Successful nonprofit leadership: The starts, the risks and the failures

This article is the first 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.

The walls at Seniors’ Resource Center (SRC) are lined with beautiful photographs of people they have helped, which can be shared with generations of family members. These pictures tell of lives filled with joy, struggle and stories. Telling the story of these seniors is what the CEO for almost 30 years, John Zabawa, believes is the most important aspect of his job. In 2010, 19,467 individuals across 10 Denver metro counties were directly served by the Seniors’ Resource Center. Since 1982, when SRC was incorporated, this organization has stayed close to its mission: a community partner providing person-focused, coordinated services to enhance independence, dignity and quality of life.

The organization’s growth (it is one of the largest nonprofit organizations in Jefferson County, Colorado) parallels John’s growth as a respected and well-known nonprofit leader. Two accomplishments that highlight John’s career include the development of a business model called “coordinated care” and the completion of a successful capital campaign. The new building, financed by the capital campaign, opened last fall and doubled the space and capacity of the organization to offer adult day and respite services to the elderly. This building allows caretakers to provide a safe place for their family members. The building is on the cutting edge of senior care in the future. The building is the physical representation of the mission, as it is a place where seniors can come to get services that are needed and return to their homes at the end of the day. This allows clients to stay in their homes and remain independent. This facility is also the core of the coordinated care model. Seniors and disabled clients receive auxiliary support such as transportation, in-home care, care management and mental health support that treat the client’s complete needs.

Over coffee, I asked John to reflect on how he and the organization grew as well as what he would want younger leaders to know. John believes the “story” is a series of activities that include the very formation of the organization. In the late 1970s, the organization was housed and funded by county government. Central to the mission is the desire for seniors to live independent lives. John knew the organization needed to be independent as well. When the organization became its own nonprofit, the organization could form and move toward an integrated model. What integration meant to the community and clients was discerned by listening to those served. Over the years, SRC has asked for feedback from the community. The format included frequent customer satisfaction surveys as well as listening tours with all stakeholders. Caregivers, staff, board members, volunteers, funders, lawmakers and clients themselves were asked to describe what is needed by an organization such as SRC.

This type of assessment and analysis was part of an entire organizational analysis conducted in 2004. From that assessment, the coordinated care model was solidified. Beginning with a vision activity
that imagined the needs of clients in 2020, staff, especially the senior members, implemented a process where SRC would be the focal point for delivering or partnering with organizations to help attend to any client need. Recently, a storefront in a local mall was opened to welcome current and potential clients to find resources to make their lives more livable.

John believes that long-term success is in the starts, the risk and even the failures. In an attempt to support the “whole senior,” the organization has sometimes moved ahead of itself. In the early 1990s, SRC correctly identified that the sandwich generation of U.S. workers would increasingly struggle. This generation involves those who are trying to take care of the needs of their children and their aging parents while holding full-time jobs. The demographic was accurate but the response of a workplace program was a little too early for employers to embrace. In 1985, John asked the board to take a big risk with him. He persuaded the board to approve buying a property in Evergreen, Colorado. The “Yellow House” is now the pride of that mountain community, and directions are given by saying, “It is right down the street from the Yellow House.” However, in the mid-80s such a large investment in real estate made board members nervous about the financial stability of the organization. Twenty-five years later, that investment proved to be exactly the right addition for SRC.

Finally, just as John knows that listening to feedback helps improve the organization, he knows that hearing that feedback keeps him humble. Humility is the lesson for all leaders, particularly younger ones. John Zabawa’s lifelong lessons that led to his success– take the time to forge relationships, respect differing opinions and be empathetic—are qualities that appear in the faces in the pictures that decorate the halls of SRC.

Special thanks to John Zabawa for his time and insight on this story.

See also:

The Leadership Challenge

Working Across Generations

The One-Hour Activist

Image credit: The Denver Post,

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