As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle Holly.
Danielle Holly is dedicated to creating previously unseen pathways for individuals to help their communities thrive. She is the CEO of Common Impact, an organization that brings companies and social change organizations together to create meaningful change through skilled volunteerism. For the past 13 years, Danielle has led the social sector movement to channel individual talents and superpowers as a force for good. She has helped Fortune 100 companies shape their community engagement and investment programs, supported nonprofits in effectively leveraging service for strategic ends, and built the industry-leading tools that enable companies and nonprofits to work together effectively. In addition, she hosts Pro Bono Perspectives, a popular podcast currently in its third season that highlights the careers of cross-sector leaders.
In addition to leading a rapidly growing nonprofit, Danielle is a member of the NationSwell Council and serves on the Board of Directors for Women in Innovation and Fan4Kids. She is a contributing writer for Nonprofit Quarterly and has been featured in Stanford Social Innovation Review, Triple Pundit, sgENGAGE, and more. Danielle has presented at major industry conferences including 3BL Forum, bbcon, the Points of Light National Conference on Volunteering and Service, and Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Nonprofit Management Institute.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
When I worked on Wall Street early in my career, I was exposed to the massive amount of money that was moving through the system daily — and how decisions were being made, sometimes poorly, around where that money was being directed. My day ended when the bell rang at 4pm and, with the disposable time that my early 20s allowed, I started supporting nonprofits in the area with their finances — modeling, basic bookkeeping, anything that was needed — what I would now call skills-based volunteerism. It was remarkable to me how much these small cash-strapped nonprofits were able to accomplish, and how necessary their services were to the community.
My daytime and evening experiences were, literally, like night and day, and I became fascinated and motivated by this idea that we have the resources that we need in the world — we’re just not directing them appropriately. We needed a mechanism and, specifically, we needed to give citizens the easily accessible, eye-opening experiences like the one I had — where just a few hours spent supporting a mission-based organization changed the way I thought about my own mission, career, and the ways I could use my skills and experiences to make a difference. I’ve now been with Common Impact for nearly 14 years where I work toward building and integrating these mechanisms into companies and nonprofits every day.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
As a major media organization, ABC News is a very fast-paced environment. When I was there, there was a culture of work hard, play hard — to use every hour of every day to be productive and every hour of the night to take advantage of NYC. “You can sleep when you’re dead” was a common refrain. As I was starting my career, I was very eager to keep up and be a part of that culture. I remember one day, in the middle of the day, I had completed all my work and had nothing that immediately needed my attention. That hadn’t happened before (and wouldn’t happen again), but I remember being so eager to keep going that I went into the footage room and organized all the tapes in date and alphabetical order. My boss walked in and found out what I was doing and all but doubled over in laughter. When he stopped laughing, he said something to me that I’ll always remember. He told me to soak in the natural pauses in life and allow myself to recharge and I’d see that I’d be more effective and more valuable to the people around me.
I’m still pretty driven and still like to move quickly from one big mandate to the next, but I’ve learned to detect when I need to step back or slow down to cut through the noise of my days. I now make sure that every Wednesday of every week is meeting-free so that I can pause, think, and reset course. I probably work longer hours those days, but I always end them rejuvenated and equipped to be a better compass for the rest of my team.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are many people who helped me get where I am and who have served as mentors along the way. I’m particularly grateful to my partner who has been an advocate of my work and has stepped up as a true co-parent when we had our children so that I wouldn’t have to be the one to step back in my career. He’s in a pretty traditional work environment (fast-paced finance), where there’s an implicit expectation for the “moms” to take the lead on parenting logistics. He took the overnight shift when our kids were newborns. He wraps up work early to pick up the kids so I can finish meetings. He takes vacation days when they have an unexpected snow or sick day. He’s been a great model of how men can support role balancing and support their partners.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Common Impact was founded in 2000 with the vision of creating a society in which all individuals and businesses invest their unique talents towards a shared purpose: strengthening the local communities in which we live and work. Our mission is to alleviate inequality by building the capacity of social change organizations fighting for equity through skilled volunteerism and partnerships with companies, the largest and most sustainable source of pro bono expertise. To date, we’ve activated 5,500+ skills-based volunteers on 1,300+ engagements for nonprofit capacity-building value of $40 million.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
When I first took on the CEO role at Common Impact close to 9 years ago, I knew it was a turnaround scenario. We were coming off of a really tough year, the year following a founder transition and revenues that were cut in half. The team was feeling demoralized, exhausted, and unsure of what the future held for Common Impact and their roles. I had that same feeling of uncertainty — there was part of me that thought I was taking the role to give the organization and its partners the graceful exit it deserved.
