by Sharon Broughton (September 15, 2020)
Building Unity: Leading a Non-Profit from Spark to Succession, Michael Prosserman, ECW Press, September 15 2020, 288 pp., $28.54
As author Michael Prosserman reveals his story of creating the hip-hop-inspired UNITY charity, impacting more than a quarter-million young people across Canada, leading a non-profit from spark to succession captures the essence of this remarkable book. It's a story of his transition from the role of founder and executive director to new leadership.
From the evidence of evaluation metrics and testimonials, UNITY’s contribution to youth mental health and empowerment is undeniable. And now, Prosserman’s contribution to the non-profit sector in Canada includes sharing this unique insider’s account of a founder who chose his exit from the charity with intention.
A blend of a personal reflection journey and handbook for creating a non-profit from scratch, Building Unity is sprinkled with lessons learned over a 15-year period by doing things ‘the hard way,’ It’s accompanied by additional time-saving recommended resources.
Throughout the book, the author describes extraordinary examples of people and places where he and UNITY have performed to raise awareness and transform the lives of young people. One of these is his performance at a unique conference in Toronto for non-profit sector CEOs, attended by the Governor General His Excellency David Johnston and his wife Dr. Sharon Johnston. The experiences that followed this keynote are just one of the reasons why ‘you just have to read it to believe it’.
As Prosserman demonstrates how hip-hop culture is a metaphor for life, leadership and innovation, the book's revelations are an example of how life imitates art.
Pulling from the universal lessons of hip-hop, the reader learns about The Six-Step—a foundational break-dancing move—forming the six pillars that were the author’s foundation for turning ideas into community driven impact: Spark, Build, Trust, Grow, Evolve, Re-Ignite.
The concept of ‘flipping’ is also outlined—of how to transform a negative into a positive, building on another’s ideas, resulting in the creation of something new, viable and relevant, only possible through the inspiration of what came before. The application of ‘flipping’ to non-profit leadership is reinforced throughout.
In Spark, we learn of the connection between hip-hop and mental health against the backdrop of Prosserman’s coming-of-age story, as devastating family health moments define his early years. Finding his passion, and a community who shared it, was a way for him to relieve his stress through a creative outlet that ultimately led to inspiring others.
As the Build story unfolds, it’s striking to realize that UNITY’s founder was a young man graduating university, winning awards as a break-dancer and simultaneously flexing his social entrepreneurship muscles in scaling this unique program to engage and empower young people. He shares failures, theories tested and assumptions challenged. Prioritization, perseverance and self-reflection were the key to success, he writes.
Joining Michael Prosserman on the Trust, Grow and Evolve stages of his personal and community impact travels is an intense ride.
He uses real-life examples—detailed snapshots—of leadership challenges and solutions, including leading with vulnerability, pursuing structures that flatten hierarchy, and embracing self-care.
Prosserman writes about strategy and mission, recruiting the right team, investing in their development, creating governance processes from the ground up, finding the right mentors, and ensuring youth are the centre of decision-making.
When he talks about raising money to grow, he vividly captures the push-pull of program and revenue development. From cold-calling to relationship building, and active stewardship of key supporters, through to responding to unsolicited inquiries, Michael Prosserman unflinchingly exposes the relentlessness of fundraising. His hard-won lessons reveal the importance of being guided by principles in accepting gifts, ensuring what matters most is not lost.
Turning the corner to the final Re-Ignite step, the reader can find themselves cheering as Prosserman finds his way to disengage from the non-profit he created as a teenager, to the acts of transition and succession to a new leader.
He is able to flip to what is next for him, the launch of EPIC leadership.
Prosserman’s gift is his generosity of spirit.
Committed to strengthening the non-profit sector by sharing tools and resources to develop leaders, Prosserman demonstrates his capacity as a learner and mentor. While his framework may not apply to all charities and non-profits, the questions raised and principles shared are a testament to his intellect, talent, practice, perseverance and contribution to social entrepreneurship and non-profit leadership.
Building Unity is both humbling and inspired. Prosserman’s drive and legacy, inspired by the limitless potential of community focus, leaves the reader anticipating where the EPIC journey takes him next. We wish him well as he focuses on the five things that matter to him in this new phase of his life.
Sharon Broughton is CEO of the national charity Prince’s Trust Canada, and an Instructor in Non-Profit Leadership and Strategy at University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.
Also reviewed by Sharon Broughton
Soul Full of Coal Dust: A battle for miners’ lives (September 12, 2020)
Unleashed: The true challenge of leadership (September 2, 2020)
An asset to any group’s recovery strategy (May12, 2020)
A widening gap between the rich and poor—the new Canadian ‘normal’ (February 18, 2020)
Building social connectedness in a social media world (October 19, 2019)