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 Eye to Eye, Their mission is to improve the educational experience and outcomes of every student who learns differently, including those with specific learning disabilities, (ADHD), or other similar challenges related to learning.
We’ll start with David Flink, Chief Empowerment Officer and Marcus Soutra, President, who’ll share their perspectives about their work and organization.
David Flink: Everything that we advocate for in our schools, we do in our workplace, just like our community, although we over index in people who think and learn differently since we are for and by people who learn and think differently. Our employees– about 75%– have things like dyslexia and ADHD. We create the same as we ask for in schools— work IEPs, environments where people can say, “I learn better this way or that way,” and we try and frame for each person a model for which they can succeed.
Marcus Soutra: Marcus: The loneliness piece is something that a lot of… anyone who has a hidden disability or a hidden difference of any kind, I think feels very, very alone. I think that there is value in not only you sharing your story, as Dave was saying, to benefit somebody else, but it does benefit you as well. It does allow you to feel more comfortable on the space. It allows you to be more successful. If you’re working in an office right now, and you’re like, “Man, if I only had XY and Z, I could be more successful.” You need to talk to your boss about that. You need to advocate to HR about those things because they want you to be successful
Denver: HUMAN CENTERED Eye to Eye is a Human-Centered organization where the Wellbeing of the Team has always been paramount as Symon and Matthew explain.
Symon: And I know when I started working at Eye to Eye, that was made very clear to take care of yourself because if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your work. And if you can’t take care of your work, then we can’t take care of our students that we’re supporting. So just the idea of that being verbalized, articulated very clearly, and giving us all permission to do what we need to do to take care of ourselves first, I think has been essential particularly during this pandemic
Matthew: And that goes both with the professional side of things, whether it’s the mentoring team trying to figure out different systems or different approaches for things, or just different styles of how we’re doing things that have been going on year after year, but we might need to reinvent the wheel because of things have changed so much.
And then also within my personal life, it’s just people constantly asking me of, what can Eye to Eye do better for you? You as somebody with a learning disability, you as somebody who is living in New Orleans with no other coworkers around, just constant questions of what can we do better to affect your experience at Eye to Eye, and then also the experience of our mentees and mentors that we work with, too. So it’s just like a constant gradual movement.
Denver: A feature of the Eye to Eye culture that every employee embraces and appreciates is that they are always put in a position to succeed as Alexandra and Carly explain.
Alexandra: But I think what’s really unique about Eye to Eye is I have the ability to work in a way that works best for my brain. So Simmi who’s my supervisor could probably speak to this just as well as I can because I think she’s seen it in action. But a typical nine to five doesn’t necessarily get me to high quality work. There are some days when I work a ton and I get a ton done. And people who have ADHD call it hyperfocusing and I’m just like knocking tasks off my to-do lists left and right. And there are some days when it’s just really hard to get in that
And I think what Eye to Eye values is quality, but the steps to getting towards quality are really dependent on the kind of person that’s working. So I think they really preach that it doesn’t matter how you get something done as long as you can advocate for what you need. And there’s an openness to learning how other people work best, which has really helped me really thrive in this environment where, you know, as someone
who didn’t necessarily thrive in school, I’ve seen a lot more success just being in an environment that fits myself. And I think there’s other people who have different needs than I do.
Carly: And for me, it really reframed what it meant to be a professional, especially in this ever-changing age of adaptability and digitization, into like what is possible and to what can be possible. And what can be possible is an antiableist environment that is accommodative for folks in the way that enables their success. And the most powerful reflection of that, I like to think for myself, is in what we model for our young people on the ground as we have college students coming up the pipeline and high school seniors coming up the pipeline, who are interfacing in formats that work best for them with our mentoring program coordinators and with other Eye to Eye staff members because that starts at Eye to Eye and it branches outward.
And that’s been a really powerful transformation, especially in this pandemic age of how work remote has shifted, how has accommodations in a remote environment also shifted to meet the needs of people across the country
Denver: There are different facets of the organization that team members appreciate. For Diego it’s how it’s mission driven, John likes the peer-to-peer feel, Carly appreciates the feeling of belonging and Simmi loves being a part of a learning organization.
