THE CEO’S CHAIR: WHAT IT’S REALLY LIKE TO RUN A NATIONAL NONPROFIT

View from the CEO'd chair with Dana Marlowe

Episode aired Oct. 21, 2020: View From Above

Dana Marlowe is the Founder and Executive Director of I Support The Girls, a national nonprofit. Although we’re sure we could do a better job than the boss, after a day in their seat we probably would be happy going back to our regular job. In this episode Dana discusses

  • what causes her to lose sleep at night
  • how to juggle numerous stakeholders on a daily basis
  • why you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room
  • the importance of having a sounding board and 
  • the commitment, drive and passion necessary to be successful over the long haul.

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us the founder of a national organization, my friend Dana Marlowe. Dana, how you doing today?

Dana: Hi! How are you? Thanks for having me.

Ephraim: A pleasure to have you. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Dana Marlowe can turn a moment into a movement. What began with her spontaneous question of ‘what can I do with my old bras?’ led to the creation of I Support The Girls, a nonprofit organization that provides a source of dignity, self-esteem, empowerment and support to girls and women experiencing homelessness, via the donation of bras and feminine hygiene products. In her tenure as the executive director and founder at I Support The Girls Dana has worked behind the scenes and beyond borders not only facilitating donations but also visiting countless shelters to connect with women experiencing homelessness, hearing their stories and using these experiences to become a stronger advocate. Through Dana’s leadership, over 10 million products have been donated in the last five years. Dana’s efforts have been showcased in numerous media outlets, including the New York Times, Associated Press, Yahoo News, The Today Show, Cosmopolitan and NPR.

I Support The Girls is Dana’s passion project. She’s also the founder and principal partner of Accessibility Partners, an IT company making technology accessible for people with disabilities. Dana promotes equal access to technology and full inclusion of people with disabilities in technology usage. 

When she is not sorting tampons or striving for inclusivity, she can be found at playgrounds with her sons, walking her silver labrador retriever or attending early morning dance raves.

What Keeps A CEO Awake At Night

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss the view from the CEO’s chair. So let’s dive right in. Dana, as founder and executive director of a national nonprofit, what causes you to lose sleep at night?

Dana: I would say that that has actually changed over the development of the nonprofit. So what caused me to lose sleep in year one and year two is different as we are now in year five, so I think that that changes. Where I am right now, things like long-term funding keeps me awake at night, things like volunteer satisfaction and making sure that we’re somehow able to support the 35% increase for our products from social service agencies because they keep pouring in. And so those kinds of things keep me up at night nowadays.

Juggling Stakeholders

Ephraim: Got it. So in the day-to-day, you have to liaise with staff, board, donors, corporate partners, volunteers. How do you juggle interacting with so many different groups of people on a daily basis?

Dana: The people that are either in the inner circle of I Support The Girls or tangentially around I Support The Girls are an incredible group of humans. I have my phone on all the time. My family probably thinks I’m on my phone way too often, whether I’m on calls or texting, but it’s a constant. If the phone rings and I’m not in a meeting and I’m available, I answer the phone so that I’m able to support any of those stakeholders that you just mentioned. Or I have meetings that are scheduled from early morning to evening on my calendar, meetings with employees and team members and volunteers and board members and corporate partners and agency partners and it’s just kind of non-stop. 

 Actions To Ensure Smooth Operations

Ephraim: Got it. So let’s go to today’s actionable item. What three actions or decisions… what three actions or decisions must a nonprofit CEO take to ensure that the overall operation of the organization is running smoothly?

Dana: Number one I would say is to surround yourself with people smarter than you and more skilled in a lot of different  areas. Hands down that’s got to be number one. I’m never the smartest person in the room and I think it’s really important to hear from people who are experts or who  have significantly more experience than I do. So the first I would say, one of the key actions or decisions that a CEO of a nonprofit needs to make is make sure they’re  surrounded by incredible people on their team and in their circle.

Number two I would say is to have your own sounding board of folks that  are outside of your organization, who are familiar with you, who are familiar with your job experiences, your character, skill set, what makes you you. But they’re not in the daily nitty-gritty of the organization and use them as a sounding board as your organization grows and develops and changes. Both of those are about people. I would say one is making sure  you’ve hired and supported your organization with an incredible diverse team and the second one is to make sure as a CEO you have a really solid sounding board of people who know you well, who are not afraid to give you heartfelt, serious, important feedback along the way. 

The third thing that I feel a nonprofit  CEO needs to take to ensure the overall operations are running smoothly… this is a hard one, because those first two came really easy to me, because those made a lot of sense and they’ve been… they’ve worked for me personally. I know a lot of different CEOs have a laundry list of different actions and decisions. The third one is sometimes you just have to make a decision, even if it’s not going to be the popular opinion but just to keep a program, a project, a dialogue going and I think that can apply for anyone, at any level, in any organization quite honestly is, don’t focus and heads down like go so deep and heads down on one decision that has to be made. Just make a decision and go with it and stick to your guns, as well researched as you can make that decision and just move forward, because that’s how you’re going to be able to push the organization forward and operations running smoothly.

