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: And today we’ll visit the team at The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption….. a national nonprofit that is committed to dramatically increasing the number of adoptions of children in foster care systems.
We’ll begin with their Chief Executive Officer, Rita Soronen.
Rita Soronen: Look, this is an organization to a person, and I hope when you chat with people, you’ll hear this… to a person: they are committed to this sense of urgency about this cause that, again, childhood is fleeting. A day in foster care is too much. And if we delay too much and get too tied up in, of course, we’re data-driven and goal-driven and tactical-driven, but if we get too twisted in stuff and forget this sense of urgency, we’re going to fail too many more children.
Melinda and Mervat illustrate how each team member is committed to the mission.
Melinda: So one of the things I love about working at the foundation is that we are laser focused on our mission to get children adopted out of foster care. And I think that makes us different from other organizations where you can see some mission creep, where there’s a funding opportunity or a large donor wanted to move this way.
One of the things that I’ve always appreciated is that we stay on mission. We also work with urgency and excellence because that is what the children in the foster care system deserve. And having lived to experience myself, having been in foster care, I just really love that we take that child-focused approach in everything we do across the organization.
When we’re talking about a new program, we are talking about it in terms of its impact on the children and the families that we serve. And that is the biggest draw for me
Mervat: And I think the biggest piece for me is when I first started, is just being in a room with like-minded people that the foundation’s core culture is the belief that every single child is adoptable. And I think to me, that was amazing. I came from the child welfare world, ongoing casework and I don’t know that everybody wasn’t aligned on every level. But at the foundation, everyone on every level from every department believes in our mission. And that it’s amazing to be a part of something so cohesive.
It is this laser like focus on the mission that permits the organization to readily adapt to change. Quinn and Melinda provide their insights.
Quinn: So one of the things that our organization recently did is they had staff meetings, individual staff meetings to talk about the change in the organization and get feedback, so a strategic planning session that included employees to get their feedback. And I thought that was a really wonderful opportunity to hear from individual employees and see how that fits into the makeup of the rest of the organization. And that’s just a great example of what they’re continuing to do, I think is, be flexible, adapt and hear feedback.
Melinda: And what I would share is, I think it’s such a benefit to us that we are all connected to this mission. When you’re communicating the change, is making sure that you’re charting it back to our mission. So that communication is happening over and over again. It’s not just this is our change, but we’re connecting it back to, and this is what allows us to serve the children who are waiting in foster care with excellence and urgency.
The Foundation prioritizes people….. and that includes the employees themselves. Quinn and Julianne speak to that.
Quinn: And when I was thinking about the foundation and why I love the foundation, one of the first things that came to mind is that it really prioritizes people, I think, in all aspects through and through in our mission. It is really focusing on the most overlooked children in the child welfare system and saying that they matter, that they have a voice.
We want them to be seen and to be known, and that really drew me in initially. That made me passionate, interested about the foundation and wanting to work here. But I’ve been here for six years now. And outside of the mission, I really see that the foundation cares about its employees as well.
Julianne: I think that we have done a nice job both at the sort of big picture level of our leadership, engaging staff at all levels and staff meetings that help educate around our strategic priorities and how we’re working together and achieve those. So people understand that big picture and then how their role fits in.
And then I feel that we’ve been given the autonomy to have conversations within our team meetings and then at the department level to look at what are individual’s interests and strengths, how do we bring those into the respective roles that they play, and just acknowledging that change can be hard and that we’re not going to get it right every time.
A hallmark of the organization is to set audacious goals and then proceed with a Confidence that those goals will be met or exceeded. Dean and Melinda will explain.
Dean: We haven’t been afraid to try new programs and we’re not afraid to grow, and I’m on the development side. And when I started, and we still do, have very aggressive growth goals, and we’re not afraid of those goals. We achieve them. We exceed them. And we’re going to continue to do that.
