Joan Garry – Change Maker Chat


Social service organisations like food banks, charities, and nonprofits are being squeezed at both ends by the pandemic – their resource base has collapsed while they now have much greater demand for their services. Joan Garry talks us through these challenges based on her decades of experience as an advocate, nonprofit CEO and mentor to thousands of nonprofit leaders across North America.

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So, Joan, welcome to the show.


Thank you so much. I’m really delighted to have the chance to to chat with you.


So am I. So we’re in interesting times and through this conversation we’re going to talk a little bit about the upside down world that we live in post Corona, but just so, but I wanted to start by giving our listeners a sense of the particular experiences and relationships that you bring to the world of change-making. We know that change making is a varied art. I’d love you to explain your particular craft of change-making, what you particularly bring.


So I after a kind of a bit of a patchwork quilt kind of career landed quite squarely into a place where I became a complete a woman with a total emission to do whatever I could to strengthen the leadership in the nonprofit sector.

You know, I feel so strongly that nonprofit leaders are, I can’t use any other word other than the superheroes and that in order for us to build a truly civil society that we need to invest and build leadership within the sector. And I’m not just talking about staff leadership, I’m also talking about leadership at the board level and the volunteer level. And so I have become kind of a self proclaimed evangelist for nonprofit leaders, both on the sort of working with larger organizations in a coaching capacity for CEOs. And then I I sort of have a tribe of small nonprofits and the leaders who run them who are part of a membership site that I run and my particular kind of change has evolved over time. And I guess we can talk about that. But you know, it’s kind of a teach people how to fish kind of changemaker that I am today and maybe that’s an older, wiser kind of an approach.

I would use the phrase ‘putting myself in the other guy’s shoes’. I think that’s kinda my super power. And being able to understand the motivation that’s sits with somebody and being able to kind of contend with that and to try to identify what it is about that person’s motivation that drives them. I want to talk a little bit about too, when we get to it as a sort of how did I find myself as a sort of a nonprofit evangelist? Cause it is not the path that I would normally or I would ever have expected for myself. I have this kind of, I have this kind of a rabbinical approach to building leadership.

So I would think that that, that my kind of change today is what can I do as a coach, a mentor, a rabbi, if you will, to support and champion the efforts of the folks on the front line. And God knows that that’s especially important now. My work is filled with a kind of meaning and purpose that feels just exponentially greater than it ever has before. And so I think that’s, that’s where I am today as somebody who has, a blog and a podcast and a book and this sort of membership site for nonprofit leaders, I feel like I have a pulse on what’s driving nonprofit leaders, what they need and feel very, very blessed to be able to provide them both with that resource and that sort of shot in the arm and a kick in the pants at the same time.


And look, I think the question on everyone’s mind obviously with that is, so how’d you get there? Joan. Tell us, go and tell us the story, I know a little bit, but tell our listeners the curious winding road that has taken you to this point and I guess the insights that you’ve gained along the way.


I began my career on the corporate side of things on the cable television business. I was actually part of the management team that launched MTV. And if you ever want to learn about how influential media is in shaping hearts and minds, spend a couple of at MTV in its early days. I actually had no vision of being any kind of leader or any, I had no visions of being anything other than sort of a successful corporate executive. And people talk about, you know, do you have a pivotal moment?

I actually had a pivotal moment. So, I wasn’t a rabble rouser of any sort but my wife and I, who is not my wife at the time, because that wasn’t an option. We decided that we wanted to have a family. And so in 1989, our first kid was born and at that time I had no legal connection to Scout at all. And to complicate things, my partner’s family was not accepting of us in the slightest. And I knew that if something ever happened to Eileen, that my kid at the time, we ultimately and now have three kids would be taken from me. And so we went to a local lawyer and said, how do we figure out how Joan can become legally connected to to these, to this delicious kid who my wife did all the birthing.

I did all the catching. That was kind of the deal. And then we decided to go to court for me to secure legal connection to my daughter, to my daughter. So I had to make a case that my daughter was actually my daughter and we won the case. It ended up becoming foundational to a marriage equality case in the state of New Jersey. And here I was thinking that it was just sort of one of those things you do for your family. And it turned out that it became a precedent setting case in the state of New Jersey whereby many, many LGBT families were able to have by way of paperwork, legal connections to their kids. And the pivotal moment for me, I think is not actually that case, although that case made headlines in the front page of the times and things was that the pivotal moment was actually becoming a parent.

