Clinical psychologist Liz Resner died twenty years ago this spring. As executive director of what is now Compass Family Services in San Francisco, she hired me into my first job in the human services sector. This was a long time ago – and Liz died at too early an age. You would think that her memory would have faded into ancient history for me by now. It has not.
That is because I have returned repeatedly to the lessons I learned from Liz. Three in particular stand out:
Care for yourself as well as you care for others:
From the start, Liz emphasized the importance of clear boundaries between personal and professional life. The crisis center I worked in at the time served about 3,000 homeless persons annually, and on any given day there were always more people in need, hoping to receive assistance, than we possibly had time or resources to assist. Liz insisted that staff close the office to take a full lunch hour. She pushed us to leave on time at the end of the day in order to pursue our own lives. She closed the office without hesitation for staff meetings and retreats – and not just for training, but also for staff rejuvenation and team building. She took us to movies and ice cream and the botanical gardens!
Liz’s consistent message was this: the line of people waiting for help, alas, will be here tomorrow, and next week, and next year; but if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be! If you do not care for yourself as well as you care for others, you will soon burn out and we will lose you to some less stressful line of work. This is a lesson I have never forgotten – and today, in our 24/7 work culture, it is one that is particularly needed.
An outside perspective broadens your vision:
As much as I learned from Liz herself, I also learned from the insightful people she brought into our lives on a regular basis. Even when time and money seemed short, she made it a priority to devote resources to providing outside perspectives. In group and individual consultations, we learned from smart clinicians. In diversity sessions, we were led by thought-provoking consultants. When legal or personnel advice was needed, we benefited from fantastic pro bono advisors.
Liz was sufficiently self-confident to know that these outside experts provided a wisdom different than her own – and not to be threatened by bringing this wisdom into our lives on a consistent basis. These consultants and advisors deeply influenced my worldview. When I succeeded Liz as executive director, it was natural to continue this practice, and it further enhanced my understanding of nonprofit leadership.
Liz’s last lesson was that leaders leave – and that the best leaders cut the cord when they do so. Liz left Compass in 1994 – three years before her untimely death. She moved on to lead the city’s efforts to develop its first comprehensive plan to address homelessness. Liz made a clean break with the organization she had led so successfully. She didn’t join the board. She didn’t hang around for an extended period to give advice. She didn’t call me or my colleagues in response to programmatic changes to let us know how she would have done things differently.
Liz really left. She moved on to other important work, and she trusted in the strength of the organization she had built and the capabilities of the staff and board she had nurtured. For leaders like Liz who have grown and developed organizations to levels of excellence that would have been unrecognizable when they arrived, leaving like this is not easy. I learned from Liz’s purposeful departure that this gift of trust is a critical element of a leader’s legacy.
Liz offered no unsolicited advice after her departure. So as time went on, I grew to covet her advice more and more. When she became ill and died, I greatly missed her wisdom and encouragement. But looking back from the vantage point of twenty years, I am struck by how much she left behind.
I recently read a stunner of a book – Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by sociologist Matthew Desmond. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction – no surprise because it presents a powerful combination of intensive first-hand research, convincing data, and vivid writing. To wit:
If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.
Desmond embedded himself in the lives of two landlords and eight families experiencing evictions in Milwaukee, and he presents them to the reader in compelling, balanced, and entirely human portraits. Desmond trains a spotlight, as well, on the broader context of racism and sexism in our society, presenting data showing that eviction is an everyday event in the poorest black neighborhoods of Milwaukee – particularly for women. In those neighborhoods, women are evicted nine times as often as women from the city’s poorest white neighborhoods.
Desmond also asks us to focus on the frequency with which families with children are illegally barred from rental properties – a factor that both contributes to evictions and makes it more difficult for parents to recover from them. Housing discrimination against families with children has been illegal by federal law since 1988, yet Desmond finds that these families are turned away in as many as 70 percent of housing searches. And in a national survey he cites, less than 40 percent of respondents even were aware that it is illegal to treat these households differently!
Desmond’s book touches on family homelessness and makes real for readers its most common variation: families doubled-up in overcrowded housing under duress.
Families double up when they lose their housing – through eviction or otherwise – and cannot surmount the barriers to acquiring new housing. Families double up when new families are formed through the birth of children to young parents who lack the resources to rent their own accommodations. Families double up with relatives and friends who may put their own leases in jeopardy in order to welcome them – creating a follow-on risk of eviction and homelessness for both hosts and guests. Families live a musical-chairs life in one doubled-up household after another until they are out of options and turn to homeless family shelters for relief.