And the collaboration that we have as an organization and as a group allows us to do that. And that’s what’s kept me going, what’s kept me here. And to watch the success and the programs continue to grow and having a plan and evidence-based plan to achieve that has been really terrific.
And it’s tough to find an organization that has that kind of large national and international, [in Canada], ability to scale a program that can disrupt the system and make it better.
Melinda: One of the perfect examples of us creating these audacious goals is when we sat down to do our business plan to expand our Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program.
And we looked at a 12-year business plan and we talked about some options, some number of states, like what if we just scale the 10 biggest states, or what if we just scale half the states? And at the end of the day, we were holding ourselves accountable to, no, we want all 50 states. And is that audacious? Yes. That’s audacious, but we set audacious goals in fundraising, in program.
And sometimes it feels a little overwhelming to us when we’re setting those. But I think it keeps us all focused on our North Star and it keeps us being entrepreneurial and innovative to reach that final goal. So we are not an organization that sets realistic goals or easily attainable goals or the underpromise, overdeliver. We are the organization that strives for ambitious goals.
A big challenge many nonprofits have is working across Departments and
not having those departments in competition with one another. David and Dean share how the teams at the Foundation interact.
David: Coming from government relations and the corporate side of things to now a nonprofit, it has been eye-opening to me. In previous roles, there wasn’t as much interest in the work that I was doing. In this role here, because of our mission and because of the impact we’re having on this population of children that we’re serving, everyone is engaged.
The questions are plenty. There’s interest around every corner, when I walk down the halls, of people saying what’s happening in such and such state. So that is a constant pull. And I think it really helps morale. It helps us with any type of learning activities that we’re trying to do, as a group, one-on-one, from the leadership team down, and then from the middle of management as well in getting those messages across.
So I think that whether you want to call it a recent initiative or just the day-to-day work that we’re doing here in my group, it’s great to see it bleed into all the other departments.
Dean: We’re also…. it’s such a respectful culture here. We respect each other personally, professionally, the way we address each other, the way we hit our goals. We’re competitive against the goal and not against each other, which I think is unique, whether you’re in a for-profit or a nonprofit.
And I think that spirit of respect and healthy competition against the goal to work together is, I think it’s unique in some sense, especially as you grow to maintain that respect and healthy discourse to get to these goals. There’s not a lot of drama, which is really refreshing.
Finally, Recognition is vital to maintaining a healthy culture, but in the case of Dave Thomas, that recognition extends beyond its employees and to their partners in the field as Mervat, Julianne and David illustrate.
Mervat: I think one of the things that’s in our sauce is the recognition of accomplishments, and not just internally. We do a great job of that internally. However, it also extends to all our partner agencies, all the recruiters, all of the supervisors and the agencies we work with.
Every year we hold a summit where we bring everybody from across the nation for a three-day training support, where we share those stories, encourage them and just remind them of the importance of the work. And it’s a way to build their professional development for them and for us internally, as well for the program team.
JULIANNE: And then I’m also just really proud of our commitment to collaboration, not just internally, but with external national organizations that we fund. So maybe we’re not in a… the expert in this particular thing, but we see the value in how it’s going to help continue to advance the systems that are serving youth and families.
And so I think that we’ve been really committed to how we use those resources in support of that overall program, and not assuming that we know it all with that.
David: But the advocacy that we have at our fingertips, because of everything Mervat just mentioned about the folks in the field, they’re not our employees, but they truly believe in what we’re doing and they wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t.
And so we have that capability at our disposal and it really does, I think going back, the word rally, it does rally us day in and day out in what we do. So that’s the strongest piece that I can think of and it’s unique, and I don’t think there are very many other institutions or nonprofits that can say that.
Denver: I want to thank all those who participated in this piece: Quinn Dybdahl, Julianne Nichols, Melinda Haggerty, Dean Bring, Mervat Saa, David Frissora. And to learn more about the organization go visit their website at DaveThomasFoundation.org or visit Denver-frederick.com and catch my earlier interview with Rita Soronen, the CEO of The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
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.