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Getting the Most Out of Your People: Management Lessons from Building a Nonprofit Startup
Interview with Diana Zhang
What Diana says about this interview:
“I’d love to share the management lessons I’ve learned so far from building our nonprofit startup, NeighborShare, from scratch over the past year. Coming from 15 years’ worth of training as a “for-profit” executive, I’ve found that those skills were directly applicable to the “for purpose” space I am now in, with some twists. For example, how do you build a high-performing team capable of building an entire organization from scratch, except you have to do it 100% remotely and you can’t afford to pay them?”
Diana Zhang is the CEO and Co-Founder of NeighborShare, a rapidly-growing direct giving approach that empowers our communities’ frontline heroes to help families through critical moments with the need of $400 or less. Diana brings 15 years of experience in strategy, operations, and scaling, having served in several executive roles at Bridgewater Associates, a premier asset management firm. Outside of work, Diana is passionate about food: cooking it, eating it, sharing it, photographing it, and advocating on behalf of those who lack access to it. She serves on the Board of Connecticut Foodshare. Diana graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in Economics and Government from Dartmouth College.
More about NeighborShare at https://nbshare.org
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Greetings, everyone. It’s Hugh Ballou back for another exciting session of The Nonprofit Exchange. Today’s episode is the first one I remember in seven years about this specific topic. We have a lovely guest today who is very experienced and passionate about her work. Diana Zhang, welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange. Tell people a little bit about you and the passion for the work you’re doing.
Diana Zhang: First of all, Hugh, thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited for this conversation and so excited to get to hopefully provide some helpful insights for your audience. In terms of a bit of information about me, first and foremost, I always like to introduce myself as I’m a mom. Shout out to my five-year-old Lily and my almost three-year-old Teddy. In my normal day job, I have been a 15-year executive at a global hedge fund based here in Connecticut. I have run everything from our investment research department to our corporate real estate to our firm’s various talent programs. By way of background, I’ve just been extensively trained to build teams and organizations from the ground up and figure out how to get big things done via others.
My latest gig, which is why we’re here today, it’s been a wonderful and educational experience to get to translate that skillset I’ve built in the finance space into what I’m doing these days, which is something completely different. Today, you find me as a co-founder and CEO of NeighborShare, which is a start-up nonprofit that is targeted toward empowering our community’s frontline heroes to get our neighbors the help they need when they need it.
In terms of describing my passion, I love the way you phrased that, Hugh. There is a couple of key reasons why I’m doing this work. I really deeply believe in our mission and think it’s incredibly important. We started NeighborShare, my co-founder, me, and our initial founding team of volunteers, we started this effort in the midst of the pandemic. We started with a very urgent question: How can we get direct help to the people who need it most in our communities when they need it?
The more I dug into this space, the more I came to viscerally understand the devastating statistics out there. The Federal Reserve statistic that 40% of Americans can’t afford a $400 emergency. The more I became passionate about, “Hey, let’s create an innovative solution that can act as an extra layer of safety net to supplement the wonderful work that all of the other existing nonprofits are already doing.” In my mind, it’s a supplementation and an extra source so we can come together and collaborate to help our communities.
Secondly, the other key reason I am doing this work is that, look, I frankly also love the intellectual and visceral challenge of what it means to build and run a nonprofit. I have probably grown a lot more gray hairs this past year, 12-18 months, than I have before. Geez, it’s hard. You run into roadblocks all the time, etc. Wow, it’s satisfying. Any time you crack through a problem, you end up with that much more progress toward helping another neighbor, another community member. That’s what keeps me going. It’s the little engine that keeps on driving and hopefully combating through time so we can help more folks through time.
Hugh: Whoa. That’s exciting to hear you talk about it. You talk about it with a great passion that is behind your work. Your specialty is developing high-performing teams. You started this nonprofit, right?
Diana: Yes, I co-founded it with one of my good friends.
Hugh: Great. When we start a new enterprise, we’re filling a gap in the market. What was the big gap that you’re filling? What’s unique about how you do it?
Diana: Great question. As I mentioned earlier, we really started this whole effort with that key question of: How do we get direct help to the people who need it the most in our communities? Not just to the people who need it, but when they need it. It’s this real-time sense.
