In Conversation: Nonprofit Leadership


We asked a trio of experts - (left to right) Lori Rivenburgh, executive director of Women's Support Services, a domestic violence prevention agency in Sharon, Conn.; Maria Horn, the organization's board chair; and consultant Janet Andre Block - to sit down for a conversation about leadership in the nonprofit sector. Lori has participated in two professional development programs run by Berkshire Taconic's Center for Nonprofit Excellence.

Let's start by describing the community we live in, especially the issues that might not be on everyone's radar but that are also a defining part of the region.

LORI: Our community is rural, with a large range of socio-economic levels. Because we don't have public transportation - that impacts the people we serve. Another issue is affordable housing; that's something our clients certainly struggle with. And mental health outpatient services are diminishing in the area.

JANET: The low population density drives things in a way that sometimes we're unconscious of, especially if we come from another part of the country where resources are easier to access. If you're somebody who knows how to maneuver, you can solve a problem. You can get help if you get hooked into the right system, whereas here it's a little more challenging.

MARIA: Yes, the rural nature of the area affects the resources, and it also has a tendency to make problems invisible because we are so spread out. And while rural communities support one another, they do it in a very quiet, sort of 'off the grid' way.

So what role do nonprofits play here?

MARIA: Nonprofits are playing an incredibly important role in a difficult economy where government resources are drying up. They are the conduit for philanthropy, which increasingly funds social services. A small nonprofit like Women's Support Services know its demographic and its region very well. We can look at the read grit of the area, understand where the need is and funnel resources appropriately.

JANET: I think that nonprofits are also a kind of social glue, because many people here are in some way involved in one. We're a community-building force for good - all the nonprofits. The other thing I feel strongly about is the assumption that because we're in a rural area, we don't need to operate at the highest possible level. I feel that we can and we do, and that nonprofits and leaders here are up to the same challenges as anybody I've met anywhere.

Describe some of those challenges you face. What worries you, and what excites you?

LORI: One challenge for an executive director is to utilize the skill sets of the board members to the best of the agency, as well as making them feel fulfilled in their roles, because that's ultimately what I want. And it's super-challenging in a small agency. I have five staff and 15 board members, programs to run, all of the strategic work. And though we're small, the things we face are no different than those of many larger organizations, but we have to do it all with fewer resources.

But the great part about being a small community, what I tell my staff is that everybody who comes into the office - you should consider them all to be a donor, a volunteer and a client. Because nine times out of 10, the people who come to us have interacted with us on some level. They've probably volunteered, or they've been on the board, donating or received services from us as a client. They're somehow connected to us - everybody who walks in - and I just find that amazing.

Janet, talk about the Nonprofit Leadership Institute that you run through BTCF and what it aims to achieve.

JANET: The institute emerged because we found that executive directors were feeling isolated and overburdened. They wanted more support, more training for doing their jobs better and also a way to get to know other executive directors. We use a lot of resources like [Peter Senge's] The Fifth Discipline, as a curriculum, and we build out from there. I think we have a bias in the program that when you are a leader, you start with yourself. You learn about your personal vision and how that is impacting your life, you board's life and your organization's life, and ultimately the people that you serve. So we are creating a peer group, number one, and number two, helping each participant learn how to maximize their own performance and their relationships with other people in order to leverage themselves even more.

From the board perspective, Maria, what changes did you see in the way Lori manages the organization after she participated in the Nonprofit Leadership Institute?

MARIA: What's immediately visible is Lori's belief in herself and confidence, and pleasure in taking charge. I think we were already a success and were doing our job very well. The whole board felt that all the little pieces were going well, but we could get waylaid by a little bump in the road. And I think the perception since Lori did this program is that the way she presents herself to the board has changed. She is now looking to the board this way: 'This is what I need you to help me with, and this is how.' She is taking charge, being happy and confident, and owning all the incredible things she does every day.

And Lori, what interested you in the program and what changes are you seeing for yourself?

LORI: I had a really great experience with [BTCF's] Nonprofit Learning Program, so I already knew the benefits of doing a program over time and being with my peers. And in the very first session, all of my fear - the things that keep me up at night - just washed away. We enjoyed the camaraderie, learning from each other, looking at each other's individual growth.

I think sometimes female leaders are socialized to be very people-pleasing, and it took stepping back and saying, 'Listen, it's okay for people to not like every decision you make or maybe not be happy with you all the time.' It's okay. You'll survive it.

What's come out of this is that we've built things into the culture of the agency that have changed it, so that it runs more successfully. For example, we do a board self-assessment each year. They did a formalized survey of my job description. It's now part of the culture to re-examine ourselves. It's part of what we do.

What qualities do you think are most important for leaders, and how do those qualities contribute to performance capacity to meet your mission?

LORI: You tend to become an executive director because you've worked in a cause and you're driven by it. But an executive director has to educate others - on governance, fiscal management, fund development, all these areas. If you look at all of those as a point where you can share information - what you've learned, what the research shows - you really are able to facilitate much better.

MARIA: From my perspective as a board chair, I'm looking at what I'm good at and what the other people are good at, then listening, bringing the room together. And watching Lori lead us - 18 accomplished people with strong opinions - for Lori to be able to find the substance, put it into context and explain why the agency does the things the way it does - that inner strength and purpose really helps.

JANET: A leader gets other people to care enough and invest enough so that if an individual sees something that's not in concert with the shared vision, they call it. And a leader is in process all the time, and enjoying the process. If we could get every executive director and board in our area to get comfortable with ambiguity, the 'messy middle,' and to believe in themselves, each other and what we can create, there's no end to what we could do.

As the philanthropic community looks to strengthen nonprofits that serve our region, what should they be thinking about?

JANET: I would say to donors, find what's interesting for you and give to that passion. If you're giving to something that you care about, it will make so much more of a difference - not just for you but also for the organization. And the truth is whatever you give money to really benefits more organizations than the one you're giving to. It has a ripple effect.

MARIA: I think if you have resources available to you, no matter the size, you have the power to do something great. And in a small community, you're going to get relationships out of it, with people at agencies or with other donors. There's a wave of support flowing underneath us all that is really powerful.

LORI: Something I find helpful is when donors ask what we do if they're not sure - they make that personal connection if they're not sure they want to give. I really love those calls. Because they may not know the scope of each program or how we work together with other agencies to provide services - and how their gift may go on.

MARIA: On the more analytical side, I think an organization like Berkshire Taconic helps by looking at all these different agencies and how they relate to one another so that resources get allocated in an efficient way. Because we're all trying to do good and to move forward, to make all of our lives a little bit more stable, happy and fulfilled.