Recent events have compelled nonprofit organizations to change the way they get work done, how they deliver their services, and what they do to achieve a more just and equitable society. So, The Business of Giving has connected with those organizations that are doing this exceptionally well in a segment we call: The Paths Forward. Because there is more than just one way.

Denver: In this edition of The Paths Forward we’ll speak with team members at the CDC Foundation, the sole entity created by Congress to mobilize philanthropic and privatesector resources to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s critical health protection work We’ll start with Dr. Judith Monroe, their President and CEO, who will tell us about the organization.

Dr. Judith Monroe: The CDC Foundation is a well-kept secret in many circles I’ve learned as I’ve been the CEO. But we were actually created by Congress to help support CDC’s mission to protect health, and we support not just CDC, but public health in general. We’ve got a broad mandate.  And the way we go about that is typically, CDC will come to us with a need, a gap in the work that they want to do where they need public-private partnerships or philanthropic support, and then we will go to work finding that support. So, we’re not an endowed foundation. We do go out and find our partners, and we’ve got numerous partners over the years that we’ve built, which we’re really appreciative of our donors

Denver: The team at the CDC Foundation is motivated and inspired by the organization’s mission as Ian, Rachel and Michelle explain:

Ian: And so, what I found that motivates me in the work here every single day at what rejiggered needs me is really going back to the mission, health and safety of all. And I think that when you see projects getting lifted up, when they’re posted online and you recognize, “Wow”. Like, “I played a very small part in getting that going”. But, nevertheless, you are making a direct impact. I think that the foundation has really proven over the course of the pandemic, that it is really a beacon of hope and that we are really changing up what public health means for everyone and what its true potential could be. So, that’s what motivates me. That’s what keeps me going here. And I feel everyone around me recognizes that and stays true to it

Rachel: I came to the foundation because of the mission and supporting CDC. And I think one of the things that’s really unique is our CDC colleagues that we work with, side-by-side with, they’re doing their nine to five, the kind of federal duties. And then they’re coming up with these amazing ideas that are beyond the scope of what’s funded with federal dollars. And they’re coming to the foundation with those ideas.

So we’re working with people who are so incredibly committed and passionate and are going above and beyond, again, their tour of duty at CDC to embrace these projects that are only made possible with private dollars. And so you’re working with inspirational technical leads and scientists at CDC too

Michelle: And I think, as we continue to grow as an organization, I’m really excited to see where we take some of this innovation not only internally at the organization, but externally to the next level and where we can really get creative. It’s exciting to be in a space where we’re really set up to redefine what public health means and how we can do public health differently and work with the different sectors because I think this pandemic has really shown us that we’re very interconnected and need to work together to solve a lot of these problems. And I’m excited to see how the foundation can continue to be a part of that.

Denver: The CDC Foundation uses technology to work more effectively and constantly iterates its processes to be better and faster as Janel and John tell us.

Janel: But I do remember hearing stories from, probably Michelle and Rachel, saying how everything was routed with a specific colored paper. And I was like, “Oh my goodness, I’m glad I came on after that era”. So, but it’s been really great just seeing that progression continue, whether that’s routing of agreements or processes through Salesforce. That’s a really great resource to document the life cycle of a document and get that instant feedback on what changes need to be made.

And so, that can continue and improve upon our processes as we are submitting things for review and approval.

John: Yeah. In terms of, I guess, something I’d like to see continue, and I believe it will is just the aspect of innovation and improvement and the wanting to improve processes. That’s something that’s always just intrigued with is just being here. And also, just one of the reasons why it’s my favorite things that keeps me here is that the aspect of learning, learning from everyone.

For myself, I’m the touch point for my team. So, I’m one of the few individuals that interact with almost everyone in my team, but also just on the broader organizational scale, just learning from so many different people, seeing what makes this tick, and just the processes. And I think, a sign of brilliance is in that is very prevalent throughout this organization is just that moment of just why didn’t I think of that. I’ve worked with some colleagues here and other, you know, when I need them and just trying to improve an SOP or a process, if someone just points out something so creative, why didn’t I think of that? And it’s just, that’s the brilliance and that’s the thing that I just really enjoy in terms of just working here at the foundation.

Denver: Their has been phenomenal growth since the start of the pandemic. Rachel and John share insights on the hiring and onboarding process. 

Rachel: I think, in terms of kind of our culture, I think that we’ve always been this way, but I think the COVID-19 and the immense growth that has come with that has really demonstrated that we’re dynamically adaptive. And what I mean by that, with COVID through the generosity of our donors, we grew from approximately 200 employees in Atlanta, primarily, to 3,500 and beyond across all 50 states, several US territories, tribal areas and something I didn’t even really know about and I missed in social studies, freely associated states, to save and improve lives, which is really incredible growth.

And so, we’ve stepped up to the challenge by really channeling that shared passion, I think a commitment to the mission across all of us. And we have not only kind of leveraged that with the team that we already had in place, but really had the opportunity to build our teams to meet the demands of this increased geographic footprint and staff size. We’ve scaled processes. We’ve had to institute new processes and we’ve had to really constantly innovate. So, building the plane and flying it as we go over the last two years, really to meet the needs and the responsibilities that came with that increased, giving that increased staff, and you asked for some concrete examples.

