Leading Federated Nonprofits and Networks

Leading In: Women’s Views from the C-Suite: A conversation with Judy Vredenburgh, Cathy Tisdale, and Susan Danish about their experiences and lessons learned from leading three of the nation’s most respected national nonprofit networks.

A Conversation with Girls Inc.’s Judy Vredenburgh, Camp Fire’s Cathy Tisdale, and Junior League’s Susan Danish

Federated nonprofits—those with a national office and geographically dispersed affiliates—fill a unique niche in the sector. They reach into almost every community, and their structure allows for the national distribution of mission-driven programming. At the same time, many have been around 100 years or more, lending a legacy aspect that is often simultaneously a strength and a burden. Finally, their large size, and the unique centralized-yet-decentralized relationship between the national “headquarters” and individual affiliates, pose singular challenges in organizational development and change management.

What challenges have you experienced within your own federated organizations, and how have you led through them?

Cathy: I didn’t realize until I took the position how disconnected the field was from national headquarters, and for my first six months, there was essentially no money, no donors, no marketing or development. The board had been trying to hold things together for years, but the system was so weakened, I couldn’t turn to the councils to engage them in problem solving together.

One weekend, on a red-eye between an event in Seattle and a meeting in Fort Worth where I had to give a speech to a council I knew wasn’t happy with national, I was thinking What am I going to say? It came in a flash: What makes Camp Fire Camp Fire is we’re helping kids prepare for life right now—not for what they’ll be “someday,” or for high school, or for college. But how to navigate life right now…otherwise there’s no hope for the future. I felt this was reflective of the legacy, vision, and values of Camp Fire. I knew we had to make something out of all that.

After that, serendipity became almost better than strategy. We got the opportunity to work with the Thrive Foundation for Youth. We didn’t have the capacity to do it, but we had to make it work. It was “if not now, never.” After the brand work we did…THAT was the game changer. When I leave, no one will remember my role, but that brand promise, Thrive{ology}…it will last, it’s so deeply rooted in the movement.

If you lead a legacy organization, you know. You have to figure out the power of the legacy that you don’t want to lose because it’s what makes you strong. And there are always alums and volunteers who hung in there, the die-hard. You’ve got to find that foundation and build on it—and contemporize it for the 21st century. Because things are different for families, for women, and for kids in todays’ times.

Judy, I remember working with Girls Inc. in a meeting when we discussed the organization’s origins and the group realized “We’re really badass!” It was a recognition that “We are what we’ve been for a really long time.”

Judy: Especially for a new executive coming in, you look for those historic strengths and values that are still relevant today. You may add some, but they really don’t change that much. Those values then give you ballast to change the strategies that are more adapted to today—because how the values manifest themselves in strategy needs to be relevant to the 21st century.

When I came to Girls Inc, we had phenomenal relationships between national and local affiliates. But even with being so relational and liking each other, there was no real collaboration. We’d always say, “You see one Girls Inc., and you’ve seen one Girls Inc.” They felt it was a compliment, but to me…I don’t care so much about consistency, but I had to ask, “Is there quality?”

I found that there was value being brought to locals, but not the value I knew we could bring. At Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (where I’d served as CEO for ten years), I’d made mistakes—but I also learned a lot about the federated structure, how to create change and get things done. I was attracted by the smaller scale of Girls Inc. where I would be able to make something really happen. But when I came on, we were $1.5M in debt on an $8M budget. My predecessor was great and was able to keep the staff intact, but it was tough. It was the recession.

Now, my strength is in financial management, but I also got really lucky: AMEX came to us as the recipient of their Small Business Saturday campaign. They told us we could receive up to $750,000. But it turned out to be so successful that they had to bump up the cap to $1 million! Then they asked what I was going to use it for. I was going to get us out of debt! But of course I had to spin it a little and talk about it as a “turnaround.” That was the beginning of the turn.

We made some decisions on the expense side, too, reducing our square footage in New York and moving some of our operations to Indianapolis. We saved loads and made a commitment in 2011 to invest in our people. We revamped the performance review process and adopted merit-based salary increases. We put all that we could into increases and 401k. It made a statement that our first order of business was our people.

I’d also learned we’d never really done a network-wide strategic plan. I came on in June, and by September I said: we’ll have 10% of affiliates’ executives on the planning team (with just two national staff, one board member to facilitate, and one board member to participate) and I told them, “It’s not our plan but your plan, and a network-wide strategic direction.” It was a big thing, to say that. Our people were feeling under siege, that Boys and Girls Clubs were eating their lunch, and I told them, “Look, we do great stuff! Stop looking over your shoulders. Nobody does what we do the way we do it.” And I was talking about the long-standing values of Girls Inc.—I lifted up the strengths that were there.

In federated structures, the relationship between national and chapters can feel like a very fragile one. Sometimes CEOs are afraid of chapters leaving or disaffiliating. So, how hard to you push? 

