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 for this edition we are going to visit team members at the Vera Institute of Justice. Their mission is to end the overcriminalization and mass incarceration of people of color, immigrants, and people experiencing poverty. We’ll begin with their President, Nick Turner.
Nick: The culture at Vera is really special, I think. We’re an organization that prides itself on making concrete change and we’re very rigorous in the work we do. We seek to transform the criminal legal system and immigration system so there’s more justice and more fairness, and so we take that work incredibly seriously. But I think we’re also very human and recognize that if people are spending 10 hours of their day in this very serious, sometimes heavy work, that it’s important for people to be able to be fully integrated in the place.
Michelle speaks about the Onboarding process and Stanley relays how easy it was to fit in quickly.
Michelle: So the first week that people start, they already have a schedule. Here’s your IT orientation, here is your orientation to the benefits, and here are the paperwork that you need to do to get plugged in to all of these benefits. And I think it’s a huge relief as a manager to not have to do all of those things and orient your colleagues to all of those things, and I think it reflects the expertise and professionalism of the institution when folks are starting and I know many of us who’ve started, my team members included, remark at what a relief and comfort it was, what a good reflection of the culture that it was. It reflects a real intentional sense of including people, but also that we’ve thought through the benefits that we’re offering, we know why they’re good, et cetera.
Stanley: When I first got here, I was scheduled to have a bunch of one-onones and as an organizer, naturally, it just made me feel more comfortable to reach out to other people in the organization and schedule other one-onones, and before I knew it, my first two months here, I’ve probably met like 50 people just having conversations and it’s just a part of the culture to run into someone in a hallway or see them in a meeting and go, “Hey, we should meet.” And like I said before, I cut my teeth in community organizing, but this is the first place where I felt a culture like that where people want to do that. And I think it’s incredibly important to be having that level of community space for community and intention of community starting from the top being spread across the board if you want to be effective, particularly, for the work that we do.
This spirit of connection continues and Nick, Tracey and Michelle share some of the ways that occurs.
Nick: We have these things called Randomized Coffee Trials, which is an opportunity for people every month to sign up, to have coffee with a colleague, or tea or whatever their favorite beverage is, and they are assigned randomly, and then you set up a 30-minute appointment with whoever you’ve been assigned to. And we’ve been doing that and it was not a leadership initiative. Someone in the organization thought it was a really nice way to make it human, to establish connections with people in a complex organization, and to allow people to really build relationships, and so it’s really fun to get to know folks in that regard. Most people participate in it, and it just allows you to have a conversation that’s non-transactional that’s really about connecting.
Tracey: I think those social interactions are really crucial to set that foundation so that when you go to your colleagues to talk about work, it’s not transactional, it’s much more fluid in terms of how you connect with others. And my colleagues here, so Shayna and Michelle, can speak to how they’ve known each other for years, but also how the work ties in and they connect socially but also with work too.
Michelle: So, one of the things that I appreciate the most about Vera is how many people have actually come through Vera and are now out in the field and continue to be collaborators, so there’s a sense that folks who come through Vera are committed to making change and are going to continue to be out in the field and be people that we constantly look to and work with.
Michelle shares that the commitment to race, equity and inclusion begins with the hiring process and Nick explains how that commitment continues
Michelle: So, I’ve actually had a couple of new colleagues start on my team and they really noted, and I have experienced this myself when I was hired, how professional our interviewing and onboarding has become, so we’ve incorporated a number of processes around equity in the interview process ensuring that we’re asking standardized questions, ensuring that to the extent that there are exercises that are done in the interview process, that they’re standardized, and that we’re reviewing them in a way that promotes equity.
Nick: We’re really committed to trying to make concrete change, so one of the aspects of the our Race, Equity, Inclusion Initiative was to create a strategic action plan that had, I can’t remember, somewhere between 35 to 45 different goals that were owned by various units of the organization that ranged from things like moving towards salary transparency before it was required by New York State law, doing data collection that we hadn’t been doing before on our recruiting pools, on various stages of talent acquisition on, promotions, but even on things that some people might not expect by reevaluating our development gift acceptance policy to make sure that it was aligned to our commitment and values, or establishing a board committee to hold us accountable. And we gave ourselves two years to execute all of those things and we checked in on it as a leadership team and reported out to the staff.
