I founded Exhale in 2000 with four other women. I was 24-years old and a recent college graduate with a resume that included 14-years worth of jobs doing newspaper delivery, babysitting, waitressing, hostessing, baristing, bartending, housekeeping, and a short stint running the front office of an Alaskan bush-flying service. After completing 5-years of college (from three schools in two states), I was ready to continue with my life’s adventures and was working on landing a new job in Antarctica.
But, then, something I did not expect happened. I got pregnant. Then, I had an abortion. And I personally experienced how the politics of the debate had left women and their loved ones behind. The debate seemed less to do with exploring the role of abortion in our lives and more about trying to prove the other side wrong. I wondered what was possible if this trend was abandoned and replaced by efforts to build something positive and life-affirming.
I decided to try. The something eventually became Exhale and ten years later I am proud to continue serving as its Executive Director.
The story of my abortion and how it led me to found Exhale is well-documented, but this story is just one small piece of what has led me to build an effective organization with such a unique mission. The last ten years have been filled with enormous challenge, breathtaking inspiration, rigorous work and intense self-reflection towards my goal of practicing sustainable leadership with impact.
I have learned a lot about leadership. Leadership is not a paid position, a reward for doing something special, or another way to describe being in charge. Leadership is earned when we take responsibility and give top performance in everything we do. It has been a rewarding ten years of leadership at Exhale and I am thrilled to share some of what I’ve learned, overcome and celebrated.
Here are my Top 10 Leadership Highlights at Exhale in the 000’s.
#10: My first paycheck and every paycheck since. Exhale was founded in 2000, began operating in January 2002 and I got my first official paycheck in February 2003. I haven’t missed a paycheck since and neither has any other staff member. Exhale has not had a single layoff, furlough, or salary cut due to financial reasons and while we can’t predict what may happen in the future, I credit my partnership with the board for our sound financial management and our shared recognition that Exhale’s small staff is our most important financial investment. And frankly, there is something tremendous about being paid to work on what started out as just an idea in my head. An anti-abortion advocate once called me an “entrepreneur” in an attempt to degrade my work and all I wanted to do was give her a hug and celebrate because someone finally got it right!
#9: Every talkline call answered by a well-trained volunteer. When we launched the talkline in 2002, we had $1,000 and our commitment: that there would always be a well-trained volunteer able to pick up the phone and listen. Because what we were doing had never been done before and because we had no idea if anyone would ever want to support it financially, and because we knew we had to do it, no matter what, we built an organizational model that was sustainable forever, with or without funding. The result: a continuously operating talkline where well-trained volunteers are able to listen every day of the week, in 5 languages, to women and men living throughout the nation. We never bit off more than we could chew and the standards we established continue to guide our decision-making on whether we take on new projects today: is it useful in meeting a real need for women post-abortion? And can it be sustained for the long-term?
#8: Turning our perceived liabilities into strengths. At the outset, everything about Exhale was deemed suspect and dangerous from some of the most influential feminists and pro-choice leaders in the Bay Area and across the nation. The stories I could tell! Let’s just say the new public conversations and media coverage about the emotional experience of abortion brought on by the launch of our talkline service were not immediately embraced. Add-on a volunteer-based service (not operated by professional therapists or social workers), a transforming oppression model (what we called reproductive justice before it had a name), and a focus on the need to promote emotional wellbeing (after years of public statements discounting feelings other than relief), and Exhale looked like a barrel-full of liabilities without a chance of survival. And, every one of these perceived liabilities was central to our core mission and our goals. To abandon them would be to abandon our vision of what we thought possible. Instead of letting go, we deepened our commitment to each one of our liabilities – our volunteer program, our transforming oppression model and our advocacy on post-abortion wellbeing – and turned them into our most noteworthy strengths. Our volunteer program was awarded for excellence this year, the reproductive justice movement is a leader on the most important reproductive health issues of our time, and referral to Exhale is now standard practice in abortion clinics nationwide. Today, Exhale is recognized for our unique and valuable contributions to the abortion discussion.