Ephraim: Excellent. Just as a quick follow-up, does the sounding board, the people who are your sounding board, are they fellow nonprofit CEOs or is it a wide range?  

Dana: Some are, it’s a great question. When I first accidentally started this nonprofit, one of the very very first things I did  when I realized this was so much bigger than me and that it was going to have potentially national and then international reach- which it does now- is I set up 30-minute meetings with CEOs of national and international nonprofits and NGOs at that time, some of them have moved on some are still there and pick their brain and I didn’t want to know what made things successful. I said I need 30 minutes of your time to tell me all the things, the mistakes you’ve made so that hopefully I can learn from them and not make them. I literally spent 30 minutes with half a dozen CEOs doing that.

My sounding board is comprised of some childhood friends who know me really well, so those are the folks who really can like dig in and they’re not afraid to say anything to me, to other national CEOs of organizations, to folks in federal government high up in federal government and other folks who have kind of senior VP positions and CEOs of companies. 

Can You Do A Better Job Than The Boss?

Ephraim: Excellent. All employees think they could be the boss and do a better job than their boss. What’s one thing employees don’t know that might make them reconsider wanting to be the boss?

Dana: I think for a lot of employees many of them could bring a lot of stuff and do what I do much better. Totally. There has to be a level of commitment and drive that you are willing to push forward, even on the darkest days, even when you’re supremely busy, even when your personal life, your family life, your professional life is not aligning. There has to be a drive or a want that’s going to push you up the hill in that sisyphean way, with the rock and the hill and the ball and the you know. Not everybody has that. But I would say  the deluge of communication for an employee who wants a 40 hour a week job, who’s like I want to get paid this amount or I’d like to be paid even more but I want to do that and get paid a weekly paycheck or by-weekly or monthly, whatever the case may be, but I really only want to work 40 hours a week, I want like that eight to five, nine to five, nine to six whatever the parameters are.

I think  the surprising thing is my email box doesn’t stop and there are nights where I’m sometimes working and it’s like midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m., I get to sleep, my kids up in the middle  of the night, right? I have two kids. Somebody had a stomach ache and  they needed, you know, they needed parents to attend to them. Or the God forsaken owl that lives in the trees behind my house, which sounds all like nature and beautiful but the owl’s pitch, it wakes up my dog every single day at 3:30AM so now the dog and the owl are like having this inter-species communication, waking up everyone. It doesn’t matter because I still have  to be up at 6 a.m hitting the ground running, getting the kids ready and doing my work and think that for employees that think you could do a better job than  me, several of them could and maybe they’d be doing a great job. They could be better than me for a week, a month, a quarter but sustaining it long term, you really have to have that passion and drive internally.

Management Style

Ephraim: Got it. So you’re not only executive director of a nonprofit, you’re also the founder of Accessibility Partners, a for-profit business. Do you have a different management style for each organization or is it the same?

Dana: So it started out the same I would say at both, right? So Accessibility Partners has been around we’re going to be  closing in on 12 years here soon. And while my management style is the same, I’ve had the same amazing team that has grown with the company and they need less management, they need less oversight, people know what they’re doing, they’re reporting to others, I don’t have to be in on some of the daily day-to-day conversations for big picture projects, as I used to eight years ago. I support the girls is the same. We have a great team but we keep getting hit sometimes with new projects or new programs or new corporate interests and I am still involved in those and so I’m a little bit more hands-on I would say on the I Support The Girls side of the house than I am on the day-to-day of Accessibility Partners. From a management style perspective. I mean otherwise I’m still me. So I have high expectations but I’m  also chill in a lot of other ways and I think there’s some kind of balance in there.

Learn More About Dana

Ephraim: Excellent. Let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about you. Most rewarding aspect of your work with I Support The Girls?

Dana: Hearing from the women and girls and trans folks receiving the products. When they write back emails to us, they don’t know necessarily that I’m seeing them. I see every single one on how much the gift of the new bras or sports bras or mastectomy bras or menstrual hygiene products for several months meant to them and why it means so much. I would say that’s the most rewarding.

Ephraim: Excellent. If you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Dana: That large foundations and grantors would give unrestricted dollars to help nonprofits pay for G&A and operational expenses.

Ephraim: Yeah, cosign on that one. Tell us about someone in your family who inspires you?

Dana: Gosh there’s a lot I take a lot of learning from the loving and compassion  and caring that my mom has, the patience and thoughtfulness that my Aunt Penny has, the phrase that my stepdad taught me when I was a teenager that ‘everything counts.’ I really recognize that day in and day out. The intestinal fortitude of my brother. I think there’s bits and pieces of everybody that I learned from and inspire me regularly.

