Interview: Sarai Johnson
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.
Thoughts on personal and professional development.
Jon Isaacson, The Intentional Restorer, is a contractor, author, and host of The DYOJO Podcast. The goal of The DYOJO is to help growth-minded restoration professionals shorten their DANG learning curve for personal and professional development. You can watch The DYOJO Podcast on YouTube on Thursdays or listen on your favorite podcast platform.