in common. Sometimes our battle is just convincing nonprofits and freelancers that they can work together.
Nonprofits are selling something just like everyone else. One is selling makeup or chocolate, the other is selling action.
Part Three: Sexism. It’s a thing. There’s this extra layer in the nonprofit sphere that nobody talks about: sexism. We’re dealing with a sector that is the third largest employer in the U.S., made up of 73% women. We tell that sector very explicitly how to spend their money.
The funding is money made by men distributed by other men. If you look at the composition of the leadership structure in the nonprofit space, it’s still dismal from a gender disparity standpoint, even in a sector that is 73% women. I believe only 30% of the CEO roles are held by women.
It becomes this very clear line between a for-profit space that is male dominated with basically no rules--where risk is rewarded, where growth and money are rewarded-- and a female dominated space that is wildly restricted and heavily regulated and scrutinized, not only by the government but by the public, and the people who are funding these organizations.
So you have a sector of women who are being told how and why and where to spend their money. Part of what we [at Wethos] want to break people away from is this idea that nonprofits are inefficient or ineffective or don’t know how to run their operations. From our experience that is a story that is told incorrectly, because people don’t take into consideration all of the restrictions around the way they are forced to function. That in itself is part of our battle.
You’re a tech CEO with an arts education; you embody the growth mindset. How has your background influenced your current work?
I went to design school, which benefited me in countless ways. A core part of that is how I think. One of the hardest things to learn is how to think differently: I was taught to think and problem solve a certain way because I went to creative school. My entire education was based around solving problems, which is basically my full-time job now.
Core to how I was taught and what I did in advertising is how I think, and I try to supplement with skills that will help me be more well rounded. My goal is to be incredibly well rounded rather than highly specialized.
Any words of wisdom for burgeoning professionals?
Getting your foot in the door with freelance helps. If you’re entering the nonprofit space, likely the things that culture has taught you about the space are wrong, and you should think about that as you approach your work. There’s likely more than meets the eye. Have patience with that, understand the restrictions, and look for the workarounds.
I agree that you should pursue your strengths, but I also think we are too quickly encouraged to give up on our weaknesses. You can learn the things that you’re bad at.
Wethos.co is a platform enabling freelancers to collaborate around more meaningful work by forming teams with professionals in complimentary skill sets, to tackle large projects at some of biggest nonprofit organizations. And P.S. — they’re hiring for a Product Manager and Account Executive!
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