As we dug into that, we realized that it’s actually pretty hard to figure out who in your communities need help in that particular moment. If you thought from the perspective of the typical donor, and I was totally that typical donor 18 months ago, I can’t actually just walk down the street in my neighborhood and identify which neighbor needs a little bit of a helping hand, a bridge, to help make ends meet in that particular moment.
What we ended up deciding to experiment with, and this is the model we’ve built out since then, is we have the insight of why not go empower the population who does already know and figure out a way to give them a new tool to be able to provide resources to those neighbors on the ground? Ultimately what NeighborShare does is we partner with our community’s frontline heroes, which is a lot of your audience today. It’s nonprofit leaders and their frontline staff: case managers, social workers, teachers at schools. You can almost imagine us partnering with nurses at hospitals. We went and partnered with the folks who walked closely with our communities and already had the intimate pulse on need in our communities and who were already doing the hard work of providing them with a lot of resources.
The unfortunate reality on the ground is that despite all the effort, despite all the different things that come together, there is always needs that slip through the cracks. That is where NeighborShare comes in. We partner with those frontline heroes, and we give them a very easy way to spotlight what we call these pivotal needs of $400 or less that they have run out of resources for. It’s either out of scope or out of funding. We give them a way to spotlight these individual validated needs on our platform at NBShare.org. It’s on NeighborShare’s end to work to bring in the donors, etc. to be able to fill those needs and ultimately get those funds distributed directly back to that neighbor who was identified on the ground. That is how our whole ecosystem works.
Hugh: It’s NBShare.org. You can find out about their work there. What’s some of the biggest problems that leaders face in dealing with this big sector that want to do stuff but sometimes we’re in the way of letting them do it? We call that volunteers. What is the biggest mistake that we as leaders make?
Diana: In the volunteer space?
Diana: I’ve made some of them myself. It’s a couple of things. This is a point even you’ve made, Hugh, when we were talking earlier. One mistake is thinking too narrowly about the role that volunteers can play in our organizations. By even calling them such, we automatically think about them in this narrow task-oriented, they can only do a certain thing. Versus the way I and my co-founder ended up building out this organization, which is really building out a truly volunteer-run and volunteer-built organization where our volunteers come in as Owners of the organization with us. We give them the creative space and the responsibility and almost the burden of you’re coming in and joining our organization and building this with us. That is point #1.
How do you really empower your volunteers to take on more, not less? It’s an interesting thing where I found that it’s almost like a psychology thing. The more you give a person to own and give them space to create and experiment and fail and try again, the more into it they’ll become. They don’t become disenfranchised; they become owners of the challenge with you.
Another piece is then thinking through how do you engage your volunteers and nurture community in an ongoing way? The cons of course of using a largely volunteer-run organization is that our nonprofit unfortunately will never be their top priority. We’re all third, fourth, fifth on the list. Family, day job, life, etc. If that is all now taken care of, oh, then I can work on NeighborShare. Whereas I live and breathe NeighborShare with 125% of my time. I also need to think about how to bring my volunteer team in with me so that they’re feeling the excitement and the grind and the challenges, successes, and failures on the ground with me even though they might not be necessarily living and breathing it every single day with me. How do you create that experience so they feel as close to it with you as possible? How do you share that Ownership so that they want to keep on building with you?
Hugh: You earlier referenced the fact that you had made some of the mistakes. If we don’t acknowledge we’ve done that, we’re clueless. As a matter of fact, I do claim the title of expert because I have made all of the mistakes more than once.
Diana: There we go. That’s how we become experts.
Hugh: Yes, ma’am. It’s a learning opportunity is what it is. You’ve built this nonprofit up from scratch. What are some of the challenges you’ve had? What would you share with people about your experience that they could learn from?
Diana: It’s so funny. I get this question a lot in terms of, “Hey, building this organization from scratch. What are the biggest challenges?” I kind of laugh because I’m like, what hasn’t been a challenge? This is hard. Much respect to your audience out there who are building and running nonprofits.
Stepping back a bit broadly from the volunteer topic for a second, I think it’s been everything from what does it mean to effectively introduce a new and somewhat disruptive model into the nonprofit space? When we first started NeighborShare, I was naively thinking, “Hey, we’re not here to be disruptive.” We just thought it would be an interesting new resource we could provide to nonprofit teams and leaders out there in the spirit of let’s figure out more ways to help our neighbors on the ground.
