In episode 11 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Nyacko Perry, discussed include:
Boardsource 2017 research on the demographics of nonprofit boards. Leading with Intent.
Nyacko Perry utilizes a systems-thinking approach to assist individuals, community groups, and organizations, in creating more inclusive cultures. Her decade long career as a transformational change agent includes national and international facilitation with non-profit, corporate, and government agencies. Nyacko is the founder of Yin Consulting, a collaborative focused on personal, organizational and systemic healing.
She is the Organization Development Partner at the much-anticipated Comfort Kitchen, a restaurant, community meeting space, and a food incubator dedicated to fostering collaboration, cross-cultural understanding, and community engagement. Nyacko also serves as a member of the Advisory Board for the Action Boston Community Development, Inc. Roxbury/N. Dorchester Opportunity Center. Nyacko holds an M.S. in Organization Development, with distinction, from American University. She is also a 500-hour professional level yoga teacher, an Afro Flow Yoga® certified teacher, and weaves her mindfulness expertise into her consulting work.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Nyacko, it’s great to have you on the podcast.
Nyacko Perry: Thank you, Carol. I'm excited to be here.
Carol: So, give people some context, what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say is the journey or the path that got you to where you are now?
Nyacko: That is quite the question. Just for background, I do mostly organizational healings. I'm interested in the wellbeing of people at work, and ultimately doing a process of healing. So addressing and having accountability around some of the past experiences, and making a path forward so that people can feel safe and be the most productive people they can be at work. What brought me to that is quite a journey. I come from a yoga background to start. I was very invested in healing in that regard. Healing for myself, and first for taking care of myself, taking care of my body and my mind, and that quickly grew into ‘how do I facilitate this for other people?’ So I've been a yoga teacher for several years, and after being a yoga teacher for several years, I left and became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana for two years. That experience was the most eye-opening, incredible experience of my life, both exciting and awesome, but also painful and different. Through that experience, I was working with a lot of Government Agencies. I was based in a local village and there were three local schools that I was supporting with what we would consider life skills, which were mostly around the spread of HIV and making sure that the curriculum invested in that and making sure that the students understood what HIV was and how it was transmitted and so forth.
Through that experience, I found that one, I fell in love with my community. I also got rather disillusioned from some of the institutions that were located there, both the nonprofits, as well as some of the government agencies I was working with. Unfortunately, their approach was ultimately, numbers, very numbers based, very centric towards, ‘you know, what are we doing and how is this making us look good?’ and it really didn't resonate with me. So I had a big internal process going on because I felt like there's so much potential to do our full work if you are in collaboration with the community, if you are really acknowledging how they want to go about their own process of doing this powerful change within their system. I became very interested in that, both during my Peace Corps service, but then afterwards, of course. so after that time of being with them, I thought, ‘okay, more so than actually doing direct service, I'm very interested in the systems that hold this direct service. So, that's where I started and looked into the American program that I believe we both did Carol. Then, going through the master's program became very interested in how to bring back this healing component and this idea around people's wellbeing at work. So all of these different parts of my identity and my experience came together through the master's program. I actually had the pleasure of thinking about a theory around organizational healing from the lens of the chakra system. The chakra system is basically energy centers that live within the body.
They're known in yogic philosophy, they're also known in African practices and traditions as well. I was very interested in considering organizations to be human systems, then how do we apply all of these theories we have about the human experience in the context of work? So that's how I got into all of the things that I got into.
Carol: That's awesome. Say more about your organizational theory of healing and, how do you define that, and can you dig into a little bit more about how the theory shows up when you're doing work with groups.
Nyacko: Absolutely. For me, I'm a very feeling person, so the first thing that I do when I go into an organizational system is I'm like, what do I feel inside? Do I feel tension? Do I feel joy? Do I feel like apprehension? and so I very much come from an emotional place and healing. What I consider healing is being in touch [with] emotions, but healing takes many, many shapes and forms. So from my perspective, it's really about accountability. I think that's where healing can truly come through. So if an organization gets data that says ‘actually you have been unfair or you have done some things that have caused harm,’ acknowledging that, and really making that be part of the next strategy. [Saying,] we've heard you, we're going to make shifts. We're going to acknowledge what we've done that has caused harm. We're going to actually make some shifts and involve you in that change process. That's what I consider to be healing, but what I've noticed through the work is that every organization will bring about healing in their own way. For some people, healing can be messy, it can be tough. It's where the leader, for example, has to really take in all of the feedback, and sometimes that within itself is like, ‘ah, that hurts.’ or, I had no intention of doing that. I think this is something that happens all the time where the leader has a very different experience from those that are on the lower levels of the system. I didn't realize that making this pay cut and making this particular shift had an actual emotional effect on your life and your ability to come to work and to thrive. I didn't realize that.
So there's a lot of acknowledging what's gone wrong, but it can honestly be a messy process I've found, but I think for me, it's really about how we create a safe container where people can be honest, and that is usually the first step in a system. A lot of times when I go in, it's very clear to me that nobody's going to really say how they feel, because there's such tension, there's such a tightness and so I open the floodgates, but then the floodgates are open and who knows what could happen. Usually it ends up pretty well.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by creating a container?
Nyacko: Yeah, even in how I practice. So if I'm leading a group, the first thing I do is a check-in. For some systems, that's very normal behavior, checking in [with] ‘how is everybody?’ and when we're checking in, we're not just checking in on ‘how was work today,’ but [also,] ‘how are you?’ and from a facilitator perspective, I want to understand if somebody is coming in with stress, with some tension, with something that's going to influence how they're showing up here. So that gives me more of a background of what's going on.
So, one thing is check-ins, which for some systems is radical transforming where people are like, ‘wait, you're asking me how I am versus how productive I was today?!’ It can be a jarring shift. So I think that that's the first step for me in terms of setting a container. Starting with, of course, the check-in, but also in how I'm holding the space.
I'm not intending to be an authority when I hold space, which for some people is difficult. Because they're like, just tell me what to do and also, this is what I consider to be presence, you know, you're a boss and you come in and you tell us how to do things. So I come in with a radical, different way, which is: ‘hi, I'm here. I'm interested in how you feel.’ I want to support you in this process, I'm not an authority, I hope you feel safe here. So that's how I show up and that really opens where people are like, ‘oh, whoa. I can talk to her,’ especially when it comes down to the data collection process, I tend to do very well in that area because people feel more comfortable with how I show up and how I hold space.
Like I was saying, there is this other extreme where for some people they're like, ‘I don't get it. Why isn't she doing it how I'm used to seeing,’ not to mention, I also don't always look like what people consider a consultant. They're like, ‘Oh, wow, you're young and black and have all these other parts of your identity that I’m not sure about. How do I make sense of you?’ I think that's also a strength that I have. I look different, I represent something different, I show up differently intentionally, and that helps to set a container for people to feel safe.
Carol: You talked about the messiness of the process. I think too often, people are lulled into the idea that if they do this seven-step process, we're gonna manage change, it's going to happen exactly the way we want it to. I often cringe when I hear the word change management, because to me it creates this illusion that it’s all manageable. Certainly you create processes to help people move through it, but it doesn't mean that it's going to be easy. There might be uncomfortable parts, but those are necessary if you're really going to dig into the real issues that organizations face.
Nyacko: Absolutely, it makes me think a lot about Bridges theory. Just that in between when you're trying to mitigate the change process, you actually have to consider that there's this in-between from what you were, to what you're going to be. That middle space is going to determine whether or not you're actually successful and you need to use it, work on that, and think about how your employees are actually talking and feeling throughout this change process, especially for those that are like, ‘oh, we just let go half of our staff and we're merging with a totally different company and we have to completely change our culture.’ There are two cultures that are somehow supposed to merge together. There's going to be so much messiness, and even just acknowledging that and holding space for that in-between, is so necessary.
