By Marcus Lorenzo Penn and Heidi Majano
The current season of our Peaceful World Foundation (PWF) conversations came to a beautiful close in early May with a timely discussion relating to the personal and organizational seasonal changes we encounter. The weather was bright and sunny and so was the future outlook for many who attended. Spring is a season of blooming, blossoming and growth so this conversation and time of the year were a perfect opportunity for people to reflect and share on their journeys of growth. We also had a full diverse cadre of people and organizations represented at the table this morning.
Kicking off our breakfast conversation with self-inquiry, we all answered the question, “How do you personally respond to change?” Starting us off was our guest facilitator, Melissa Nelson, PhD President/CEO of The Cultural Conservancy (TCC) who also brought her organization’s Chief Operating Officer (COO), Anthony Reese. Her response was treating change carefully like a flower, yet also to ride out the waves of change like a surfer. Representatives from Art Seed spoke to embracing change by being ‘open to it’ and recognizing it is a constant part of life and they actively look for it.
Our PWF Board President addressed change knowing the older he gets the more set in his ways he can be and thus he must embrace change more intentionally. TCC’s COO shared the difference of his personal approach to change as “grudgingly” contrasts with his organizational approach as “planfully”. Our own PWF Program Director endearingly spoke of change and how she must ‘trust it’ as it comes up in her life. A nurse in attendance added that she meets change as peacefully as she can, while doing meditation and staying in contact with like minded individuals helps her stay grounded through the process.
A representative for the Alliance for Traditional Arts observed that change is a motivating force for them and they are aware of staying connected to that constant of change. At the same time they spoke to having agency and a sense of ownership with change as it comes, while adapting to abrupt changes even through the frustration that arises. A woman from Outward Bound gave a balanced look at change as it relates to when being in control of it or not. When in control of change she is excited, yet when she is not in control of change she is frustrated. Her best approach, she shared, is to manage it even as it can be uncomfortable by not taking others’ reactions to change personally and simply talk it out as a team.
The Executive Director of Sunday Friends shared with us all that he could not personally live without change and thus likes change as a means to evolve as a person. I closed out this icebreaker portion of our discussion by adding that I do my best to intentionally choose to ‘feel or lean into change’ amidst a tendency to be averse to it.
After our introspective introductions, we gave the reigns over to our guest facilitator Melissa from TCC and ‘leaned into’ our Breakfast Conversation topic reflected in this question:
Facilitating this question with our group was quite timely for Melissa because it was happening at a time of great change, planned and unplanned, within her own organization. She described The Cultural Conservancy as a native led indigenous organization that’s been around over 30 years and been under her leadership for over 25 years located in the San Francisco Presidio. As they are embracing a season of change, her organization brought on their first Chief Operating Office (whom she brought to the conversation) to assist navigating the intricacies of their growth and change process.
She revisited their mission statement which involves protecting and revitalizing indigenous organizations while on indigenous lands and to protect land and culture on their own terms. In regards to Melissa’s background, her mixed heritage of Native American and Norwegian motivates her personally and professionally amidst balancing the colonized and colonizer histories within her background.
She went on to describe the growth journey of TCC from revitalizing native languages, building canoes, engaging in legal land battles and responding to community needs. They have now begun to focus more on food security and sovereignty as well as media to give exposure to stories of marginalization and amplify the voice and vision of the elders and the land sites they represent. These expanded programs have brought more staff in the form of Program Directors for each program with their total budget going from $500,000 to $2,000,000 in just 2 years. So Melissa has definitely been ‘in it’ as far as organizational growth goes.
How did she do it while feeling the change and staying with indigenous principles and values? One of the first things she did was to expand the international reach of the organization incorporating dealings with Canada and native Hawaiians serving as an intermediary ‘re-granting’ organization, while building relationships within an Indigenous Funding Movement to Decolonize. One of the second things she did was to have more executive leadership, hence her bringing on a new COO. The challenge, she noted, was to still acknowledge and incorporate the “Non-profit Industrial Complex” and hierarchy of governance during their growth and expansion. This was a delicate balance though intense at the same time.
