To bring to life the concepts and ideas discussed in The Great Rethink Series, we will be bringing together experts in the field, who can offer first-hand experience and important insights on these topics. Our inaugural Q&A on Workplace policy features three leaders with decades of experience across all disciplines within the field of philanthropy:
Jennifer Darling is President & CEO, Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation. Previously she served as Director of Development and Membership at the Denver Art Museum, Director of Development for Denver Botanical Gardens and Director of Annual Giving at Colorado School of Mines. She was actively involved in the formation of the Institute for Leaders and sits on its Board; and she recently was named to Northwestern University’s Council of 100.
Floyd Akins serves as Vice President for University Advancement at The University of Toledo, after serving as Associate Vice President for Advancement at Michigan State University. Previously he was an Assistant Vice Chancellor for Development for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and prior to that served as Ohio State University’s Senior Associate Vice President for University Development and Vice President of the OSU Foundation.
Cynthia McKee serves as Executive Vice President for Institutional Advancement at the Aspen Institute, leading fundraising and donor relations through oversight of the Office of Institutional Advancement. Before joining AI, she served as Senior Vice President for Development at the global nonprofit organization Conservation International. Prior to that she was Director of Development and Marketing for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), and previously Director of Principal Gifts at The Nature Conservancy.
This roundtable discussion was moderated by Ron Schiller, Founding Partner, Aspen Leadership Group.
RS: Thank you all for participating in this discussion. We picked The Great Rethink as a theme for this series because, if the past couple of years have given us anything, it’s an opportunity to rethink. We can take everything we learned during the pandemic and apply it to new ways of achieving our philanthropic goals, and a new way of operating in a changed employment market, compared to pre-2019.
At Aspen Leadership Group, we believe that the only way leaders across the nonprofit sector can apply that new knowledge is by talking about it, to hear what their team members are thinking and saying, and to allow for the fact that the world is going to keep changing, at least for a little while to come.
So I’ll start by asking how your organizations responded and how you’ve fared during the pandemic.
JD: I’d start by saying that here at Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation, we have put a mantra into play and the phrase is, One Team, One Goal. It is all about prioritizing our people, acting and believing we are truly one team with a singular goal of raising money for Children’s Hospital Colorado. Pre-pandemic, that culture helped us successfully navigate some challenges and get to the other side even stronger.
Even during the pandemic, we’ve had some really good fundraising years, particularly last year where we saw a 54% increase over our previous record fundraising year. So I took time in January to study why it was that we had seen such success. And it really came about in several different ways, but after interviewing members of our team, members of our Board, our hospital partners, etcetera, we found that the number one element was culture.
That is, making our people feel valued and appreciated, and making sure they know that they are part of this bigger whole. In getting us to an annual finish line, or certainly bigger goals than that, their work is essential to our success.
CM: I had the benefit of being in two different organizations during the pandemic. First at Conservation International and then at Aspen Institute. In the early days, as we decamped from the office, our CI team, like most, wondered: “what should we expect, how long will this last?” So we huddled and tried to be as creative and flexible as possible, while also having some structure, like bi-weekly team meetings and later virtual staff gatherings such as “home” tours and cocktail/cupcake parties to maintain contact and community within the team. We also found, like most people did, that donors wanted contact as well.
Going forward, the big question is, how do you create systems that support accountability and culture, while still making your best effort to meet people where they are? I think that will be the challenge going forward regarding remote or hybrid work policies. And we’re in a rethink right now about that.
In that vein, one of the big challenges is creating a sense of culture that permeates the organization, when the organization itself is not physically together. How do you recreate those moments when you’re in the hallway and you just catch somebody, and you have a creative thought? How do you mentor staff, and how do staff learn from leaders by seeing their example?