What I came to appreciate is that the model we’re proposing is actually fairly disruptive. It’s not the way our nonprofit partners on the ground are designed and set up. How do we develop that deep empathy to better understand the partners we’re trying to attract and bring on to our platform? How do we break through and show and share and make more visceral the value we’re working to bring with this idea? How do you do it in a way that is as seamless and weightless and overhead-light as possible for our partners? We’re all value-add and not detracting from all the really important work they’re doing. That was a big challenge in terms of how to break into this space in the first place.
I have a whole list of other ones, but we can pause there for a second.
Hugh: Sure. When you started, how did you attract your volunteers?
Diana: That’s a great question. The way I found it always works is that the first step is almost always the easiest because you call up your good friends. You get a couple people working, you get going, etc. The harder part is how to keep on building that team and sustaining it as you go through turnover.
The way I think about attracting volunteer talent now in a much more ongoing way as we continue building and growing and replenishing talent who needs to roll off is that, and I think this is true for any employer, regardless of whether you’re for-profit or nonprofit, is we got really clear and crisp about what our value proposition was for our volunteers, aka our employees. I really think of it as we’re recruiting to fill a role, and that’s a bit like dating. Both sides need to feel that click. Both sides need to get something out of the relationship for it to work well. I think a key first step is to think deeply about what value proposition you’re bringing to a potential volunteer. Then you want to market it well.
To bring it down to a more tangible example, at NeighborShare, our value proposition is threefold. First, the social impact mission. No volunteer will work with us unless they believe in the cause we are working on and the type of impact we are trying to make in our communities. Every nonprofit out there is going to have their mission.
In addition to that, the second part of our value prop is we are really looking to give our volunteers a real opportunity to join an entrepreneurial adventure and build something from the ground up. For those folks who you’re speaking with who have their day jobs, who have that startup itch and want to do something experimental, we help them scratch that itch. It ends up becoming a really great developmental growth opportunity for them professionally. We’re saying, “Hey, person X, you already have this expert skillset from your day job. Now apply it over here, but do it one or two levels up from your org. Guess what? We’re scrappier. If you’re an associate, come operate at a VP level with us. You know more than you do.” You give them wide space to grow. That is a really attractive value prop for the right person.
Last but not least is the thing I mentioned earlier. We work really hard and explicitly to provide a really great community and network. In addition to having a team that is comprised of good people doing good work, the volunteers themselves also happen to be an accomplished group. Via the power of the NeighborShare network alone, people help each other out. We pay it forward. We help folks get jobs. I’ve done more graduate school recommendations this year alone than previous ones combined. You offer to help each other out in terms of providing that tangible development experience to progress their day jobs even and literally helping them when they are in search of the next job. That has been a key strategy behind how we attract great talent.
Hugh: That’s great. I’m going to go back to creating an opportunity to have buy-in, but I also want to connect that with people that apply. If I’m using that term carefully, because you said it’s like they are non-compensated employees. In some organizations I work with, we call them servant leaders. They have a channel they are leading, and they serve not for money. There is this philosophy of serving.
You have got this culture of high performance. How do you then attract people with those kinds of principles, and them engage them like you would as an employee at the high standard, and then create a program at work and let them do the work? There are several places that we as nonprofit leaders think, “Oh, they’re a volunteer. We have to set a low standard. They will show up sometimes. It doesn’t matter.” We set the bar for failure. How do you set the bar higher for success?
Diana: That’s such an important and insightful point, Hugh, because in my opinion, excellence begets excellence. Good talent attracts other good talent. It compounds. To your point, if you’re starting off with volunteers at a low bar, you’ve already shot yourself in the foot before you’ve gotten going instead of planting the seed so you can grow the tree later.
On our end, I really think about the way we maintain high standards. It’s really about setting clear expectations up front. Once again, when I meet a prospective volunteer, I think of them as a prospective employee. Take away the volunteer piece and the non-payment piece for a second. No, we’re building a very important organization with an important mission. The quality of our work needs to be high because our neighbors depend on it.
