As Chief Operating Officer, Bethany oversees all of The New York Foundling's business departments- human resources, finance, legal, development and communications, information technology, facilities and capital projects. Since assuming her current role in 2011, Bethany has championed a number of innovative business ventures that have increased The Foundling's operating efficiency and public exposure. Under her leadership, the operations team accomplished a complete redesign of the charity's Manhattan headquarters, resulting in an open office floor plan that maximized valuable space, created lucrative rental revenue streams and dramatically improved the design and layout of the residential programs located in the building. Bethany initiated The Foundling's first employee wellness program, which has provided health and wellness incentives to our staff while significantly reducing health insurance costs for the charity and employees. Bethany oversaw a substantial technology infrastructure upgrade and complete restructuring of the information technology department, which has produced critical reliability and efficient delivery of technology services for staff and clients. Working with the communications team, Bethany spearheaded a rebranding of The Foundling's public image--introducing a new marketing focus, logo and web site aimed at providing a clearer picture of the numerous, invaluable services The Foundling provides to disadvantaged children and families.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in a small, rural town in the Midwest, where the values of hard work, integrity and supporting the local community were of paramount importance. I'm incredibly lucky that from a young age I had this value system all around me, especially within my family. These tenants are central to how I attempt to lead in the workplace, what I expect from the colleagues on my teams, and the attributes I look for in the hiring process. These are personal qualities not skills--you either have them or you don't. Rarely can you teach something like a work ethic or empathy to an adult, and especially not in the employer/employee context.
The flip side of living in a town with a population of less than 5,000 people was a tendency for the community to be fairly insular and demand conformance. I never could conform, and at some point I finally stopped trying. What I found out was that the world didn't fall apart when I stopped attempting to fit into molds that weren't meant for me. It was hard, even painful, not to fit in, but I realized early on that the desire to belong never trumps the need to be yourself and follow your greatest dreams. As a professional and a manager, I constantly try to approach problems in creative ways and often reject the usual and accepted approach. I also encourage my teams to think critically about their work, to challenge the status quo, and even to challenge the end goal I have asked them to accomplish. Independent, analytical thinkers are extremely valuable to me.
How did your previous employment experience aide your position at The New York Foundling?
I am a lawyer by training and started my career at a large law firm in New York City. Seven years and a couple of law firms later, I took my first non-legal job at The Foundling. My legal training has helped me immensely in approaching my work in a different way than your typical nonprofit leader. As an attorney, my job was to listen to a complex set of problems, figure out what was noise, what was relevant, and what was critical. I still approach problems that way at The Foundling. I assess a situation by identifying the primary issues as quickly as possible, isolating the key components necessary to solve the problem, and putting a stop to dialogues that focus on unhelpful sideshows. The private sector doesn't have a monopoly on efficient, results-oriented decision making. We can do that in the nonprofit world too.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at The New York Foundling?
The most challenging and most rewarding part of working at The Foundling has been formalizing and bringing clarity to the practices and procedures of an organization of this size. Like many nonprofits, our primary focus historically has been delivering excellent service to our clients; the result of this type of singular focus is often underdeveloped business protocols. While lack of structure can be overwhelming, it is also quite freeing. Starting from scratch means you are free to tackle problems in different ways and take advantage of interesting opportunities.
The freedom to take a fresh look at our business operations has resulted in many exciting accomplishments in my short three-and-a-half year tenure. We initiated The Foundling's first corporate wellness program and successfully changed our employees' approach to healthcare decisions in such an impactful way that our health insurance premiums have actually decreased. We radically shifted our approach to using office space, resulting in the ability to occupy significantly less real estate with the same number of employees. Overall employee satisfaction with the work environment has increased and costs have dramatically decreased. Due to these changes, we have closed on the sale of over $100 million of real property in the last two years, creating valuable opportunities to redirect assets to our expanding client base and new programs. Of particular importance to me, the Development team and I took a critical look at our approach to fundraising and created a new, high-touch model for working with existing and new private donors. The results have been astonishing: our institutional and corporate donations have increased by over 40% and last year, our annual appeal raised over 50% more revenue than the previous year.
A recent example of my teams' out-of-the-box thinking is coming to fruition in mere weeks. We recognized the value of our headquarters being located on a busy corner in Manhattan and created a retail space in our lobby to house a socially-conscious coffee shop. We ran a contest and asked local, high-end coffee shops to compete for the right to our coveted Chelsea real estate (at rental rates 50% off market price) by telling us what they'd do to further The Foundling's mission. We found an amazing partner--COFFEED (http://www.coffeednyc.com/), a Long Island City-based company--that will open its newest café, and its first in Manhattan, this December. COFFEED will not only donate up to 10% of gross revenue to The Foundling, it will also devote a quarter of its interior space to marketing the issues of disadvantaged New Yorkers and employ Foundling clients, including teens in the child welfare system and adults with developmental disabilities. In fact, COFFEED has already hired two of our high school students in foster care! This amazing cross-sector partnership is a win/win for everyone.
What's it like being a COO at one of the oldest charities in NYC?