Where we are at Aspen, is that our CEO Dan Porterfield held fast on community, mission and flexibility. He and the senior leadership went deep in understanding and listening to staff across the organization, seeking how best to accommodate their needs while balancing productivity. They looked forward, I’m a product of that, and brought on new talent. So in this next phase, as we re-think the future of work I will be working with my VP and figuring out how best to encourage our team—mostly those who live in the area –to come into the office, and perhaps later consider a more structured approach. But for now, encouraging them to come together seems the right approach, It’s an amazing group. They’ve adapted well and the results—financially and programmatically—have been incredibly strong. I continue to think this is a time where you have to have your systems in place, but be flexible and continue to meet people where they are.
RS: And how was it coming into leadership at a new organization, during the pandemic when there was no physical place to go?
CM: Harder, I would say. Partly because I’m an office creature. Personally, I’m more productive in the office because it helps me block out everything else going on in my life and focus on work. I like the spontaneity of meeting in the hallway. It’s different connecting with people remotely. Aspen Institute is rich in programs, and it was challenging navigating it all remotely, on a Zoom call here, a Zoom call there. I would say it’s probably taken me a lot longer, to establish those relationships and trust with staff across the organization and my team than had we all been in the office.
RS: Floyd you also joined two different leadership teams during the pandemic. How was that, and how does it influence your thinking about defining “workplace?”
FA: Yes. At Michigan State, I joined as a second “number two” person in leadership right as the pandemic hit. I was trying to manage and get to know a very large team. In that situation you do as much mentoring as you possibly can do, but inevitably some things get missed. My very first staff meeting was on June 1, 2021, one week after George Floyd was murdered. So it wasn’t a meeting about philanthropy. It was about getting people through the pain they were going through.
You fast-forward and I’m here at the University of Toledo, where I started in February 2022, and again was challenged to build a culture. In this organization, unfortunately, the advancement team has not had a steady Vice-President in more than six years. So the timeliness of this conversation is quite interesting.
My philosophy is this. I think having some type of a hybrid policy is okay. But first, it’s difficult to build a culture when people aren’t here. To Cynthia’s point, having those impromptu conversations where you see someone after a meeting or down the hall, and you want to run an idea by them, or talk about a donor, being here in the office enables you to do that. In addition, working remotely is fine as long as you are producing. If you are not producing then I have a difficult time offering that privilege.
Just this morning we had a staff meeting and I talked to them about expectations. One of those expectations is that we need to develop a culture here of belief and confidence. That’s something that has to start internally first before we can extend that beyond our building working with our campus constituencies and our alumni, and friends.
We have to have the confidence here that we can raise X number of dollars. What I’m in the process of doing is trying to discover what is the delta between what we are raising right now and what we can possibly raise. I don’t have the answer to that question yet. So it’s still a work in progress figuring out how a remote work policy might contribute to that, but I’m certain that building the right culture that can help us achieve our goals.
RS: I hear all three of you saying that you can’t build a culture of success without at least having some degree of internal face-to-face interaction. Is that fair?
FA: That’s the way I feel.
JD: Yes, I would agree.
CM: Yes. I also agree. But again flexibility and an open mind is key. I learned a lot in my previous organization when we went to a fully open office model. I didn’t really care about physical office structure per se, but I was thinking, ‘How am I ever going to make this work?’ In the end, we were all together and there was a lot of dialogue, a lot of relationship building and I really loved the dynamic. And I have to say it was the young members on our team who made it all work—they work and think in a different way and we all learned from them.
With remote work what worries me is that potential lack of relationship building. That is, beyond just team members reaching their individual goals, as a manager it’s really hard to know if there’s an issue that could be bubbling up. Somebody outside working remotely might not feel comfortable or in my case they may not feel they know me well enough to bring something directly or to the surface. That’s the thing I fear the most, but I’m going to be as flexible as possible right now and work hard to meet everyone in the way that brings out the best in them.
In the near term, as I mentioned, in Advancement we will probably go to a model of encouraging those in the area to come to the office perhaps two times a week or something along those lines. There are a number on the team, because we have a regional fundraising structure, who work remotely in places like Colorado, LA and NYC and I will make a deliberate effort to travel more and spend time with them where they live.
