Sarai Johnson is an entrepreneur in the non profit space and has founded a company Lean Nonprofit, LLC. She uses her unique skills and experience to help non-profits generate revenue, develop sustainable business models, create and launch social enterprises, and maximize the social good nonprofits can create. Just because an organization is operating in a non-profit or not-for-profit model that doesn't mean that they shouldn't incorporate best practices from strong organizations that operate in the for-profit sector. Sarai is proponent and resource for organizations helping nonprofit and government agencies of all sizes to utilize lean and project management principles. We are grateful to mother, entrepreneur, author and consultant Sarai Johnson for taking time out of her schedule to share her story with us.
IZ Ventures: When you started your studies in general ministry, what was your original professional pursuit?
Sarai Johnson: When I went to college, I thought I would be a pastor. I had known from a young age that I was “called” to something, and as a kid who grew up in an Evangelical world, pastoral ministry was the only thing I knew to do - besides being a missionary, and while I wanted desperately to travel, I had a really strong knowing that I would only want to do that if I could offer some kind of practical skill or information for people. I’ve never been one for converting people just because.
When I was a junior in college, I had a moment when I realized very clearly that I didn’t want to work in a church. I finished the degree course, because at that point, it would have taken a lot more time and money to change my degree. I have found the education I got was just right, though! I learned how to do public speaking well, how to be an executive manager, how to provide guidance and coaching to people, and gave me the time and space I needed to find my own philosophies about life, politics, and spirituality.
Was Allan Brothers your first "adult" job? What did you learn from your time working in the food service industry?
I think my first “adult” job was probably a different coffee shop I worked at for a few years. I was a manager there, and it was during a tough time for the shop and for the owners. I worked in the coffee industry for the better part of a decade and I learned a lot about how to manage and motivate people, how to conduct smart planning to reduce waste and increase profits, and how to keep customers happy and coming back. I also learned a lot of skills I carried into my professional career later, especially when my former nonprofit employer developed a regional food hub. I took that food service experience and applied it to social good in a really innovative and interesting way.
What was the primer for you to pursue further education and public administration at UO?
I spent my whole life until about three years ago aggressively pursuing every promotion and career advancement I could get. I was always on this upward course. I found I was at a place in my nonprofit career where I really needed and wanted to grow quickly so I could serve my employer at the time even better, and so I could help navigate with the organization as we had a big Executive Director transition. Public Administration was a degree that was in high demand in the nonprofit and public sectors, where I imagined I would spend my career.
Many steer away from non profit organizations but you entered NEDCO and worked your way up the ladder, what were some of the key lessons you learned working with them?
Oh man. I could fill a book with this (oh wait! I have! And with a bunch more to come! See books by Sarai HERE)...I learned a ridiculous amount of work and career-specific things - like how to not only climb the ladder to advance, but also how to build my own opportunities, and build my position as I went. I was able to create a lot of new programs and get a lot of new funding, and as I did, my position grew with the organization. I asked for what I wanted, and I got it, most of the time. I had the power to change things, and make them better for myself and my colleagues, and I was rewarded for that. I also learned that making yourself indispensable is a terrible idea (may have learned that the hard way), and that working yourself out of a job when you’re a leader is the best way to grow the organization and the opportunity for others.
Having worked in both for profit and non profit organizations, what are some of the lessons these structures can learn from each other?
For profit and nonprofit organizations have a lot of similarities. Some things, business does well. Businesses tend to be more focused on metrics (it’s easy for them - how many people are buying our stuff, buying it again, and how much money are we making). Nonprofits have a harder time with that, because what they measure is harder to quantify. It can be done - in fact, it MUST be done.
Nonprofits incidentally generate a lot of waste because of this limited focus on measures. For profits, on the other hand, could learn to think of the social good and be more aware of public policy issues as they affect everybody in the country. Nonprofits track this more closely because they depend on public support so much. Businesses have the opportunity to learn from nonprofits on this front, and the world would be better off if they did this.
At what point did you decide to pull the trigger and launch out on your own as Lean Nonprofit?
Full disclosure, I was in a pretty challenging position by the time I left my former organization. I was exhausted, burned out, and frustrated. My boss and I had some very toxic dynamics between us (we both contributed to it, and we both learned from it), and I had thought about leaving for at least 18 months before I finally did.
A year before I left, I started working on building a consulting practice, learned about how to be a consultant, and how to run a business of my own (it helped that I was a business advisor at my old employer!), and laid the groundwork. I decided to leave on a day when whole slew of things happened that made me suddenly realize I was burning with rage and needed to get out of there. I did, however, also still love the organization, and wanted to support them as best I could.
