Act #36: Challenge hierarchy, encourage innovation.
Six months ago I found myself in a peculiar predicament. 39 years old, a decade or so of management and fundraising experience under my belt, and a fierce will to do something useful in the world. And that is when I became the executive director of a small anti-violence non-profit, organization with about 17 employees. The Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center was founded 40 years ago when a group of volunteer women in Lexington, KY had had enough of witnessing rape and sexual assault in their community, and decided to come together to run a 24-hour crisis hotline. The organization grew to cover 17 counties in central Kentucky and expanded to include counseling and intervention services, prevention education, and advocacy.
The organization was founded on the concept of empowerment. The founding mothers were empowered to respond to a community need. Volunteers were empowered to act as salaried staff on the crisis line, and were involved in all aspects of decision-making. Clients were empowered to have a choice in the manner in which they received services and talked about their assault. This is particularly noteworthy when "choice" and "power" are two things that are taken away from victims when they experience sexual violence. The community was empowered to own the problem of sexual violence and become a key player in eradicating it.
So there I was, the new girl, molded and brought up on traditional concepts of organizational management, but with a forward thinking and supportive board and a highly competent staff firmly dedicated to a cause. At the driving seat of an organization whose purpose was so undeniably critical, but whose future and relevancy in today's world had not been confronted in a while.
So what do I do?
I fire all the supervisors. The back story of course is a whole lot more complex and a whole lot of research on best practices of innovative corporate cultures went into this - but in a nutshell, I took the staff and board on a 6-month journey to return to the agency's founding roots of true empowerment. I didnt' really fire anyone. All organizational structure was flattened. Titles were stripped. Everyone was there for one purpose and one purpose alone: To eradicate sexual violence in central Kentucky through counseling, education, and advocacy. We challenged ourselves to connect every action, every decision made, to our core mission. If a program or purchase didn't help to eradicate sexual violence in central Kentucky, by golly, we didn't do it. Budgets and staffing were realigned, and we organized ourselves under an "empowerment model", where decision-making was shared, transparency was essential, and innovation was rewarded. And we lived happily ever after and completely eliminated sexual violence in central Kentucky.
The process, while highly rewarding, has been incredibly difficult and has taken extraordinary amounts of time and energy from all of us. True transparency requires a heck of a lot of communication. Shared decision-making requires time, and structure, and at some point, complete trust in the process. While staff has exploded with innovation - alternative therapy groups, reframing our prevention efforts, outreach to underserved populations, redefining our role as advocates - we have to figure out a sustainable way to fund these programs and continue to meet the most basic needs of our clients. And don't get me started about accountability. Have you ever worked without a boss? At first the freedom to think, to act is liberating, but when the honeymoon phase is over, we've found ourselves needing a little structure, a little guidance, a little feedback would be nice. So we do what we always do when faced with a problem in an empowerment model. We retreat. And talk strategy. And break into small groups with one question in mind: How do we hold ourselves accountable for or work? The result? A comprehensive accountability program that consists of individual accountability plans, small accountability teams that meet quarterly with each staff person to review those plans, job descriptions, and agency priorities (always staying connected to the mission of course), and a structured conversation to empower each employee to stay focused and to evaluate his/her work.
Sometimes I wake myself up in the middle of the night thinking to myself, what on earth have I done? I've had some amazing bosses in my lifetime. Supervision can be good, right? And then I realize that our journey has only begun, and empowerment in the truest form is something we all should strive to attain, not only in our work settings, but in our lives and in our communities. So the 17 of us - make that 18 (in our empowerment model we were able realign our staffing and budget to hire a new therapist when we collectively addressed our most pressing issue, a therapy waiting list), are pushing forward with this crazy notion of empowerment, because we know that in the end, it is the only way that we can do more, serve more, impact more, prevent more. We know that if we can empower each other, there is hope in empowering survivors, and there is hope in empowering everyone else around us to take a stand against sexual violence.
For more information on the awesome work that these gals do at the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center, please visit www.bluegrassrapecrisis.org. We empower you to join the movement.