Stephanie Blackburn Freeth
Conversation with Stephanie Blackburn Freeth, Nonprofit Strategist and Founder of Adaptive Alternatives LLC
On Her Framework for Non-Profit Strategy & Mission Impact
April 25, 2018
1. What is your business?
In 2014 I started a practice where I consult with non-profits about strategic planning, fundraising, and leadership development. According to a study done by the Concord Leadership Group, about half of the country’s non-profits don’t have a strategic plan to help guide their organization. After years of working on the non-profit side before and after graduating from business school, I decided that I wanted to create a business to help nonprofits adapt and thrive through better planning.
I created a methodology called The Nonprofit Strategy Tango that has seven steps. I walk my clients through a series of steps to understand their situation, gather stakeholder feedback, and update their mission, vision, and values for the organization. Then we get into financial sustainability before developing the remaining strategic plan content such as goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics. For each of these steps, it’s all about creating alignment. For example, I often go deep on the group’s financial sustainability to define a business model that’s going to marry their assets and aspirations. Making sure that the outcomes of the plan are measurable is also an important step towards the end of the process.
I’m currently working on developing ways to share my methodology with more organizations because my time is finite. I’ve written a workbook version of The Nonprofit Strategy Tango that I’m currently testing with the clients. The workbook is designed for organizations who are ready to do some work on their own. Next, I will develop video modules for this content, and I’m looking at creating a membership-based website.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
I had been working in non-profits my whole career, and after I had my second child, I was doing VP-level fundraising for the local community foundation. While this was a great fit in many ways, I came down with mono and got really sick. I tried to keep working full-time, but I needed to step aside to completely recover, which took about a year. As I was considering my next career step, I realized that I love the steep learning curves of working with different organizations. I thought it was a good time to give consulting a try but on my own terms.
Now that I’m four years in, I’ve developed a mostly referral business, and it has gotten to the point where the incoming referrals are actually more than I can handle. Many of the board members that I work with are involved with multiple non-profit boards, and so they refer me to their other organizations when they need a strategic planner. That’s been a really nice way to generate new business.
There’s a concept about optimization versus maximization that has resonated with me as I was deciding to build my consulting practice. I’ve always been an achiever who wanted to maximize everything I did to the best of my ability. To be able to maximize something you must be laser-focused on you and your productivity. Once you have a family you have to optimize, meaning all the pieces have to work together and one can’t override the others. So now I’m looking to optimize flexibility, working with smart and mission-driven people, and having an impact on my clients’ organizations and those they serve. My trade-off was the money. Now that I’m at four years in, I am able to generate enough margin where I can take a salary. I’ve got a ton of flexibility, which helps me to pick up my kids at 3:30 when I want to, but I’m also working at night until 11:30 pm sometimes to stay on top of client work.
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
For me, because I got sick, it was more of a process of elimination. I knew what was not working anymore so why not try this other way. It really was a blessing because I’m happier, and I don’t mind working late or weekends because it’s stuff I want to do. When I had a nine-to-five work schedule, and the kids were younger, it was a lot easier because they would be engaged at daycare until 6 pm. Once they were older ages, they started going to sports practices, and with this stage in their lives, I’ve actually found that I want to be available to them in the afternoons. Working a traditional work day and trying to be involved left me feeling constantly overwhelmed. I just could no longer do the nine-to-five full-time thing in the office. Those schedules were not built for parents who are juggling so many different things. I think our generation is still grappling with the legacies of a one-parent worker culture.
Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a famous Atlantic article about how women can’t have it all. I had the opportunity to hear her speak at Princeton, and she was speaking about the same subject from a different angle. She was speaking about how, “We taught our daughters to live in their father’s world, but we didn’t teach them respect for their mother’s world.” I do all the things many women do across the globe each day. I cook the food, keep the house going, keep things organized while working but I have a career on top of that traditional domestic work. So, it’s no wonder we’re all looking for more flexible solutions where we can call the shots with our time.
But I don’t see wanting to go back to a traditional workplace. I found my niche, and I’m not looking back. There is a whole ecosystem of small business owners that help each other out. I mean, even locally here Linette Lao of Invisible Engines developed my website, and she is an amazing professional who also has young kids. So, you’ve got all these smart people with talent who can get stuff done quickly, and they’re efficient and they want to help each other out. That part is really heartening that there is an ecosystem, you don’t really see it when you’re not in it but there is the support system that is out there if you look for it and participate in helping others too.
4. Was there ever a particularly tough time that in retrospect was a priceless learning moment?
I am realizing more and more that the areas where I get stuck professionally are the biggest opportunities. When I can’t make something work on behalf of a client, then it eventually leads me to some new insight that’s far more powerful than I anticipated. But the key is just getting through that sticking point and realizing the value in the struggle.