Diego: And so I think all this comes just because I guess that we’re very missiondriven and not many organizations can say that they do. A lot of organizations can say that, but actually doing it intentionally is a different story. And again, for us, we have to be mission-driven internally because it’s what we preach. We treat people with respect that are different outside of the organization, so why not do it inside of the organization? Almost like you want to make sure that all your employees are well taken care of before you go into the world and do the same thing for people.
John: Coming from where I have been professionally, this has been literally a handful of environments where I truly feel I’m in a peer-to-peer environment. I’m not seeing supervisors, I’m not seeing directors, I’m not seeing my president. We are truly all peers working on the same level in different areas. And I’m feeling it, it’s reflecting, and it’s exciting. I love those environments.
Carly: I also am a young adult who thinks and learns differently. And one thing that was consistently modeled to me from my external relationship with the organization, which is that I started off with Eye to Eye as a mentor in their mentoring program, was looking at a sea of young professionals who I could identify with because I could identify with the challenges that they would have in a more typical work environment.
Simmi: And for me, it really is about being an active learning organization. And when I think about what it means to be a learning organization, I typically think of three strands. So you have: What is the environment? What is the leadership? And then what are the processes and practices that are involved in that work?
So we did a couple of key things over this past year. We’ve launched a monthly learning time where we’re really diving into what are some things we hope to see for people in our community that we serve, and then how are we doing that for ourselves, how are we activating our own learning. And also just a recommitment to retrospectives. If we’ve done something, really being able to come together and say, okay, what went well, what could go better, how are we going to take this learning and move forward with it?
Denver: A challenge every organization faced was suddenly becoming a fully remote Organization. Carly, Simmi and Alicia tell us how Eye to Eye addresse that challenge.
Carly: I think something that’s really powerful about how Eye to Eye has tackled the challenge of being a remote-first organization, because we really initially are remote first and that allows us to arrive at a place where the nuances and perspectives of people across the country can really be celebrated. But something that’s really kept Eye to Eye’s culture of community and culture of community learning intact has been a real focus towards bringing people together in really intentional ways.
So we prioritize things like all-staff retreats. We prioritize things like monthly staff meetings. We prioritize things like conferences where we might be able to bring some team members together or the entire team together in a way that is in person to facilitate those interpersonal connections on top of the ones that are built cross like digital communication channels and also cross workflows. So I think that’s something that’s highly effective about this like shift to the remote work style and one that would benefit a lot of different working environments, is that focus on keeping in-person community-building moments intact, even as a company’s employees spread out across the country.
Simmi: And I think that when you’re in those complex systems, it’s so incumbent on the organization, like Eye to Eye, to just be really agile and really adapted. And so I think we were able to see what was happening in the pandemic, take a moment, take a beat, give ourselves some grace and space, and really ask with intention, why are we doing what we are doing? What have we gained and what have we lost in this moment?
And so one example, I think, that I saw when I came on board last April, so a year now, was a real moment to say, what is our operating rhythm? What meetings, what kind of convenings are we having that are working? Why are they working and what’s not working
Alicia: And one of the things that I’ve noticed at Eye to Eye is that we like to reflect our values about what we want our students to feel about themselves and how they work and learn differently. And so we’ve always had a culture that emphasized working differently.
So if someone had an ability to write lots of copy for emails, for instance, that person was given that opportunity to do so. So when we transitioned to remote working, we really took the idea of having accommodations built into our work styles in our daily life. For me, I was at home with two little kids and regular meetings were going to be a challenge as my kids were on Zoom.
And so Dave, who was our CEO, said to me, what if we had a workplace IEP? What if we honored where you are right now with these life circumstances? And we changed the way we did our meetings structure. And so we did, we completely changed how we scheduled meetings. We only schedule them if they were absolutely necessary.
