This article is second in a series that looks at practices of seasoned nonprofit leaders. The series aims at offering some lessons and wisdom to the next generation of leaders. Click here to see the first article in this series.
It’s four o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. The school dismissal bell rings and most students leave for the day. One classroom fills with middle school students. These students walk to desks, pull out academic materials and quietly begin to work on school assignments. The quiet seems surprising enough until five minutes later when an equal number of high school students from the campus across the street come in to pair up with the middle school students and mentor them in hushed, church-like tones. In those interactions lie the hope and dreams of what academic success might mean. These students are the dreamers of the Colorado I Have a Dream Foundation (CIHAD) whose mission is long-term dropout prevention for youth from disadvantaged communities in the Metro Denver area.
Dreamers begin in the program as early as third grade and if they graduate from high school, they are given financial support to attend college. Each class of dreamers is financially supported by an investor who donates enough money to run each class from third grade through high school. These donors make a large and sustained commitment. Each class is assigned a project director or PD. The PDs are special staff who mentor, guide, direct, push, encourage and see each dreamer as a whole person capable of great contributions. Often the PDs stay with CIHAD for the entire dreamer’s experience of ten years. In addition, CIHAD is governed by a board that can have more than 35 members.
At the intersection of these multi-aged student dreamers, powerful and incredible donors, a large board and amazing staff is one woman. Mary Hanewall has been the ED since 2000. Mary will retire in the fall of 2012. For more than a decade, Mary has led through her will and her willingness to let everyone in this organization lead when needed. When I sat down to interview Mary, the topic of her succession quickly evolved into the discussion of when and how to give or share power to get organizational results.
Before Mary was an executive director, she was a development director. In that role, she used her creativity to tell the stories of the constituents served by the nonprofit. In those stories she learned the power of each individual. Mary has learned and now believes the way to run an organization is finding the power of every individual who touches the organization. Each board meeting begins with a “Dreamer Success Story.” Often, these stories are about dreamers who made mistakes but in the end turned those mistakes into positive personal learning moments. Examples abound in the experiences of the high school students who mentor dreamers younger than themselves, attempting to model good teenage choices.
Hearing those stories, board members learn the power of the mission and vision. Mary describes the humility she feels around those donors who choose to fund dreamer classes. Mary works hard to give those funders the right amount of say in the program and to fuel their passion for the organization. Donors are encouraged to know the dreamers as well as collect data about how their investment is faring. The investment numbers are good: 120 of the 550 dreamers have received recognition for scholastic achievement. The high school graduation rate ranges from 65-95% compared with the 10-15% in some of the dreamer’s high schools.
Mary is devoted to and admires her staff. She believes in their power of idealism. These are employees who give their heart, head and soul to the success of dreamers. Mary does not see herself as a traditional manager. She knows her staff leads every day and her job is to let them. Power shared becomes power returned as the staff accomplishes so much through their innovation and belief in the work.
Mary talks about her philosophy that with such a large board, she must spread her power and leverage the board’s ability. She believes the board/ED relationship is split 51%/49%. The board chooses which percentage it desires. Mary knows a powerful board will guide a great organization. She educates and encourages by sending out pertinent materials on student achievement, acknowledging board members successes and always celebrating the dreamers, the foundation of the organization. I asked Mary if she ever feels as though she acquiesces too frequently. Mary quickly replied she is the connector, and what benefits the organization, the mission and the dreamers is how she defines success.
Mary and I finished our conversation by describing what she hopes are the qualities of the next CIHAD Executive Director, qualities that serve any leader well. These include passion, business sense and a belly. Passion includes devotion to the vision, the people and the outcomes of the organization. Business sense is the ability to assure financial sustainability for an organization that supports each dreamer for at least ten years. The belly allows the director to advocate for those who serve and are served by the organization.
by Deborah Dale Brackney