And for anybody who’s listening, I think this will resonate the minute you become a parent, you become an advocate. You become an agent for change. You become someone who says, I want to make sure that this world is as good as it can possibly be for the person I brought into it. And I actually believe that that’s what stoked the fire in my belly to ultimately say, Oh my gosh, cheesy though it may sound one person can make a difference. And I ended up leaving corporate America and getting a job running one of the largest gay rights organizations in the U S called GLAAD, which focused on how the media told the stories of LGBT lives. And yeah, I thought that was it. I thought, my goodness, I have a, this is as good as it gets. You get the joy and privilege of nonprofits.

Service was dripping all over me. I took an organization that had 360 bucks in the bank and 18 employees and cash and payroll just around the corner, dug it out. And you know, and turned and really transformed, I think the cultural conversation about LGBT families and LGBT lives in a way that I have a tremendous amount of pride about. But make no mistake, it was all in the service of can I make this world a safer, better place for my kids? How can I do that? What’s the best and highest use of me in that regard? I spent about eight years there and then left and actually I left because my kids were in, now, there were three of them and they were in junior high and high school.

And anybody who’s listening who has kids knows that older kids almost need you more than younger kids. And so I decided to chaperone them through high school and become, do some consulting on the side. And I started a blog in 2012 that kind of took off and all of a sudden I realized that there there was lots and lots of advice and clinical instructive information for people who ran organizations and for people who volunteered for more words. But there was no voice of compassionate truth telling. There was no voice of humor, no voice that was story-based and no voice that was really just a champion for their success. And I believe that if I’ve been successful, it’s because in 2012 I decided to actually own that voice and create a platform for sharing it. So that’s my story.


Yes. I want to just ask you a question about how you changed? So like you’re talking about quite a few extraordinary transitions in terms of firstly stepping up and fighting to be recognized as a parent. And then you talk about your parental role as being your primary advocacy and then having to actually run Glad. And you’re modest in your description of it because I’ve read a little bit about where Glad was that when you took over and that was a hard gig you took on and turned around. How did this process of increasing levels of standing up for yourself, your family, your world change you?


This is a funny thing, Amanda. I realized I had a voice. I was at MTV and then I was at Showtime and there were opportunities to step into leadership and I grabbed every single one of them, not because I was like ridiculously ambitious or egocentric, but because I just thought, Oh, that would be really interesting and I could do that very well. I just think that owning my voice became a real, a real inflection point for me.

I guess I would also say something else, so my wife is, my wife is Jewish and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and they were the folks that led us to the legal case and, you know Eileen and I have been together now for 38 years and her parents were in the her mother, particularly was in the picture for the first 25 years and never welcomed me into her home and never spoke my name out loud. And I was never in Eileen’s family home until after her mom passed away. I just saw that as the thing that was the thing. But once we had kids, it became really clear that I, that I, we had to stick up for them that, that this was, this was just not really okay. And that there was a whole universe of people for whom we were just not okay. And I was just not okay with that. Eileen talks about it is it a lot of people come to change making from a place of anger.

They assume that there is not a place at the table for them and they’re kind of pissed off about it. And when I took, when I decided to apply for the job at GLAAD and yes, it was a financial hot mess of the highest order, I came from a place of joy and privilege, like, Oh my gosh, I can make a difference here. It sounds so cheesy, doesn’t it? But Eileen says, you can’t imagine that there isn’t a table that has a place set for you. Like why wouldn’t somebody want you at their table? And I think that that’s part of what I, what I bring to change-making is, is a joy about change. Sort of embracing the privilege of service, of recognizing that, um, uh that there’s sort of an obligation to do this work.

I think there’s a lot of faith based component to what I do as well, which is kind of a, which is kind of ironic given that for the eight years I was at GLAAD, I probably was arguing with on national television with a lot of people whose opinions and attitudes of LGBT people were faith-based as well.