The annual release of the best-known national count of homelessness – the “Point-in-Time Count” by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development – brought this reality to mind again. Why? Because most doubled-up families are not included in this count. An alternative count of homeless children conducted annually by our nation’s schools -- the “McKinney-Vento Count” by the US Department of Education – establishes that doubled-up families actually comprise the vast majority of homeless families: 76 percent by the last count.
Bi-partisan legislation reintroduced this spring (the Homeless Children and Youth Act) would require federal departments to use a common definition of homelessness that includes these doubled-up families. We can’t address what we don’t fully acknowledge, and moving forward with this change is an important step toward providing homeless families with the types of assistance they need. Desmond’s book brilliantly presents these needs in stark and human terms. Passing the Homeless Children and Youth Act would be a national acknowledgement that we know these families exist.
I’ve been enjoying serving on the selection committee for the Center for Nonprofit Advancement’s Board Leadership Award. A particularly interesting moment came when committee members were asked to describe the dominant lenses through which they viewed the nonprofit sector and the selection process. Lenses mentioned included executive director, board president, and nonprofit auditor or consultant.
These are not the only common lenses on the nonprofit world. Others include board member, staff member, donor, client, or even NIMBY-incensed community member. It is not surprising that we sometimes see things differently from each other.
My dominant lens is executive director. Even when not serving in that role, I’ve found that it is very hard to stop “thinking like an E.D.”
Service on the selection committee – and as a board member and officer of the organization sponsoring the award – has prompted me to purposefully pick up a new lens and seek a different view.
The last time I served as a board member, I was in college! So it has been a long time since I looked directly through this lens. But serving on the board of an organization whose mission is to nurture the nonprofit sector itself is bound to make anyone attentive to appropriate roles and responsibilities within nonprofit governance.
As a board member, I try hard to be conscious of where the boundaries are between board and staff – both in terms of who does what, and who thinks about what. I do this because I know it’s the right thing to be conscious of as a board member. But – I have to admit – I also do it because a piece of me is considering what it would feel like if I were the E.D. and a board member repeatedly crossed one of those boundaries with me.
On the selection committee, it’s been interesting to flip this lens around. There, even when the subject is excellence in board leadership, we’ve seen fascinating examples in which executive directors reveal that they are actually the ones running the show. By making a purposeful effort to look through the board lens, it is easier to see how strong E.D.’s might overcompensate by providing a type of leadership to the board that inadvertently diminishes its ability to develop its own leadership strengths.
Our lenses on life are like biases. They are formed from past experiences that deeply affect how we view the present. They can positively or negatively affect the ways in which we interact with others and conduct our work. As with biases, it’s important that we acknowledge them – to ourselves, and often, to each other.
This was the brilliance of the simple question that was asked of the committee. By laying out our dominant lenses, we understood a bit more about each other – and took time to remember how many equally important lenses there are.
Early this year, I attended a presentation at the Urban Institute. One of the speakers was Deborah Shore, founder and executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, here in DC. Shore used an interesting phrase – “going upstream” – that has stayed with me for months now.
So what did she mean, and is this a new concept?
Shore was referring to her organization’s long years of increasingly comprehensive work with homeless youth in DC. She said that however well they addressed the needs of youth after they became homeless, it really was essential to go upstream to address issues that affect youth before they become homeless. She discussed ways in which Sasha Bruce Youthwork is tackling issues of family, community, and society that cause young people to leave their homes to begin with.
A little “googling” shows that while the Internet may not be hopping with the going upstream metaphor, it has been used repeatedly by public health professionals.
It seems that both medical sociologist Irving Zola and pioneering community organizer Saul Alinsky told versions of the same parable. In the story, more and more drowning people – in some variations, it is babies – are found flowing down a river. Bystanders are desperately fishing them out and resuscitating them. Until, someone breaks away – even though it seems like they are still needed in the crisis area – and runs upstream to find out why people are falling into the river to begin with!
It’s easy to see why this parable has been used repeatedly in the world of public health, but as Shore’s remarks make clear, the concept of going upstream is highly applicable in other fields, as well. In homelessness, education, criminal justice, and beyond, it seems like there is always one more person to pull out of the river, and it is very hard to make ourselves break away to address the whys.
It’s also true that asking and addressing the upstream questions is complicated – while pulling people out of the river, however tiring, is simpler. Upstream lie the questions we may not want to face about bias and privilege and structural racism in our society. Upstream lie the most complex interactions between institutions and families and individuals. Upstream lie our disagreements about accountability and responsibility.
In the nonprofit world, we take comfort in being “the good sector.” As long as we’re working at the river at all, when so many others are not, why shouldn’t we just feel satisfied with our efforts? Indeed, we should be proud of what our sector has achieved. But when the bodies keep coming down the river, we may encounter burnout or backlash. And Shore’s simple words, like the earlier parable, remind us that we’re capable of more.