When I meet a prospective volunteer, we have a very clear conversation. I’m upfront about, “Hey, by the way, this isn’t your typical volunteer gig. It’s not like you come in, do an hour’s worth of work, feel good about it, pat yourself on the back, and leave. No. When you come in, you’re taking on real responsibility. You have a CEO who will hold you accountable. I will be empathetic and flexible.” We’re recognizing it. I’m giving them a challenge. I’m giving them the chance to opt out if they don’t want to sign up for that challenge. That’s okay. I’m not going to judge you if you’re too busy. That’s fine. But you vet them up front and are clear on do you want to be a builder with us? More than anything, people are way more excited about this. Whoa, this is different. I didn’t know I got to be a part of building a start-up, not just the volunteer thing. That is important.
Then we vet for our key guideposts of you want good people doing good work. You want high capability. You want high humility. We have a no jerks rule. We have a no slackers rule. No one is going to be here to babysit you or micromanage you. If you will sign up for something, you deliver it. By the way, these are the exact things I’d be saying to my team at my for-profit job. The more you can hold that bar and not just say, “But I can’t pay them. They’re just volunteers,” no, this is your team. They are running your organization. The more you can get yourself in that mode as the leader, the more your people will follow and get it and love it. They are part of something real.
Hugh: I’m ready to sign up.
Diana: Come and join. We could always use help!
Hugh: You’ve created the ask that is profound. Yes, I want to be part of this high-performing team. Nobody wants to show up and do a bad job.
Hugh: However, I can’t tell you how many times in my life people have said, “I need you to be on this committee. Don’t worry, it’s not much work. We just want you to show up.” Right there, they’re apologizing for asking and setting low expectations. You know they’re lying because there is work to do. But we have this mindset that we’re asking people to do us a favor. Would you speak to that mindset please?
Diana: Once again, think of it as dating. Both sides need to bring something to the table. When you position yourself, it isn’t like, “I’m asking you for a favor.” It’s, “You’re helping contribute, and I’m also doing you a favor.” For each of our volunteers, we’re filling a gap. We’re filling a gap for them in terms of meaning and mission and impact.
Given the nature of we’re so early-stage, we’re also helping to fill that entrepreneurial scratch. I want to build something, but I’m not going to quit my day job. You can build here. Be in our garage together and grind with us and figure things out. We will fail together and learn together. There is fun and community in that.
Thinking cleverly through about what else you can offer. For us, we have a fantastic board. We have a killer volunteer team. It’s a network. We’re all here to help each other out. We’re all here to pay it forward. In that way, you can almost start creating this air of exclusivity. You’re lucky you get to volunteer for us. The more you can work yourself up to be like, “Yeah, that’s how I feel about it,” people will sense your energy and want to be a part of that.
I think it’s totally okay if a person is like, “Hey, right now, I don’t have the time.” To your point about that conversation, “just join the committee, it’s okay, just show up,” that’s a fallacy. There is a lot of work to be done. Also, why would you want to set it up so you’re mismanaging expectations off the bat? Each of the people we’re talking to could probably be clear and upfront about I could either sign up for this commitment or I can’t.
For me, I do think this is one piece that is different about the nonprofit volunteer space versus a for-profit employee thing. When I say I’m talking to a prospective volunteer who might have questions, “Hey, will they have enough time? is that commitment real?” we just bring them on. We test them. it’s not like a for-profit where you are paying a bunch. No, just hop on in, and we will test you out. You sus out real quickly about if this volunteer is super committed, if they have the ability to do the work.
For us, the way I handle it is I keep our standards high, and then I roll them off. If that’s not working out, great. Thank you. We’d love to see you do this. We move onto the next person until we find the right click. It’s not a firing conversation, but I will essentially roll you off if you’re not going to add value and show the level of commitment that our other volunteers do. It’s about maintaining that high bar.
Hugh: That’s hard for leaders to do. That’s hard for leaders who are managing high-paid staff to do as well. In my long career of being a music director in large churches, I had to fire volunteers.
Diana: Yes. It’s bizarre to think about, but it’s actually very important.
Hugh: They were happy because they knew it wasn’t working, but they felt obligated to keep trying even though they couldn’t do it or didn’t have time to do it. It wasn’t a good skill fit for them. They were like, “Oh, I didn’t know how to tell you that I couldn’t do this.” We’re having that conversation that is valued to both sides.