Carol: Yeah. That theory that you mentioned, William Bridges does a lot of work on transitions. When I'm trying to explain that to people, I often say that in our American, White-dominated culture we always want to be onto the next thing. So we want to go from point A to point C and forget this in-between space where we're not quite there, not quite here, not where we were, but not quite there yet. I think everyone's feeling that right now in the midst of the pandemic or in this massive in-between space and the discomfort that that creates with folks.
Nyacko: Yeah, it's quite eye-opening for all of us and even organizations, how they respond to the pandemic, and it seems like there has to be more attention to the employee experience outside of just how they are in terms of productivity, but how are they?
Carol: You talk about how radical that can be, to ask folks how they're doing. I was talking to a colleague at the beginning of the pandemic and she said, ‘my boss is suddenly incredibly vulnerable, and I don't know if I like it.’ This is very not normal! Many believe - if they're not in the sector - they have this idealistic notion of the nonprofit sector that it's shielded from dysfunctional culture and dynamics because of the mission focus and because of that good intention and trying to create change or good work in the world, but in my experience, too many organizations have very admirable missions for change that they want to see. Yet the values that undergird those missions just don't show up inside the organization and how they're treating people. What have you observed within nonprofits that you've worked with?
Nyacko: A lot of what I'm seeing is the people that are doing direct service are having a really challenging time - especially around their income, more often than not, they're the least paid person, but they're the people that are dealing with the direct work. Then there's a whole disconnect between the direct service people, and the people that are really high up. The other disconnect in that area is race. Race is something I see very quickly, it's like direct service. That's where all the people of color work, and then as you go up, it's just all white. I find that disturbing, what is that about? Then also in terms of who they serve, more often than not, it's people of color, people that represent a disenfranchised identity, and that's not reflected in the leadership of nonprofits. So, there's just this huge disparity and disconnect that I don't understand and I feel troubled by.
Carol: Yeah and it certainly mirrors our wider society, so it's not like the sector at all is separate. It's all within those systems. So can you say more about how you see that culture of white supremacy showing up within the sector?
Nyacko: Yeah, it's this idea of helping. This idea of who we think needs help, and more often than not the people who need help are people that represent disenfranchised identities. Why is it that we don't have those [identities] represented in leadership? I see a huge problem in that, but honestly, my friends that are in nonprofit, when I've worked in nonprofit, it's almost like it's normalized where the whole board is white, the whole leadership is white, [so] they don't know what's happening. They're not connected to the actual experience of the people that they're serving, but they get to make the most important, most drastic decisions.
The people that are closest to the pain should be closest to the access and closest to helping to make decisions - and I'm pulling from my congresswoman, Ayanna Presley - that's the thing [that] people who are representing the identities should be a part of the solution and should be a part of making those major decisions. I rarely see that, and I think we know statistically, it's not there. I think it's like 0.05%.
Carol: Yeah, I don't know the exact stats, but I definitely know I can look them up. BoardSource has done a lot of work on this and [on] measuring and calling for more diversity, and the needle not shifting since they've been measuring it for the last 15-20 years or so. Do you see places where that isn't the case though, where those dynamics have flipped?
Nyacko: I mean, probably occasionally but it's also in our structures. Like our structures in general, our businesses are based on white supremacy. All the way from our educational systems, our business structures. I was listening to the 1619 project, I don't know if you've listened to that, it's an amazing piece by the New York Times that really looks into the history of slavery, and also the legacy of slavery. One major piece is that a lot of our business structures are based on how the plantations were run. They had very complex systems. They had middle management and ideas about productivity, and reports about productivity, how to best feed a slave and have them be as efficient as possible. They were extremely successful in that. So much of our wealth in America is based on that piece of our history. So when I think about structures in general, it [makes it] difficult to live in society and to work in any system. The rationale that I tell myself is that I'm here to dismantle and to support the transition and the change. I think it's very important to acknowledge where our structures come from, where our nonprofit structures come from. If these parts of our communities weren’t disenfranchised, we wouldn't have a use for nonprofits. So how is this an industrial complex? How is it that we're dependent on people being in need and perpetuating that?
Carol: Then [there’s] the sector being dependent on the little bit of wealth that is put into foundations and then the little bit that they give out each year. Where did all that money originate from? Here we are in a field in terms of organization development that wants to be of service and wants to help. where do you see, you know, how do you see, doing that in a way that does heal rather than doing harm?
Nyacko: Step one is acknowledgement, but that's the trickiest part. That's the part where, for example, when George Floyd was murdered, so many people, so many organizations, wrote these very blanketed responses, and there was no accountability in the statement. There was nowhere where we wanted to acknowledge what role we have played in perpetuating this system, and the steps that we want to make to dismantle it, to make some shifts within our organization. It's rare that we see that.
We have seen it in some circumstances, but more often than not, there's a resistance that you've been acknowledging it. It's almost like “la-la-la-la, we're good.” When really, just name it. Name it and start there. I think that's step one, and then once that's open, involving everyone in your organization in the process. Knowing that more often than not, the leadership is not fully aware of all of that goes on in the organization, [and] is not fully connected to the people that are being served, lifting up the voices from the rest of the organization, as well as lifting up the voices of people that are being served by the organization and bringing those voices to the forefront and allowing them to help direct
whatever change process you're planning to make, I think that that's the first step in healing.
Carol: So you also work in the food industry as a partner with a Comfort Kitchen. What type of type of change are you trying to make in that space?
Nyacko: First of all, background. Background on Comfort Kitchen - and I know they're going to read a little bit - my husband has been in the food industry for - I should say my spouse - has been in the industry for the last 15 years. He’s also an immigrant from Nepal and he had a terrible time of being someone that has an MBA who’s fully prepared to bring all of his skills to whatever business he was working for, and just being constantly demoralized and disrespected throughout the process. This is not a different story - this is the story. The industry is interested in exploiting people and chooses to target the most vulnerable individuals. So, 70% of restaurant workers are immigrants. and then a large portion of those are undocumented. So it's really vulnerable people that ended up working there. There's a lot of systems that will choose to exploit that. The whole design of the restaurant industry makes no sense. It's not actually a sustainable model, and that's why, when we saw the pandemic hit, most restaurants cannot go two weeks, let alone months, without generating any revenue. It just doesn't work. That's because the margins are small because it's almost impossible to get healthy food that comes from a sustainable source, and to pay your employees well, and actually sell your food at a fair price to your consumer. That's rare to see.
So, we would like to try and see if we can build something that is a little bit more sustainable on many levels. [Obviously,] the financial element, but also in how we engage with each other and how we engage with the community. So we're going into a community that I love called Upham’s Corner. It's right up the street from where I live and have lived for many years, and it's a community that has a lot of life. It has a lot of diversity. It's actually one of the most diverse neighborhoods in America.
So there's such a need to bring some love and be like, hey, we're here, we want to engage with you. Also with that comes the incredible cultures that are represented. So within my team: my partner is from Nepal, our head chef is from Ghana, his partner is from Portugal, and then we have a teammate from Ethiopia, and then second-generation Nigerian. So we're bringing a lot of different cultures to share within a neighborhood that's incredibly diverse as well. So a big focus for us is cross-cultural understanding. How do we start to see that actually all of these experiences are valuable, important, and also have similarities. One big similarity that we're finding is spices. Because of colonization and the spice trade, but you will find a lot of similar spice profiles across the world. So that feels unifying to us and really what is the forefront for us in terms of our menu and in terms of what we talk about. So what we're trying to do is we're trying to shift it off. Ultimately, because of the pandemic, huge shifts had to be made, and one major part of that is that we are developing a much smaller team, and that's so that we can be sustainable and do things differently.
Carol: Well, that sounds awesome. So, in each episode, I play a little game where I just ask one random icebreaker question. So I've got one for you here. What's the best compliment you've ever received?
Nyacko: Last night I had a friend over, and she said that I'm very smart and smart in a way that most people don't understand, but she gets it and she sees it. I have really struggled with my intelligence just because I have a learning difference. and so I've gotten messages throughout my life that [I’m] not as smart as other people are. Which are all stories, but when you're young, that can be very much embedded in the way that you think. I love to receive compliments around my intelligence, that feels really good. Thanks for asking.
