Sara Potler LaHayne wasn’t seeking to start a global nonprofit called Move This World, and now she’s built a vocation on the two things she cares about most—the creative arts and social justice. Rosanne Haggerty was intent upon learning first hand about urban poverty after college and, in her words, “got hooked.” Now she openly admits to lacking work-life balance, but is committed to continually growing and evolving Community Solutions. It clicked for Sara when she was watching her students in Colombia dance to reggaeton at recess, suddenly recognizing how music and movement were tools to teach empathy, peace and conflict mediation. For Rosanne, working in a homeless shelter in New York City fresh out of Amherst College crystallized her ambition. These two women are driven by their own passions and experiences, inspired by their families and colleagues and, despite the challenges it constantly brings, intentional in their community engagement.
Part 1: Starting Out
Was there a single spark that started it all for you?
Rosanne Haggerty: I really didn’t start with a desire to begin a not-for-profit. I spent the year after I graduated from college volunteering at a shelter for runaway and homeless youth, finding myself in a situation where there was an urgent need that I was witnessing every day—and yet I wasn’t in a role to do much as a young volunteer employee. That was the catalyst for me, and I suspect that that’s probably the case for a lot of social entrepreneurs. They find themselves in a situation that is compelling because something needs to be done and the existing framework that they’re operating in isn’t working. Starting to work on homelessness, and creating solutions that were ultimately about going back upstream to the communities that leave people vulnerable to homelessness, gave me a very specific experience that was personal and challenging, and that hooked me for life.
Sara Potler LaHayne: I was working at an international development firm and another startup nonprofit [Atlas Corps, an exchange for nonprofit leaders around the world] 65 hours week, right after coming back from my Fulbright [scholarship] in Colombia, and doing Move This World on the side. I kept getting more and more requests from schools in Washington DC for programming; we were just responding to the market need. School violence is an issue that plagues most of our schools. Bullying is an epidemic in our community.
Rosanne Haggerty: When I was leaving college, I wanted to do something that was more rooted in the real world before going on to graduate school. This was 1982. Homelessness was just beginning to emerge. It was shocking to me that this could be happening—and growing. The Covenant House’s volunteer program was the first or second thing I came upon. I remember thinking, “Oh my god, New York City!” The idea terrified me! The Covenant House provided room and board in a dormitory-like building in Times Square, a $12 a week stipend, and paid your health insurance. In return you worked full time with kids at their shelter. So even though the idea of Times Square was freaking me out, I said to myself, “Well, I won’t be alone.”
Part 2: Building & Growing the Nonprofit
How did you decide on your organization’s values, and how do you work to uphold them?
Sara Potler LaHayne: I was 24 when I incorporated this organization as a nonprofit, but a culture of empathy and celebration in the workplace and authentic community was paramount to me. I’m talking about something deeper than work, more of a human connection.
In our curriculum we talk about collaboration, integrating diverse perspectives, resilience and identifying emotions in yourself and in someone else. When we were building the team at first, it was me and a few volunteers who believed in this vision. Now we’re eight full time staff, plus 15 contractors, decentralized over 22 cities and four continents. It’s becoming harder and harder to remain true to those values.
Rosanne Haggerty: Working with local communities and other organizations, we see our job as helping people who are living in vulnerable communities, who are living in a vulnerable state, to resolve their problems for good. And so our culture is very much of deference to helping others succeed, sharing credit, supporting collaboration and, questioning some of the traditional ways that organizations work. It’s easy in the not-for-profit world to focus on the preservation of your institution, rather than on what will accomplish a mission aimed at ending some aspect of poverty most effectively. Ultimately we’re aiming to make stronger communities.
Sara Potler LaHayne: We are trying to maintain an expressive, communicative workplace, but make sure that empathy is present alongside professionalism. I’m struggling to find that balance, but take principles from our curriculum to how we run meetings. For example, we end every internal meeting with a closing to help practice mindfulness in the workplace. How can we be present? How do we make sure we’re not multi-tasking? How do we focus for each other? We also share a word, phrase or movement, that reflects how we feel in that moment. We all deserve the respect of active listening.
In terms of community, it’s more about self first—individual reflection and interpersonal relationships within a classroom, school or workplace, which are really the fundamental building blocks of greater communities.
What kind of obstacles have you met over the past years of building and growing your organization? What challenges do you face now?
