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 Braven, an organization dedicated to closing the education-to- employment gap faced by some of our most promising young leaders.

We’ll start with Aimée Eubanks Davis, their Founder and CEO, who will tell us how the organization got its start.

Aimée Eubanks Davis: I wrote a paper for the Aspen Institute where I was a fellow in the paraeducation program there about the lost talent of the country; that was going to be my project. And it happened to catch the interest of a Teach for America donor who said, “You know, I think this is an important thing to explore. We think you should explore it.” And it was a very lucky chance/ gift that allowed me to really look at the education-to-mployment pipeline, and in particular, refocus that to this college to career transition moment that brought Braven to life.

Denver: The culture of of Braven is one where everybody tries to get better all the time while not allowing perfect to be the enemy of the good as Danielle and Amy explain.

Danielle: And when I think about the work culture at Braven, what stands out above everything else is just our people’s dedication to continuous improvement in service of our fellows and that has been a really important movement to be a part of here when it’s been such a challenging time moving to remote work during COVID, not only for our professional and personal lives, but also those lives of our students. So, being a part of a team that’s willing to take risks to be better has been incredibly rewarding

Amy: Well, what I’ll share is just because the mission is so important, so it’s been close to home, what I’ve really appreciated is this pursuit of excellence, but not perfectionism, where that extension of grace lives, but because the mission is, it’s so critical and we’re really impacting lives at Braven, like we should be in pursuit of excellence, always delivering our best, but just again, not perfectionism at any point.

Denver: A key to a great culture is having the right team members. That begins with hiring and onboarding as Kasia and Lorraine tell us.

Kasia: I think Braven just recruits really awesome staff members who have some sort of connection to the mission. So, for instance, I am an immigrant and first-generation college student and so this mission is just very near and dear to my heart as someone who would have benefited greatly from it and so that’s why I’ll go the extra mile every single day.

Lorraine: So, we’ve started to do onboarding in cohorts of new hires where they’re getting to know folks. And then we also do all these 15-minute chats with new hires, like for example, in our external affairs team, anytime someone new comes on, we make sure every member of our team is talking with them for 15 minutes in that first week, just to begin to get to know them. And we also do something called “Serendipities”, where we have started these 30-minute chats with folks across the org, some of whom you know, some of whom you don’t because they’re new to staff, and they really are just sort of about your life outside of Braven and what you personally are driven by.

Denver: Dania and Amy speak about transparency which is apparent from the very start.

Dania: I would truly say transparency from the very beginning. From when we post a job description to the very end, it’s all about transparency. So, I will say a little bit more about how we go about when it comes to hiring and recruiting folks is that we list the salary range upfront on our job descriptions, giving folks a view of what could you possibly make in this role at Braven and over time, and also being clear of just like what are the core values that we do, that we live out day-to-day in our work, and also just having those honest tough conversations with each other, and having the “radical candor” as we like to call it here, and giving that tough but honest feedback in order to grow and evolve as an organization.

Amy: I think it really started in the interview process for me, just the scope of an adoptive transparency that was given to me from Braven. From compensation to “this is the team that you’ll be working with” to “this is how we interact, this is how our check-ins are scheduled,” that level of detail had never been offered to me before and it gave me a preview to what I was going to be basically working with on a daily and a weekly basis.

Denver: The Organization has grown quickly in the last couple of years and during this pandemic. Kasia, Adwoah, Dania, Danielle and Lorraine tell us the ways they have adapted.

Kasia: And then I will just talk about some of the tools that we have at Braven that make remote work just more efficient, I guess. One of them is Asana, which was mentioned before, that allows us to assign each other tasks and kind of keep our projects on track. We also have Slack. So, we have different channels where you can get instant answers from your teammates instead of, like, waiting for them to respond to an email. And then one of my favorites is just our weekly meetings with our sub-teams. So, we have a weekly tactical with our external affairs team and that is designed to also give us a space to talk about pressing issues.

Adwoah: I’m going to touch on hybrid work life. When I first started working at Braven or at least when we started going hybrid, I felt like I was struggling with balancing my time and how productive I was at work, but I think over time, now that I’m getting more comfortable with the workflow, I’m just as productive working from home as I am working in office and so I’m just really grateful for some of these tools that we’ve mentioned like Asana, Slack, just because it’s been helping me keep in line and stay in order with all my tasks.