Carol: Yes, absolutely! Without a doubt, you are incredibly insightful, smart, intelligent, and delightful.
Nyacko: Thank you very much!
Carol: So what are you excited about? What's coming up next? What's emerging in your work?
Nyacko: I mean, my consulting work is going well, especially because I think people are aware they need to tap into their emotions and address some of these past harms and make some transitions. So [I’m] definitely feeling busy in that regard, which feels really good.
Also we have a project coming up called All-In Consulting. I know you've probably mentioned it in other episodes and the other times that you've had people on, but I'm very excited about that. This idea of having a collaboration of people that are committed to doing specifically DEI differently - diversity, equity and inclusion - differently.
That to me feels like home. I feel like I'm at home in our network and our communities. So that is very, very exciting to me. Then Comfort Kitchen is coming, we have a ways to go, but 2021, probably around March-April is when we're thinking. So just plugging away on that as well and excited because I'm going to take my first vacation next week.
Carol: Awesome. That is part of personal organizational wellbeing that people take time off, prioritize that and really unplug. I'm a big believer - maybe ‘cause I grew up in Europe, I'm used to longer vacations and I think that's a way to go. Thi American idea that you can get away with as little time off as possible, it's just not living. It doesn't work. So how can people know more about you and get in touch?
Nyacko: Sure thing. You can check out my website at yinconsulting.com. That's Y-I-N consulting dot com. You can also learn about Comfort Kitchen, we’re firstname.lastname@example.org. Then if you are an Instagram person, comfortkitchenBOS is our name on Insta. So you can check us out there as well.
Carol: Alright, well, thank you so much. It was great having you on.
Nyacko: Of course. Thank you, it was awesome.
Episode 10: This week we’re talking to Heather Yandow.
We talked about:
• What gets in the way of nonprofits hiring consultants successfully.
• Why an RFP process is often not the best approach to having a great experience with a consultant.
• The trends we are observing in this time of disruption.
Scenario Planning: An article describing the process from MIT Sloan management school
Heather Yandow brings more than 20 years of experience as an outreach coordinator, coalition leader, project manager, and fundraiser to Third Space Studio. She helps organizations with strategic planning, board development, change management, leadership development, and going from good to great. She has also served on the Board of Directors of Democracy NC, ncyt: NC’s Network of Young Nonprofit Professionals, and the Beehive Collective (a giving circle). She is also the founder of Nonprofit.ist, an online platform for nonprofits to find the consulting expertise they need.
Sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting. http://www.gracesocialsector.com/
Learn about the Effective Online Facilitation, 4 week group coaching program.
This week we’re talking to Becca Bartholomew.
We talked about:
• Ensuring all voices are included in planning processes
• Why it is important for leaders to not only have intelligence but also have emotional intelligence and somatic intelligence
• What the buffering sign on your computer has to tell us about today’s work environment
Referred to in the episode:
Barry Oshrey’s Tops, Middles and Bottoms
The Ladder of Inference
Your Body is Your Brain by Amanda Blake
A facilitator and coach with expertise in organization development (OD), Becca has extensive experience working with groups and individuals to foster communication and effective collaboration among diverse stakeholders. Becca helps her clients implement strategies that increase their emotional intelligence and efficacy. She is known for her clear communication, innate ability to foster trust, and firm, yet gentle approach to helping others recognize their blind spots and engage specific tools to articulate and reach their goals. She gracefully supports her clients toward self-reflection, new learning and increased awareness of their impact on others. She works with leaders of all types and has a special passion for those newer to leadership as well as those who hold societal privilege and want to address their roles in upholding and then dismantling systems of oppression.
Becca on LinkedIn
Becca on Twitter
This week we’re talking to Beth Sperber Richie.
We talked about:
• What is burn out is and why burn out is so prevalent in the nonprofit sector
• What the research shows about rest and productivity for organizations.
• What vicarious trauma is and how it impacts staff and an organization’s culture.
Beth Sperber Richie, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and consultant in private practice in the Washington, D.C. area. Dr. Richie works with non-profit leaders on how to sustain their staff and their mission given the grind of social change work. She gives workshops and presentations on managing stress and burnout, vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, improving cross-cultural communication and counseling skills and setting boundaries for front-line employees. Her workshops focus on practical skills and engaged involvement of all participants.
Sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting
Learn about the Effective Online Facilitation, 4 week group coaching program.
Carol Hamilton: Hi Beth, welcome to the podcast, it’s great to have you on.
Beth Richie: Thanks, great to be here.
Carol: Could you tell us a little bit about what drew you to this work and how you got to where you are?
Beth: I got involved doing clinical work with trauma survivors. I'm a psychologist, so the clinical work came logically out of the stuff I was studying when I was back in graduate school. I began working with trauma survivors clinically in the nineties, and as much as I'm passionate about that work, I've enjoyed that work and feel that it's been very meaningful to me over the years, I began to realize that I'm talking to one person at a time and I'm helping one person at a time. I started to look for the ways in which I could multiply the impact that I could have, and consulting with organizations just seemed like a logical next step. It really started when a friend of mine started an organization that helped landmine survivors all around the world, he was asking all the right questions about how to get landmine survivors back into the workforce. How do we take somebody who’s a farmer and who's lost their limbs in the landmine accident, and get that person back into the paid workforce. How do they support their family, but wasn't really asking the questions about what the impact of the trauma is on the person. I started asking him those questions and that led me to work as a consultant with his organization.
Then, because it was a new organization to talk to him a lot about what organizational policies and procedures and what practices can you put in place for your staff that's going to be dealing with this really traumatic material on a daily basis. That was what got my foot in the door. I saw that ‘here's a way to have an impact on many more people at once.’ That's what really hooked me to the idea of doing consulting in this area. I know that when you and I first spoke, we talked a little bit about the whole idea that you have about how important it is to make a healthy organism, relational cultures that it's not just enough to work with an organization, the goal is to help them make the organizational culture healthy. That's such a dovetail for me with this work that it's an opportunity to help organizations where people are helping folks who have experienced trauma, how they keep their staff healthy and how do they keep the organization healthy as they move through working in this arena, whatever that arena might be.
Carol: Actually, part of the goal of this podcast is to help progressive nonprofit leaders do that work that they want to do to build a better world, but without really becoming a martyr to the cause. Much of your work centers around that, and one of the things that you help organizations with is managing stress and burnout. I feel that that is such a large part of the nonprofit sector that people almost see it as a given.
Carol: To the point where, if they're not experiencing it, they think they're not truly dedicated to the cause.
Beth: Yeah, like they're not working hard enough if they're not in pain.
Carol: I'm curious, how do you define burnout? Cause I think it's a term that's thrown around a lot, but burnout is another level and I'm not sure that everyone really defines it the same way.
Beth: Well, I think you're right. Everybody does not define it the same way. When I'm working with organizations, I get people to take a look and do a little bit of an assessment of their own level of burnout. For me, burnout is not just that there is stress in your work because lots of work has stress. Burnout to me is like the moral distress or the moral level of fatigue, where you just find it difficult to get the motivation to do even a simple list of tasks. The other piece of this for organizations that work with trauma survivors is the vicarious trauma of hearing those stories has an impact on the listener, to the point where they can actually get post-traumatic stress symptoms, similar to the ones that the survivors themselves get, where their worldview is actually shifted. I think that that's particularly a hallmark of vicarious trauma, but I think it's true, in burnout that it's almost a worldview switch where, what used to be something that motivated you and got you excited, that you had the drive and the burn to make this change in the world that gets to the point where you're tired and hopeless, [to the point] that there's actually been a shift in the way you view the world. To me, that is the difference between burnout and just general stress. I think general stress is easier to recover from than burnout. I have a couple of nonprofit leaders that I'm working with at the moment who both like the idea of burnout rehab. That's what we've been calling it.
Carol: What are your steps for burnout rehab?