FA: One of the things everyone needs to understand is that there’s a difference between being equal and having a culture of equity. Everyone is different. One person might need more time out of the office because of child-care issues. Another person may be compromised in terms of their health. Then you’ve got a group of people who actually want to be in the office. They want to come in because they see the value of being able to knock on someone’s door and talk about a donor, or a situation that needs to be dealt with.
So to begin with, leaders need to accept that you can, and you may need to, treat different people differently, and have that flexibility with folks. The challenge is, and I’m going to say this again, I’m okay with flexibility as long as I see production.
RS: I’ve heard people say you can’t guarantee productivity from people who are working remotely. What did you learn with respect to whether in-person versus remote has an impact on productivity?
JD: I love that question. We rely heavily on our metrics, and we often say that our team is empowered to work where they work best, with the understanding that they are being asked to come together for certain key meetings, strategic work, etcetera. They are accountable for hitting not only their own personal metrics, but also their business unit metrics and, of course, the overall Foundation’s goals and objectives.
We have been really purposeful and clear about articulating our expectations of individuals, both in terms of their work and the quantifiable metrics, but also in terms of living by our core values. Trust is one of those, and trust needs to be earned, it needs to be respected. So we put a lot of reliance on the roles of our supervisors. They absolutely know the performance of their direct reports. I can pull metrics reports for the whole team at any moment and get an in-the-moment glance at how people are doing, where there are issues. We’re doing monthly, what we call Pulse Checks, on just what is the pulse of that individual. How are they doing in terms of their performance? How are they doing personally? What are some barriers to their success?
In your opening you mentioned the importance of talking to one another. We’re having very deliberate conversations.
Now, personally I’ll say that I’m more productive at home, and I believe that a lot of our people are more productive at home. When I’m here in the office, it’s more important for me to be out walking around and getting to know our colleagues, saying hello, creating that welcoming environment, getting the pulse of the organization. I keep an open door here so I am often interrupted, and in many ways I welcome that.
So even though I’m not as productive in the fundraising sense when I’m in the office, I believe I’m highly productive in terms of being a leader for the Foundation and my whole governance role. That’s an example of ‘working where you work best,’ that remote work isn’t a single thing for all people, and its role in driving productivity can be different across the various responsibilities of a single individual.
RS: This is a very interesting point that I want to underscore. It sounds like what we are saying as a group, to readers, to the audience, is that trying to evaluate whether people can do their job remotely or not is not so simple.
There are parts of your job you can probably do better, or at least as well, remotely. Then there are parts of your job that you really need to be together with some or all of your colleagues in order to be able to do well.
So we’re looking for you to be able to do your whole job, all elements of your job well and for you to really think what’s the right blend for you given your responsibilities.
JD: Yes. And here, I want to just jump in and say that it’s not just about that individual. It’s also about the whole. I believe that, in some ways, a lot of us can do our roles better remotely or in isolation. But it’s not just about you. It’s about how you are mentoring others, how you are inspiring others, how you are sparking creative thought, how you are working together as a team. Which brings me back to our One Team, One Goal mantra and culture. We are absolutely stronger together and I think we need to walk that talk. We see it happen when we are together.
FA: I’ll piggyback off of what Jen said. I call it Managing While Walking Around. When you are new, like myself in this organization, I’ve been doing a lot of that. My very first week I was here for four days and then we were off to alumni events in Florida. That’s how my first week started and then I’m back, walking around and getting to know people, letting them know that I believe what they are doing is very important. Doing that is important to me because they haven’t had that kind of attention before.
When you think about hybrid and remote work, there is an important leadership dimension to be taken into account. I promised myself – and Ron, I think you and I talked about this before – I promised myself that in taking a role like this, I would lead in the way that I always wanted to be led. There were many occasions where I did not see good leadership in the early years of my career. So I promised myself I would not find myself in that position as a leader. I was going to make sure people knew I was accessible to them. That’s also part of building that culture. So for my role, it’s important to make sure people know I’m accessible, and being in the office is part of that accessibility.
The other thing I’ve shared with my team is that just as I’m holding them accountable, I want them to hold me accountable. If I said I’m going to execute and do something, if I don’t, they need to raise their hand. I could have forgotten about it or maybe it’s something that is above me or whatever the case may be. But I’m as accountable as they are. Again, that’s all part of building a culture.