Sara Potler LaHayne: I think being a woman, being a nonprofit and being young are all hurdles. When I first came back from my Fulbright in Bogotá and was working for a firm in DC, I wore my long skirts and Colombian beads. Someone pulled me aside and said I had to ditch all my Colombian clothes, wear heels, lip gloss and put on my glasses in order to be taken seriously and get the opportunities that I deserved. So today if I’m going into a big meeting, I make sure I dress a certain way in order to be taken more seriously.
Rosanne Haggerty: The biggest challenge has not been a one-time event. It’s more about how to stay uncomfortable, you know? I kind of think that’s what change agents are required to be doing: finding a balance between stability so everyone can have a clear line of sight to achieve bold measurable goals and yet always be questioning where things need to go next. It’s about not letting up.
Sara Potler LaHayne: I always ask other social entrepreneurs who have been doing this for 20 or 30 years, “Does it get any easier?” The answer is typically, “No, there are new problems and new challenges that you face.” I do wonder about how to stay centered when the work is so important and there’s always an imminent something, a sense of urgency. One of the most present challenges I could tell someone who is starting a nonprofit is that it’s really lonely and you feel like there is no one else who cares about what you are doing as much as you do.
Part 3: Future Visions & Reflections
Why do you think the majority of nonprofit positions are staffed by women? Is it because we sympathize with people better?
Rosanne Haggerty: It’s a good question. Maybe the pathway has been a little clearer for women with respect to lots of role models and more flexibility around leaving and reentering your career. But I don’t know that it’s simply about gender.
Sara Potler LaHayne: We had a difficult time, up until a few months ago, bringing men into full-time roles in the organization. We had men on our board; we had men as young trustees, male donors, teachers and Peacemover Facilitators. In terms of staff, we were all women. I think rebranding from Dance 4 Peace to Move This World really benefited us. It promoted to break that gender-predefined notion of the work that we did. People heard Dance 4 Peace and they thought immediately, “That’s women!”
Rosanne Haggerty: I think there’s an appreciation that empathy is not a gendered issue; it’s about how you approach things. We do a lot of work with IDEO, an amazing design firm. One of their starting premises is about how you design solutions to problems, and starting with an empathetic relationship with those who are experiencing the problem, whether it’s someone trying to make their evening commute go more smoothly or [a matter of] educating students.
Sara Potler LaHayne: Do women have more feelings than men? It’s less of a gendered issue and more about how you grew up, how you personally identify your own emotions and feel comfort in expressing them. It’s not so much the volume of more feelings. I don’t think women have more feelings. Our Philippines Director, who is a man, was so excited when I worked with him for two weeks for onboarding. He had so much to share about the conflict in his community. Some people just have different comfort levels.
Who are your mentors?
Rosanne Haggerty: When I was working at Covenant House wanting to figure out a better way to combat the problem of homelessness, I was very consciously thinking about Jane Addams. I was an American Studies major in college and drawn to the Progressive Movement and responses to that whole era of industrialization and mass immigration. It was women who said “we need new models for helping society cope with change, for addressing urban poverty.” I spent a lot of time in college focusing on the work of the Progressives.
Sara Potler LaHayne: My board chair Cindy Hallberlin, president and CEO of Good 360, a multimillion dollar product philanthropy nonprofit. She’s a badass. I don’t know what I would do without her. She gives me more confidence to spend money when I’m uncertain or hire new staff. One of the hardest things about being a CEO is managing your staff. How do you bring empathy into [HR] while also holding people accountable?
Cindy has been amazing at helping me navigate complicated personnel conversations. What it comes down to is that when I feel crazy I look at her and she makes me feel like it’s all possible. Connecting with someone else like Cindy let’s me know that I’m not alone. You can feel crazy, be an awesome mother of four, have a great marriage, and be an inspiring social movement leader.
Rosanne Haggerty: I was really lucky to have a boss at Catholic Charities in Brooklyn, where I worked in the 1980s after Covenant House, who was a very wise and empathetic soul. He was able to answer difficult questions like no one else. He told the truth. New York was falling apart then. Homelessness was rising. John [Tynan] would say, “Nobody knows what to do, but we have assets [unused Catholic church owned buildings, programs and people in every neighborhood]. Figure something out. Go meet new people; see what makes sense, where we can find money to move something forward.” He was an important mentor and someone who would have your back, if you were coming up with something reasonable to try, not being irresponsible and were willing to take risks.
