Leaning Into Leadership Circles With Slippery Rock University: Creating A Space For Community To Happen

by | October 28, 2022 | News | 0 comments

“We’ve been working with Alice… to explore how we weave together the work of universities on the ground with nonprofits to build ecosystems and safety nets that increase academic proficiency from a grass roots orientation. For the past 57 months, we’ve been focused on … a framework that explores a cross-sector application of people’s gifts, skills, and talents. I’m excited to have Alice and her team on to talk about ways we’ve demonstrated this collaboration, ways we can expand upon it and what the benefit has been of such activity.”

– Fred Brown | President & CEO | The Forbes Funds

Bringing Nonprofit Leaders Back Into The Loop: “A Disruptive COVID-19 Cross-Sector Response”

Like most true innovation and disruption, The Leadership Circles were born out of sheer necessity. As the narrative goes for so many across the sector, the labor pains came by virtue of the global pandemic. In this case, more specifically, the shift to virtual working and low-touch interaction. As Chairperson for the Department of Nonprofit Management, Empowerment, and Diversity Studies at Slippery Rock University (SRU), Alice DelVecchio immediately thought about the management implications of this new lived reality upon nonprofit professionals.
Under her leadership, the Institute for Nonprofit Leadership at SRU builds the capacity of the nonprofit sector by providing individuals and organizations the education, research services, and networks to understand, strengthen and advance the work of the nonprofit sector. Particularly, her lens was drawn toward Executive Directors, and what it meant for their ability to thrive and, yes, “pivot” in an adaptive, iterative fashion.
At the helm of the only undergraduate program in philanthropy and nonprofit management in Pennsylvania, Alice found herself in a unique, formation position to leverage her personal agency and expansive network effects acquired over 25 years of nonprofit sector service at the university level, spanning capacity building, education research, learning, community development, and organizational change. She promptly tightened her circle and brought nonprofit directors from Butler County into the loop. The initial Leadership Circle included 12-13 professionals and met once weekly.

From coordinating and consolidating efforts around securing masks efficiently and cost-effectively to sharing a treasure (win), or the deeper level check-in and vulnerable conversations around “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” it became evident that pain points shared are growing pains less, and knowledge transfer travels even faster in leadership circles.

“What we found was when you make space for community to happen, and you bring people with common positions, perspectives and interests together from across the nonprofit sector… magic happens. And it happened like that for us, so much so that almost two-and-a-half years later, the people in the circle continue to join us. The concept is designed to give people space where a small group of people with common experiences can get together, each having something to contribute and build community so that we can support each other in the work that we do. The fact that you have somebody to ask, ‘What did you do?’ or How did this work for you when you were there?’ is really useful. It builds community as best practice.”

– Alice DelVecchio | Slippery Rock University

Peer-to-Peer Proof Points: “Leadership Reproducing After Its Own Kind”

As Akita Donald, Executive Director of AD-99 Solutions and past participant pointed out, such support and leaning into Leadership Circles as a best practice is critical for leaders of nonprofit organizations with a lean staff and even leaner peer-to-peer support. It can often feel lonely at the top for individuals who are mission-focused, leading a growing nonprofit, while managing lofty board expectations, multiple constituents, various stakeholders, and public scrutiny. For Akita, interaction with other Executive Directors paid immediate dividends.

“The Learning Circles really fostered a safe space. I immediately felt comfortable talking, and being vulnerable. That was super important for me. And it was really organic. As a community of practitioners, we were able to discuss how to maneuver those waters and navigate ways to collaborate and discover how we could help each other.”

– Akita Donald | Executive Director | AD99 Solutions

The seed that was planted for Akita while in the fertile ground of The Learning Circle also went forth to reproduce after it own kind as she not only cultivated her Leadership and management capacity but is now serving as an Adjunct Faculty member in the SRU Nonprofit Management, Empowerment and Diversity Studies program.

For Kevin McNair, while still a student at Slippery Rock, Alice literally helped turn his pain into progress after Kevin tragically lost his cousin to gun violence. She provided Kevin with a place to channel his grief, anguish, and his leadership ability toward the nonprofit sector upon graduation. As a result, he launched 1Nation Mentoring which works with African-American boys and young men in schools throughout the country.

