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 Think of Us. Led and guided by people with lived experience, they’re working to transform the nation’s child welfare system and improve outcomes for the millions of children and families it impacts each year.
We’ll start with their Founder and CEO, Sixto Cancel.
SIXTO: I was 15 years old when I made the commitment that I was going to do this as my life work. I was at the bus stop, and I just remember just saying a very hard prayer because I felt so hopeless in the situation. And it wasn’t that I was in an abusive situation that made me feel hopeless, it was the fact that I had actually gotten the bravery to say what was happening to me for once. And I thought that the moment that I actually spoke up would be the moment that I would get support, help, and be removed from that situation. But it wasn’t. And so that’s when I knew for sure that the system is broken and that someone has to do something about it.
The proximity of the team to the challenges of the child welfare system have made them deeply committed to systems change….but also approaching the work with humility as Pauline and Sonali explain.
PAULINE: And so, a lot of us either with proximity to the system or to the child welfare system, we have a lot of insight into this work. And so, yeah, we’re really big about systems change.
And, again, what that means is we’re not, you know, tinkering around the edges. We are really trying to transform a whole thing, whether that be mindsets or resource flows, et cetera. So, I want to preface all that before getting into our culture because setting that stage just shows how audacious our mission is, how much each of us as employees really believe in that.
SONALI: It feels so different at TOU, and what I mean by that is we’ve got these ambitious goals. We’re looking for systems change. We’re looking to center lived experience, but we’re not doing it in a way that says because we’ve got a majority of folks who have proximity or who have lived experience, we know exactly how to do it. We’re willing to make mistakes, test what we think is possible, include folks at the table, admit when we didn’t do things well, learn from that, and really put that out there in the world so that the whole field learns with us.
The hallmark of a healthy culture is one where every opinion counts in every voice matters. That is the case at Think of Us as Justin and Shay illustrate.
SHAY: They go through the process with us. If there are, for instance, a committee that needs to be formed to plan something, they’re putting us on that committee as well as the leadership so that we have a voice in making decisions for our team. They accept all, when I say criticism is not bad, good or bad, we talk everything through.
It’s not “I said this and you do that”. It is “Hey, this is my thoughts. What are your thoughts?” And that is how TOU is run as a whole on every level.
JUSTIN: If I can add, one thing that I feel that is a struggle with many organizations is not being a statistic. So, I’m just not an employee at TOU, I am a person and I am a part of a family at TOU. And that’s what makes the difference. I feel heard. I feel like there’s so many times and so many opportunities to shout out each and every single person at TOU of what they’ve accomplished or what they have done well or, you know, it was a hard week and you made it through, let me shout you out.
There’s so many times that you uplift one another and it just opens the door for closer relationships and closer times to have that bonding that helps those hard conversations.
Consistent with the notion that every voice matters, is the way the organization approaches Decision Making. We’ll continue with Justin and Shay as they describe the process.
JUSTIN: And that’s exactly what I want to highlight here at TOU, that there are leadership teams, but there’s all other teams as well, but we all at the end of the day work together. And it’s not saying, “oh, well, I’m going to make the decision because I’m in a leadership role.”
It’s like how can I get feedback from the whole entire team so that we all have a voice in the decision-making so that we can have many different perspectives to think more than just inside of a box. We’re all always thinking outside of the box how we can continue to grow and continue to make the best of our system change.
SHAY: We go against all pros and cons for everyone’s idea. As long as it’s all meeting the same goal, I think that everyone is open to how we get to the goal. I mean, there are still rules that we follow, but if it’s within the realm of making an adjustment to make everyone comfortable, then TOU is willing to do that in order to achieve our underlying goal.
You can’t have a great culture without great leadership. Pauline and Sonali speak to the leadership at Think of Us.
PAULINE: I still stick by this, our not-so-secret sauce, but it is secret sauce, is the relationship that our CEO and Managing Partner have, and that leadership and that audacity to really bring it home. We have huge things that are coming down the pipeline for us. And it’s because of their vision and their willingness to get it done, their understanding to surround themselves with people who have different strengths from them to do that other pieces. And so, I would say, that’s one secret sauce that we have. If they were answering this question, they would not say that, so I’m going to say that.
SONALI: But, I think, from sitting on the leadership team, you know, I’ve appreciated how dynamic it is, we’re willing to sort of, from where I sit, live in the gray areas and really, you know, organize ourselves to sort of meet the needs of where TOU is evolving. So, I haven’t come into this role in this organization having this rigid org structure to say this is where everybody fits in and this is how we move forward.
It’s absolutely been, you know, we do need to make sure there’s sufficient leadership so that folks have support and there’s growth and we’re able to take advantage of the opportunities that we have to drive things forward. But we are also willing to organize ourselves in a way and to revisit that often enough to make sure we are staying as dynamic as this field needs and as our teams need to really keep moving forward.
Let’s close with a final thought from each participant. Pauline addresses hiring, Justin on being part of a Team, Sonali speaks to challenging the Status Quo, and Shay on Compassion.
PAULINE: So, when we hire somebody, we’re mindful of okay, cross-functionally, how do you work. You know, our data person needs to work with our engineering person, but also with our special projects because that needs to happen there. So, just building that from the very beginning also.
SONALI: So, it’s like pushing against how things have always been done. It’s asking those very top-of-line, first-principle questions, really trying to put fresh eyes to this, to all the work that we do.
JUSTIN: Like we have feedback, they implement it or they bring up the idea, like the leadership brings up the idea, brings it to the community responders, we give feedback. We, you know, give any advice or any ideas into it, and then they implement it. They take that information and implement it, you know. So, it’s always a wrap-around conversation. So, it’s just not what leadership says, but it’s really feedback from everybody. So, it’s like we’re all on the team. We’re all a team no matter what the title is or not.
SHAY: For me, it’s compassion. We, as I’d say, our leaders, our CRs, and everyone that is here understand what our mission is and has compassion towards that. So, when you have that compassion, it opens up, you know, you wanting to have a better understanding, wanting to love, love what you do, appreciate everybody around you. All of my teammates, I appreciate, because they are, for the lack of better words, they’re filling my cup so that I’m able to help someone else. And to me, that’s what TOU does for me. That makes me want to do the job that I do.
Denver: I want to thank those who participated in this segment. Pauline Hill, Justin Kidder, Shay Fields and Sonali Patel. To learn more about Think of Us go to thinkofus.org and visit denver-frederick.com to hear my full interview with Sixto Cancel, the Founder and CEO of Think of Us.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Ever-Changing World, will be released later this year.Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and on Facebook.