Another important mentor has been our board chair Jill Ker Conway, a real legend in women’s education and leadership. It has been one of the great gifts of my professional life that I was able to persuade my role model to actually chair our board when we started Community Solutions. In many ways, Jill was the originator of the study of women’s history: her graduate dissertation was about the first generation of educated women who created the professions of community organizing and social work. Jill’s body of work has trained and inspired many people, as has her rigorous approach to solving problems and leading institutions.
Tell us about your work-life balance.
Sara Potler LaHayne: I actually hate the question “how do you balance life and work.” I get asked that question all the time, and I don’t balance work and life. Work is an extension of who I am. It’s an extension of what I care most about—my values, what I’m most passionate and excited about. So even though it’s scary and hard and exhausting, it’s also exhilarating. It’s a continuity of myself.
I dated my now-husband 12 years before we got married, and he knew that before we even thought about getting married, I needed to hire my first employee. She signed the contract; he proposed the next week. We were high school sweethearts. He was the captain of the football team and I was captain of the dance team. I tied pom-pom pieces to the antenna of his pickup truck. When we got married, my board chair told me to take a two-week honeymoon—no e-mail. At that point, we were four full time U.S. staff. Our budget doubled in size one year later.
Rosanne Haggerty: I have tended to operate in reaction to opportunities and situations that call out for attention. When I started Common Ground in 1990 [a nonprofit that pioneered the development of mixed-income supportive housing to end homelessness] it was in reaction to the Times Square Hotel being in crisis. My son had just turned three. It was a huge juggling act when he was growing up. Fortunately he has turned out great, but he spent much time after school in my office coloring as all sorts of chaos was going on in the building around him. Now, my life outside of work is not as frenzied as it was when I was tearing out of the office trying to get to soccer practice and school conferences.
Sara Potler LaHayne: I have goals for the organization before I have a child. The organization to me is like a toddler, and I want it to be an early stage teenager. But the question absolutely does give me a lot of anxiety. That’s pressure I put on myself. My mom tells me, “You’re going to be a great mom.” My husband tells me the same thing. But I ask myself, “Oh god, how am I going to do this work and be a great mom?”
Rosanne Haggerty: Now, I’m sad to say that I now have less work-life balance. I’m better able to get my runs in, and try to maintain a modicum of health and balance. Both my husband and I are total workaholics. We have this cartoon from the New Yorker next to our refrigerator, where a bunch of people are standing around saying “a couple of us are getting together after work to do some more work, are you in?” That’s us. I’m not a good role model when it comes to work-life balance other than trying to pay attention to health and spending time with my family. We travel once or twice a year, though it’s frequently in conjunction with work.
It’s funny—Sara might be horrified to hear this—but it was actually easier when my son was little to say to myself, “Okay, I gotta draw the line here. I gotta get the train. I gotta be there for these things in his life.” I could just always work!
Based on what you know now, what advice would you give to your past self, back when you were first figuring things out?
Sara Potler LaHayne: In college and during my time in Colombia, I always had to choose between two things that I was passionate about, dance and arts or social change. I always felt like those were two separate worlds that I could go into. No one ever said to me that I didn’t have to choose. What’s been so amazing about building this organization is that I’ve found a way to combine the two things I love most—and make them real. I tell other entrepreneurs or young professionals, “Don’t ever feel like you have to make a decision between the things that get you fired up. If you dream big and put yourself out there, if you take risks and are comfortable with failure, you can find a way to marry your passions.”
Rosanne Haggerty: One of the things that has been important for me to recognize is there are definitely periods of flatness. Those correspond with the need to take your work to the next step. It has to evolve no matter what your theory of change is now. It needs to keep getting refined. Those moments are stressful, but I’ve found that they are stressful in a different way, not like the stress of having millions of things coming at you and having to get it all sorted out. They are stressful in the sense that you know you’ve gotten to the end of something, and you aren’t seeing around the corner yet. I pay attention to those moments, and really rely on my colleagues and those outside the organization to help me question what is happening. You do actually need to stop and rethink your model from time to time. Be open to acknowledging when things have run their course, that you may need to take a different direction, that the way you have thought about your issue may need to change pretty profoundly. There can be a real sense of loss, as well as excitement. However, that’s where I think the world moves forward. Keep looking at the larger mission, ask yourself “Am I being called to be doing something different now?”