Yeah. Well, you know, you can never judge a book right now. The fact that we were actually far more complex than most people will give us the most recognition. So I want to shift to the moment, you talk about, you know, change the need to heal the world, changing the world. Well, speaking of that, we’ve just had a crisis that’s global and enormous in scope, more enormous than really anything in living memory for most of us. With the, with the pandemic, it’s changed the livelihoods of everyone no matter which city or town that you walk. And I know you’re doing a lot of work on this. I know this is something that you have turned your mind to. When I look at this moment, it’s already changed everything in a way and some level. Yeah. And I wonder, I wonder what challenges and opportunities do you see does this present to the not-for-profit world? What are you seeing?


I have a fascinating front row seat to people who are running organizations and struggling so badly. Here in the U S there are 1.5 million nonprofits and about almost 70% of them have budgets of less than a half a million dollars. These are the, the food pantries, the animal shelters. The domestic violence shelters in your local communities. We’re not talking about, you know, the United Way or UNICEF. You know, we’re most nonprofits, at least in the U S I can’t really speak to Australia specifically, but most of them are pretty small and these are folks that aren’t going to have a lot of cash reserves. Uh, and so on the one hand they’re struggling. On the other hand, there’s never been a greater need for some of the services that nonprofits provide.

I mean, you have probably seen these images of like thousands and thousands of cars lined up in places like San Antonio, Texas of people who have never in a million years imagined themselves to be food insecure, waiting online food pantries. So you have this really crazy juxtaposition of organizations that are struggling and organizations that have never been more needed. So that’s one thing I see. The second thing that I’m seeing is something I wish I had been seeing all along, which is nonprofits who are saying, okay, what does this make possible? What does this make possible and how might I deliver? On my mission in a different way. So it actually when the table has been cleared and you can’t do it the way you’ve always done it, what are your choices? And one story I can tell you is that there’s a senior center in Princeton, New Jersey, and imagine it, right?

These are our most vulnerable folks to Coronavirus and they come to the senior center and it’s a very thoughtful program. And one of the things that they do is they get instructors and professors from the Princeton New Jersey area to teach classes of, sort of highbrow classes like higher ed classes, like women directors in the 21st century. And all of a sudden they have to close their place and they have no classes, they can’t offer classes. So they say, what could, would this make possible? So they get tech volunteers among college students to start teaching seniors how to use Zoom, start teaching instructors how to teach via Zoom. And they in very short order put together an online class online classes that they’ve never done before that they didn’t think were as possible because he didn’t think the seniors would do it.

They didn’t think they could make it happen. And in like a week and a half they did. And I have 375 people registered for this particular class when before they had zero online participants. Now think about what that makes possible, what that makes possible is it when, when, when we’re not over this, but when the next chapter is written, the Princeton senior resource center, you know that they’re going to be offering online classes because there are people that aren’t going to be able, have never been able to go on site because they are home bound and they’ve opened up the Princeton senior resource center to people who could not use it before. They’ve also engaged volunteers virtually. Like all of the things that they’ve done is under this category of what does it make possible. And so that’s the, the second thing I’m seeing, the third thing I’m seeing or that at least I’m hoping for and I’m now advocating like hell for it, is what can you do now?

What can you do now that will set you up to recover well and quickly? But what can you be doing? How do you fix systems and processes? The second thing is how do you keep the stakeholders who love your organization as close as possible? That’s another very, very big thing. Nonprofit organizations really like to ask, you know, they think of fundraising too often as, as transaction-based. But what if it was really relationship based and all you could do in the month of March is actually contact your donors and your volunteers and the people who love your work and just ask them how they doing and bring them close so that when you recover, you can bring them closer still.

So I see, I mean I’m actually in the process of writing something about sort of imagining what the nonprofit organizations could look like 18 months from now. And many of them that will be really strong will have focused on the fundamentals and they will have really been creative. They will have tried things they’ve never tried before that might not work. And they will keep their mission as close to their hearts as possible with a laser focus on work that they’re doing that is actually directly tied to their mission. And they won’t stray a minute from it.


And one of the things that I enjoyed listening to on one of your episodes of your podcast about this question about what can not-for-profits do now? And you talked a lot about that leaders need to double down on their superhero strengths. You know, what you referred to at the beginning, you know, double down on those strengths. Cause actually there’s a lot of qualities that leaders in not-for-profits, whether they be big or small, have that that need to be unleashed at this time. You know, empathy, relationships. Problem solving skills. Can you talk us through that too? Like what leadership qualities are we looking for in this moment?


