Just over a decade ago, I made the transition from the for-profit sector and active board member to serving in the nonprofit sector. When I accepted the role of Executive Director at Frameworks of Tampa Bay, I also applied for the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay’s Nonprofit CEO Leadership Program. At first, I thought I was taking on a lot to being a new CEO while also participating in a year-long leadership program, but it was the best decision I could have made. That program not only gave me the foundation I needed to be an effective and successful CEO, but it also provided the most valuable support resource: relationships with my peers.
During the leadership program, Thomas, Brian McEwen* and I set up a regular breakfast to connect, support, and share. These breakfasts helped me through some of my most challenging decisions and experiences both professionally and personally. They say serving as a CEO is a lonely job, but it doesn’t have to be. Those breakfasts proved to be my place of refuge, laughter, and learning. How lucky was I to learn from some of the region’s most successful nonprofit leaders? Not to mention the bonds of friendship and support that always provided me with a soft place to land when I failed. The laughs we had around that breakfast table fed my soul, and the sounding board grew into an invaluable resource.
This table talk transitioned into an idea with the Nonprofit Leadership Center (NLC). Thankfully, this wonderful nonprofit sector resource saw the need for CEOs to gather and share. NLC launched their CEO Circle, and I was a part of the inaugural group and have remained a member for more than six years. It is a place to share ideas, present challenges, celebrate wins, and wholeheartedly support and develop the collective strength of our sector.
My connection and friendship with Mindy Murphy started in a similar fashion. Mindy is one of those friends and colleagues that really makes you think. She asks the best questions and truly helps you to expand the capacity of your ideas. She grounds these deep discussions in empathy for those we serve and ensures they remain at the forefront of solutions. While we are CEOs, we also wear so many other important hats: spouses, parents, and friends. Mindy has literally been my life preserver as we constantly share how to navigate our challenging careers while fulfilling all our critical roles. She is one of the few people in this world that I am confident without a shadow of doubt would always show up and be there for me, because she always has shown up. I wish that every person in this world had a Mindy Murphy in their life.
All this friendship, support, and strategic thought partners sound great, right? You can have this, too. Here’s how.
Find your tribe. Is your organization a part of a larger network? Are you involved in trade or association groups? Many times, these organizations have groups and established gatherings you can tap into. You can also find them locally. I highly recommend the Nonprofit Leadership Center for their CEO Circles (they are recruiting right now!*). It’s not only a top development resource, but it stages a wonderful annual conference that features network and learning opportunities! And I can’t forget to mention that leadership groups we have at United Way Suncoast with our Women United and Young Leaders Society. Both provide opportunities for meaningful community engagement, learning, and development.
If you can’t find one, create it! I am sure in your community networking; you’ve met some pretty awesome people in our region. Don’t be afraid to form your own collaboration community through these relationships. I am quite confident you will find receptivity as every one of us benefits from these kinds of intentional and supportive forums. You also can informally pull together a group of peers from your existing network or from similar service organizations. I am a part of creating a small group of similar sized local United Way CEOs that share and convene on a regular basis. This has enabled me to build strong relationships with leaders who truly understand my experience. Our sharing of best practices has proven invaluable.
Don’t be afraid to look outside the sector. Connecting and learning doesn’t have to be nonprofit sector based. I am also a proud member of the CEO Council of Tampa Bay. I have a monthly CEO Roundtable of peers from other industries that offer invaluable perspectives from the for-profit world. Their monthly speaker series is second to none as is the leadership among our membership.
Collaboration, not competition. There are many lessons that we’ve learned over the past two difficult years and one of the most important is this: we cannot succeed on our own. We must work collectively to have the biggest impact and success. That’s why United Way Suncoast leads with “United We Rise, United We Win.” As we are riding this wonderful wave of collaboration, let’s keep it going. We are doing this in several big ways including our eviction mitigation efforts and our Quality Childcare Initiative. But also, in smaller ways such as participating in each other’s board retreats and strategic planning efforts, like Thomas and I have done for one another. One question you should always ask yourself: who should you partner with to achieve our mission? Or, even better, who does this best?
The more you give, the more you get. I participate and support our strategic community partners as much as possible. If I am asked to give feedback on a survey, participate in a focus group, join a feasibility study, serve on a panel, speak at event, or provide some sort of support where we are aligned in serving the community, the answer is always a yes (I even make donor introductions). I’m committed to being there for my community colleagues as they have been there for me (and United Way Suncoast). This unending circle of reciprocation only strengthens the bonds we have as a sector.
This really sums up the power of partnerships and the foundation building that you can begin to keep them strong. I know our community is better because we work so thoughtfully to this end, supporting one another.
*Brian McEwen was the beloved CEO of Champions for Children that we lost too soon in 2018. His legacy and impact live on at Champions for Children.
*If you are interested in joining a CEO Circle, email Meriel Martinez at firstname.lastname@example.org.