Even as I was staring at bright red budget numbers, I knew that team morale and engagement was the first place I needed to invest my time, energy, and the few dollars I had. As a team, we took a “retreat” to a tiny, leaky cabin. I laid out the challenge ahead of us, their crucial role in helping us overcome it, and my blind (potentially foolish) faith that we’d get there together. Between the intense strategy discussions in the morning and the fireside laughs in the evening, by the end of our time together, the team was ready to tackle the year to come. It was a hard year of late nights, small wins, and big defeats, but by the start of the following year, we were in a much stronger place together. The organization has had increasing revenues every year since. That time is a constant reminder that leadership is a team sport, and that people and culture trump numbers every single time.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No, but I don’t define “giving up” as me stepping back from a challenge or initiative. There are some battles that aren’t worth fighting, and there are moments when someone else is better off leading. The best thing that you can do as a leader is to know what meaningful contribution you can make and activate others to do the same.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Providing clarity and stability in the face of ambiguity and stress. You can be empathetic and vulnerable as a leader but, at the end of the day, your team needs to know that you have steadfast command over your organization’s path forward.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
This pandemic has been particularly difficult for morale because we’ve lost the opportunity to gather and to be physically present with each other. That story I shared earlier about building the morale of my team in a challenging moment couldn’t happen right now. The leaders that I have seen most effective have figured out ways to connect with and support their teams virtually, whether that’s virtual water coolers and staff retreats or providing resources to keep their teams mentally and physically healthy. The pandemic has increased the role of the employer as a safety net and a window into the outside world, and leaders who recognize and make good on that role will inspire their team to do their best work and remain loyal to their company and mission.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Honestly, directly, and with care for each individual. There have been many moments in the last year when none of us have known what’s next, how long a circumstance will last, or what might come around the corner. I’ve found that being honest about that is the most authentic and caring thing I can do, sharing what is known and has been decided, but also being straightforward about what I don’t know and might change. I also make it a priority to keep open lines of communication with both my team and our partners so that I’m sharing regularly and not just about the difficult news, but also in the vulnerable moments (such as watching the insurrection at the Capitol in January) and after amazing wins (like engaging 100+ volunteers in a day of service dedicated to BIPOC-led nonprofits last fall).
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
By connecting with your core mission and purpose — whether that’s your personal mission or your organization’s raison d’etre. It’s critically important to be clear on your North Star when a crisis hits. In an unpredictable or stressful environment, the “hows” of your work will almost certainly change and your ability to predict and plan will be limited. But, if you know your “why,” then you’ll know how to pivot the ways in which you get there as your situation, scenarios, and environment changes. You’ll also be providing a steadiness to your team who might otherwise feel whiplash from shifting operations and strategies.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Constant communication from the top. I’ve learned this the hard way, after over-relying on the leaders around me to communicate organizational philosophy or operations updates on my behalf. During a crisis, it’s critical that employees are hearing directly and consistently from their CEO on what leadership is thinking, what decisions have been made and will be made, and an outline of the path forward.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Scaling back CSR and ESG initiatives. In times of crisis, this work is even more essential. Businesses should be maintaining their community impact programming at a minimum and expanding it if at all possible. Doing so not only benefits communities and society, but also delivers direct returns for the companies themselves. Those with a strong sense of purpose and thoughtful social impact programs like skills-based volunteering are more likely to have stronger employee engagement, reduced turnover rates, and better financial outcomes, including stability in difficult times.
- Neglecting crisis preparedness and resilience. Disaster preparedness is under-resourced in every sector, even following a year that brought us crisis after crisis. While business continuity is one of the fastest growing departments within companies, it’s also often the smallest. And, we know that disaster philanthropy — whether for human-made or natural disasters — focus heavily on relief (98%), not preparation (less than 2%). In 2019, Common Impact published Disaster Response: From Relief to Resiliency to help companies and nonprofits think about how to engage with each other to better equip communities for all types of situations from natural disasters to man-made crises and now the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not possible to anticipate every situation, but you can prepare for the general events associated with a broad range of disasters, such as not having access to your usual physical spaces or resources, needing to pivot funds and personnel, or being able to communicate quickly with key stakeholders. Addressing these issues proactively means that when a crisis strikes — whether an attack like we saw on the Capitol or the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — you can have a plan in place, jump into action, and avoid chaos, confusion, and wasted time. We also strongly encourage organizations to develop cross-sector partnerships and define interventions in advance. Trying to do this in the middle of a crisis can be a recipe for disaster. It’s much more effective for all parties to identify colleagues, organizations, and groups that can provide support in difficult times before they occur.
- Purpose washing. Today’s customers are savvy and they see right through empty messaging on social and environmental commitments. They’ll remember who backed up their promises with real, sustained action and who did not. We’ve already seen this — yet again — with racial equity. Many companies made impassioned statements denouncing the brutal murders of Black Americans at the height of the racial justice movement last spring and summer, but have since gone silent. Real change will only come if our pledges to social equity are true commitments tied to specific, ongoing action and communication and if we hold ourselves accountable in measurable, time-bound ways.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
The pandemic has been devastating for so many nonprofit organizations, particularly smaller or BIPOC-led organizations that are so often overlooked for corporate or philanthropic funding. Although Common Impact is a nonprofit ourselves, we are in the unique position of serving as an intermediary and being able to bring capacity building and skilled volunteer programs to social impact organizations across the country. That means maintaining financial stability is especially important for us, because if we had to pause or limit our programming, many other organizations wouldn’t be able to leverage the pro bono support they need in these times.
It was clear early in 2020 that we were in uncharted territory and needed new strategies for new problems. Common Impact quickly adapted all of our skilled volunteer programs to a virtual environment so that we could continue to engage our corporate and nonprofit partners. I also made the decision to invest in people, committing to no financial-based layoffs and even growing the team mid-pandemic in order to expand our ability to deliver high-impact programs at an even greater scale.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Put your own mask on first. You need to be mentally and physically equipped to serve.
- Prioritize people and culture in every decision.
- Live and breathe your North Star. Know the “why” of your work, even if the “how” changes.
- Know your own blind spots, limitations, and contributions.
- Keep innovation and design thinking principles ever present.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Every morning I wake up thinking about Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” It means different things to me on different days, but it always keeps me from being complacent. Whether it’s in my personal or professional life, I actively practice moving myself outside of my comfort zone. I’ve learned that most things are much scarier when they’re left unexplored. And those that are truly scarier than they appear — those are the places that usually need my focus or attention. Those are the places where you grow and support others the most.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Check us out at commonimpact.org and follow us on social media! You can also find our podcast, Pro Bono Perspectives, on our site and wherever you listen to podcasts.
LinkedIn: Common Impact