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Deciding to SPNM: Turning Challenges into Opportunity, Learning, and Change

By: Alexander Roque 17 Nov 2022

Alexander Roque is the President and Executive Director of The Ali Forney Center in New York City. Alexander attended the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management (SPNM) Executive Education program at Harvard Business School in July. In the post below, he discusses his experiences in the program.

Do I have the capacity and bandwidth to do this? Will it be worth my precious time? Will it be too advanced or not advanced enough for me? Will my organization and staff benefit from this?

The cascade of questions that I sat with in deciding to apply for SPNM was just the beginning. In the ensuing months, I would come back to this dizzying list to add more questions and doubt in the face of seemingly endless obstacles.

I am the President and Executive Director of the Ali Forney Center, the world's largest provider of services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender young people who are rejected by their families, thrown out into the streets, and denied love because of who they are. The young people we serve are so traumatized that they have staggering rates of severe mental health issues. Tragically, they are made to feel so unwanted and unloved that they take their own lives at alarming rates. The work we do is high stakes and emotionally devastating. It is made possible through 300 passionate and talented coworkers who are committed to helping our clients rebuild their lives. Being present to support our teams is my top priority. I seldomly unplug from this work, even on vacation. Attending an immersive weeklong program that discourages interruptions is not easy for me.

Days after I was accepted and awarded a scholarship (thanks to the Harvard Business School Club of NY), we had serious and unexpected losses in administrative and programmatic leadership that could destabilize our agency. Now, more than ever, the agency needed me present to navigate through these big changes. I also had two desperately needed vacations on the calendar.

More doubt and questions worried me. Will I have enough time to figure out this leadership change? How can I keep our admin and finance systems stable during this time and be committed to this program? Do I need to cancel SPNM? My vacations? Both?

To say it was the worst possible time to attend SPNM is an understatement. Ultimately, I canceled one trip so that I could focus on SPNM.

I arrived at Harvard on a bright sunny Sunday morning, defeated, exhausted, and stressed. I was reeling from the challenges I had faced and worn down from a very busy year. Yet, within hours of meeting people from my living group, I was restored and ready for the week ahead.

Everything from the coursework, campus, and classrooms was what you'd expect from Harvard. Top rate accommodations, state-of-the-art classrooms, a beatifical campus, and more. And then, I found the magic; magic that no promotional brochure or info session could have captured or advertised, the magic, is within the professors. They were conductors piecing together a symphony, orchestrating enlightenment, and summoning critical thinking. Not only did they know nonprofits, but they were thought-provoking nonprofit experts. In their travels around the world, they studied the industry, the communities, populations, systemic issues, and every aspect of the work. They are scholars in social entrepreneurship whose job it is to change the world by helping leaders think and work through the constellation of issues nonprofits face.

It was an enthralling artform to learn from these gifted minds. They embraced the work with intoxicating charisma and curiosity. After the third lecture, I caught on to the brilliance of their approach and leaned into their delivery and process. It was riveting to watch them, lesson after lesson, skillfully guide us through challenging case studies. Each lesson plugged into the next with seamless genius. With every question they asked, a new system of thinking unraveled as a gift to us. You can feel perspectives changing and minds opening, yet what they were doing was asking us questions. It was us, the students, that filled in the spaces between the presentations and questions, drawing perspectives from ourselves and each other, or was it? They were dropping breadcrumbs for us to follow; each student had a path of their own, yet we were on the journey together. In comparing notes with others (part of the peer engagement that is built into the program), we more intimately gleaned unique and equally powerful lessons from our peers.

The entire experience was truly transformative and inspiring, it challenged us to examine and enhance our thought processes, ourselves, and our leadership. We were shown how others have navigated issues through case studies and presentations from leaders who have been in our shoes. Then, we were provided tools to help us think, tools to question our thoughts, and tools to lead with perspective.

SPNM was a catalyst for me, the program provided concrete and translatable practices, critical thinking and problem-solving tools, and a guide to help me cultivate my intuition, vision, knowledge, and experience. It also provided a network of peers who have become vital supports and thought partners (yet another part of the peer engagement was to present issues to our living group and listen to their perspectives and ideas on how to solve them).

And so, I left with new tools, new peers, greater confidence, and a new set of questions.

How will I bring these learnings back to the Ali Forney Center? How does this program apply to my organization? How will I use what I learned SPNM?

In the months since attending SPNM I find myself unpacking lessons and tools and infusing them into my work. Like a desktop reference guide or a parenting book, I look to SPNM as a What to Do When You’re Leading Social Change handbook. I no longer sit in leadership meetings questioning my vision, instead, I use the tools provided to help bring structure to them, one of the lessons titled Leaders Who Make a Difference, which provides gravity and structure for the challenges visionary leaders face; there is a complimenting lesson and tool around assessing opportunities. As we look at expanding our global reach, I have to convince our board it’s the right thing to do, prove to our leadership team that we can do it, navigate a field of worry from staff, and inspire our constituents to support us. For this, I turned back to SPNM’s lesson titled What Impact? which offers a framework for measuring scale and social performance supported by comprehensive guide on how to do so. When we’ve faced organizational culture issues and how we lead our people systems, I refer to the Leading with Heart lecture and learnings. On campus, this lecture set off an emotional avalanche of painful realities and perspectives; in my conference room the lecture and literature provided is used to build a stronger foundation for leading with heart and compassion.

I also brought the people back with me. Our living group has had Zoom reunions and almost everyone who attended SPNM is connected on WhatsApp; we share daily messages, celebrate one another, and work on not letting go of our time together, the lessons we learned, or each other. I can reach for my phone at any time for some SPNM encouragement, thought partnership, and an overall refresher.

As the colder weather and dark fall sets in, homeless organizations like mine experience increases in the number of people accessing services. For the Ali Forney Center, this painful increase is seen in the faces of thousands of youths who are denied safety, shelter, and love because of who they are. That bright sunny week at SPNM brings light to these dark days and offers me structure and a compass to get us through this heavy work. Tools, perspective, and support I never had before.

To learn more:
Visit: www.aliforneycenter.org
Twitter: twitter.com/AliForneyCenter
Instagram: instagram.com/alexroqueny