Guides & Resources

APF LEAD: Leading with Empathy, Gratitude, and Action

Ian Adair

AFP LEAD, held Oct. 3 – 5 in Phoenix, Ariz., will include presenter Ian Adair who will be giving a presentation on “Leading with Empathy, Gratitude, and Action.” With an unprecedented amount of employee turnover happening within the nonprofit sector, AFP chatted with Ian to talk about how leading through empathy, gratitude, and action can address concerns regarding employee engagement, job satisfaction, and retention.

Ian is the CEO of the Gracepoint Foundation in Tampa, Fl., which raises awareness and financial support for mental health and addiction services. He is a three-time nonprofit CEO and, by focusing on winning donor attention, has influenced corporate and nonprofit teams, volunteer boards and front-line staff around the country. In 2016, Ian was chosen as one of the Top 100 Must-Follow Giving Influencers on Twitter, and currently operates a speaking and professional development firm, Strategy 27, LLC.

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

A: I believe my experiences growing up in poverty and part of the welfare system, and as a caregiver for those in my family living with mental illness and addiction, shaped my “why” for wanting to be part of the social service sector. As someone who has battled depression for more than 20 years, I feel lucky now to have the platform to help change the conversation around mental illness from one that condemns and diminishes those suffering to one of empathy and support.

I grew up mostly in Oklahoma, then moved to Missouri to attend Westminster College. It was there a guidance counselor set me up with an opportunity for an internship with a youth development nonprofit. This experience was transformational for me, and I finally declared my major the summer before my senior year. I spent most of my free time volunteering with local nonprofits to get experience my final year and summer following college, and after graduation felt my career path was pretty clear. At the time, I had no idea this path would take me all over the country serving many wonderful communities, while at the same time providing an opportunity to work with so many amazing people. Now with more than 20 years in the sector, I have had the opportunity to lead three organizations and present on stage in front of more than 20,000 people.

Q: One of your sessions is Leading with Empathy, Gratitude, and Action. Why is it important to lead with those three qualities? 

A: Nonprofit leaders today have a lot of administrative challenges to manage and overcome, some of which include high turnover, toxic work culture, low morale, and poor employee engagement. I believe leaders today have the responsibility of being “culture caretakers” within their organizations. For me, executive leadership truly has been a trial-and-error experience. I have been fortunate to take each opportunity as a chance to improve on the one before, and it was through this discovery I found these qualities to have the biggest impact within my organizations. Leadership has shifted from telling everyone what to do to empowering others. Leaders can do this by instilling in employees a sense of belonging and competence that leads to greater confidence in their individual ability, and the overall ability of the organization to have a greater impact.

Q: Empathy and gratitude represent feelings and emotion, but then you have action. What’s the relationship between those three? 

A: I would disagree that they are feelings and emotions – I would say they are responses to feelings and emotions, and as leaders we have control over whether or not to deploy them to our teams and coworkers, which requires action. Building a culture of empathy requires leaders to be proactive, and five great ways to do that involve asking questions; getting to know everyone; making people feel bigger than they are; modeling behavior to show that empathy is important; and encouraging people to talk about their feelings.

One of the best ways to positively influence your staff or team is through gratitude. As leaders, when we express gratitude that focuses on people and not just performance, is customized to you and your staff, and is specific to the individual, we help cultivate a culture of gratitude that can drive productivity, employee retention, wellness, and engagement.

Showcasing empathy and gratitude help you to become a better leader, and by including action, you are gaining employee trust. The thing that inevitably causes low employee morale and promotes a toxic work culture the most is inaction. A leader not willing to act on the organization’s core values or mission will always, in the end, lose respect of employees and create a “revolving door” culture.

Q: A lot of fundraisers are not in top leadership positions. How can your presentation help them lead up, down and even sideways? 

A: “Empathy, Gratitude, and Action” can and should showcase being a member of a team and as a team leader. Working in a larger organization can eventually lead to the possibility of managing those on your current team or those you have internally collaborated with before. Your leadership style has a reputation of its own and when your promotion eventually happens, your team or coworkers will have knowledge of your leadership style.

Q: Your other session is Mental Health in the Workplace. What’s the theme of that session, and what do you want participants to walk away from your presentation with? 

A: This session is about creating a culture of openness at work around mental health. Whether people realize it or not, mental health is a part of and can impact almost every aspect of an organization, especially pertaining to employee retention, organizational culture, and even a nonprofit’s financial bottom line. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime, while other research groups say it’s more like half of all people who will manage a mental health condition. It is likely that your organization will have an employee who faces these challenges. Mental health is so stigmatized that most people will not even talk about it, but how can we work in a sector where employees readily admit they are stressed, experience anxiety, and are overworked and underpaid, but not talk about it?

I want participants to walk away with three things: a greater understanding of the impact of mental health in their organizations, steps to help create a culture of openness about mental health, and strategies they can incorporate right now in their organization which will help create a culture that is stronger than stigma.

Q: How can we help overcome the stigma often associated with mental health? 

A: By providing safe environments, both in-person and online, to discuss, educate, and promote mental health and wellness. Another great tactic is through sharing stories across all levels of personal experience and recovery. This especially works well when leaders are vulnerable and share their experiences, or the experiences of those closest to them, to help create transparency and acceptance at work. This makes it easier for employees to ask for help when they need it because these shared stories take the fear out of their disclosure.

Q: How can fundraisers be more sensitive to their own and other’s mental health and how can they best respond? 

A: Concerning a fundraiser’s own mental health, I always encourage people to really take the time to understand the importance of self-care. The most important thing a fundraiser can do to promote their own mental health and wellness is by taking time off away from work. Because fundraising is such a calendar-dependent profession, we always feel we have to start on the next thing, so taking advantage of paid time off feels impossible.

When it comes to others’ health, we tend to go into “fix-it” mode. But mental illness is not a fixable disease, it’s a manageable one. The five best ways to support someone with their mental health:

  1. Listen: Really listen while they speak, be present, be patience, and show understanding;
  2. Judgment: Do not judge or be critical when talking to them;
  3. Contact: Stay in regular contact, using all forms of communication such as text, email, and phone calls;
  4. Support: Offer to go with them to get extra advice and support from professionals; and
  5. Respect: Respect their limits and do not pressure them to do things they do not want to do.

Plan to attend Ian’s informative and thoughtful presentation on “Leading with Empathy, Gratitude, and Action,” along with others, at APF LEAD, Oct. 3 – 5 in Phoenix, Ariz. For more information and to register, click here.

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