One of my influences in making that shift is Bruce Schneider’s book, “Energy Leadership.” My executive coach, Nan Reed Twiss, coached me using this framework. Schneider’s work describes seven levels of energy. The first two are catabolic or destructive and then the other five are constructive energy. So the point is that you’ve got one level of energy where a person thinks, “I lose, I’m the victim, I’m not confident.” If you’re frightened, you want to flee. Then level two is “I win, and you lose.” It is really about conflict, feeling chewed up by conflict, and how people find ways to avoid it.
But then level three is the first level of anabolic energy, “I win and hopefully, you win too.” This is where cooperation and trust happens, and it’s where forgiveness happens. So, in an organization, you have got to have people at least at level three because this is how an organization works towards shared goals. Then level four is about the other person winning. Level five and six are the most interesting to me because five is everyone wins and six is everyone wins all the time. Then seven is that winning is just an illusion.
For me, the shift has been thinking about how everyone can win. It really helps me when I walk into a meeting that I’m going to facilitate, that I know will have a lot of varying (or often conflicting) perspectives. I walk in with that intention it’s not about me–it’s about how can everyone win.
5. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your business? How so?
My husband and I had to work out the money, and I am always grateful that he is such a supportive partner. It really helped me out when my husband said he could cover the household costs for us as I started the business. He was my biggest champion then and still is today. His support allowed me to embark on the long arc of building a business. We agreed that he would continue to work now, and then later I would hopefully be in the position to support the family later. It was such a gift to have the ability not to worry about bills immediately. There’s a difference between generating revenue and making enough margin to live on. So that experience as a small business owner also helps me understand the perspective of non-profits. I try to make my pricing as affordable as possible to help the most groups.
6. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
I’m proud that my business keeps growing. I’m excited about my book. I’m still testing it, and so far it is about 160 pages. I’m sending chapters to clients as needed. I may self-publish it to have copies to hand out to clients. I’ve written it as a companion to my consulting, and I don’t really see it as a book that someone might be able to purchase on Amazon. It gets kind of technical, but I do have exercises that are intended to replicate some of my one-on-one consulting. If the organizations are willing to dig in, they can do some work on their own to lower the cost of my consulting.
My hurdle is that I am I’m finding that people need more facilitation. So, I don’t know entirely if I can make this work, but I am thinking about offering online courses. My vision is to assign reading materials to an online group, let’s say read Chapter 4 about financial sustainability, and then the group would come to a video meeting, and we would talk about it in a group setting.
7. What are some of your current challenges?
Scaling growth. But what I’m finding is the organizations that have the least ability to pay, have the most complex issues, and they really need facilitation. So that’s been the rub, and I’ve been trying to figure out how I can help them. I’ve been looking at different models of online courses and webinars and that kind of thing. I haven’t cracked it yet, but I have written it, so it is next on the to-do list.
8. Have there been positive or negative impacts on your family and work/life balance once your business was off the ground?
Yeah and I’m enjoying this now. I didn’t want to go hire somebody to raise my kids. I know that my son and daughter benefit from me being around in the afternoon, in particular. The older my kids get, the more that’s the case.
9. Do you use social media for marketing your business?
My blog is my main social media presence. It’s been fascinating because I wrote one post really quickly about interview questions to ask a nonprofit fundraiser. I didn’t spend too much time on it; the blog post was more of a way to force myself to come up with content. It came from a conversation with a client, and it was a list of 10 interview questions. If you type in the Google search terms “interview questions for fundraisers,” my blog post is currently the fourth result. So, it’s amazing the reach I can get with a good post.
Then I had this other post about managing complex change. There is a framework that I use all the time with clients, so I shared it on LinkedIn in April 2016, and then at the end of 2017, it started getting shared. I don’t know why, but it’s up to something like 230,000 views on LinkedIn, which is insane. There were comments from around the world, people from Panama and Sweden saying, “This is so helpful.”
10. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?
I hope to keep up my blog posts that help people, and I want to become more of a thought leader and get national recognition for my ideas. I want to speak more, and I want to go to conferences. Right now, though, as my kids are young, it’s hard for me to travel and speak. But I’m setting myself up so that once they are in college I am in a position to do more work nationally. Maybe then I’ll allow myself to go back to maximizing rather than optimizing even if only for a little while. But maybe, optimization is what life is really all about.
Date of Conversation: March 9, 2018
11. Are you willing to serve as a mentor to others interested in your sector?
Absolutely! I always respond to people who reach out to me on social media for advice and strongly encourage everyone to join Help a Sister Up – HASU. It is a great resource for mentorship in our community not just by me, but by so many other outstanding women in cybersecurity. And their male advocates!
Date of conversation: March 1, 2018
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