Cathy: At our last summit, I wanted to remind chapters what they’ve accomplished over the past seven years. There’s a piece of music from the show Seesaw about “it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” I took every fiscal year and made a timeline of key benchmarks. (There were 81 things on that list!) We turned it into a video loop bookended with that piece of music. While I was preparing for that presentation, I was thinking: I’d make the same decisions again, but maybe not the same way. And I named three things where we could have exercised the decision in a different way, like communicating it differently. In retrospect, I know some it felt top-down, but often we didn’t have the luxury of a lot of process.

Susan: When I took the job, there was a strained relationship between many of the Leagues and headquarters…it was a rough time. I had a lot of work to do to turn that around and have had to be very intentional about it. I’ve tried to do things to engage the Leagues in a different way, which I felt was important because it has to be about them.

One of the first things I did was market research, which hadn’t been done in a decade. I found that members were dissatisfied because of three main things. They felt the Leagues didn’t do important work anymore (too often they served as a volunteer source for every other organization’s local campaigns). They didn’t believe their Leagues were well-run, and members felt disconnected from their League leadership. And they had issues with the member experience because it wasn’t flexible—it didn’t meet their needs. These things are so foundational! So we had to do some big things to address them. We worked with Heather McLeod Grant, author of Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-impact Nonprofits, to create a strategic roadmap to guide a major organizational transformation. We created an advisory council of League leaders (including past leaders), identified five strategic questions to be answered, created design teams of volunteer members to explore the questions, and then 79 League leaders participated in action learning teams to create the processes to address the questions. We went to every League who invited us to talk about the process (over 200)…we really put it out there. Our sustainers (long-time members) said, “What you’re talking about is going back to what made The Junior League special!”

I’ve done some crazy things along the way, too. I believe in member engagement and that it’s OK to be lighthearted even when an issue is important. At our various conferences early on I used travel and construction metaphors, for example—even creating a life-sized cardboard car that members could get into to take the strategic roadmap journey with us. The pictures proliferated in the Leagues’ newsletters! I find that when humor is purposeful, it makes it memorable, but I do serious things too.

Our organizational transformation process has been a long and ongoing one. We work all the time to better meet our Leagues’ needs. More recently, several of our Leagues (some of our largest) were unhappy, so I decided to change the conversation. I invited the presidents of the 10 largest (later expanding it to 11) to spend a day and a half in here New York talking to me and AJLI’s senior leaders and AJLI’s President, to raise issues and work things through—and to explore how they can help the other Leagues. Just doing those things in a planful way has made a real and positive difference.

Does the political divide we’re experiencing in our country hamper your ability to work effectively as unified national organizations? 

Susan: I do have to be really careful when I opine about things. It’s an interesting line to walk, to bring up issues that are current but do it in a way that both sides of the spectrum can relate to.

Cathy: One thing I’ve observed is that it’s not that any CEO doesn’t believe in the issue, it’s about who we’re beholden to for fundraising. I’m so glad we don’t get federal funding at the national level! On either coast, the conversation about equity, women’s role in society, etc. is the polar opposite of what I hear in any meeting anywhere in the center of the country. I go to visit my mother in Charlotte, and we don’t agree on anything. But when I listen to her and her friends, there’s not unanimity around the role of women in the workplace, in society, the issue of sexual assault—there’s no cookie-cutter point of view. And there is a huge swath who feel they’ve been left behind for the “other” people, and Trump has capitalized on that resentment and anger.

When the Access Hollywood tape can be played over and over on national TV and a significant percentage of women aren’t phased (“it’s just locker room talk”) and 53% of women in Alabama voted for Moore…we’ve come a long way, but there’s a lot of work to do still. I read an editorial in the Times about how women aren’t a bloc. They’re right: it’s an inaccurate stereotype to assume we all feel the same way, even about issues that affect our gender. In our organization, there have been points where I’ve said: “Do you want us to be leading as an organization by using our voice or by example (which for me is euphemistic)?” And in some cases, the response has really been split.

Looking back, why did you take on the lead role at organizations experiencing troubled times? What did you draw on to get through those turnarounds? 

Susan: I’ve always turned around any place I’ve ever been—and probably in record time. In my career, I led a historically unprofitable division of a major company to become the most profitable. I was also instrumental in making Christie’s number-one over Sotheby’s as the top art auction house. The business challenge the Junior League posed really intrigued me. How do you help that kind of organization—one that was conceived in a very different time but has a purpose that is truly enduring and important today—and make it relevant in today’s world? It’s been a huge challenge…and I’m not done yet.

Cathy: From the late 1980s to today, every job I’ve had has been to turn something around or create something that didn’t exist. I like messiness, being on the front end of all that, working with a group to imagine what could be. I have a high tolerance for ambiguity that I don’t think a lot of people have.

Susan: I like finding new ways through things, figuring out what the key is to unlock the potential. I love creating highly engaged teams, motivated teams. And creating that motivates me too.

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