JD: Another issue we need to address is that, in the philanthropic world, we were so accustomed to events, cultivation, receptions, tours, it was all about a full calendar, frankly. It was lunches, breakfast, presentations, and all of that.
I said in 2020, “Oh my God, I stepped off my hamster wheel!” Now I’m working in a different way – often staring at my laptop. And yet, I still have to accomplish the same end result that all that busyness created.
That’s one silver lining to all of this in my mind. We were given the opportunity to be far more creative, we’re being very purposeful and really impactful with our time. We are still doing events, but we are being so much smarter about them. We’ve promised each other we are not burning ourselves out again. I think 2020 allowed us to open our eyes and go, whoa, I actually don’t like living like this. I’ve done it because I’ve had to, and maybe I haven’t taken a step back to really evaluate it, but today I need to.
Pre-pandemic, we were all just kind of running. So now it feels good to be a lot smarter, examining the “why” of every single thing we do, and ensuring that it’s getting us to a clearly defined end goal.
RS: So if you step back for a moment, what are we learning? What have we learned that we can apply to the definition of workplace for ourselves and our team members? How does rethinking the Workplace specifically enable us to prevent going back to the ‘hamster wheel’ as it used to be?
CM: I’m taking this time to say to everyone, let’s rethink how we do things in perhaps a different and positive way. I’m not saying that anything was being done wrong, but we now have an opportunity to really change things up a bit. Our team is small– 19 people—so we’re a lot smaller than Jen’s and Floyd’s teams—and perhaps a bit more nimble. I’m saying to them, let’s take this time and continue to be creative. If we fail a little bit, we fail. But with risk, there’s more often reward and you’re only going know by trying. That’s the kind of leadership I believe in. Let’s take this moment, when everybody is looking at the world differently, and let’s look at ours differently. Let’s build on what is already working, as well as try different approaches and see what sticks.
FA: One of the things that I encourage is flexibility, whether that’s people spending more time with their kids, or aging parents. One of the things that I’ve said is, if I find out that people are missing out on important life events because of work, that’s not going to make me happy. Whether they are working from home or working here in the office, for example, they know that flexibility exists as long as we are hitting our metrics. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what we are measured on.
CM: As a leader, you definitely want a well-oiled machine, but you also want to lead with compassion. It’s important to take that moment and acknowledge that a given individual is going to deliver, and it may not benefit them to mandate being in the office for a set number of days.
Instead, you’re saying to someone: We have team and organizational goals that we’re trying to deliver on. This is your role in it. Let’s do what we need to do together, while also enabling each individual to be true to themselves and how they work best.
As I said, throughout my career, my teams have been very dispersed. So, I am not always seeing everyone in action on a daily basis or holding them accountable to a set number of hours devoted to work each day. But they sure do deliver. What you have to balance is how that makes other people feel. There needs to be enough of a continuity across the team to support a culture of fairness. That’s the rethink now, how to create a culture in which everyone feels they are part of a team marching forward, that they are each contributing to the organization’s goals and success, but that they can do it at a pace that makes sense to them.
FA: It’s truly a rethink. For example, we have some staff who are here in the office consistently, but they look across the aisle and they see empty cubes and offices. They want to understand why other people may not be in the office. Trying to find that balance between equal and equitable has been a challenge, and we’re actually working on that right now as we speak.
RS: What I like, and what I’m hearing from you in terms of solutions, is first that you’re all tying remote work policies to job performance and outcomes – as opposed to tying it to some random metric like hours on the clock, or numbers of meetings in the office, or whatever it might be. Is that right?
JD: I know I’ve shifted my own thinking around this. I think I was guilty of what I call “waving the busy flag” in my career. Wow, I worked late last night, I did this, this and this! That’s not something to praise anymore. And our organization has worked hard at striking a balance between flexibility and accountability. We want to “do less better.”