I think we start with empathy. Nobody who gets into the nonprofit sector in any capacity comes without empathy. So and that’s what I was talking about earlier about the putting yourself in the other guy’s shoes, right? Nonprofit leaders are advocates. They’re fierce. They’re going to do what it takes. They’re passionate. They have this sort of, I think about it as a sort of a pilot light inside them for the mission of their organization. And it is, it is firing on all cylinders. They understand the power of relationships. And that’s what I was talking about earlier is nurturing and stewardship and building, building a kind of a tribe of people. That’s not transactional. Can you stuff these on envelopes? Can you write me this? Check those things. Become the organic end result of people who feel like they are in relationship with you and your organization.

Communication skills. Can you tell a kick ass story that creates, that gives me goosebumps. Can you tell me, and this is important for those smaller organizations that might be listening who are struggling, can you draw, draw a picture for me of what it’s gonna look like once we sort of pass over this phase of what’s possible in the world as a result of your work? And if you can draw that picture, I may very well be able to provide you with funding to bridge you from here to there. But I need to know where you’re going. Can you see, are you creative enough to see what other people miss to try something new, to give something else a go? And then this whole notion of leaders, nonprofit leaders, they’re fixers, they’re problem solvers. They’ve opted to make a living, changing the world, some part of it, big or small.

And if you look at those things, empathy and advocacy, passion, relationships, communications, creativity and problem solving those are superpowers. That’s what makes an effective leader. I think about leaders as standing on pedestals, right? And that we need those people, right? We need to be able to look up to people, right? It gives us a lot of inspiration, a lot of hope, but gives us the opportunity to emulate and model. But I think there’s a lot of empty pedestals, at least in the world of like sort of public elected.

So they’re standing up on that pedestal for me. When I think about these kinds of attributes, I think this is the, these are the kinds of attributes all of us need to get through. What’s going on in our world today, right? It’s not the specific purview of a nonprofit leader like my next door neighbor needs some of this, you know, she’s 80 with underlying conditions. She needs this. I need that for her. I need that for my neighbors. I need those neighbors to be there for me. And it is, so if I can get sort of really well who on you and it’s my, my fondest hope is that that on the other side of this that our world actually becomes more compassionate. That when you’ve been socially distant for so long that you really value it and you value social connection in a way that you didn’t before. I was joking this morning I have this baseball hat that says life is good. You know that everybody, you know that sort of brand. And I used to look at it and I used to say, Oh yeah, that’s the life is good hat. Now I look at it and I say, that’s the life is good hat, right? Life is good. And maybe on the other side of all of this will actually create some balance. It’ll be life is good.


Lets hope. Oh my God, it’s so true though, that we’re sort of all on this precipice of feeling what is going to be the results of these moments, you know, feels like there are different paths being laid out, moments of crisis allow people to pivot wildly. And sometimes in history the pivot has been towards each other and sometimes those moments have been to pivot away from each other. And you know, there is that sort of, I think there’s that aching concern in so many people thinking about how this is going to work. But on that, you know, you talked earlier about what does this moment make possible thinking, I guess with the eyes of optimism, crisis is a time where things change far more dramatically and faster than at other times. You know, what could take five years, can take a few weeks.

You know, we see that in some, even in some of the government policies around the world, we were in neo liberalism. We’re now doing massive Keynesian stimulus. You know, no one would have thought that was possible. It’s now possible in this moment. Things are changing and you know, we’ve got other crises too. You know, we don’t just have this health crisis which has caused an economic crisis. We also have a climate crisis. What big pivots in policy do you see? You mean you’ve mentioned one, a pivot towards compassion, but are there other big policy changes that you see as possible in the sort of months and years to come?


The nonprofit sector has had its challenges, right? That there are a lot of nonprofit organizations that aren’t standing on steady ground. There are a lot of board members who joined boards who are not as clear as they could be or should be about what their role and responsibility is. And I, I see a world when we, when we are kind of through this or over this or into the next phase where there’s a lot more responsibility, people are just going to take a lot more responsibility for the work that they do. The actions that they take, the choices that they make. I want to think that there’s going to be a lot more intentionality. And that when people say they’re going to do something, that they’re actually gonna do it.