John: I would say just from the hiring process, I don’t necessarily have a background with the MPH. And when I was hired, a lot of the language and terminology was very healthcare-driven and I had to kind of learn that. So I do remember one of my colleagues kind of created an acronym sheet for me and working through me, helping me work through all the acronyms that I’d need and then we built that list as it has developed. So now that I’m more with the team and grown in my position, we have a working acronym list for our onboarding employees

Denver: Modeling behavior that is exemplified by leadership has played a significant role in creating the special culture that exists at the CDC Foundation as Michelle and Daneilla explain.

Michelle: The other thing that I’ve tried to do is, and seen this emulated from leadership in the top is really set different expectations and think through how some of our digital communication can come through. Right? It doesn’t really need to be an email or can we just send over a teams chat?

Sometimes I think, you get an email, it feels more formal. It can potentially elicit a different reaction from someone. Obviously, gone are the days where someone may just pop into my office and ask a quick question. So, some of the newer staff and more junior staff that I’ve worked with, I’ve really tried to tell them, “Hey, when we do get back into the office, this is what you would do. This is how you have to think about it. Don’t make it feel like it has to be a formal presentation every single time” so that they can feel a little bit more comfortable in this current environment.

Daneilia: I genuinely think it is what we discussed earlier, it’s modeling. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a project or a large task where my VP doesn’t jump in or the associate vice president jump in and say, “Hey, I’m going to block off two hours on Friday, four hours on Friday to ensure that I’m also contributing to this. And as I dedicate my time, I’m intriguing the rest of you to also show forth an equal level of effort”. And it’s very inspiring because there’s this understanding that you aren’t being asked at a lower level or position to do something that those at a higher level aren’t willing to do themselves.

Denver: One of the most distinctive features of the workplace culture is that it is truly a network of encouragement as Janel, John and Ian illustrate. 

Janel: There’s always challenge, I think, when there is like a very, a challenge that you’re presented with, and it’s hard to, you don’t want to think about it over the weekend. But, so, I think, that’s where it becomes very important to have such, the support of your colleagues because then, they can help support you in saying like, “You don’t have to think about this on a, just put this away until Monday and we’ll tackle it together”. So, sometimes there is like a problem that I’m wanting to solve, like right then and there, but yeah, I’d need to have someone else come in and say, “Nope, you’re not thinking about this anymore.

John: So for me coming into that kind of with the veterans of sorts, just kind of learning that, “Hey, some days you’re just not going to win”. And then I’m just going to move forward to get better and I’ve always had pats on the back, whether that’s of other departments or just whoever I come across. And, I think, that intentional in terms of just checking on one another and building that relationship has paid dividends, not only for myself, but from the new people that I’ve seen onboarding in the past few weeks.

Ian: In terms of corporate culture here, I would say that we’re very passionate, mission driven community who are truly there to help build each other up. I found this most insightful especially at working cross-departmentally in terms of the state funded projects that I’ve been supporting. So this is with our staffing efforts with local health departments and other organizations. I’ve been working with everyone, including programs, HR, compliance, legal and finance.

So, I found that everyone involved throughout the proposal and agreement process recognize the importance and value of our collective skills and experiences and informing a projects development and sustainable success. And really through this, I’ve come to realize that our cross-departmental partnerships are just as valuable as other partnerships outside of the organization.

Denver: Finally, when something important needs to get done……’s all hands on deck. Daneilla and Michelle explain.

Daneilia: You asked if you could describe the organization in one word or phrase, what would it be? And I definitely have to say it would be all hands on deck. About a year ago, in response to the pandemic, we partnered with community based organizations to increase vaccine confidence and uptake across the US. And in order to get that work started, we had to vet about 500 different requests for proposal or request for funding proposals. And what that meant was that each proposal had to be reviewed by three different individuals. And amazingly, we saw staff from all across the organization step up to the plate to review these proposals and to ensure that we truly selected the best candidates for funding.

So all hands on deck seems to be something I’ve seen from the time I started here. And now almost two years later, I continue to see that replicated.

Michelle: And so when there was a call to see if anyone could take any more, I was like, “Sure. If she’s stepping up and doing this many, I definitely can as well”. So I completely agree that the modeling is a key item in keeping this culture going forward. And I also think that, to a point you made before we started, that it’s perhaps not for everyone. It’s something I’ve really noticed is, since I’ve been at the foundation, is that there’s a genuine interest in the staff that stays here and working together, collaborating together and just doing whatever is necessary versus a, maybe, me versus them type of attitude. And so, it’s definitely something. If people are interested in working for the foundation, then I think you’re going to last a long time here, but it could be an extra lift outside of your day-to-day job but it’s something that’s very true to how we work and it’s part of the reason that’s honestly kept me here because I always know that if something comes up, there’s going to be somebody here to support me.

Denver: I want to thank the CDC Foundation team members who participated in this piece: Ian Hamilton, Rachel Jackson, Janel Blancett Blan-set John James, Daneilia Dwyer, and Michelle Panneton. And learn more about the Foundation come to and hear my full interview with Dr. Judith Monroe, the President & CEO.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.

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