These are really important themes. We have not talked about this in seven years. You have a pool of candidates. You want to bring them on. How do you make sure there is a match for their passions and their skills?
Diana: My approach is actually fairly similar to what I do in my for-profit hat in terms of how I built orgs in the past. You start first with thinking about what you need. We literally have a team org chart. They are all filled by volunteers, but it’s real. We think about the skillsets we need. We think about how much of it we need. Then we go look for it. Then you go and talk to the prospective volunteers and look for that click. There is the what we need side.
Then it becomes an open conversation to the volunteer about if their skillsets match. But what are you interested in? We have that explicit conversation. I will pull up the org chart. “Hey, I’d love to see you here. Your resume is perfect for it. But let’s talk about it. I also need help here, here, and here as well. Let’s make sure that we’re giving you something that fulfills and makes it interesting and exciting.” Volunteering for NeighborShare shouldn’t feel like a burden. It should be something you’re passionate and excited about and want to do.
You have that back and forth and learn how to be flexible. Some folks match resume-wise with this part of the org, but they really want to try this other part out. That is a thing they want to experiment in. That is the next career move they want to make, and this is a safe place for them to experiment with it. You give them that space. You might say, “Hey, we know you’re bullseye at this space. We need that help. In the meantime, there are a couple projects in this space, too, that you’re interested in. Let’s do both.” You learn how to get flexible and creative.
One of my favorite mentors at work, she used to use this analogy that I love. As a manager, you’re managing a basket of fruit. Each piece of fruit is not going to be perfect. Your apple will be a little bit bruised. Your banana will have some spots on it. But it’s your job as manager to figure out how to make the best damn fruit salad out of that bowl of fruit. That’s what you do. You get creative about which pieces you cut and slice and pull it together to make this thing sing and make something delicious.
Same thing here in terms of going back and forth and matching and getting volunteers to be both excited about what they’re doing while still optimizing for what you need in the organization.
Hugh: There is a motivation thing. I talk about the most useless things that leaders do. One of those is motivating people. What you just did creates a way for them to be self-motivated. You go, “Rah, rah, rah, we’re going to do this.” They hit the door and are gone. You’ve created a system where there is a built-in motivation. Am I hearing you right? How do you keep it going?
Diana: You’re saying it better than I am. That’s spot-on. In terms of maintaining it, there is a few different things. First, there is what we talked about. Keep them as owners. Keep it fresh. Own the pieces, and it’s easy for NeighborShare to keep it fresh because we’re constantly pivoting. This worked. This didn’t work. Let’s try the new thing. There is constantly new experiments so the job is never boring. Keep them excited about the work itself as owners of that work.
A second piece is prioritizing building and nurturing that community and connection. That has been especially important for us because once again, our entire existence has been during COVID. We’re all remote. I have 30-something volunteers across the country. A bunch of us have never met. I may never meet them unless I make it out to Colorado; I’m in Connecticut right now. How do you maintain that connectivity and community?
For example, we had our first ever in-person NeighborShare holiday event last Thursday. It was magical. It reminded me how Zoom is incredible, but wow. That in-person, getting to meet each other for the first time, board members, advisors, past and present volunteers. Wow. This is what it feels like to be together. It’s certainly a lesson for myself in terms of let’s not under-invest in that. Every single person, myself included, left that much more motivated and passionate. This is an awesome group of people. Let’s keep on going. That part is important.
There are also other ongoing techniques. I host a weekly team meeting. Not all of our volunteers can make it. Those who can’t make it, I record it and send it out. It’s a way to keep everyone connected. You’re their fourth, fifth, sixth priority. They are not constantly thinking about you, so you need to keep them connected.
That was an early lesson I learned. In the beginning, I kept on losing our volunteer software engineers. It’s such important talent. They help us build the platform. Why do we keep on losing them? I realized it’s because in the day-to-day, I didn’t have an excuse to talk to them. Instead of doing the thing that you said, let me not constantly talk to them because you’re wasting their precious time. Why would I give them an update on this side of the business when it’s not relevant to the code they’re building? What happened was they became too removed from everything going on. It wasn’t as exciting anymore.