Beth: It depends on the individual human being, right? Each burnout rehab is its own special thing. [What] I say to everybody I work with is you need to find the thing that works for you and then apply it liberally. The metaphor I use is that of a stress fracture. Despite not being athletic myself, I produced three children who are athletes. One of my children played right through a stress fracture, he continued to play. My daughters are the same way, one of them had her knee ripped open in a soccer incident and she wasn't even aware that she was bleeding. They had to take her off the field because apparently it's not legal to bleed while you're playing soccer, you have to be taken off the field. She didn’t feel that it was necessary, but those to me, those metaphors of the stress fracture or you're playing hard that you don't even realize you have a ripped open knee, is exactly what happens with our nonprofit leaders that they're working hard and strong. [They’re so far] beyond stressed that they're at the point where they don't even realize that they're bleeding or that they have a stress fracture. In the same way that with a stress fracture or with an open wound, you would have to come off the field. That's step one for burnout rehab.
[The problem,] as far as I'm concerned, is how to get off the field when you don't want to get off the field completely. The athletes don't want to get off the field completely, they don't want to go off the field at all and neither do the nonprofit leaders. We have to get them off the field, and one way or another figure out ways to put boundaries around their work, either in terms of time like, “you are allowed to work X or Y amount of hours a day and that's it, or you are no longer allowed to work Saturdays and Sundays, or I know nonprofit leaders that I've worked with who are working on vacation, I remind them that that's not actually vacation. Some of it is putting boundaries around the work, recognizing that you have a stress fracture and therefore you shouldn’t go back out on the field and play the sport again. The other is to figure out what's sustainable for them in the long haul, how can they individually find that burnout rehab that works, the metaphor I like is the idea that we all think about filling our cup, is your cup half full, is it half empty. The whole notion of a full cup to me is that that full cup can then spill over onto other people, a lot of nonprofit leaders feel that if they're not feeling burnt out, then they're not really working hard or they're not really doing it right. I remind them that their own cup is actually a way to help other people, because it allows them to keep going in the long haul.
Carol: I think [it also] models that for any staff that are working for them, because I've talked to many executive directors who say: ‘well, I tell my staff not to work on the weekends,’
and I say ‘okay, are you working on the weekends? Are you answering email? Are you sending them an email on vacation?’ Well, if you're doing that, no matter what you say - my mother loved to say, ‘do as I say, not as I do,’ but clearly that doesn't work. We watch how people behave and that's really the expectation. People see that and they feel they have to work towards it.
Beth: They have to match what the leadership of the organization is doing. I’ve said more times than I can count that whole thing about emailing on vacation. You can have a company policy that says you absolutely must take X or Y amount of vacation, [and] I know a number of organizations that respond to this [with] mandatory vacation. [They say,] you must take a break ‘cause we want you to be here for the long haul, but then they write emails on vacation. If you're writing emails on vacation, then your staff gets the message [that] they should never take a break. We've got excellent research out there that talks about what taking a break does for people and how much more productive people are, even after a short break. It doesn't matter what field they're in, this research has been done across many different fields, I think one - I'm not going to come up with a citation right off the top of my head - but I think of one group that looked at basketball players, their free-throw percentage went up when they took breaks from working out. We know it's true with folks in the arts. We know it's true with folks in business. We know people have looked at this in terms of the research, on taking a break on from many different perspectives.
People who take vacations get higher ratings from their supervisors in terms of being more effective employees, and it's correlated very strongly with the number of days of vacation they actually take. We know that the research tells us that this is how we rehab for burnout and how we come back. As I say, it's an individualized program in terms of how you actually get the person to make the cognitive switch to: this is actually good for me, I really need to do this. I have sports injuries and I feel like I've probably experienced burnout at some point in my career, [and] I do feel like with both, you don't come back to where you were before the injury. I think it ebbs and flows over the span of a career, what you might've been able to do in your twenties, or maybe when you were in a startup phase with an organization, it needs to shift. Yet the times people don't shift because they started out a certain way, working a certain way either for an established organization or as a founder let's say or whatever, and then that just becomes the culture. So being much more mindful of how you’re setting those boundaries and then what are those different things that fill your cup?
Carol: I feel like I've seen much about that research that you're talking about and yet somehow in our culture, there's still so much bravado about this macho, ‘we've got to always be working, got to always be busy. I'm busier than you.’ stuff that I'm trying to step out of.
I don't need that, but how the hell is it for most people, they think, ‘well, it's not possible for me to do it differently.’
Beth: Yeah, and some would see [it as] a failure of their imagination that they can't imagine that taking breaks would have a positive impact on that, that they could do it in a different way than they did it in their twenties now that they have different responsibilities at home, it’s ironic. I think that Corona and the Coronavirus has caused a lot of people to really rethink and to look for new ways to figure this out. Just plugging through is not going to work if you’ve got an eight year-old at home who needs your attention and needs your help getting the education that they need. Folks are, are looking around and saying, ‘oh wait, I have to figure out a new way.’ I think that this is an opportunity, that's the silver lining, there's an opportunity here to get a little bit creative about how people approach their work and look at it in a different way. When you described the whole notion of burnout rehab being this combination of sets and boundaries, and then the TLC and how you fill your own cup.
What I always say to people is ‘sometimes how you fill your cup is the work,’ and I like to say self-care is not always a bath bomb. Like this is not about going to the spa.
There are a lot of people for whom the work itself is fulfilling that it does fill their cup. I say amen to that, then you're probably not burnt out, but for other folks in your organization that might not be true. The other piece of this is that, when you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to fill your cup. Part of the reason the work fills your cup is when you are connected to the mission.
What ends up happening is we get into getting ready for the board meeting, the actual getting ready for the board meeting becomes this huge stress. That is a disconnect for me. What is our mission or what is our goal? Even though the board is important and that helps move the organization forward, it is connected to the mission [and] when we get too wrapped up in the, ‘I've got this meeting and then that meeting,’ or ‘I need to make these fundraising calls,’ or ‘I need to get ready for the board meeting,’ whatever the day-to-day logistics of the organization are that those logistics disconnect from the mission and the part of what refills our cup in the work is mission-driven work or mission-focused perspective.
That's something that people can get this too disconnected from, and that can contribute to burnout. When someone says, ‘no, I just care so much about this one work. That's what drives me. That's what fills my cup.’ to that person, my response is ‘okay, when was the last time you were really connected to the mission of the organization, as opposed to just what it takes to run an organization.’ For people who are not yet willing to say, ‘oh, I just need to fill my time cup.’ That means going out in nature, for those people, I would say, ‘ when was the last time you actually were connected to why you came into this work in the first place?’
Carol: They could do both. They could take a walking meeting. I've been doing a lot of those since Coronavirus. I am pro-walking-meeting.
Beth: There are ways to combine moving your body, being outside, and something done, it's a win, win, win.
Carol: You work with organizations where the staff are really experiencing what goes beyond day-to-day stress of vicarious trauma and compassion, fatigue. Can you first, both define those things and then tell me who's typically affected and how that shows up in organizations?
Beth: Absolutely. The difference to me between vicarious trauma, let's say in burnout, is that piece that I said before of a shift in worldview of seeing the world as a little bit less safe, or that if you had gone into this believing that there are good people in the world and there's good things in the world, being exposed to a steady diet of trauma can eat away at that pretty quickly. The other way I think of it is in terms of how you get burnout or how you become burned out and how you get vicarious trauma, you could get vicarious trauma after a particularly difficult one-time experience, whereas burnout is more like the steady drip of water eroding rock. You wake up one day and look around and say, ‘oh, I'm burnt out,’ but it's been based on this slow, steady drip of the difficulty of the work that you're doing.
The other piece between burnout and vicarious trauma, to me [is that] vicarious trauma is actually probably about being exposed to traumatic material, whereas burnout can happen in all sorts of organizations. You might be an organization that is working on social change and you might feel burnt out by the slow pace or by the backward steps that you feel like is happening in a particular environment, but that's different from actually being exposed to traumatic material. Who tends to get vicarious trauma? I would say most times it's first-responders. It's in this environment, healthcare workers, but it's also people who hear the stories. I've worked now with two and am working with two different gun violence prevention organizations. You might go into that because you're politically motivated and you feel like you want to change the political strategies and you're an advocate, but you’re telling the stories of people whose lives have been shattered because of a murder that they experienced or because they were part of a mass shooting or because of other traumatic material that, that they're going to have to process.