My boss asked me to take something back on that I had (finally!) delegated, and I said, “I’d be happy to do that for you as a consultant.” Then, I wrote her up a proposal, and they signed on to work with me in a different capacity. It was epic. (Read more on the story behind this turn of events - Why I Quit My Nonprofit Career)
What was harder than you thought and simpler than you thought about starting your own business?
It was harder than I thought to have the energy to do anything at first. Like I said, I was deeply burned out, and that made it really hard for me to get to work on booking new clients and all the things you have to do to have a viable business. I was lucky to have a retainer for about a year with my former employer. It was hard finding my footing after that, and it got harder when I realized nonprofits weren’t my favorite people to work with. Pivoting isn’t easy.
It was simple to me to create products and services and sell them. I focused online first, and then did a lot more local and national consulting in person. I found what I liked and didn’t like to provide, and adjusted my offerings accordingly.
Lean Nonprofit is not just about the financial aspects of making your dollars stretch, what are some of the keys to long term success that you work with organizations to achieve?
Lean is more about continuous improvement and reducing waste than it is about operating on a small budget. What I focus on with nonprofits is developing a culture of continuous improvement that supports people who work in the organization to try things in a thoughtful way, make decisions about how the things they try work (or don’t work), and measure and report on their results. I develop processes and systems that allow them to map their work, take accountability and assign responsibility effectively, and always make their way toward getting more impactfull mission results.
Now that you have been in business for a while you are expanding and collaborating further, what do you see as some of the keys to conducting business as a business without losing the heart of your values?
As a person, I can’t function outside of my values. Nothing is more important to me than doing what I think matters most - working with people for greater freedom, liberation, and self-determination. I suppose the key is to know why you are doing what you’re doing, and stay true to that. Sure, making money is important to me. I gotta eat, just like the next guy, but it isn’t the only thing that drives me. I could just as easily get by with a temp job doing data entry (and I have when business was slow! - read more about this in Mundane Gratitude), so I know I don’t have to do things that don’t serve me or my clients well. I find it pretty easy to let clients go when their values don’t match mine, or when they do things I find unethical or compromised. That’s something I’ve practiced a lot over the years, and I find it serves me well in business.
If you are looking for more resources regarding management, leadership, and transition coaching you can connect with Sarai through her website or on LinkedIn. If your goal is to improve your organization through lean priciples you can find tools through the Lean Nonprofit, LLC website.
Growing your career or building a team?
What is the importance of trust as you grow personally and professionally? Insights from Lola will help you as a leader, an employee and as a peer. Your personal development is in your hands, get motivated and get moving forward.
Read and see more 👉 Trust
Kids As Managers (playlist) break core principles down into their functional truth and provides insights that are simple yet deep. More to come in series Questions With Lola.
If you are looking for more insights from business leaders and entrepreneurs you may find what you are looking for in our interview series (HERE).
Video by IZ.Media
Creating a good working environment is not an easy task but it should be the goal for any company that wants to remain competitive in the current market where finding good people is often more difficult than finding good customers. When we reached out to multiple leaders across various industries, we found one ingredient that is key to developing a team that operates in the positive margins of employee engagement is the simple art of listening.
Danny Morgan, who is a store manager for a national retailer in Eugene, Oregon, shared, “I can tell you it’s not about the money no matter what they say, we all work for the money but it’s not about the money – ain’t about the fetti.” So it if isn’t about the money, what can leaders do to ensure they are communicating to their employees that they are invested in them as people? Mr. Morgan told us, “Every moment to listen, every second of praise and every time letting them know that they can come to you with anything knowing that you will provide a positive spin or reaction.” Listening to team members shows them that they are worth our time and that we care to hear what they have to say. Employees may not always come to you when it’s convenient, but it is important to remember to make time for them as what they share may not seem important but it could be critical to them.
Fire fighters know a thing or two about building a team. Team work is important to all professions, but it is critical when a group must band together to respond to life and death scenarios. Coy Morris, who fights fires with his team near Seattle, Washington, notes that, “Finding the common goal(s) amongst you and your team. Which in and of itself demands open and safe conversation.” Who initiates the process of establishing common goals and building a culture of open communication? For Mr. Morris, “I think the organization sets the mission, the team balances objectives with reality, but I think it starts with management.” Even though fire-fighting is dangerous, this alone is not enough to forge individuals into a strong team as there are plenty of dysfunctional teams that work in high pressure situations. Many of these teams are able to pull it together when necessary but how much more positive would the environment be if they were able to function cohesively? Danny Morgan reminds us that building respect goes both ways, from leaders to and from employees, “One important thing [to remember] is it takes time, one day at a time.”
