My Life-Changing Experience at AFP’s Leadership Cohort

Five days before the deadline, I came across an email in the abyss that is my inbox for an opportunity to attend a leadership cohort hosted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals Global Leadership Institute. I didn’t know why at the time, but I felt like this was something I needed. So I scrambled, found some amazing human beings who supported me to write references, and submitted it right on time.

Shortly after I was accepted into the program, and then I received a coveted scholarship from the AFP Foundation for the program fee – something I am beyond grateful for. I am also immensely grateful to OAW’s Board of Directors for finding the value in this experience for me and approving travel expenses (and to AFP Ozarks Region for assisting with some expenses too). Little did we know just how important this experience would be for me personally, and for OAW as a whole.

The weeklong encounter was held in Arlington, Virginia at AFP headquarters at the beginning of November, with immersive lessons, workshops, and interactions. There were 22 of us in attendance from all over the country, in a variety of fundraising positions for our home organizations. I went into this experience with an obvious expectation that it would be impactful, sure, but had no idea just how deeply it would rock and dissolve fixed mindsets I didn’t even know I held.

The cohort lessons covered some of the following topics (and more):

  • Self-Expression in Leadership
  • Reflecting on CliftonStrengths (and Shadows)
  • Examination of and Building the Ideal Culture for an Organization
  • Managing Complex Change
  • Growth Mindset and Self-Awareness
  • Ethical Leadership
  • Effective Communication as a Leader

The depth by which we examined our individual career goals and personal brands/missions allowed for everyone to be authentically themselves. This shared experience created deep bonds within the small group of attendees, with all of us still communicating on a daily basis (we’ve even had our first virtual gathering). It was so refreshing to walk into a space after the first day with the confidence to be fully me and fully accepted. This can be difficult to find with new connections, especially in the professional realm. We spent time together even outside of the cohort learning hours. One of my favorite evenings was when a group of us went to see the D.C. monuments lit up at night together.

One exciting change that came from this experience was a revamping of the On Angels’ Wings mission statement. For the last 10 years, our focus has been on the photography sessions we provide to families, and then the support that follows. But the reality is that our organization is support focused, and therefore our mission statement should be too. I brought my learned insight on this to the OAW Board and it was unanimously voted to change the mission statement to read as follows:

OAW provides ongoing support and grief recovery services for families with a medically-fragile child or who lose a child at birth (regardless of race, ethnicity, class status, religion, or orientation). Services begin with free therapeutic photography, and continued mental health and wellness support is provided for the entirety of a qualifying child and/or family’s journey, all free of charge.

Another aha moment came on Thursday, the last full day of classes, when the 22 attendees were split up into two groups and participated in a 4-hour role playing workshop. We were assigned positions in a made-up nonprofit and given a problem to solve together. Our group stuck to the hierarchy provided, while the other group disregarded it and worked as one cohesive unit. Following the task, we provided feedback to each other, and our team members expressed displeasure at how the hierarchy felt excluding.

As one of the team members assigned to a managerial position in the challenge, this feedback impacted me in a profound way. I recognized that the empath in me has a very difficult time finding balance between being relational versus being managerial with my team and volunteers. Often the relational aspect keeps me from managing, and vice versa. From the beginning of this organization 10 years ago, I have been intimately involved in every detail and, while I have a team in place now that I’m confident in and have been delegating much more effectively, I’m still so invested in every individual volunteer photographer and recipient, that I spend much of my time each day navigating those relationships rather than caring for the tasks on my Executive Director to-do list.

This realization has led to some big and important changes within OAW, and confirms some things we were already working toward to get a number of administrative tasks off my plate so that I can fully focus on growing our organization through the necessary connections to do so. We will be creating two more part-time managerial roles and working to fundraiser for their salaries. Michelle Slavens, current VP and Support Coordinator, will be stepping up as Director of Support and taking on a lot of support strategies that I was previously overseeing. Connie Bumb, current Services Coordinator, will become Director of Services and eventually take full responsibility for managing volunteer photographers and arranging photo sessions for the organization. Both are very excited to take on these responsibilities and assist me in the day-to-day workings of the organization.

Anyone that goes to a massage therapist may have experienced that moment when he/she locates a sensitive, knotted muscle and must work it out. It hurts in the moment, and you strain against the pain, but you also endure it willingly because you know that, after the massage therapist is done, you will feel so much better. That is what this leadership cohort experience was like for me. Some of the lessons learned revealed things in me and our organization’s culture that were painful to deal with, but now that I’m on the other side of it, working to make positive changes, there is this blissful feeling of relief and excitement at what’s to come.

I expected to make some friends and learn a few new things. I did not anticipate the depth of relationships I would build with total strangers in such a short time, or the breadth by which this experience would literally change my life. The AFP Leadership Cohort taught me not only how to lead better, but how to take care of myself in this philanthropic work better. I discovered fixed mindsets that I didn’t know were holding me back, and have stepped fully into what my role should be for the success of my organization. I am now equipped with the tools to confidently be my authentic self, lead with grace, and function in a growth mindset. I won’t do it perfectly every time, but I can do better tomorrow if I learn with each step forward – because the Leadership Cohort taught me how to do that more effectively. Thank you AFP Global and the team of people that put this together. It was, quite literally, a life changing experience that far exceeded my expectations.

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