We’re capable of increasingly complex, nuanced, and comprehensive work.
We’re capable of combining direct service work with advocacy for broader social change – an approach that Crutchfield and Grant, in Forces for Good, tell us is one of the key practices of high-impact nonprofits.
In short, we’re capable of change.
What’s upstream for your organization this year?
I loved Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. So I’ve been thinking about it again in light of a book I just finished, Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges, by Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy.
If you’re not one of the 39 million people who’ve viewed Cuddy’s viral TED talk, you might not know that she became famous for her research on “power posing.” Although some aspects of this research haven’t held up to replication, both her work and other studies have presented convincing evidence that adopting powerful postures (open and expansive) instead of powerless postures (constricted and clenched) causes people to feel more powerful. In other words, body language doesn’t just affect the way others perceive us – it also affects the way we feel about ourselves.
Cuddy’s book expands on this theme and explores an array of social psychology research on the body-mind effect. Her aim is to help us reach a state of presence – in which we believe and trust in ourselves and our own stories.
Reading Presence made me think about how very physical the metaphors in Sheryl Sandberg’s book are – starting with her title phrase, lean in. What does “lean in” really mean, anyway? Sandberg doesn’t define the phrase, but she uses it this way:
In addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.
Consider all the physical phrases: Lean in. Raise your hand. Don’t pull back. And then, there’s Sandberg’s other signature admonishment: sit at the table! – which she came to after observing women squandering the opportunity to physically place themselves at the center of power by sequestering themselves on the side of the room.
So what can we learn from Amy Cuddy to make it easier to lean into our lives? First, lean in doesn’t mean to scrunch in. Cuddy is best known for poses like “the Wonder Woman” that can be done briefly in privacy before, not during, a challenging event. But even when we are in the middle of a presentation or other challenge, we can keep our bodies as open and expansive as possible. Second, whether we rouse ourselves to “sit at the table,” or are forced by circumstances to take the last seat available at the back of the room, it helps to understand that how we fill our seats affects how we feel in them.
The nonprofit sector – where women generally don’t have a numbers problem, but sometimes still have a power problem – is ripe for the wisdom of Cuddy and Sandberg. How many times have you attended a nonprofit meeting or event where there were significantly more chairs than attendees – and yet, those present were clustered not in proximity to the speaker or facilitator, but in other parts of the room? It’s time to consider the effects of our bodies on our minds – and then sit at the table, fill the front row, and speak up, with confidence.
Hillary Clinton has been quoted as saying that she was “afflicted with the responsibility gene.” Me, too.
It’s a great figure of speech, but I’m not convinced that this affliction is primarily genetic. Perhaps a certain temperament, endowed by nature, makes one more susceptible to the affliction. Still, I believe that this condition is primarily brought on through nurture.
One day when he was well over 75 years of age, my late father told me that the most important lesson that his father had imparted to him was to be responsible. With his voice breaking, he said that he hoped that he had managed to live up to this lesson. I was incredulous that he could have any doubt about this matter. Anyone who knew him would have said that responsibility was his middle name!
So I’m clear on how the responsibility gene was imparted to me.
The nonprofit sector, I suspect, is disproportionately populated with people afflicted with the responsibility gene. We care about other people, our communities, and our world. When things go wrong, or seem unjust, we want to fix them. When there aren’t enough hours in the day to fill all the needs or raise enough money, we want to stay longer and work harder.
Why should we even joke that this is an affliction? Isn’t responsibility a good thing?
Of course it is. But unalloyed responsibility can be too much of a good thing. It can lead to perfectionism, to burn-out, and even to illness. When we set our responsibility standards too high or define them too narrowly, we throw our lives out of balance. We forget that we have a responsibility also to our own well-being – that we cannot care for others effectively unless we take good care of ourselves, as well.
A narrow focus on responsibility also can lead to a short-sighted, problem-solving mentality on the part of nonprofit leaders. Years ago, as a new program director in San Francisco, I learned a lot from a wise consultant, Peter Goetz. Peter observed that whenever there was an incident or problem at the large homelessness program I led, I immediately wanted to embark on a discussion at the next staff meeting about how to address it. I felt responsible when something went wrong, and I believed that it was my job to diligently lead the staff in solving problems. Peter helped me to understand that when negative things happened, from minor to major, people were going to have a commensurate level of distress. In other words, they were going to have feelings – and until I gave them a forum for expressing those feelings, they were never going to participate effectively in problem-solving.
In truth, having the responsibility gene isn’t an affliction at all. As long as we take on responsibility with balance and sensitivity, it can be one of life’s most important character strengths. My father showed this great strength of character throughout his life. And over the years, he leavened his responsibility with an ever-gentler spirit and softer heart. This is the example that I aspire to follow.