And I just feel like if I’m on the other side of this, so when I, you know, I’m 62 years old, I do have underlie of a genetic lung disorder. And you know, if the Corona virus hits me, it’s not, it’s not going to be a good day at the office for me. I just feel like I’m going to have a view of life that says I’m not live in the moment, but don’t, don’t sit idly by like, don’t be in the stands. Get on that damn field.

Right. And be a citizen. I want to believe that it’s going to create more of a sense that people around the world are actually our neighbors. Right. That we’re citizens of the world. And my neighbor is not just the person who lives next door um, but is the person who’s in, in Kenya or you in Sydney. Right. I just feel like crises bring people together. If so, seen that with, you know, with, with executive directors who had leadership teams that were sort of at each other’s throats for kind of stupid reasons ultimately, but have come together and have been the best and highest people they can be. I see people really understanding their role as neighbors, whether that’s on a street, in a town or around the world.


I just now want to ask you a reflection question before we end our conversation, which is, you are a changemaker, certainly in my eyes, have done big change as well as a dramatic change even to be able to hold your family together as well as run massive organizations, you know, lots of change making in your life and you’ve written about it and sort of reflected on it while now teaching others around these principles. And now we’re in a whirlwind of change. So I wanted to ask you, what is the most important lesson you have learnt about making change?


That it’s not scary, but that it’s not scary and that it’s not, you know, I remember when I took my job at glad, there were so many people who came up to me and said, Oh my gosh, I never thought of you as an activist, as if that was some kind of pejorative. The change isn’t scary. That change is not pushy or aggressive or rude in anger. It doesn’t have to be that there’s, there are mythologies about it. But one thing we didn’t talk about, Amanda, to me, and I think it’s a lot of the work that I do on the consulting side of my work, Is you’ve got to help people navigate it. That you can say, okay, it’s time for us to go to point B from point a. But if you just don’t honor, if you don’t honor what that change is going to look like for each person and what they’re gonna, what they’re going to have to give up in order to get something else you won’t actually get there. You have to focus on what thecommon thread is in the belief I hold that leads that keeps me at a and the, and how connected it is to where you want to take somebody to point B. Like change management is a serious buzz word, but for me, it’s sort of the organizational or individual psychology that comes with how do I let go of A, knowing that B is actually going to be better.

It’s going to have a, it’s going to be richer. It’s going be more fulfilling, whatever that might be. And how, and how can we help each other navigate that change. So I think that’s the other thing that I’ve learned about change-making is that it’s pretty, sometimes it’s, it’s, it’s not actually that hard to say, okay, well gay people, the LGBT people should have equal rights. They should have the right to marry. So we just need to go from A to B. But the road between a and B to move people along requires nuance. It requires intentionality. It requires people to get out of the stands and onto the field. And, um, it requires understanding people’s motivations and being in their shoes. It requires um, making your message universal that there’s a lot of nuance to change that, um, that will be critical for us to be thoughtful about as we um, we live in a world that just doesn’t, doesn’t stop changing. There’s nothing wrong with sort of pushing the envelope. Actually, I think the envelope exists to be pushed. Yeah.


Now that’s important and powerful like resonates with me in Australia where we keep having these election results around climate change that land badly because the communities affected by coal are terrified of change because they, you know, we calculate it’s going to be a disaster for their family and their lives. And until those prosecuting change can hear those concerns and bring them in empathy that you talked about earlier, right. And manage the process of change, the change won’t happen.


That’s why storytelling is so important and changemaking too is how do you bring that to life for people in such a way that it makes them get up off their asses and actually say something and do something. People have power, they have agency, they just have to be ignited to use it.


Yeah. What a wonderful place to leave it. Thank you so much for being with us, Joan. I look forward to reading and listening to more of your future books. I’m sure your podcast content. It’s been a joy.


Amanda. Thank you. I’m very happy to have joined you and secondly, I’m very, very glad that there are forums like this for people to be able to talk about this kind of stuff because it’s the stuff that really matters.

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