Once we put in this weekly team meeting, where everyone gathers, it doesn’t matter what your function or role is, let me give you the broad update on strategy, wins, losses, etc. Everyone stays connected on the latest. You feel as close to that mission as possible. Every quarter, I ask volunteers if they want to switch these to monthly, biweekly. Am I repeating myself too much? Everyone says to keep it weekly. We’ll join when we can. Not everyone joins all the time, but it’s an important cadence to set.
Last but not least, I do think there is an importance as leaders to be a bit of the recorder and repeat. This constant reinforcement of the mission, the vision, why we’re doing this, our path forward. Make sure we are taking the moment to celebrate our success together. Share in the success. Every single person played a role even though I was maybe the one who had that really great call. Let me share the details, the feedback from the person I just spoke with. Everyone is in that building. There are different techniques I have developed to keep folks excited about what we’re doing.
Hugh: That’s priceless. There is another dynamic. I see this across the board. We as leaders, and I say we because I teach this stuff, but I still have the same problems. We are all human, and we err. It gives us a chance to learn more. One of the things we do is overfunction. We do things that other people can do. In doing that, we rob them of a chance to fulfill their passion by doing something they showed up to do. We have overextended ourselves, and then we head to burnout because it’s a limit to how much we can do. This volunteer piece, it’s getting them but also learning to delegate and get out of the way. Any advice to leaders on any of that?
Diana: That’s incredibly important and a critical point. Step one is learning you have to delegate. There is no way you can’t. You have to do it. I’m constantly- I have this Word document on my computer I pull up every day that is my critical to-do’s for the day. It starts with my top four to five priorities for the quarter. I am constantly staring at them, thinking about what are the things only I can do? I own that relationship, or it’s a thing that is a big bulk of time that is hard for a volunteer. There are different reasons for why it has to be me. But your reasons for why it has to be you have to be a high bar. You can make an excuse and make it all you, but that’s not true. Being crisp about that.
Once I tighten that list, it’s constantly thinking through where else do you need help? Making the delegation process an explicit one. The things I am constantly pulling up and revisiting are my to-do list, my quarterly priorities which I translate into monthly to-do’s for the team, and the org chart and thinking through where are the places I feel tight? Where are the priorities where it’s going slowly and it’s all on me and why is that? When it’s that, something’s off. Then you go figure out how to pull in other people and get it off your plate again. They are running around keeping plates spinning on those sticks, but I can’t be holding too many of them myself. Then they are going to drop. It’s getting that balance right. I do think it’s much more of an art than a science. Over time, you get that feeling and that balance right.
Then there is a bit of the listening to yourself. Are you burning out? Are you paying attention to your own self-care? All of those are signals of “Hey, what you’re doing is probably unsustainable.” The only answer is, “I have to delegate more.” If that’s the case, and you’re feeling that signal of being tired and feeling unmotivated and overwhelmed, go back to step one. Here are the things I thought only I could do. Here are the reasons for why it had to be me. You were probably wrong. That outcome is unsustainable, so let’s revisit. What are the rules that shouldn’t be rules? What are the things you have to train someone else to do? It’s a constant ongoing thing. The right answer now is different than the right answer three months from now.
Hugh: Before your final question, if people go to NBShare.org, what would they find when they get there?
Diana: You’ll find a lot of information about how our model works. You will also find a lot of opportunities to directly help neighbors in need. Every single profile you read is a person who has been validated by one of our nonprofit partners and their awesome staff on the ground who can vouch for the fact that this person is real, this need is real, and this need is at risk of slipping through the cracks. You can find more about how to help these people today.
Hugh: What is your advice for other first-time founders?
Diana: I think the key thing is that the first step is always the hardest. Push yourself to do it. By the way, it doesn’t need to be a gigantic momentous step. NeighborShare got going because my co-founder called me for 15 minutes. By the end, we were like, “Let’s go.” We just started doing stuff. Just do something to get the wheels turning.
For me, it started out with a tiny step. I did some research. I started Googling. We have this insight and this idea. My background is not in the nonprofit space. I don’t pretend to be a deep expert on social impact. I just started reading a ton and asked for connections to folks who could answer my basic questions. Depending on the pace at which you want to go, and that’s another thing where there is no right or wrong pace.
Hugh: Take the next step. Diana Zhang, you’ve given us a whole lot of good information in a very short period of time. Thank you so much for being our guest today.
Diana: Thank you for having me. This was wonderful. Thank you for the opportunity.