Make sure you understand the community need and pay attention to changing needs. If you’re a food shelf that serves people only every 30 days, but people need help with food more than that, serve them every three weeks! Be open to adjusting “the way things have always been done”. Be open to removing as many barriers to your services as you can. Just be open to understanding the need. If you are meeting a community need, that will be your legacy.
For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non-Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cathy Rucci.
Cathy Rucci began her career in the domestic Peace Corps as a VISTA Volunteer, where she discovered a passion to end poverty. She has been employed in nonprofits for almost thirty years, and holds a graduate-level Nonprofit Management Certificate from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and a Master of Liberal Studies with a focus on Public Affairs and Social Work. Cathy’s leadership at MORE, a nonprofit that serves refugees and immigrants in St. Paul, Minn., brings a healthy balance of the people-centered values of social work with the business-minded practices of management. Cathy lives in East St. Paul, Minn. with her husband and pets and loves spending time with family and friends, especially her nieces and nephews.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
Growing up in poverty that was a direct result of language difficulties is the life experience that most shaped who I am. My dad was a factory worker with great social skills and a very hard worker. His bosses always really liked him. But when offered opportunities to become a supervisor himself and be better paid, he passed them up, time after time. I believe now that he was dyslexic and avoided roles where his difficulties reading and writing would be exposed. That was the foundation of our low socioeconomic status.
MORE, the organization I lead, helps newly arrived refugees and immigrants with everything they need to launch a life as Americans, and a big part of that is teaching them how to read, write, and speak English. We also serve as go-betweens, helping them understand, respond, and reach out in English to landlords, utilities, schools, healthcare providers, service agencies–we don’t want language to be the cause of missed opportunities. Because of my background, I can really relate to families where English reading and writing difficulties are a barrier to stability and success.
You are a successful leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.
Empathy. I can relate to people. I don’t mean just our program participants, I mean staff, volunteers, board members, donors. It’s important to be able to step into people’s shoes and have some understanding about what’s happening in their lives.
Authenticity is also a trait I draw on. I’m an executive, but in my family, I am the first person to go to college, graduate, and continue on to get a master’s degree. I didn’t grow up in an environment where I was given a roadmap for success–my parents both dropped out of high school.
I’m totally open about my background. Many of the families who participate in our programs have a similar dynamic: the parents want a better life for their children, but as smart and hardworking as they are, they lack that extra cultural knowledge. I didn’t have it either. I didn’t think I was very smart. What I realize now, as an adult, was that it wasn’t about being smart or not, it was about language. I didn’t have the middle-class language that my teachers and college-bound friends were speaking. But I learned the language and the hidden rules. And now I help other people do it!
My final trait is that I’m an advocate. Our program participants have such great potential as individuals and as neighbors and community members–and need such comparatively little support to unlock it. Getting this message out to donors, partners, and agencies is a big part of our success.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
I hadn’t worked with refugees and immigrants before I took this role ten years ago, and I was surprised how strongly I could relate to them. The universal experience of poverty is an equalizer. Having lived in public housing and been the kid explaining and answering letters for the rest of the family, I knew their struggles firsthand.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
For new Americans who show leadership potential, we are there to remove barriers and give them career-building opportunities. Like being on the board of directors. It’s important that the board and staff at all levels represent the experience of the people who are served by the organization. I tell young people to get on a board of directors — you’ll see the organization from a perspective that is important, and you’ll get valuable experience. And even within English speakers, the “language” used by entities like a board of directors is something an outsider needs help decoding.
Everything boils down to language. Our mission at MORE is helping people grow language: English, systems, body language–the language of your new country.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
The people we serve. When you understand the experience of refugees and immigrants, the fact they can get up every single day, go to work in a new country, come to MORE to learn English as adults or whatever they need to do to make sure their family’s needs are met is so impressive. They’ve experienced traumas before they came here. Resettlement is traumatic. But they remain so motivated and driven to take advantage of every opportunity. It’s extremely inspiring.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
When I first started working at MORE, my office was located right by the advocate we employ to help support our families — and we’d chat about problems people came to see her for. In summer, a woman came and asked if there was any way MORE could buy her family a fan. They were so hot, and they didn’t have anything to keep them cool. My staff member found out that they had been settled in America in the wintertime, so no one ever explained what their window air conditioner was, or how to use it. Sometimes, the solutions are so easy.
