EmcArts has been fortunate to work alongside The Foraker Group in our New Pathways | Alaska program, and the connection has been one full of learning and growth for both organizations. This summer, Richard Evans and Foraker’s President/CEO Laurie Wolf took some time to talk about what that partnership has meant to them.
It’s like packing all your tools in your backpack, and then leaving it at the trailhead.
Richard: I’m delighted to be here today with Laurie Wolf, the Chief Executive of the Foraker Group, based in Anchorage, but serving the whole state of Alaska. It’s wonderful to be back in direct contact with you, Laurie, after our years of working together. The range of services that Foraker provides is pretty wide. I know you do a lot of financial management services, and that’s been the core of your business for all sorts of nonprofits, but it’s a much wider range of services now. Just very quickly, give me a sense of that again.
Laurie: So, we started as what’s called a management service organization, or a capacity-building organization. That’s primarily where we came from. We have a line of business around education, and we believe very deeply in support. We create a whole bunch of cohort experiences for nonprofit boards and CEOs and other leadership staff, and program staff as well. We also have another line of business, organizational development. This is that one, by one, by one customized work — a lot of the work that you and I have done together. Then we have a line of business we call shared services, or back-room consolidated service. This is where that financial work really lives. So we are, for example, the accounting department for over 90 different nonprofits across our state. And then finally we are also the nonprofit state association. Not every state has a nonprofit state association, but Alaska does, and we’re it. What that means is that we take on big public policy efforts at the state, federal and local level that impact the whole sector.
Richard: So when you think about your long history doing this kind of work, Laurie, and all the range of services that you and your wonderful colleagues are involved in, I’m intrigued about why you would say it is important to help organizations navigate complexity and deal with complex challenges, rather than, just say, gradual improvement strategies, and why is it important to support their efforts to adapt as they move forward these days? Is that a new priority?
Laurie: It’s not a new priority, but I think the times that we live in require that. I think it would have been maybe easier in another time and a different environment to see life in a more simple way, but I think that the problems that we face in our societies and in our communities, in a small and large scale, require us to approach them very differently. Those problems are not new problems — these are systemic issues that we have been faced with, as a nation and as a world, forever. I just think that, with the age of information, our ability to understand these problems requires us to approach them in a different way.
Richard: When you say that, you remind me that I think one of the things that’s challenging is that, as you say, people tend to address the more immediate challenges, or to focus on those things in our organizations that we can probably make a dent in, in a year or so. And the underlying, persistent challenges are the ones which we often just put off for a while, you know? Maybe that’s a function, too, of the fact that with many nonprofits the mission is one which cannot be achieved or solved. You can only make progress, and so it’s rather hard to find milestones.
Laurie: Absolutely. And people like milestones, right?
Richard: I might link the idea that structure drives behavior — that culture often is what drives structure, in a way. If organizations don’t shift the way they do things internally, they’re not probably going to be able to sustain new ways of engaging the world externally.
Laurie: We have to understand the place where to hold on tight, that DNA piece — but how that DNA can actually influence the culture, so that you can be open and ready for this kind of innovative work and this new way of thinking, and really, as you say, to challenge these assumptions.
Richard: Let’s turn for a moment, Laurie, to the partnership we’ve enjoyed over the last four or five years. I’m not wanting you at all to have an encomium to EmcArts, but what have you enjoyed? What do you feel you’ve learned, you and your colleagues? What’s been of benefit from this coming together, would you say?
Laurie: We have new vocabulary, which has just been so instrumental to the way that we’ve been able to approach the work. Even in this conversation that we’ve been having, the common understanding of a knowable and an unknowable challenge, the understanding of what complexity really means. I know you and I are talking about the same thing, and that has been very helpful. I think the other piece, because you’re so deeply rooted in the arts community — and certainly that’s a sub-sector of the work that we do and the people that we serve and connect with — you brought us some ways of doing the work that are more artistic in nature, and we have loved that so much. Being in any room, helping people move their bodies and think with different senses; and really just exploring a problem, not just in a linear space but in an abstract space; and bringing art into that conversation has been really lovely, and so much more joyful as a facilitator as well. I think it’s a place where we didn’t quite feel like we had permission to do that work until we met and started to work with you, and you helped us find a comfort space around that. So that will stick with my team long after I am no longer here and we’re not working in a regular way with you.
Richard: I think we all at EmcArts loved the way that you and your team were able to model that kind of interior space within the organization that was open enough and free enough and flexible enough to really engage in this new thinking, and at the same time absorb it and connect it to the fundamental models and frameworks that you’re using. That was a wonderful thing to see happening. It helped us too, to know better how to put ideas across and be responsive to the idea of a space within an organization for this kind of change work. I know that’s what we all try and do when we go out and work in the field as well. You modeled that most beautifully. I do remember one moment, Laurie, when we were creating images about what it was like to facilitate in an environment of complexity, with all the characteristics you’re describing — the uncertainty, ambiguity, the places where, if you like, your normal toolkit is either not available or not relevant, and you have to keep going — and you came up with this beautiful phrase: “It’s like packing all your tools in your backpack, and then leaving it at the trailhead.” Say a little bit more about that, and what that means to you.
Laurie: That was an awesome moment for me, I have to say, because it was very much a realization of where we had been in our own journey around this work. I’m a firm believer that in our work, we have two ears and one mouth, and that’s the ratio with which we should show up to our work — really to position ourselves as a much better listener than a talker. And that really is what it means to be in service. To really meet organizations and missions where they are. So, it was that revelation moment. I think I wrote that on a sticky note when I was talking with you, and I keep that sticky note very close to my desk as a good reminder for me as I get up and leave my office and go work with some of our organizations.
Richard: Well, it’s a wonderful metaphor also, I think, Laurie, for contemporary leadership and how we want our leaders to be, and to be able to function. And I always feel you’ve exhibited those qualities in what you do at Foraker. So I thank you very much for the partnership, and indeed also for your time today to talk through what you’re up to and what we’ve done together, and into things we might do together in the future. I hope to do that, and I know the enthusiasm continues to flow both ways.
Laurie: Well, it’s an absolute pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity to share a little bit about Foraker and our work together. It’s been a true joy. We are better for it, and my hope is that all those that we’re working with are also better for it as well.