Anyone in the organization who is having contact with survivors and in most gun violence prevention organizations, the survivors are at the forefront of the advocacy work. You're going to be hearing those stories and anyone from the person who's sitting at the front desk to the CEO, to the ED, whoever it is, one in the organization could potentially be exposed to the traumatic material. That's different than just the burnout - one of my children works in the climate change field and she might argue that there's some pretty traumatic scenarios out there. It's an example of it's a long haul. It's a lot of work and you could get burnt out by the enormity of the problem and the small steps that you are making to make change in that arena, but you're not actually being exposed - for the most part - to actual trauma or to the traumatic experiences of others. That's a big deal, and certainly people who get vicarious trauma can be burnt out, but it's not always true that people who are burnt out all have vicarious trauma if they've not been exposed directly to that material.
Carol: My daughter worked doing direct service with a number of different groups, working with students in lower resource schools, helping them with college access and there was always something going on with one of the students, maybe not directly with them, but then with their friends, family, and just hearing those stories all the time. One thing that was interesting that you said before was that people can experience PTSD symptoms. I feel like in the media, and what people have heard about PTSD, it's okay. As if veterans are the only people [who] experience PTSD and that's not true. I'm curious if you could just share some of the signs that people might, if they're experiencing that and not really knowing what's going on, what might be some things of how it shows up for them?
Beth: Particularly for people who [have] vicarious trauma that I always described the post traumatic stress disorder symptoms as being a pendulum swing between numbing out and over feeling or, or feeling to a larger degree. We call it hyper-arousal in our field. That you go from 0 to 60 in terms of emotional response. Some of the other classic symptoms are people having nightmares or having flashbacks to the event that can even be true. If you just heard about the event and didn't witness it or didn't experience it yourself. I can say personally, one of the ways that I realized I had vicarious trauma in the early days of becoming a therapist to work primarily with trauma survivors was that I would have nightmares about the things that had happened to my clients happening to myself or to members of my family.
It can show up in all sorts of different ways, but I think those are the two hallmarks if you're feeling a lack of feeling, a numbed response to something that in the past probably would have generated some response for you or in the opposite direction. I feel like everything people think of PTSD being somebody hears a car backfire and they think it's a gunshot and they jump through the roof, but that can be true for anybody. They can have a hyper-emotional response to a story here, to a smell. to a sound that is not like a gunshot, there are lots of different ways that people can experience that. That could be true for your daughter as well. She’s heard those stories enough that she becomes hypervigilant about scenarios that she might be in that are similar to what she's heard from her clientele.
Carol: How does this impact the organization at large? I mean, certainly it impacts the people who are providing direct service working on the front lines, but I'm guessing that there are ways that it shows out throughout the organization and impacts culture as well.
Beth: Yeah, it's a great question and absolutely the most obvious [is] when you have high turnover in an organization, because people, , as you said, people think of the progressive nonprofit world as - I've had people say to me, ‘we assume that people will be gone in about 2-2 ½ years.’ That that's the timeframe and that they see that as an acceptable outcome. They’ll just get some new 20-something graduates from college
Carol: And give them vicarious trauma.
Beth: Exactly. I think that there’s the sense of it [being] inevitable and my feeling is [that] it's not inevitable. It doesn't have to be inevitable and you lose things as an organization; that turnover is really expensive. It's expensive in terms of time, cause now members of your staff have to spend time - even if you have an HR department - other members of your staff or content folks are all going to have to interview people and figure out who they want to bring on. You have that time issue. Time, obviously, costs money and people are not doing the other things that you need to be doing. When you're doing that work, you have to train new people over and over again, you lose the historical memory that goes with the folks and you lose the relationships that those folks have built, whether it's with a board member or with a fundraising source, a funder, or with other members of the staff you lose when they burn out and leave, or when they get vicarious trauma and leave, you lose all of these intangibles in addition to the time and money that you've spent on the hiring process. Turnover is more than just another hiring process, which is exciting.
Carol: It also impacts all the people who are left behind because I'm thinking over my 20-plus years at nonprofits to think I'd have to go back and calculate, but what was the percentage when I was actually doing a part of someone else's job because we all had to. So-and-so left and we had to divy it up. People don’t feel like there's the bandwidth or the resources to hire a temp, or that feels harder than just doing it yourself or those kinds of things, there's all sorts of ripple effects.
Beth: Those ripple effects then potentially contribute to the burnout of the rest of your staff, because they’re doing more work.
Carol: It’s a vicious cycle
Beth It can be, my feeling is [that] it doesn't have to be right.
Carol: What are some of the things that organizations can do to take steps to have it not be an inevitability?
Beth: There are actually some decent organizational assessments out there, mostly talking to the members of your staff to figure out - one of the things I think that's helpful about bringing a consultant like me in is that I can do that in a way that folks potentially can feel like their responses are actually anonymous. They can be - hopefully - a little bit more candid and honest about what their experience is like. Sometimes people don't even realize that that’s what they're doing. [They’ll say] ‘I'm sending an email on Sunday night because I'm living at home with my family during Corona. I know that tomorrow morning, when you all need this information, I'm going to be homeschooling my kid.’ Okay, great. How about you try making that explicit, I'm sorry, I've sent this email more times than I can count. I'm sorry.
I'm sending you an email on Sunday night. I don't expect a response and the reason I'm sending it on Sunday night is because I know you need this tomorrow. I know that I have the following things tomorrow that are not work related. I have to take my kid to the doctor in the morning, therefore, whatever it is to just send the message. a piece of it is assessing the culture. To see whether this is a, we should be responsive all the time. This is a 24/7 experience, always be available. See if that message is being sent out there, but the other piece is to actually ask staff what would support them.
Just as you asked me before, well, what does burnout rehab look like? my response unhelpfully was, it depends on the person. The same thing is true. What's going to work for this staff? I don't know, but I'm going to ask the staff what they think, ‘Oh, well, we're going to put in a wellness program.’ That's always my favorite. We're going to put her in a wellness program, we're going to convert this empty office into a wellness spot, we're going to put water sounds and an exercise ball and some yoga mats and let people do what they want with it. My feeling is don't waste your money. Even though that's not a lot of money, don't waste your money. Spend some time talking to your staff about what actually feels like a wellness moment for them. Maybe what feels like a wellness moment for them is everybody actually getting together and talking about the work, right? Maybe it's about sharing wins. I have one organization that I work with that in the last couple of weeks has decided to give all of their employees eight hours of flex time to use during the work-week. At any time you want to discuss it with your manager, but here's some flex time because they're recognizing the impact of coronavirus and what it means to have your whole family at home. You might not have computer access or wifi access at X or Y time during the day, or you may need to be caring for an elderly relative or for a child or for each other or whatever it is. That was something that came from the staff. As something that would be useful to them, if they just felt like they were not stuck inside those core hours then they could help their kid during the day and work at night. Maybe they can't get an eight hour work day, [but] having those eight hours of flex flexibility gives them an opportunity that they otherwise wouldn't have had, but to me it's really about assessing from that particular staff what feels to them like it would sustain them in the long haul.
Carol: A lot of this comes down to setting appropriate boundaries and, as you said, filling your cup. What are some of your favorite ways to fill your cup?
Beth: Being in nature is huge. On mother's day, my husband, who, he and I have been married for almost 30 years and he knows me. He knows the goal is to get to some body of water. There are no large bodies of water near where I live but we can walk to a creek and that'll do, we get outside near water. That for me is the big one. Then the other one is music, either making music with friends or listening to new music that I just got exposed to for the first time. Those are really big for me in terms of filling my cup. How about you?