“I remember the first day that we were on, as we were going around on the screen, there was a woman who said, ‘You know, I’m a little bit late today because I got a call from this woman, a mother who is homeless, and I don’t have a place for her stay.’ She was clearly distressed over her client but people in the circle asked her what part of town her client was in and immediately offered up options for emergency housing in that area. Someone else offered up meals, and others books for the kids. So, within 15 minutes, what was heavy on her heart got lifted as a result of being part of this community.”

Kevin McNair, Founder, 1Nation Mentoring

Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls: “Leadership Circle Simulation”

During our conversation, Alice and our presenters simulated a live experience capturing what it’s like to be part of a Leadership Circle, and specifically their group check-in, leading an engagement exercise called “The Waterfall” activity. Alice posed a common question and concern to our community on the call: “what keeps you up at night as an Executive Director about your organization or the people you serve.”

The result was a free flow of responses in the chat, ranging from:

  • Treating staff fairly
  • Lingering impact of the pandemic
  • Lack of access to needed services
  • Untraditional funding
  • Funding strong executive leadership
  • The needs don’t stop coming and I wonder how we will have the capacity to serve the mission
  • Are we informing our kids and keeping them alive?
  • The need to grow our team and find sustainable funds to support staff – Our employees are vital, their lives and stabilities matter
  • Building and expanding while maintaining
  • Leadership development
  • Meaningful programs
  • How many American voters don’t care about Democracy

During the facilitation phase of the Waterfall Activity, we identified a consistent theme, drawing upon a nautical analogy and familiar nonprofit predicament: “Ships don’t sink because of the water around them; ships sink because of the water that gets in them. Don’t let what’s happening around you get inside you and weigh you down.” From there, the group addressed specific things in their toolbox they are utilizing or doing to stay focused, stay calm and stay steady as leaders to ensure they don’t sink because of the water that’s in them without getting distracted by the water around them. This is especially challenging to navigate as Alice eloquently captured, “the boat is so small and the sea is so wide.” Fortunately, for nonprofit leaders in our network and region, the benefits of joining a Leadership Circle is just as wide.

Call For Community Response: “Get In Where You Fit In!!”

Join Us, and let us join you! Here are your handles and next steps in response to this week’s Call For Community Solutions. We are proud to continue our partnership with Slippery Rock University and collaborative support for their Institute For Nonprofit Leadership and offer a discounted rate on participation in the Leadership Circle. While the current Executive Director cohort has filled and begun this week, there are a few slots remaining for the Directors Mentoring Youth Leadership Circle. If you, or someone in your circle, can benefit from this cohort, please contact Maria Paula Quintero at quinterom@forbesfunds.org or follow THIS LINK to register.

GPNP members get 50% off with the code GPNP50!

Otherwise, look out for future updates and opportunities to join a future circle.
As always, reach out, share feedback or schedule a one-on-one discussion to go deeper:

  • erin@forbesfunds.org
  • emily@forbesfunds.org

This Week’s Call For Community Solutions UN Sustainable Development Goals & Social Determinants of Health Framework Alignment

This week’s Call For Community Solutions demonstrated clear alignment with our core frameworks, including UN Sustainable Development Goals #3 (Good Health & Well Being), #11 (Sustainable Cities & Communities), #16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) and #17 (Partnerships For The Goals). For deeper context around alignment with the SDG framework, our conversation this week centered on the leadership and learning circles that encourage peer-to-peer relationship building for executives in the nonprofit sector. As such, when we talk about alignment with the goal of Good Health and Well-Being, that speaks to self-care and the conversations that we’re enabling in these spaces through the Leadership Circles for leaders to be vulnerable and transparent.

As it relates to Sustainable Cities and Communities, we’re leveling up about organizational sustainability and strength, ensuring there’s continuity in the area of leadership development within an organization which ultimately also supports the goal of Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. Lastly, our partnership with Slippery Rock University is a powerful example of partnership for the goals, specifically the cross-sector collaboration Fred underscored during the call. In addition, partnership and goal advancement are intrinsic to the process since the Leadership Circles are peer-to-peer relationship, building cohorts and sessions that take place on a weekly basis. Finally, the Social Determinant of Health that this conversation is most closely aligned with was Social & Community Context.


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