Right now we are in a hybrid model, and we’ve asked everybody to come into the office 50% of the time. We’re in the relationship-building field. It’s really important that we build relationships first and foremost with ourselves. Yes, we can do that to some degree virtually, but we also have to do that in person. That is a cultural value and so no one is excused entirely from coming into the office.
Zoom is surprisingly wonderful in connecting people, but it cannot replace that free flow of ideas and the energy of creating something together in person. So, we have scheduled a lot of those types of meetings on Mondays, and most people are in the office now on Mondays. We do that creative work together purposefully and we want people to be in the office for these moments.
We’re also holding people accountable for smart calendar management. Hold time for strategic thinking. Hold time to recharge. No emails after 5:00 p.m. and no emails on the weekend. If you have a personal obligation during the day, it’s fine if you need to work into the evening to stay caught up. But please don’t send a volley of emails to your colleagues on their personal time unless it’s an urgent issue that needs to be addressed right away. You could say we get a lot of use out of the delay-delivery feature on our emails!
This mix of strategies has shifted our culture, helped productivity, and reinforced that we value time to think and recharge, as much as we value hands-on work.
CM: I’ve always said that I do not expect everyone to work the way I do. Preferring to work in the office is just how I am and how I work best to deliver on my goals, and the expectation is that everyone meets theirs, too, however they do it. And going forward, all organizations are going to have to look at these issues. What does a fundraising event look like? How do we onboard new staff and integrate them into the organization and our culture? It won’t work to simply mandate strict rules with no respect for different ways of working and different roles and responsibilities.
RS: What’s clear from this discussion is that culture helps sustain the organization and contributes to the success of remote work, but it’s hard to build a culture without at least some time face-to-face with team members. So, when creating a Workplace policy, it sounds like culture needs to be a key driving purpose. Is that fair?
CM: I’d agree with that. I’ve been thinking, “how does somebody new come in and even understand the culture when you’re working remotely?” It’s basic human nature that most people do want connection. Everyone said during the pandemic that no one will ever hug again, but of course people would. So, I think workplace policies will evolve over time toward reestablishing those connections. At Aspen, we’re taking it step-by-step and not yet putting down mandates. We may get to a more structured policy over time, and that’s what I’m interested in seeing. A more structured policy may very well work as long as we’re intentional about coming together, so we understand each other and our roles within the broader organization. That’s the way culture is built.
FA: I think that’s spot on. But I would add that there are two cultural pieces. There is a culture that you are building by having people come together and be together, but I also need people out the door too, at the same time.
That’s another culture that I’m trying to build. For some people, this pandemic has not put them in the right framework of being able to get out of the room and talk to donors and other stakeholders – people who want, and need, to be seen. Some staff think they can continue to build those relationships virtually, via Zoom. But you’ve got to get out on the road. It’s important, in leading an organization and a team, to know who is traveling, to see the contact reports, to see the solicitations. That’s another culture that needs to be built.
So there is one aspect to the culture and the job that requires being present physically in the office. To share ideas and be creative. To lead and mentor. To be accountable and accessible. The other aspect of the culture and the job is being on the road, out in the wider community of our constituents and donors. You’ve got to do both. You’ve got to walk and chew gun at the same time.
JD: I think that it’s also human nature that when we understand why we are doing something, we’re far more willing to go along with it. When we shifted from fully remote work to the new hybrid policy, it would not have worked to just blast out an email saying that ‘starting March 1st we will all be in the office 50% of the time so work with your supervisor on your exact scheduling.’ That would sound like a dictum. Sharing the why is essential. So in one of our CEO huddles, we explained the new policy in the context of why it’s important that we’re together, and our culture of One Team, One Goal was that number one reason.
RS: Thank you. I resonate with that very much. I think it ties right back to this month’s Workplace article, and back to what we talked about at the beginning.
This rethinking of Workplace needs to be about the why.
And the why is the outcomes we are charged with: helping donors be generous, maximizing the performance of our teams, and helping the organization be successful. A one-size-fits-all approach didn’t really work before, and it’s not going to work now.
Again, thank you for sharing your time and thoughts. It has been very helpful and enlightening.
Curious to learn more? Read the next article in our series here.