Carol: Well it's funny, water for sure. I once went on a vacation where we only were by water one day and I realized, no, this is not a vacation for me. I need to be by water, the entire vacation, whether it's a beach or at a lake, or kayaking or some body of water, anywhere I [need to] have water. I spend my summer at the pool. I'm a little nervous about this summer. I think kayaking] will be the thing that keeps me going throughout the summer months. Also doing something that uses a different part of your brain. You talked about music, I used to play music as a younger person and maybe one day I will again, but these days I've been playing around with drawing. I'm no great artist, I actually do not call myself that purposefully so that I can continue to just dabble in that. Then for me, sports, anything active. Getting the body moving, all those things that don't have to do with being at a computer.
Beth: Getting away from the computer is huge, especially right now. What I say to people is that sometimes it even helps to be doing something that is a volunteer thing. My family packs boxes at a local food pantry and it's physical work. I like that, it's different.
It's not sitting at a computer, but also, I'm not in charge. That fills my cup. Being able to do something that's good and helpful for somebody else, but I didn't have to organize it. I can just show up, pack my boxes, be with my family and leave. Fantastic. It doesn't have to be a bath bomb. Sometimes it is actually about providing service, but providing service in a way that feels different for you or is not the same thing over and over again, because our brains crave novelty, and we need to use our bodies in different ways and we need to use our minds in different ways and anything we do that steps away from our day-to-day can be very useful.
Carol: I actually have often reminded boards and people working in recruiting volunteers that they shouldn't assess that, say they need someone to work on marketing and communications that they should go after someone who does that professionally well, in fact, they may want to do something totally different and they may want to facilitate your small groups or do workshops or do some other thing, and someone else who is interested in that and may want to try out those skills as a volunteer. Oftentimes volunteering gives you an opportunity to try something different, or like you said, just show up and be told what to do, not be in charge. You have something concrete that has happened by the end, this had a clear impact on someone.
One of the things I like to do is play a little game at the end here. I have a couple of icebreaker questions. Let me pick one. If you could never work again, how would you spend your time?
Beth: Oh, if I could never work again... I hate to be one of those people that sounds like the people we're talking about who are burnt out, but honestly, I really do love this work that I'm doing with organizations. I would do this for free, that's a terrible marketing strategy, but it's true. I do need to pay the bills, I can't do it for free, but I think that would be one thing I would do, one of the things I know about myself is that I like variety. That would be one thing I would do, somehow finding a way we mentioned to be near a body of water would be something I would do. I would play my guitar and sing as often as I possibly could, find some other people to hang out with who had nothing else they had to do and just spend hours singing. My life could be one long campfire with a guitar. I would love that.
Carol: What are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Beth: I actually had an opportunity recently to do a webinar for some social service agencies in DC. The mayor of DC, mayor Bowser has put some focus and some money into looking at the district's response to trauma. I've been able to do one webinar in a series, and I'm going to get another one in the can coming up in the not-too-distant future and I'm really excited because those are the folks who I most want to be in touch with. Those are the frontline workers who are the government folks in DC who are handing out food stamps and who are trying to find people housing and who are trying to find people jobs. I think both burnout and potentially vicarious trauma is high in that group of folks. I'm really excited to have an impact on those folks who are providing such important services in DC.
Carol: How can people find you more about you or get in touch?
Beth: People can find Fermata Consulting on LinkedIn, F, E, R, M, A, T, A, or email me at email@example.com. I would say LinkedIn is probably your best bet.
Carol: We'll put those links in the show.
Beth: That would be terrific. I'm always happy to hear from folks who I don't know, who have questions about the work I do. Feel free to reach out and shoot me an email and I'm happy to be back in touch.
Carol: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate you being on.
Beth: Sure, I'm looking forward to hearing all of your podcasts, not just this one.
This week we’re talking to Rebecca Murphy.
We talked about:
Rebecca has been a consultant for over 20 years. She considers herself an “interpreter,” as she has worked in multiple sectors including government, nonprofit, business, and philanthropy. She is adept at explaining/translating one to another. She is a generalist with a broad knowledge base – including workforce development, affordable housing, parks and place making. She has expertise in capacity building, organizational and program development, strategic planning, with particular expertise in public-private partnerships, community engagement, and strategic collaborations. Hers is a mission-focused practice. She is passionate about mission fidelity, and avoiding mission creep.
Sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting.
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Carol Hamilton: Today I want to welcome Rebecca Murphy to the podcast. Rebecca Murphy has been a consultant for over 20 years. She considers herself an interpreter as she has worked in multiple sectors including government, nonprofit business and philanthropy. She is adept at explaining and translating one sector to another. She's a generalist with a broad knowledge base, including workforce development, affordable housing, parks and placemaking. She has expertise in capacity building, organizational and program development, strategic planning, with a particular emphasis in public private partnerships, community engagement. and strategic collaboration. Hers is a mission focused practice. She is passionate about mission fidelity and avoiding mission creep. She is an optimistic activist with a passionate lived commitment to diversity. Join me in welcoming Rebecca Murphy!
Well welcome, Rebecca. I'm glad to have you on the mission impact podcast. I want to start out by just having you share with listeners your path? How did you get drawn to this work? How did you end up where you are now?
Rebecca Murphy: Well, Carol, thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it. How I got drawn to this work is really very simple. It's something that I always seen myself doing from my early 20s I think I always saw myself as having some business that allowed me to help groups and organizations whose missions I believed in, do the work they did better, do the work they did differently and achieve the objectives that they were setting out to achieve.
Carol: Coming into this a little bit later than you, I'm impressed that you had that vision for yourself so early on. What was the background to that?
Rebecca: Well, I think it's a couple of things. I think the first is I have always been somebody who appreciated and was engaged in community development work. I came at it through a political lens primarily because that's what my parents did. My mother did community development work and they were both very involved socially and civically. so there were always groups and organizations in our kitchen, and we were very engaged. so I knew a lot about the universe of nonprofits and the universe of mission-driven work from a really young age. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs, so I never really saw a full time job for a company as my path. so that's really that's really how I came at it. I also feel like I was a little bit ahead of my time. I really wanted to be able to work from home so that I could raise my kids. Even when I was young, I knew that that was what I wanted.
Carol: Yeah that's awesome, just the image of growing up around that. My dad worked for the government for the Foreign Service. so he went to work, it was a very traditional job and it was very mysterious to me as a child. All I really understood about it was that there was a big desk involved, and a big building, and some legal pads and government pens, but beyond that, I really didn't understand it. so it's really cool that you were able to absorb that from an early age.
Well, one of the things that you focus on is partnerships, including public-private partnerships, and I certainly believe that partnerships are so key to many nonprofits and how they do their work and at least my belief is that more should consider them with so many small organizations all going at the same issue. What would you say are the key things that nonprofits really need to think about when they're getting started with partnerships?
Rebecca: I think that's a great question, and it's one that I get asked a lot in my practice. I think that the most important thing that a nonprofit needs to do when they're thinking about a partnership is: what is their why? Why are you engaging in a partnership? Second to that, but equally as important: what do you bring to the partnership? It can't be about only what it is that you think you'll get out of it? It has to be about what you bring to that, what are your assets? What are your strengths? I think partnering from a place where you don't know that is a recipe for disaster.
Carol: Can you give an example of some disaster stories?
Rebecca: Yeah, I think I’ve had a couple of clients who thought that partnering was a good idea because it was going to get them out of a bad situation, and I think that's so common. I think that too often organizations are scrambling when they're really struggling, and then they think, “Oh well, we'll partner or we'll merge," and it seems like there's rarely a good time to try to step into those kinds of relationships. Partnering for weakness or desperation is a terrible time because you don't have clarity, and when you partner with an organization, you have to have clarity. You have to have clarity of mission, you have to have clarity of your goals, and you have to have clarity about the risk. I think that's the other thing a lot of nonprofits don't think about is what could go bad. They think about, “oh, this is gonna be great. it'll help us build our capacity. It'll help us raise money, it'll help us," whatever it is that they think it's going to do. They don't ever think about what's going to happen if it goes sideways, and whether there are different types of going sideways. There's recoverable going sideways, and then there's sort of the epic, this is the kick back sideways. I think that that's an equally important thing to be thinking about when you're thinking about a partnership is, what are we going to do if it goes south? How do we extricate ourselves? What are we going to do [if it goes sideways]?