Tom Los who leads a team for a local government entity in Moses Lake, Washington notes that listening can bring engagement as well as new opportunities for the organization, “I listen to my staff and then give them projects and tasks which mixes their job up. They really enjoy it. If someone has an idea, I try to embrace it as much as possible and let them do it.” When those in a position of leadership fail to listen they may be holding the team back from sharing ideas that could solve problems or push the organization forward. Service industries are built upon the strength of their team members to work together to carry the values of the organization through consistently on every project. Denis Beaulieu who operates in project management leading property restoration and abatement teams in Moorpark, California echoes the importance of listening, “Making sure that they are heard when asked. Have their ideas mean something and not just ask for an opinion or suggestion but try them and see if they work. Don’t discount anyone’s ideas or make yours more important.”
As noted by many that we interviewed, the catchwords and principles we hear from business leadership books go only as far as we are willing to apply them in our teams. What we want to know from real people who are practicing team work, leadership and developing organizations that operate on their values, is how they flesh out these principles in their day to day lives. Denis builds upon his comments from before regarding listening, “Empower people. They feel more a part of the organization when they feel they are part of it and not just working for it. Most important people want to feel they belong.” To be successful in a position of leadership, individuals must remember where they came from, what they desired while they were in the trenches and serve as an intermediary between the makers of decisions (the suits) and the daily decision makers (those in the field). Rex Fox who serves in the leadership team for a credit union based out of Eugene, Oregon, outlines a few key touch points relevant to listening, “Be approachable. Learn about the staff and what is important to them. Be trustworthy and trust your staff (but inspect). Roll up your sleeves and help when needed, but don’t do their jobs for them.” Rex brings up a great point that when we roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty being shoulder to shoulder with our team members there is an organic exchange between individuals that cannot be built any other way.
Listening provides a means to blur the lines between management and employees that often holds a company back from reaching it’s potential. When a person in a position of leadership takes the time to listen, they remind themselves and the whole team that we are all in this together. Much can be learned about individuals, teams, issues and opportunities by simply taking a moment to hear and receive input from those who are investing in the team, the customers and the culture.
Please note this is one segment in a series related to creating a good working environment based upon brief interviews that we conducted with multiple professionals across various industries, leadership roles and viewpoints on the topic. Stay tuned for more. Shoot us an email or comment if you have something to say on this as well.
Curiosity is not always a death sentence for the cat, sometimes curiosity can lead to very fun and unexpected positive life event. In my social media and local personalities peripheral vision I had been noticing for a while this guy named Rick Dancer who was utilizing aspects of social media that no one else was daring to dabble in. Even now that there are some experimenting with tools such as Facebook Live, few of them approach it with the personal touch and the collaborative spirit that Mr. Dancer does. Curiosity drove me to I reach out to Rick and he graciously agreed to meet up with me for coffee one fateful day at the Washburne Cafe in Springfield, Oregon, sparking a friendship. Anyone who has seen him in action with Live with Rick Dancer knows he is a rather transparent person, I was glad that he was willing to go even deeper for this interview.
Jon Isaacson / IZ Vents: Your past life was as a successful local journalist, when you look back on that leg of your journey, what are the key lessons you learned?
Rick Dancer: Television News taught me how to think on my feet. I naturally react quickly but you make a few errors publicly and you quickly learn how to avoid pitfalls and holes. I also learned to take my love of storytelling and put it to work for me. For a few years I tried to mimic news people and write textbook type stories. However, what really changed my style was covering stories of great pain and humanity. Soon, I chucked the journalistic style for my style which was telling a story from the heart perspective.
A significant portion of your story includes some road bumps which include phasing out of journalism not completely of your own accord, an “unsuccessful” run into politics and beating cancer, how has what many may look at as failure brought you to where/who you are now?
Failure is my greatest teacher but many discount the value of failure or the pain one must go through in order to discover their true story, their true self. In news I won a lot. I got awards, had honors and lots of attention from the public. Running for public office humbled and tried to destroy me. It took every ugly thing in my life and put it right in front of me. Ego lost much of its power over me. I no longer care as much what people think of me. Losing has given me freedom and I don't think you can be truly free without loss.
How is it that a nearly 60 year old man 1) looks so handsome and 2) is leading the charge in the state of Oregon to optimize the new media? How did you get into Facebook live and launch that into a growing local business?