All meeting debriefs were done through voice. So Dave and Marcus, as you know, are dyslexic and they prefer to do it that way. And so then I was given the time and the space to really honor my current situation with working at home. And that was just so wonderful to have that reflected in the values.
Denver: Connection is vital in every workplace and even more so these days. Symon and Alicia provide a couple of examples of how It’s done.
Symon: And I think this happens like nearly every meeting we attend. So for example, we typically always start a meeting with a prompt and it may be what’s your favorite drink or what’s your favorite animal? So a personal where everybody is given the same amount of time to respond to that personal prompt and we sit quietly until that time has been used.
So this is the time given to the speaker, not the listener. And the same type of protocol is given when we’re engaging in work sharing. It’s like everybody has the same amount of time. So this is your time to share.
And I think by the use of protocols, that reduces the anxiety of like, oh, do I have something to share? Am I sharing next? Am I going to be put on the spot? So I think the use of protocols that we use in professional learning as well that we bring into our internal learning.
Alicia: So sometimes I go into a meeting and I get asked, what do you want, if you could have any other career in your life, what would it be? Or where would you love to go on vacation? Just things that have nothing to do with what we’re talking about. But what happens is that our guard comes down. We share a little bit; we get to know each other a little more.
And that is such a small change in how we work, but it has gotten us to a point where we feel really comfortable with one another and bonding over a video screen. I think it’s been helpful for some of our newer employees who don’t know each other from an office place to begin with.
Denver: We’ll close with a final thought from each of our participants: Simmi, Mathew, Diego, John, Symon, Carly and Alexandra.
Simmi: So I just want to say that there’s two things that I appreciate the most about Eye to Eye topline. One is our shared understanding that change takes time, especially culture change, or just culture refinement. And I think we all understand the multi-year horizon we’re working on and we celebrate our progress as we moved towards it. And then the other thing is just we really honor how each of us experience and interact with the world and those around us. And we believe that that is absolutely a strength of our collective team and of each of us as individuals.
Matthew: So I think never a time where I’m not taking feedback from people on my team, people that I’m working with or giving feedback to. There’s never been really a time where I felt uncomfortable or taking feedback from other people. So I think that the culture of feedback and change and moving forward is just something really deep rooted in Eye to Eye.
Diego: I think everybody’s said it in their own ways, but I think what I appreciate about the organization just as a final thought is the celebration of diversity and of celebration of differences, and that being celebrated as a strength rather than as a weakness and kind of lifting each other up based on those differences, based on those diversity qualities.
John: I appreciate the fact that we have this community mentality where we’re connected yet autonomous in a manner that’s open, transparent, and accountable. It’s embodying this level of trusting and empowerment. And then on top of that, let’s call it what it is. We are, I feel, where we are being felt, seen, and heard.
Symon: I think Eye to Eye, we have a belief in each other. We have a shared belief in the value of the work that we do. And most importantly, we have a shared belief in the students that we serve, and those are the students that learn differently
Carly: I’m someone who used to… I worked in person throughout the pandemic prior to shifting into my role at Eye to Eye. I’m someone who loves to commute to things. I never thought working remotely would enable me to be successful. And the transition really has been made possible because of the ways that Eye to Eye had set up working remote as a productive and interesting venture with a lot of human connection.
I love working remote. I think it enables me to do a lot more with my life than I even thought was possible. And that’s a really special thing.
Alexandra: I think we’re moving as an organization in the right direction. And I really feel like I’m making a difference every day in a way that I haven’t before. And I think it’s the people that we work with, more than anything. I think everything is about people. We are humans first and I think Eye to Eye really leans into that, and I think it’s why we’ve seen success.
Denver: I want to thank the Eye to Eye team members who participated in this piece: Alexandra Claeys, Alicia Siegel, Major Gifts, Carly Priest, Diego Rivera, John Bauson, Matt Pashby, Simmi Goomer, and Symon Hayes. And to learn more about Eye to Eye, and that’s E-Y-E, go visit their website at eyetoeyenational.org
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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