Cross-posted on VolunteerMatch!
In 2010, Exhale faced a number of challenges. Like many organizations, we saw our revenue go down and the demand for our services go up. Simultaneously, one of our long-time organizational leaders decided it was time to move on to other endeavors.
These challenges could have seemed insurmountable to many. The Exhale Board and Staff team considered the challenge, and, importantly, we considered our strengths. Exhale turned to one of our strongest resources: our counselors, who are volunteers.
The counselors felt it was so important for Exhale to continue to offer welcoming, non-judgmental support to callers and members of our private online community, that they opted to manage these programs themselves. A team was formed to lead this effort. Dubbed the “Transition Team”, these four women – Holly Carpenter, Erika Jackson, Danielle Thomas and Carolina Gonzalez-Vilar – worked in tandem to ensure Exhale’s programs continued to operate with their usual standards of excellence.
The Transition Team led Exhale’s programs for six months, until a new Director of Programs, Jovida Ross, was hired and oriented. Jovida recently asked the Transition Team members to reflect on their experience.
Jovida: How did it feel to take on a higher level of responsibility, managing programs as a volunteer?
Holly: Stepping into leadership during the staffing transition felt really risky. I had never done it before, and it had never been done before at Exhale.
Danielle: When I initially took it on, I thought it wasn’t that big a deal. But as I got more involved with it, I realized how important it was.
Erika: There was a point, midway through, I had this moment of thinking, “How much longer are we going to do this? Are we doing a good job?” I felt less anxious when we were able to connect as a team.
Carolina: Seeing so many different people work together to do one person’s job helped me to see teamwork in different way, because we really had to work together to make sure everyone was on the same page.
Holly: You all are such incredible women! I felt such great peer support, as well as received great feedback from other counselors.
Danielle: The counselors were really receptive; at first I worried that things would fall apart or that counselors wouldn’t respond, but everyone really stepped up. That made this role feel good. It demonstrated to me that Exhale’s counselor model is ingrained in how we work together.
Jovida: How did you learn and grow through this experience?
Carolina: I definitely have a newfound respect for managing volunteers and how different it is from managing staff. With each volunteer, you have to understand what their motivation is [for participating] and speak to that.
Holly: Being the Lead Counselor forced me to slow down; I learned that nothing works better than being present. When I read a call form carefully, and put care into my response, I formed a better relationship with that counselor and there is more learning for both of us.
Danielle: Communication with the counselors was so key; I really strengthened my communication skills in this role. I also came to realize the value of holding people accountable. I have seen this value at Exhale more than anywhere else. Our counselors expect to be called out if they don’t follow through, and because of this I felt really comfortable saying, “This is what you have committed to, let’s have a conversation about why it isn’t happening, and how you can be supported to make it happen.”
Carolina: It was important to me to step up and demonstrate my participation to the other counselors. I wanted to role-model that sense of responsibility and teamwork. That felt very similar to the leadership skills I use at work, so I was able to draw on other experiences in this role.
Holly: Leadership involves more grunt work than I imagined! It’s not just about being an innovator, it takes work and follow-through. My understanding of non-profit organizations also increased.
Erika: This was the first time I stepped up into a leadership role at Exhale. I always thought before that I wouldn’t have time to do all these awesome things. Now I know that being a leader doesn’t mean I have to be available all the time, as long as there is clear communication.
Holly: Taking leadership within Exhale helped me recognize that I am valuable and have something to give, just by being myself. I also learned that when I really care about something, I can go beyond what I thought my limits were. I care that Exhale thrives because I find it to be so valuable. Taking this leadership position stretched me, and I accomplished more than I thought I could.
Erika: I’m more vocal now at Exhale meet-ups. I’ve always participated somewhat, but it’s given me the confidence and opportunity to be comfortable being more vocal in the Exhale community. I know that I do have knowledge and experience to share, that others can learn from.
Jovida: Did the experience change how you think about leadership, community, or what Pro-Voice means? If so, how?
Danielle: From the get-go, I knew that the Exhale community is a powerful, special community. My expectations in this role were exceeded—I had been really worried about folks not being open to the transition and to doing things differently. But the counselors were really supportive and communicative. I realized that Pro-Voice isn’t just something we talk about to our callers, it is a value we hold with each other as well.
Holly: Before this experience, Pro-Voice was an intangible idea. It was different to work behind the scenes, to see how much care and training goes into developing Pro-Voice counselors. Exhale is really a refuge.
Erika: It made Pro-Voice a very tangible thing I can talk to people about, and it helped me articulate what is different about this approach. The fact that we were trusted, as volunteers, and empowered to have really major responsibilities really exemplified having ownership, which is such a big part of what the Pro-Voice experience means to me. Beyond abortion stories, here is an organization that took a really radical approach to a staffing transition. Now I feel compelled to talk to other people about Exhale and the Pro-Voice message.
Holly: I have become more positive at Exhale. I came into this work because of a personally difficult experience. It has been powerful to turn that around and connect with others. It feels like love. There is so much room for creativity in this work; it feels like there is a ton of potential! It’s exciting to be part of an organization that is learning and growing.
Accepting their Leadership Awards (from the left): Erika Jackson, Holly Carpenter, Danielle Thomas (Carolina Gonzalez-Villar not pictured)
Celebrating the Transition Team (from the left): Aspen Baker, Holly Carpenter, Leah Uberseder, Jovida Ross, Erika Jackson and Danielle Thomas
From everyone at Exhale: Thank You Holly, Danielle, Erika and Carolina!
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