Dania: So, on Thursdays, we have a work block that we schedule on the entire org’s calendar where meetings are not allowed to happen during that time, where folks can take the time they need to get put their heads down, go through work that they need to accomplish, or go to a doctor’s appointment, go to a yoga class, do whatever they need to do to re-energize themselves and to prioritize their mental, physical wellbeing first.

Danielle: I would say the other thing that’s challenging is just having a team that is in person and has a different level of exposure to things that don’t always feel safe can be tough, but as a manager, I think it’s helped strengthen my relationship with my team because we’ve had to open lines of communication around what would make them comfortable, what would allow them to have a comfortable transition back to being in person so that I can help support them in that way, and I think that that has been beneficial to us.

Lorraine: So, our staff has more than doubled in the last couple of years, which means that we’ve really had to rethink a lot of our systems and structures ranging from like our all-team call, we now have basically an ongoing, sort of, fireside chat with our CEO. We have a session that is like for new hires on the history of Braven. We’ve transitioned to instead of posting about updates on one-offs, we do a monthly
comings and goings memo for staff to really share shifts across the organization. So, we’ve just had to do a lot of rethinking of structures as we’ve grown quickly.

Denver: Braven is very intentional in both previewing was about to come and assessing it afterwards as Amy and Danielle explain.

Amy: Yeah. I think, what I have experienced and has done really well in terms of our communications, in terms of meetings or checkins with team members, is always previewing what that conversation is going to look like before it happens and kind of speaks to the level of transparency that we try to live through and creating that psychological safety, knowing what to expect, seeing the agenda before the conversation actually happens, and that’s what I try to then also reiterate in my check-ins with the team members, especially because you’re not in person, you can’t assess body language. Creating a preview as much as you can of the conversations that are going to be had, especially if it’s an emotionally-charged conversation or a more difficult check-in where it’s harder to assess those things, how can I give my team members a runway, and that organization does a good job of doing that for us as well.

Danielle: I think one thing that stands out to me the most are these AAR’s that we do, so after-action reviews, and they go from being a reflection on one evening of programming to something that’s a much, much, much larger event. So, there’s never a time when we’re not taking a step back to share a feedback where folks who sit on different teams or have different responsibilities are giving feedback on what went well, what could have gone better, and we’re documenting that so we can constantly make changes, and I think being in that feedback culture for things that are smaller along with things that are larger have allowed us to just continuously get better, and also recognize, especially, moving remote in the way that we work with our volunteers and our fellows, to identify like what are the small things that make a really, really big difference.

Denver: Finally, Adwoah, Danielle, Lorraine, and Kasia share what they think is the organization’s Secret Sauce, the thing that really made Braven special.

Adwoah: I was going to say, what I think is the secret sauce at Braven is how we all champion each other. I think it really just goes to show the culture and how we all embrace the journey and really go together and go further, like if I do something, if I project-managed a product really strongly, my manager shouts me out to the whole team and then I get encouragement and praise from the whole team, and that goes on throughout our whole entire team, central and regional, and so I think the way that we champion each other continues to boost our work and boost the morale during work.

Danielle: I would say our secret sauce is community. I think in the product that we bring to our fellows and to our volunteers, it’s all about building community and I think that that also stands true within our organization, which has allowed us to move through COVID very seamlessly because we care about one another and we share in the work that we do and also welcome so many new employees in just the last year, so I think that’s something that’s been different about working here versus another organization.

Lorraine: So, I feel like a lot of organizations have core values. I feel like at Braven, we truly live into and believe in our core values, and one small example of that is one of our Slack rooms is our core value shout-out room, where daily, you will see people across the org tagging people for big or little achievements, where basically the entire organization gets to celebrate folks for living into our core values in different ways

Kasia: I will also add that I think there’s just a lot of grace that is extended, and I think even well before this pandemic and virtual learning, I think everyone just assumes the best intentions of others and that just goes a long way.

Denver: I want to thank the Braven team members who participated in this piece: Adwoah Adomako, Danielle Hayman, Lorraine Anderson King, Amy Cisneros, Kasia Kalata and Dania Moctezuma Donya. And to learn more about their work come to denver-frederick .com and hear my earlier interview with Aimée Eubanks Davis, the Founder & CEO of Braven.

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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