#7: Pro-Voice News Features. Over the years, Exhale has received a significant amount of media coverage and I have generally been pleased with how our services and mission are represented. But the stories and appearances that I love are the stories that make our pro-voice mission real: the ones that make the voices and experiences of women who have had abortions the center of the story. In the first couple years of Exhale we were honored to be a part of Laura Flanders Roe v Wade anniversary show on NPR where she turned the show over to women telling their stories. This happened again on NPR’s Talk of the Nation with host Neal Conan in 2008. And most recently, it took place in the pages of Glamour magazine. These are the stories that make me feel like not only is change happening, but that Exhale is leading it. Each story alone is not enough, but the more we grow these stories and these approaches, this approach will become the new norm.
#6: Ford Foundation Grant. Every grant Exhale has received has a special meaning. I remember the conversation with the donor, or how it came at a critical time or the kinds of battles I know a program officer took on with their colleagues in order to fund us. The Third Wave Foundation gave us our first one ever, the California Endowment was the grant that got me paid, and the talkline has been supported year-after-year by the California Wellness Foundation. I can go on for every grant. Yet, it is our most recent Ford Foundation grant that is one of the proudest markers of my leadership over the past ten years. Because persistence pays off and I have been talking to the folks there for more than five years with no real hope that we may actually get funded. Because it is Ford and Ford offers credibility and prestige which is really important when you are raising the kind of money that Exhale needs to raise to accomplish our goals. Because the advocacy and support of our allies were critical to Ford taking us seriously and it is quite a thing to have groups who could easily position themselves as competitors chose instead to be your biggest advocates. Because I knew I wouldn’t sacrifice Exhale’s strategic goals in order to secure Ford funding and because I didn’t have to. Because the grant supports exactly what we believe to be the critical growth direction for our mission and goals. We were funded for being Exhale and that is my greatest achievement of all. I don’t know if we will ever get another grant from Ford or not, but I know that this one is yet another reminder for how important it is to stay true to our mission. Not only can we turn our liabilities into strengths, we can get those strengths funded. Now we get to strengthen our strengths.
#5: Saying NO is the biggest YES of all. Sometimes it feels like my biggest job as Executive Director is to say “no.” Most of the “no’s” are in response to what could be seen as a great opportunity for Exhale, but in reality, the opportunity presented comes at a great cost, mostly involving our most precious resource: time. Exhale tracks and spends our time more carefully than we do our money. It is our bread and butter and if we squander it we might as well sign our own death certificate. Bye bye Exhale. Bye bye Pro-voice future: “It was nice to know you!” A “no” is the biggest promise I can make to my allies, colleagues and peers: “I will never saddle you with the burden of Exhale’s demise or my own feelings of bitterness and resentment.” That’s why we won’t take on more work than we can sustain, accept less than our true value, or hide the financial costs of our work. We refuse to ever feel taken advantage of by others or stressed-out and overwhelmed because we didn’t know how to say no. This is why saying NO is the biggest YES of all. It is a YES to knowing our true value, a yes to believing we can achieve our dreams and a yes to partnerships based in mutual respect.
#4: When Rush Limbaugh became my favorite person. On March 12, 2007, I sent out a press release announcing the launch of Exhale’s new post-abortion e-cards and took off to my scheduled lunch meeting. By the time I came back from lunch I had messages waiting from the Associated Press and a local news station whose news van was already on the way over to our downtown Oakland office. First thing the next morning, Rush Limbaugh, took me, Exhale and our e-cards to task on his radio show and our email inbox was flooded with hate mail from his listeners. Over the course of the next week, all I did was respond to media requests and conduct live radio and television interviews, culminating with a national appearances on CNN’s Headline News. But, the real leadership moment was in the first 24-hours, when, sparked by Rush’s rage conservative networks and commentators kept calling to request an interview. I sent out a variety of mayday calls to media experts and communications strategists from throughout the country and asked for their advice – “should I do these interviews,” I asked? I got every answer you can imagine and I quickly came to the conclusion that there was no right answer – there was only what was best for Exhale and not a single expert knew that answer better than me or our board. I called my board president and said, “here is the expert feedback I’ve received and this is what I want to do: I want to get good at doing live, media interviews and the only way to get good is to practice and right now, I have lots of opportunity to practice. The risks are great. I could be really bad. It could hurt Exhale. It could hurt our callers. But, I want to try and I want to take the risk, but I’ll only do it if the board has my back 100%. Will you support me?” The board discussed and gave me the green light. Every media appearance became an opportunity to talk about Exhale, our mission, and what we hear from women on our talkline. It was the most fun and excitement I’ve had as the Executive Director of Exhale and it has had long-lasting positive benefits for our mission and our reputation as an innovative, risk-taking organization. If being personally attacked by Rush Limbaugh isn’t a badge of honor then I don’t know what is. Thank you Rush!