Carol: So I usually like to focus on the more of a strengths-based approach and when things go well, so describe a partnership that you've seen when they really did things right, they did the due diligence and it really benefited both organizations in a way that you were even surprised by maybe.
Rebecca: Okay.… The stories I can tell best really relate to collaboration, which are - I think - partnerships with more than two players. and I think that they've worked, the ones that I have seen or been a part of that have worked really well. Were those where there was a common goal, whether it was a common problem that needed solving or a common issue that needed to be addressed. and everybody who was there brought different strengths to the table. They were partnering not from weakness, but in a manner that compensated for each other's sort of skill gaps, because I don't think that anybody in that particular industry killer scenario was weak. I think they just have different skill gaps. and I think that's almost the best way to think about a partner. Is this partner somebody who's going to fill my skills gaps? and can I do the same for that?
Carol: so what are those complementary pieces where you, you don't all have to bring the same strengths to the table.
Rebecca: I mean, it could be something from something as simple as “these people understand organizational development. I don't understand organizational development, but I want to work with somebody who does.” Two organizations that are focusing on one issue, one organization has real strength in advocacy and organizing it, while one organization has real strength in writing and policy work, those are two sets of skills that it's really rare to find in one organization. some organizations are good at service providing and other organizations are better at management. I think that a lot of times organizations can partner to build capacity or to test something you could market through a partnership. I particularly found this true in the community development space. There are lots of nonprofits that want to get into community development, whether that is they want to build themselves a facility, whether they're in the housing business, there could be a church or some other big nonprofit that doesn't provide a service that they want to provide in the community development realm. Partnering with somebody who has that skill can be very successful because for everybody Think because the organization that needs the partner that wants to develop the housing or the community center or whatever, they have clarity of mission, they have built in constituency, they can fill the rooms, they can, run the programs, and they partner with somebody who understands how to actually get a building built, or how to get houses built, or, how do you raise money for that? How do you think about that? How do you budget? How do you plan? Those kinds of things.
I think that those are very successful partnerships generally, I think partnerships and community development work, especially where there's potential for a cut to reach economies of scale, for example, especially this gets really to what you talked about from the very beginning, if there's a space where there are lots of actors - in Baltimore, this was true in the out-of-school space, there was a period in I think the 90s, late 90s, early 2000s, where everybody it seemed, was an out-of-school time after-school program business, and some people were operating out of their homes or they were operating out of a church basement. some people had more robust programs or they had bigger space, so they had outdoor space, but the marketplace was so crowded at that point, and the small guys were really in danger of not being able to survive, not because they weren't doing really good work, but because they didn't have the capacity or the need for a nonprofit organization, but they didn't know about Fiscal Sponsorship. They didn't have all this sort of back-office stuff, but they were providing an extraordinarily high-quality service, so I facilitated a collaboration amongst six small providers in a neighborhood in Baltimore City that all had different types of service. There was an arts group, there was a tutoring group, there was a sports group, I think there might have been two of each one. I said to them, “okay, you don't all need a lawyer. You don't all need an accountant, but you've got to have a structure.," so they pulled together a collaboration and they identified a single fiscal sponsor, and somebody who was able to manage all the admin for all six of them. In the course of a year, they were each able to raise enough money to operate both independently, but also, for the first time, to do collaborative programming.
Carol: That's awesome. Yeah, it seems to me that it's too easy for many organizations to really get caught up in their own work and not really take the time to think about who else might be in their ecosystem., and as you're saying, even in their neighborhood, their community of who they might be working with for greater impact in that back office stuff. I mean, I'm not sure what the statistic is, and I should probably look it up, but it's like 70 to 80% of nonprofits with less than $750,000 budgets. If every single one of them is replicating that back office, It's a huge amount of resources that could be put to program could be put to program if they were to partner up with some other organizations and share those resources.
We're recording this in the midst of the quarantining for the Coronavirus, so I'm guessing that that this is going to have some impacts on people where they start looking at those things and start doing what solo entrepreneurs have been doing for years, hiring virtual assistants and virtual back office, virtual accounting, all of those things; and I think there's a difference between a partnership, just a one to one and then that that multi-party partnership and then even to the next level, and you’ve talked about how why you're getting together is so important, and I've seen in larger collaborations where it may seem obvious why everyone's together, and yet without having a deliberate conversation about how are we defining what our goal is really specific Basically, everyone can have their own definition of what that goal is.
Rebecca: I think that's right. I think too, that you can end up in the space of too many cooks in the kitchen, not enough sous chefs; whatever the metaphor is. It's really about leadership, and about who's going to be in charge - for lack of a better term. It's like if you had a room full of first children, do you know I mean?
Carol: I'm a middle child. I don't want to be in that room.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think it's that phenomenon. It's everybody thinking that they are in charge and not knowing - not only who's going to do what, but who's accountable for what, who's responsible for what, because those are the tough conversations that you need to have, and that's the stuff that if you don't do it, it can really kill you, not just the partnership, but it has implications for your individual organizations. If nobody talks about who's going to sign on the dotted line, who's going to be the fiduciary, whose insurance are you going to carry? Do you need to get insurance as a group? All of those things are hugely important, and I think when you're engaged in a partnership around an issue, it's easier to put those things aside or if you are engaged in a partnership that is time limited around a legislative issue or a crisis or some one-off challenge. It's very easy to let that stuff go, and then when you finish, and you’ve got to clean it all up, and you have a big old stew of stuff you can't figure out, it's a giant problem. I think the other thing about that, and about partnerships in general is you're talking about relationships. You're talking about people that - presumably - you like and respect and trust. If you don't, you're not doing enough, you're doing a disservice to the relationships if you don't take the time to think about that stuff and really figure it out.
Carol: I mean, in some instances, you can't have that assumption that everyone likes and respects each other and it may be that a funder is saying all of you guys are in this space, and I want you all to work together. When you've seen those kinds of situations,
Rebecca: The arranged marriage.
Carol: there's a whole bunch of steps that you have to take to start building that trust and you probably have to step way back before you can get to action to just ask “why are we all here? What do we think we can get out of this? How are we going to work together?”
Rebecca: You may be competitors, I mean, that's the other thing. I had a client last year who had been repeatedly asked by a prospective funder to partner with what they viewed as a complimentary organization. My clients saw that group as having a very different strategy, a very different objective; they were competitors so they did not want to partner with that group. The mistake they made, however, was not explaining that to the funder. They didn't explain to the funder that, while they respected the work, that group did their mission, and they had a very similar, I guess, 20,000 foot mission and how they got there in my clients view was incompatible. Their strategies were incompatible, and as a result, they really affected their relationship with the funder because they didn't communicate; and then when we were finally able to get that relationship back on track, the funder was like, “well, you should have just said something. I was looking at it from a very narrow perspective, you're doing this, they're doing this, you should all do it together. If you had said to me, ‘meh’ or ‘we could only partner in this one little area.’ rather than just not doing it.”
Carol: That's a really good point about the 20,000 foot mission versus the theory of change. How are you seeing the strategies you use, and how that's getting you to an end goal; and you say that you're really passionate about mission fidelity and avoiding mission creep, and I think this is just a huge challenge in the nonprofit sector for lots of lots of reasons. What do you see that really drives mission creep, in your experience?
Carol: Can you say more about that?
