Henrietta Lacks Event

The Changemaking Skills I Found in Nonprofit Management

Changemaker Catalyst Award recipient Alejandra González Vargas interned with Libraries Without Borders in Washington, D.C. during the summer of 2019. There, she applied management and changemaking skills to increase access to information and leverage it as a tool for empowerment. Alejandra is a Newcomb Scholar in her senior year pursuing a dual degree in Anthropology and Business Management.

Social Media
I think showing interest via social media helped my application stand out a bit. Go follow your favorite organizations!

Two words: social media. I found this internship through Instagram, of all places, so I’d strongly recommend that you go follow all your favorite organizations!

This past summer I combined my studies in Management and Anthropology to be a Program Associate Intern at one of my favorite nonprofits: Libraries Without Borders, the U.S. branch of the French NGO Bibliothèques Sans Frontières. For nearly three years now, LWB has operated a variety of programs in the U.S., focusing on legal empowerment, access to information, and education in emergencies.

I started in late June and stayed on for nine weeks. Throughout, I took on a diverse set of projects and benefited from the mentorship of my supervisors and fellow interns! I got more out of this experience than I could have ever expected and I’m very grateful for the welcoming and supportive environment I found at LWB.


Henrietta Lacks Event
LWB ran some activities at the opening of the Henrietta Lacks Educational Park in Baltimore. This is me holding one of our activities–a poll on tricky medical ethics questions.

Goals and Challenges

My main goal with this internship was to discern what kind of role I wanted for myself after graduation in the nonprofit sector, and I think this is a question I will continue exploring in years to come. I learned a lot about nonprofit administration and program management and developed a strong interest in program evaluation and the idea of continuous improvement in an organization. I enjoyed the thought experiment—asking why the current task matters to the bigger picture—because it gave my work more sense and motivated me to do well.

That said, I didn’t always do well. LWB boasts a committed team that gives 110%, which I found inspiring… and perhaps a little intimidating. It took me a few weeks to get my bearings and realize that the standard pace of work at the office wasn’t working for me. I brought this up at a feedback session with my supervisor and she was very supportive; it turns out I wasn’t the first person to point it out! I enjoyed this flexibility in particular—how or when I did my work didn’t matter as much as the result. Once I realized I had that freedom, my workflow improved. I felt more comfortable turning things down until I knew I could take them on.

Also, I always had someone to turn to when I needed help, and in some instances I needed quite a bit of it. I strongly underestimated the complexity of one task (revising a lengthy translation from French to English) and had to delay my deadline for that project to avoid speeding through. I also had to learn to manage priorities well: at any given time I was balancing a dozen pending tasks and projects, and finishing one thing inevitably meant something new would come up. This got easier over time as well, especially because I started to find my niche: I would rarely pick up outreach and social media projects, but I did a lot of budgeting and partner communication.

Unexpected Learning

I knew from the start that this internship would offer me opportunities to take initiative. My supervisor emphasized this independence during the interview. I underestimated how far this would go, and once I learned to feel comfortable taking on that challenge, this became the most important skill I picked up at LWB. Changemakers should know how to seize opportunity and know how to best run with it. I practiced this several times with LWB and realized how much I enjoy taking ownership of a project.

In one instance it was budgeting—I wanted a simpler way to visualize our spending per grant, so I created an easily replicable spreadsheet template to do just that. Another time was communications strategy. I noticed discrepancies in the language the French office used to communicate the organization’s mission and activities when compared to the English versions. So, I drafted a glossary of terms and phrases for both offices’ marketing purposes.

I thoroughly enjoyed my internship, even the stressful moments. I had great coworkers, interesting projects, and free citrus water. But I do think the coolest thing I got to do was after the internship; an unexpected and rewarding capstone to an amazing learning experience.

Opportunity and Initiative

When I pitched my communications strategy suggestions to the French team, I happened to mention my nationality. Coincidentally, the office had received an update on a project pitch for Mexico that same day, and they needed someone to travel to Chihuahua in October to negotiate it. And look! The US office happened to have a Mexican intern.

Someone must’ve mentioned me to the right person at French office, since the project coordinator overseeing Chihuahua called my supervisor to ask if I’d be interested. My supervisor, amazing mentor that she is, advocated for me—she knew I was interested in pursuing future opportunities with LWB and thought I would be a good fit for the Chihuahua project based on the skills I’d demonstrated over the summer. So a few months later, entirely on volunteer basis, I took a couple days off school in late October to travel with my supervisor to a conference held for libraries across the state of Chihuahua. We had three goals: pitch the project, discuss it with relevant stakeholders and potential partners, and conduct some needs assessment with the librarians attending the conference.

Libraries Without Borders logo
Libraries Without Borders logo. (Fingers crossed and the Chihuahua project gets approved, so then we’ll make a new one in Spanish!)

The experience was especially valuable because, besides one brief field trip to Baltimore over the summer to run an event, my entire internship had been back-end work from the D.C. office. (LWB runs programs in eight states and Puerto Rico.) Chihuahua was an opportunity for me to understand program management at its earliest stages with its most directly involved stakeholders.

Understanding these different perspectives is also essential to changemaking. After this experience, I’m certain I’ll seek out opportunities to gain experience in nonprofit management across different levels of program design, implementation and evaluation.


Crafting at LWB
The most random things would come up… including crafting for an event! A fellow intern and I took a break from the computer screen to make colorful cutouts.

I’m grateful for many different aspects of this internship, beyond the work experience and insight into my professional aspirations. For one, I made amazing friendships while I was there (two of my fellow interns visited me in NOLA recently!). For another, I found mentorship in my supervisor, who not only provided advice for the future, but also supported my short-term growth (like advocating for me to go to Chihuahua or writing me recommendation letters for other projects).

I’ve mentioned taking initiative and understanding different levels of nonprofit work as key changemaking skills. The last one I would add is trust. My supervisors entrusted me with sensitive documents, pressing deadlines, even the communication of an entire pilot project in a foreign country! And I trusted them and my fellow interns to support me when I needed help or advice. That, I think, is the essence of the changemaking spirit: true collaboration based on trust and the passion to just run with it.