A different family got a cease and desist letter from their landlord. They were causing water damage in the apartment below them. We figured out what was happening — no one had told them that they take a bath in the bathtub. In the refugee camp they tossed a bucket of water over their bodies. They were filling the bathtub with water and then standing outside of it, throwing the water on themselves. Unless someone tells you, how would you know?
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
We want to help refugees and immigrants get everything they need to succeed. Anyone can help by donating money or household items, volunteering in-person, join a board of directors. Understand and acknowledge the value that refugees and immigrants bring to our community.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.
- Make sure you understand the community need and pay attention to changing needs. If you’re a food shelf that serves people only every 30 days, but people need help with food more than that, serve them every three weeks! Be open to adjusting “the way things have always been done”. Be open to removing as many barriers to your services as you can. Just be open to understanding the need. If you are meeting a community need, that will be your legacy.
- Have a board of directors that is not only engaged, but truly understands their role. I see time and again where orgs have a board of directors that doesn’t understand what they’re doing. That’s ineffective.
- When leading a nonprofit, there must be a balance between serving the people and managing the organization. You can’t sacrifice one for the other. Make sure you are serving within your means. If you don’t have the funding for a special project this year, then it can’t happen. It isn’t easy to tell people No but sometimes, it must be done for the organization to remain financially viable.
- Support the next generation of leaders. When managing staff, provide them with opportunities that aren’t always available in beginning level positions — it’s important to get people supervising someone else as soon as you can. In social services, you see amazing social workers get promoted, become supervisors, and they’re terrible at it, because no one told them how to do it. Offer not only opportunities, but training, too– so they can gain experience. I am constantly scanning for supervision opportunities for my staff. It doesn’t have to be hierarchical. But to create a legacy, it’s our responsibility to support this important life skill.
- Provide financial management basics to everyone within the organization. In my experience, most non-management level nonprofit employees don’t understand even the basics of nonprofit financial management. What I learned was, the people in the organization with the financial information were the people with the power. It is very important that that power should be distributed throughout the organization. When we do board recruitment, I tell everyone that I will teach them about nonprofit financial management. I want to empower them. It’s another way you balance the people with the organization and helps everyone buy in and make better decisions. Then staff feel like they have a part in it and can see the impact.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
I feel like it’s a success when we are doing in-person programming and keeping everyone safe. Two years ago, that wasn’t even on our radar.
A win that happened through Covid — it’s important to us to offer our participants choice in everything they do, especially around our free food distribution every Friday. At the beginning of the pandemic, we could only hand them prepacked bags. We eventually figured out safety protocols, and this fall we got back to shopping. Everyone must wear masks and it takes a little longer for our participants, but we’re being safe and it’s so much better. Choice is so important. Especially when working with victims of trauma.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
I remind myself that MORE makes a tremendous impact when it’s needed, and there is still a need in the community.
Nonprofits close all the time- not every nonprofit is meant to be around for 100 years. MORE went through a financial crisis a few years ago when the people we serve who are newly arrived and in need of those services were targeted by policies. Our numbers for those programs started going way down. But participation in our basic needs program was going up. Unemployment numbers were very low, so people were working, but not making enough to meet basic needs. We have a two-pronged approach. Looking at the longer term, we provide English lessons and workforce readiness, but looking at this moment, maybe there’s no food at home. If we provide a bag of food, you can get through the weekend, you didn’t have to put your money towards food, and instead you put that money in your gas tank so you can get to work. That’s what made me fight for MORE — we make a big difference in people’s lives.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Right now, that person would be Brene Brown. Continuing to build my leadership skills is a priority for me. A few years ago, I read Dare to Lead, and was so inspired by it. I recognized so much of myself and felt validated. My gut tells me to be myself, that I can’t go wrong if I am myself. For me, that’s being vulnerable — that’s at the basis of her work. She talks about vulnerability and leadership. I had heard my entire career that I was feeling things too much. That showing emotions is showing weakness. Brene Brown’s work has taught me otherwise. Good leaders show emotions and allow and support others to show their emotions as well. We all must get through this together!
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.