Melissa described TCC as a ‘land-based organization’ doing expansive work through: Programs, Infrastructure, Staff and Land holdings. She was asked by an attendee what it meant to be a ‘land-based organization’ and she responded saying it reflects them being Native-led to bring a restored connection to ancestral lands with partnerships to indigenous locals. The concept of ‘mission drift’ also came up during our conversation meaning a veering away from the original values of an organization amidst change and growth. Melissa addressed this with her organization saying that she does not believe in growth for growth’s sake and is now seeing a sweet spot in her organization’s offerings with the mission and vision intact while still having trimming and pruning of certain aspects of their offerings.
Diving in deeper into the topic, our Program Director Heidi asked the question, “How do you recognize the signals that your organization is at a place of necessary change and growth?”
The Executive Director of Sunday Friends, an organization dedicated to ending the generational cycle of poverty, gave a multi-faceted response to looking at the growth process of organizations. He stated oftentimes there is a steady growth curve of an organization and then a plateau. At this point, the first step is to become conscious of it by some metric of either revenue, attendance, or performance. The second step, he states, is a push for other goals related to instilling new fresh energy into the organization through a renewal or revision of the mission. And the third step, as he puts it, is on ‘the other side of the hump’ where a cultural change is observed throughout the organization.
This was a very helpful stratified look to which Melissa at TCC responded by saying her organization had to evolve from a grassroots way of operation to a more hierarchical way of operation with more clarified accountability to prevent possibilities of work abuse. She mentioned the transition point of her organization adopting a more “Non-profit Industrial Complex” way of doing things. She also ensured that this process did not result in a loss of values but rather a restructuring to a new setup to better serve the core values.
Melissa shed more light on how she incorporated the use of coaches and facilitators to aid in the change process of her organization. Particularly, she mentioned the use of the ‘Bridges Transition Model’ which differentiates change, that happens on its own, with transition, that is a chosen and intentional process. This was very clarifying for all of us at the table upon reflections of change in our own personal and professional lives. She went on to illustrate the 3 step evolution process of organizations from the “Old” to the “Messy Middle” to the “New”. It was noted that the “Messy Middle” is where the reactions, triggers and emotions come out regarding potential job loss or more job freedom.
It was at this point that Melissa’s COO, Anthony chimed in noting organizational change can bring fears of ‘losing the identity of who the organization is’. However, he said the ‘trick’ is to use change to reconfirm who you are as an organization. The challenge that arises, he stated, is when an organization has not already clearly identified who they are and thus it forces them to define and clarify what they represent. The difference between a great and a good organization is that a great one knows exactly what it’s identity is and for good one’s it’s not so clear.
According to TCC’s COO the approach to embracing organizational growth and change revolves around examining the pillars of culture within the organization. He defined those pillars as:
- How you make decisions or plans
- How you communicate those decisions or plans
- How you assess the progress of those decisions or plans
- How you evaluate the individuals carrying out those decisions or plans
Ultimately TCC’s goal is to ‘Systematize and Indigenize’ through carrying out its mission. The question was then asked, “What is the best time frame or frequency for an organization to reexamine its mission, vision, goals, etc.?” Anthony’s response was that if the reexamination takes place too frequently they it doesn’t give enough time to allow efforts to take root. However, he recommended:
- Every 5 years create a new strategic plan
- Every 3 year renew the strategic plan
- Every year evaluate goals
This process was symbolic of the tilling of soil so visions can take root.
Our Board President, Dave brought up a good point regarding organizations that are very ‘founder oriented’ and what to do when that founder leaves or passes away. That is where we at the Peaceful World Foundation now find ourselves, as we look to keep fresh the vision of our late founder Sami Sunchild to hold mindful conversations while financially supporting organizations in their peace building efforts. Melissa re-emphasized the importance of creating succession plans for those deeply ‘founder oriented’ organizations and when waiting too long it can become ‘the elephant in the room’ to those around the founder as they cannot pretend it is not happening.
Lastly, she shared how these moments in the tenure of an organization are an invitation to be courageous and have safe spaces to share ideas and visions in conversations over what is and is not working as a healthy means of airing things out. In other words it is important to practice ‘courageous conversations’ to bring about a desired change and transition into a greater representation of a vision.
It was quite apropos to have our final Breakfast Conversation of the season conclude speaking to the importance of having ‘courageous conversations’. That is a huge part of what we do here at the Peaceful World Foundation, practice courageous conversations to bring about and spread a greater peace throughout our societies. May we all grow well and prosper.