#3: Learn From the Best. Running a nonprofit organization is always difficult – from fundraising and management to program delivery and organizational development – the multiple responsibilities and needs of an organization are complex and difficult to achieve. Given this reality, it is common cultural practice that when nonprofit leaders and executive directors get together, we tend to bond over what’s hard. This was helpful in the first few years. I learned that I wasn’t alone and that other leaders faced similar struggles. But, after a time, I didn’t only want to talk about what was wrong. I wanted to find out what works and what works really, really well. I began to look to leaders who had achieved their dreams, leaders who built successful organizations with real results and leaders who looked at what was hard as a great and exciting challenge to overcome. I had one-on-one meetings, found mentors and coaches, read books and built a network of people who shared their winning strategies. Talking about our inspiration, the possibilities for change, innovative models, and new ideas with people and leaders who had made their dreams a reality has opened up doors in my own mind and in the minds of people throughout the organization. We continue to learn from the best.
#2: Lead from Strengths. In the beginning of Exhale, most of the leadership development models I encountered were very skill-based and deficit-based: Learn what you don’t know and try to become more like someone else. The idea was if you knew all the “how-to’s” of running an organization and you spent a lot of time working on your weaknesses, that somehow you would become a solid Executive Director in charge of a sustainable organization. But, once I read and practiced all the “how-to’s” (I could lead a process and write a strategic plan in my sleep at this point), I found that what inspired me about Exhale and got me excited about my job had been forgotten. It was then that I learned a new kind of nonprofit leadership model, a model that supports leaders in working from their strengths. Of course! If you are a great Olympic skier, you should work more on being a great skier, not work on your snowboard skills. Now, sometimes when I talk about “strengths,” people think about what they like to do or what they don’t like to do at their job and I get questions like “are you saying if I don’t like fundraising I don’t have to fundraise as an Executive Director?” Ahhh…..no. Every Executive Director has to fundraise, but there are many models and strategies to raise money and every leader and organization has to pick the revenue model and the strategy that works best for them. It has to be a mission-match for the organization and a strength-match for its leaders. A strengths-based perspective suggests we use what we’re good at, our strengths, in the way that we fundraise. If you’re a good writer, write more in fundraising. If you’re a good talker, do more talking. If you’re a good networker, do more networking, etc.., etc… This strength-based perspective now permeates every-level of Exhale. Individual board, staff and volunteers know our individual strengths and how to put them to use for Exhale. We know our organizational strengths and how to maximize them for our mission. We lead from our strengths.
#1: “Oh, Shit!” is All-Right: Many people know about my paid sabbatical, which I was granted and took in 2007. I can go on about the benefits to Exhale – including how much I enjoyed the time off, how Exhale was able to strengthen our internal systems as a result of the information we gained through the process, and how staff had an unprecedented opportunity to step into leadership. This is all true. But the biggest benefit for my leadership was in the asking, because, well, it went against every nonprofit and movement norm that exists. And, there were no guarantees that the board would grant me a sabbatical. It was the most intense negotiating process I’ve ever been through and it lasted several months. It was not a done deal by the time I presented my case to the board and I will never forget the two-hours I spent waiting for the call from the board president to tell me about their response to my request. I felt vulnerable and strong: vulnerable because I had laid my cards on the table and strong for exactly the same reason. It’s what I now like to call an “oh, shit!” moment. The “oh, shit!” moment is a leadership moment when I have to do something – make a decision, take a stand, ask for a need to be fulfilled – that has very big, significant risks and yet it is critical to the future and mission of Exhale. I only arrive at this moment after I’ve checked my list: is this ask/decision/stand critical to the mission of Exhale? Is it a match to our values and culture? Is it time well spent? Have I learned from the best? Am I leading from my strengths? If I answer yes to all of these questions, and it still feels scary to move forward, then I know I’m on the right track, even if – and especially if – I can’t predict the outcome. It is in this “oh, shit!” leadership moment that I know it’s All-Right. That our Pro-Voice Future is closer than ever.