Ephraim: I love that. Facebook, love it or hate it?

Dana: Oh love it. Huge time suck but I love it but you should be asking about TikTok, I’m just saying.  

Ephraim: Go ahead Dana.TikTok, love it or hate it?

Dana: Love but not but not for children. I think a lot of the language and the innuendo and the music song choice in the background is not for young children.

Ephraim: OK Boomer but otherwise I get it.  

Dana: Excuse me. I’m the one that’s on the app.

Ephraim: True.

Dana: Karen.

Ephraim: What’s your definition of friendship?

Dana: People who are there for each other, who support one another even if you don’t necessarily agree with something your friend is doing for yourself but you support them in their path for themselves. People who will answer that text at 6AM and not think like it was like an accidental, you know, a butt dial kind  of thing and you know is everything okay. 

My close friends, we can talk  about anything and everything to the point where sometimes we’re on the phone for like three-four hours and we’ve really discussed nothing of merit or value but we had a good time and so I think that all encompasses a lot of strong friendships.

Ephraim: Excellent. So lastly let’s turn the table. You get to ask me a surprise question. I have no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Dana: So if I was really good people out there in podcast land or YouTube world, I would have prepared in advance. I typically like to prepare in advance and I could come up with a a real whopper, a real doozy that you guys are like, gosh this is what we want to know from Ephraim. But unfortunately I haven’t  had a moment’s piece so I’m going to think of something on the fly but also, because Ephraim and I know each other for many years, I realize that I need to make it above  board and clean. I would like to know what’s it like for you living as an orthodox man in Jerusalem, talking… because you’re so familiar with what I  Support The Girls does, when you’re at these dinner  tables of friends who don’t know you as well  and you start talking about tampons and bras, how does that go over for you?

Ephraim: First of all I’m definitely not using certain words or certain terminology. Keeping it… you mentioned it with TikTok with clean so I’ll say the same thing here, even though it’s a bit different. But for them watering  it down as it were, I’m not talking about… I’m talking more on the general side of what they’re getting, whether that’s undergarments or whether that’s other products that a woman would need, as opposed to what a man might need. That they can understand and it kind  of gets… I can definitely tell it gets looks, without a question.

The reason it gets looks though is for two things which had happened to me as well: Until I learned about it from you, I don’t think about these things. Yes I’m a man but when I’ve presented this to a lot of women, they also don’t necessarily think about it until you tell them and suddenly, oh that’s true because a woman living on the streets doesn’t have access to feminine hygiene products, she doesn’t have access to new  bras, new underwear, whatever it is. So you’re kind of opening their eyes to something that wasn’t… that they didn’t think about and these are also things that certainly in certain circles of the Jewish world are not discussed publicly. These are things we only discuss privately and even if we discuss it privately, it’s super super private. So to discuss it at a dinner table is not the norm, which is why I’m very careful as to who my audience is and knowing, like any type of communications and marketing, know thine audience. So I know my audience. If I can speak freely about it I will speak freely about it. If I know I can’t, then I’m very careful about what I’ll say and what I won’t say and let them make their own conclusions. but the spiel is always the same. These are people who need it, there’s a need out there, homelessness affects every city, state, country, no matter where you live and the fastest growing population is girls and women. They need these products. End of discussion. Full stop. So you might not think about it, you may not talk about it publicly but it exists and it definitely… I’ve done the research, some of the research here in Israel, it exists in the Jewish community as well. This is not something outside of the Jewish community. It exists everywhere, every religion, every place. So I have no problem talking about it but you know I have to know my audience and know how I talk about it. Let’s put it that way.

Dana: Yeah sure. Final follow-up. Not including Fenway Park, favorite baseball stadium in the world?

Ephraim: Not including Fenway. Baseball stadium, there’s a lot. Wow. I’m just trying to think of the older parks I used to go to. Well Skydome in Toronto because I lived in Toronto for so many years and every time I go back, I will visit Skydome. I happen to love Skydome as a stadium especially for two reasons: One the CN Tower rises right above it, so when the dome is open you’ve got this beautiful picture at night of the CN Tower. The second thing is I’ve actually been  inside once- it was the first retractable roof in the world sports stadiums- I was there when it was outdoors once and then it started raining. It takes 15 minutes to close the roof and suddenly  you’re in a dome and it is a totally different atmosphere. It’s very cool. So Skydome would have to be a not a close second because Fenway will always win. But Skydome in Toronto.

Dana: That’s why I removed it from the list because I knew that was going to be a slam dunk.

Ephraim: Yep. Thank you very very much for appearing on the podcast. I encourage  everyone to learn more about I Support The Girls via their website, iSupportTheGirls.org and follow  them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. You can also connect with Dana on Twitter at @DanaMarlowe. Dana thanks very very much for joining us today. 

Dana: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me. Take care.

Ephraim: Pleasure. Have a good day.