Vera takes on challenging work and wellbeing is all important. Tracey and Stanley describe a couple of those initiatives
Tracey: But the little things that we also do is we have something called the Power Hour, which every Wednesday at noon, we’re encouraged to just unplug and do nothing. And so, yes, the work will be there when you come back, but it’s nice to have a breather in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week to just focus on yourself, go out and smell the air and so it’s a wonderful thing to do.
Stanley: But then also, and I’m actually not sure if this is done on purpose or maybe it was me, but we closed the office the week of Christmas, and I remember the day before we went back to work, I went to go to my emails and make sure I was caught up and everything, I had my schedule set, I was locked out of my email. And then I realized that whole week, my phone wasn’t buzzing with emails. And then when I got back to the office, I talked to my coworker about it and he was like, “Yeah, I think they did that for everyone.” That’s really good. That’s how you set intention and just talk about culture.
Shayna speaks about steps Vera takes to foster clarity while Nick discusses the value of context and perspective
Shayna: One of the big pieces of feedback that came primarily from our more junior colleagues was really that there was a challenge with respect to role clarity and that there were questions around who was responsible for what and that that really did impact the REI principles, the Race, Equity, and Inclusion principles on our team in terms of not knowing who was accountable for whatnot, not knowing what a next step in a career might be. And so, we were able, through our Race, Equity, and Inclusion Fund that we have, to bring in an outside facilitator to help us as a team identify how we could improve our own practices and really give us some concrete steps to incorporate into how we do meetings, how we delegate, how we communicate about who’s assigned to what and who’s accountable to what, that have been incorporated over the past year now and I think really valuable, and to me, it was just a great way to make sure we had the resources to be responsive to challenges that folks saw and identified on our team and really implement some changes.
Nick: The second thing was to recognize that our place of work could actually be soulless to the chaos on the outside, that being able to be engaged in solutions and constructive betterment is something that we’re incredibly lucky and incredibly privileged to have, and to focus that, your angst and your energy and your upset, pour it into our work because people are depending upon us and we can make the world a better place, and that, that was really important to recognize.
Tracey and Shayna speak about the importance of Communications…… both internally and externally.
Tracey: So, we’re now on Zoom, so a lot of our meetings are on Zoom and we really say to people, if you can, come on camera, because we really want to see you, and you get so much more from seeing someone’s face and them looking at you, et cetera. We also do a lot of, we prioritize accessibility as an example, so it’s so much more easy to have close captioning with Zoom. So, those of us who aren’t able to hear as well or see as well, you have that opportunity to participate in conversations we have. Although with the pandemic, we have prioritized coming back into the office and so we asked managers to gain consensus with their teams to say, which of the 10 days per month are you coming into the office? And so there’s a lot creativity that happens around that.
Shayna: I think also with a real focus on making sure that we’re highlighting the leadership and the stories of people who’ve been directly impacted by the issues that we’re advocating around, which is, I think, so critical to telling stories in a compelling way, but also making sure we are being true to the people that we’re working to build better policy for and for our broader communities. And so I think that’s been really critical.
Finally, it is evident that Vera Institute is an intentional organization as illustrated by Stanley and Nick
Stanley: And what we both said actually is like, you got to kind of look at what things you can do differently, but you also have to ask yourself in what ways the environment helps to color how you show up. And I think intention here helps the people to be their best and as long as we’re being intentful about creating space for collaboration, creating space for safety, creating space for curiosity, you are always going to get the best out of people, and so I think that’s our secret sauce.
Nick: I just want to say really quickly that, I mean, I think part of that intention that you’ve heard a lot about today, again, comes from the mission work that we do, which is that we are never satisfied to just complain about a problem that exists or to launch out into the ether, our preferred solution, we always take it a step forward to say, “Okay, we want an idea about a solution to land in the hands of people who have the power to make that change. How do we do that?” And so, it’s mechanical and it’s concrete and it’s specific. And so we take that same way of doing work and bring it inside the organization.
To learn more about Vera Institute of Justice you can visit their website at Vera.org
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.