Being the Chief Operating Officer of one of New York's oldest and largest nonprofits is both a tremendous honor and a huge challenge. As one of my colleagues described it, most days my Outlook calendar looks like a game of Tetris. It's exhilarating being involved in so many interesting projects and working with the dedicated and smart people who run my various business teams. Without all-star colleagues, I would never move the needle in any significant way. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in transitioning from managing people to managing teams made up of hundreds of people is that hiring strong, competent leaders and then trusting them to run their business line better than you ever could is essential to success. There is a fine line between managing and micromanaging, which I have learned the hard way.
What advice would you give to other nonprofits who are looking to refresh their image and operations?
First, I would tell them to make a list of their current assets and liabilities; essentially assess the organization honestly and get a comprehensive lay of the land. When I started at The Foundling we had some key assets--an amazing history, incredible reach within the five boroughs of New York City, and over 1,500 extremely dedicated employees. We also had some serious liabilities--our government funding was a disproportionate piece of the pie and people under 50 had rarely heard of us. Taking a good look at where you stand is always the first step.
Second, spend serious time establishing impactful short (1-3 years) and medium (4-6 years) term goals for the organization. When your goals are clear, decision making is easier and more straightforward. Does the opportunity further your goals or does it squander resources and energy on something that isn't a priority? In a world of finite resources and time, it's essential to pursue only those opportunities that take the organization closer to its core goals--this is especially true when you are aiming for rapid transformation. The hardest thing about this kind of laser focus is that you have to pass on some pretty cool and interesting opportunities. I was recently at a conference where Jony Ive of Apple explained the discipline of focus this way: "what focus means is saying no with every bone in your body to something you know is a good idea, but you say no because you're focused on something else."
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Truthfully, I don't do a great job with work/life balance. For all the talk in the media and among female professionals about "having it all", I'm still unsure of what that all really means. I know that I'm a happier, more inspired person when I have a rich life comprised of different activities, interests and people. That said, my career takes up a disproportionate amount of my time, and I like it that way. I get a lot of enjoyment, satisfaction and fulfillment from what I do, so the line between work and personal life is often blurry in my day to day.
As my colleagues often tease, I am always looking for unique opportunities for The Foundling. For example, last year I mentioned our work while shopping for dresses at Cynthia Rowley's West Village boutique and that quickly gave rise to an incredibly successful fundraising event that garnered great press and raised money for The Foundling. We now have a tremendous friendship with Cynthia and her colleagues.
Most importantly, I'm fortunate to have an incredible husband, extremely wonderful friends, a supportive family and Quinn, the dog of all dogs. These relationships keep me grounded and happy even when there is zero "balance" in sight.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
In my experience, women tend to underestimate their own skills and often fail to have confidence in their professional abilities - myself included. I once told a male colleague I would never get a job I'd applied for because I only had 50% of the skills in the job description. He said, "Bethany, no man would ever think that way. A man would say, 'I've got at least 50% of the things they want nailed, they've got to hire me." Despite being a bit stereotypical, there is some truth to his comment. When my current boss, our CEO, offered me the job of chief operating officer of The Foundling (then with a $100 million annual operating budget and 1500 employees), I told him I was flattered but didn't think I was qualified for the promotion and would help him find someone with more experience. My responses sounded so crazy to him that he later told me he thought I was just badly attempting to portray some false sense of humility. (Of course this was untrue -- what I was thinking at the time was, "hey, I'm 33 and save the last 6 months I have only ever been a lawyer, why would anyone think I'm qualified to run the operations of a $100 million organization!") Luckily, I found the courage to take the job and the last three and a half years have been a tremendous adventure; I've learned an incredible amount, and more times than not, moved the ball forward.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've been lucky to cross paths with so many strong, intelligent and caring men and women and have learned a lot from watching how they navigate their careers. Despite that, I've never had a mentor in the formal sense, though it's something I've always wanted. A dear friend with a good 30 years of additional life experience once told me that at some point early on in his career, he accepted that he may never find a mentor, so he decided to be his own mentor. That stuck with me. I'd still love to find a mentor who is available to provide sage advice, field questions and offer encouragement, but until then, I try to fill that void by creating my own opportunities to learn and grow--be it through books, lectures or just paying attention to the positive and negative results of my own and others' decisions.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many influential women leaders that I look up to, but a few that have been forefront in my mind lately include: Kamala Harris (Attorney General of California), Indra Nooyi (Chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo), Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), Patricia Harris (CEO of Bloomberg Philanthropies), Kirsten Gillibrand (U.S. Senator), and Sister Simone Campbell (lawyer, activist, nun). In their own unique way, each of these women thinks big, acts with integrity, holds themselves and their staff accountable, and simply gets things done.
What are your hopes for the future of The New York Foundling?
My hope is that this esteemed 145 year-old organization continues to stay relevant and impactful for many decades to come. The best nonprofits change alongside the communities they serve. As long as we are nimble, effective and responsive to our clients' needs, The Foundling will serve New Yorkers with compassion for a long time.