Rebecca: The number one thing in my experience that causes mission creep, is fundraising success. I think very often organizations use the availability of funds as a “we'll try this," you know what I mean? It's not very well thought through if you have - actually, let me be more specific: it's less about economics broadly, than it is about covering your operating expense, which I think is one of the single biggest challenges and one of the things I think that the philanthropic community should be doing more of is covering the appropriate percentage, covering operating expenses at the appropriate level, because often what I have seen happen is an organization - let’s say they're a S.T.E.M. organization, they provide S.T.E.M. services, they teach kids S.T.E.M. in the after school space. They raise X number of their $50,000 budget, or $100,000 budget, of which $20,000 is general operating or 30,000 was general operating. They are applying for program grants. There is not an organization that I have seen - and I worked for a philanthropy and our general operating number, I think was 11%, and we were very high at the time. General operating isn't sexy. It's not new, it's not the bright shiny thing, so it can be very hard to raise money for. So this particular organization saw a grant opportunity to provide counseling or to provide family counseling or something, something that was utterly unrelated to but could have been tangentially and their way in was we will counsel the families of the kids we serve, because they were like “we need the money." It was a disaster because it was so far outside of their mission.
Carol: and probably [out of] their core competence
Rebecca: Exactly. I think often - and that's a very extreme example - often it's, “we'll do the same thing in a different issue” or “we’ll do the same thing with a slightly different program area," but the result is the same. I see a lot of medium-sized nonprofits, or nonprofits that want to go from small to midsize. If there is a trend in philanthropy, if there's a new bright, shiny thing that funders are funding, then the temptation is very great to try the new, bright, shiny thing as a means to keep your doors open rather than doing what you do really, really well and working harder to find the funders that support that. That's a hard thing to do, I think that avoiding mission creep is a function of capacity.
Carol: If you've seen - and I am not a fundraising consultant, so this is just from observations - so especially with newer organizations, you're talking about moving from small to midsize, maybe there's a lack of understanding of what really [is] the impact that grants can have on an organization from the board's perspective. It just seems like “oh, wow, it's free money.” I mean, it's not free money because you got to do work for it - but the sense of
never thinking about what that grant might actually cost the organization.
Carol: Is the piece that people miss.
Rebecca: I think that's right. I think there's a lot of well-intentioned grant making that isn't necessarily well thought through, and I also think that there's a temptation I think that works counter to that in a mission creep space is empire building.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about that?
Rebecca: There are often three or four big dogs [in a city] that started out doing whatever they did, [and] because their organization is really good at whatever it is that they started out doing, they're the ones that get offered the new bright, shiny thing, and because they have the capacity to do it, and even if [they don’t,] they have the capacity to hurry up and figure out how to do it, and somebody asked them to do it. Somebody with money said, “why don't you try this?” I mean, there's an organization in Baltimore, [and] they do great work, but they are the object lesson for empire building. They did one thing exceptionally well, [and] because they did that one thing exceptionally well and ED was out and about, a lot of people knew him. He's a smart guy, he was easy to like, the program was a very feel-good program. Then somebody asked him to go into the housing renovation business or some absurd ancillary thing, and because somebody asked him to do it, he did exactly what you said: he hurried up and figured it out, because he had the bandwidth within his staff and he had the resources to train. He figured out how to do that,
Carol: Or hire some experts doing that.
Rebecca: Exactly. So even though he went and did it and did a serviceable job at it. He put out of business the two organizations across town that were doing that work successfully, but that were really, really tiny so nobody knew they were there. So the unintended consequences of the intended consequences of not really understanding capacity building and choosing expansion for the known over [just] training somebody who is smaller and maybe less well known. so this organization just to wrap it up in a bow ended up being the go-to organization, they ended up with fiscal sponsorships and blah, blah, blah in 15 different issue areas, and they had a very high opinion of themselves, and they had one of those heavy duty blockbuster boards with all the bold faces and everybody. They were *the* group, and it got to a point where the people who ran it took themselves way too seriously.
Carol: It’s flattering to be asked to do all those things.
Rebecca: It is, and if you're able to figure out how to do them even marginally well, you also have the ability to cover your own failures, you can paper over the fact that you're not as good at it as you were at your core service, but you're passively good at it, and people love you. So they're going to give you the benefit of the doubt, but I was putting together a program - I was working inside government and I was putting together a program and we needed to get a big application, and we were looking for nonprofits to work with who would be the lead for this particular grant. These guys were not the right ones, but they really thought they were, and they couldn't figure out why they hadn't been asked to dance. We went with somebody else because it was an opportunity to elevate that group, they were very, very good and ready to do the next step and it was really interesting having to explain to this very successful organization that they were not the ones [and] I think that happens too. I think that, in every single city there are three or four big dogs, then there's two or three medium dogs, and then there are 35 small dogs who can't get out of the dog run because they can't raise any money.
Carol: Yeah. Well I want to shift gears a little bit and play a game.
Carol: I’ve been a facilitator of many, many meetings and designing lots of retreats and planning sessions etc. I have many things like boxes of icebreakers because other people are better - that's one of those skill gaps -- other people are better at thinking of fun questions than I am, so I'm just going to use theirs…. So the question is: if you could live in a sitcom, which one would it be and why?
Rebecca: [I have] a couple of answers to that. I don't know which way to go. Is this “if my life were a sitcom” or can I pick a sitcom? Am I picking a sitcom to inhabit?
Carol: You're living in it. You're being dropped in, you are now a character in the sitcom.
Rebecca: Okay, all right.
Carol: It doesn't have to be for the rest of your life.
Rebecca: Ok… off the top of my head, [my] answer is Friends because it's impossible to believe that they could all be in New York and not have a black friend.
Carol: Well, there you go.
Rebecca: That was [something] I never understood.
Carol: Well it's funny, when I pulled this card out of the box this morning, I actually thought of Friends also, but then I started thinking “um... well, let's see, I'd be the nerdy friend that certainly wouldn't be hanging out with those folks if I were in college.”
Rebecca: I'd be the black snarky friend, but guess what, that's my thing.
Carol: All right, excellent [I think] mostly because I was a single mom in my 20s and so I didn't get to have that time of hanging out with your friends and that being your family, so I would take a vacation there with those folks as well.
So what are you excited about what's coming up for you that's emerging in terms of your practice and the work you're doing?
Rebecca: I'm really excited about partnerships and collaborations right now, and I was excited about it before all of this craziness, but I am weirdly more excited about it now because I think that what is happening in our country, and in our world is both exposing some real fissures that need to be fundamentally addressed, and - secondarily - I think every crisis is an opportunity, right? I think that the nonprofit sector has a real opportunity to examine their work, to be very creative in terms of service-providing because we are in a period where lots of people need lots of things. I think that both big and small, established and less established organizations of different competencies have real opportunities to come together and increase capacity and develop broader programming and change and think about the ways in which they serve their constituents, and I think that there is a lot of opportunity for people like me who understand and can help you figure that out, so that.
The other way I'm thinking about it is, you know, one of the ways I describe myself in my practice is that I'm an interpreter because I have experience, not just across sectors but across subject matters. I am able to be the fulcrum, be the center of the wheel, and help the spokes communicate to each other for a moment. What that has given me is a certain agility and nimbleness to be able to explain and interpret and facilitate collaborations because I understand how each sector works with the other from their particular vantage point. I always joke that I can translate, I can speak philanthropy to government, I can speak nonprofit to philanthropy. I can be in all of those spaces and create meaningful collaboration and I think that's going to be a very useful skill going forward.
Carol: Yeah, I think people are having to - there are some who jumped on the bandwagon in terms of working from a distance and obviously, not everything can be done from a distance. A lot of places are having to rethink how they do their work and maybe suddenly, things that people doubted, I know [that] in the work that my daughter does, they do virtual advising of college students for financial aid, and suddenly virtual advising is the one thing that they can do right now. So you talked about things emerging for you, so how can people get in touch with you?
Rebecca: People can get in touch with me via my website, which is rcmstrategicconsulting.com . I can be reached via email at RCMstrategicconsulting@gmail.com. I have a Facebook page and a Twitter account. My Twitter account is RCMStratConsult.
Carol: All right, you can get in touch with Rebecca there and thank you so much for coming on. This was a really interesting conversation.
Rebecca: Thank you very much for having me Carol. It was a lot of fun.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.