Personal transformation can occur over the course of many years or even in an instant. It’s possible for an individual to create their own transformative moment – it’s helped along by being out of your comfort zone, experiencing uncertainty, your preconceived notions being thrown to the wayside, and having opportunity to just “be” without every day distractions. As part of Direct Impact, we work with a group of rising stars in the corporate sector who committed to social change. We believe that experiencing transformative moments will help these individuals better understand themselves and what role they want to play as effective leaders on nonprofit boards. We designed the conditions for this cohort to create their own transformative moment by visiting Echoing Green Fellow organizations operating all over the world.
When a donor or prospective board member visits an organization, most often they expect to hear about all of the good, important work that’s going on. It’s not meant to be a deep immersion into the work, but rather a quick window into the successes of an organization. But for Direct Impact, we made sure these would be no ordinary site visits. Central to our goals for these next generation board members is for them to become deeply immersed in the work of social entrepreneurs, and to see the good, the bad, and the hard of social change.
Each site visit included time for shadowing staff members, learning from a variety of stakeholders, and perhaps the most underrated, unscheduled time to just be present. As expected, things didn’t always go as planned. Being open to this allowed us to see the real challenges—and opportunities—that social entrepreneurs face each day. As more board members fully understand the inner-workings of the organizations they serve, the conversations and advice will become more strategic, generative, and meaningful. Over the course of visiting three Echoing Green Fellow-led organizations, we witnessed three distinct, yet interconnected, leadership lessons take shape.
Inclusive Decision Making with Atlas:DIY
The first visit was to Atlas: DIY in Brooklyn, NY, a ” cooperative empowerment center for immigrant youth and their allies” founded by 2014 Fellow Lauren Burke. As soon as the visit began, our Direct Impact participants noticed something was different about Atlas: DIY. The Atlas youth were involved every step of the way, and it wasn’t for our benefit – this is how the organization operates. From the introduction and tour of Atlas, to our collaborative brainstorming sessions, the perspectives of Atlas youth were represented at every turn. The voices of everyone at Atlas, and impacted by Atlas, were around the table at every stage. This level of integration may seem a radical notion, but demonstrates how to create buy-in and elevate the expertise of those most impacted by the issue the organization is aiming to solve. After that experience, our group felt challenged to think about what type of inclusive leaders they are, both in work and in life.
Being Fearless Amidst Uncertainty at ConTextos
Our second group traveled to El Salvador to visit ConTextos, founded by 2013 Fellow Debra Gittler. As we left New York, our participants each recounted being asked by family and friends why they were choosing to travel to El Salvador during such a tumultuous point in its history. On the first afternoon with ConTextos, which helps students develop authentic literacy skills, it was clear that any advance expectations were different from reality. Direct Impact was welcomed with open arms, almost as if everyone in the country knew we were coming from New York to see ConTextos’ work. On our visit, it was clear that while El Salvador is facing immense challenges, there is a lot of opportunity to improve social conditions. As we visited primary schools and a juvenile detention center, and engaged with several influential individuals, we began to understand the many complexities of the country. By shedding expectations and adding a dose of fearlessness, the group left with a new perspective of the need—and potential—for disruption for change.
Finding Common Ground with Fundi Bots
Meet people where they are:
Our third group spent their site visit with Fundi Bots in Uganda, founded by 2014 Fellow Solomon King Benge to bring robotics to African schools. Over the course of several days, the group developed a stronger understanding of Uganda, particularly the education and employment systems. Their challenge was to transform preconceived notions about international development to understand what is happening on the ground. Finding common ground was essential—it was tempting to see similarities to other countries or organizations, but it took a fair amount of time to begin to get on the same page about the unique conditions in Uganda. Our group learned the importance of coming into conversations about the program with a lens of appreciative inquiry, and to embrace Echoing Green’s process of serving as thought partners rather than “consultants.”
While not much time has passed since the three site visits were completed, the moments created and shared have already helped each individual to further define their own leadership and the way they want to operate as board member. Each takeaway rang true throughout each site visit, and are relevant to any site visit that a prospective or current board member may take part in. We are excited to see the long-term effects of the site visits as our participants grow into influential leaders.