At 58 years old my thought is we must redefine what it means to age. I surround myself with younger people, not on purpose, but because they are the ones who are the most help to me. When I ran for office my young staff had me on Facebook the day after it started. Social media is a natural for me and I use it well. Young folks kept me ahead of the curve.
We are using Facebook in a way many can't, won't or fear. Live has always been my weakness....I mean I thrive on it. A day after the live feature came out I was on there doing video's, figuring out how it worked and looking for ways to make money off it. Part of that desire is born out of desperation. Video production is easier and many don't need people like me to produce a video for them so I needed something to bring in the money. I found people who trusted me and launched "Get Real with Rick Dancer." Now we have "Live with Rick Dancer" and in November will begin "At The Car Wash, Live with Rick Dancer."
You must never get stale and that means being willing to jump on the next thing before others do.
You have a unique talent for drawing out stories, what is it about stories that are so compelling and how have you learned to bring those out of people?
I have always been a storyteller but the gift began as a listener. I was the kid who sat with the old folks at family gatherings and listened to the stories. Growing up I now believe I had some learning issues. Spelling was and still is very tough for me. Proper sentence structure and understanding the ins and outs of grammar have never been natural. For years that kept me from using my gift. I would not write because I didn't want people making fun of my technique. In the news business I discovered my heart and use of real language, real words, pauses, points and percussion in a sentence was much more important than punctuation, spelling and sounding acceptable to the masses.
This is what set me apart from others. Journalists used to poke fun at my techniques but none of them could match my ability to grab, squeeze and rip at the heart of a viewer. Learning to ignore them and winning numerous awards for writing, didn't silence the critics, but it made it so I didn't care, I understood what worked and used it.
For those who are looking to market their services and products, what are some key principles they need to understand about interacting with the current economy?
People today aren't just buying a product they are purchasing something from a person. They can buy a video from anyone but what makes my video better. It's not the equipment we use but the heart we bring to the story. People want to buy from people and yet many in marketing still look to the sell, sell, sell, in order to sell. What people want is you. They want to have a relationship with the person they are buying from. Purchasers are buying your brand. If a video producer wants to be the "Big Equipment Dude On The Block" that's their brand. Pretty pictures are nice but a story that helps you understand why the person serving you is serving you is far better than another drone video of your business.
People don't care what you sell or what you do they want to know why you do it. But to understand the customers why you have to first understand yours. Storytellers are curious people who are not looking for happy endings or even an ending but instead the passion of a life.
What projects are you working on lately that get you excited to continue with what you are doing?
My dream is to travel the country, the world and video the stories of everyday people. I want to visit the small towns, the nowhere towns, the overlooked "spots on a map" and unveil that place for the rest of us. I believe we are tried of the fast-paced get it done life. There is something soothing, sobering and peaceful about simplicity. But the problem is we are complex or at least we've create a complex way of life. In order to reveal simplicity in each of us, there is a process that only great storytelling can release. No one wants to be told how to live, but show me, show me how to do it through the words and actions of another person, and I may actually see it. So, while I love what I am doing I hope it blossoms into the next thing. I hope my world takes me on the road to the places less traveled. And of course, the trip won't be any fun without people like you to follow me.
As you look back on your life and the new chapters you are carving out what are some key things you believe are important for entrepreneurs?
Life is not about being comfortable. No, it's about learning to be comfortable with discomfort. Life is not about you. Yes, you have value and purpose but those around must always be treated better. What you do doesn't matter at all. Why you do it is all that counts. Most people will never get to the why. Oh, they say to help people but the real story is deeper and too many of us stop just outside the door of discovery. Challenging our perceptions and our lives is like walking on a sore foot that is tormented with a sliver. Instead of stopping to dig at it, cause it to bleed, drain the infection and pull the sliver out, we continue to walk on it until we get used to the pain. After a while we don't even feel the sliver but it's still there.
I am not the best father, husband nor am I the best businessman in the world but that's not my goal. I longed for freedom and now I have it. I longed to do what came natural to me and by learning to do things that are un-natural (vulnerability) I have found me. Cancer, losing, failing and struggling are my best teachers. While I would never purposely sign up for their classes, these educators continue to serve me well. Instead of trying to chase difficulty out of our lives what would happen if we look for it?
One parting comment: I learned during my political run for office that I can't please everyone, not even myself. But I can please God so now I live for an audience of one....or should I say, "The One." Thanks for listening.
You can find out more about Rick Dancer through his website, see him in action via Live with Rick Dancer on Facebook, as well as LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter (@RickDancer).
Jon Isaacson / IZ Ventures - More than coaching and consulting, we help you Connect, Collaborate & Conquer. #MTWSL
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