"In the beginning, the ReCity concept was presented as being more efficient, with greater impact at the program level, not at the organizational level. But as we’ve all collaborated, we’ve helped not just our constituents, but each other as leaders, grow in our capabilities."
-PYO Executive Director, Julie Wells
The Making of Unity Fellows
This past fall, a cohort of ReCity Network non-profit leaders began an altogether new journey of leadership development via the Unity Fellows program, the brainchild of Partners for Youth Opportunity (PYO) Executive Director Julie Wells.
The first round of participants included Geraud Staton of Helius Foundation, Michelle Young of Project Build, Adam Bernard of PYO, Syretta Hill of StepUp Durham, Reynolds Chapman of Durham Cares, Olive Joyner of Housing for New Hope, and Rob Shields of ReCity Network.
We sat down with Julie recently to find out how this breakthrough program, which challenges non-profit leaders on multiple fronts with an impact-first mentality, can change the game for the underserved communities through creating more effective non-profit organizations.
ReCity Network: “How did you come up with the idea for Unity Fellows?”
Julie Wells: “Unity Fellows as a concept was sparked by three different dynamics at play over the last couple of years. I had ongoing conversations with Dr. Phail Wynn, Duke’s Vice President for Durham and Regional Affairs. He has a strong non-profit development initiative, the Duke/Durham Fellows Program, and I was in their second cohort, where they were bringing together chosen non-profit leaders to support with the intention of getting them to stay in Durham and do good, effective work. My idea for Unity Fellows came from Phail’s response to the non-profit world here being so saturated. We talked often about why great non-profits have achieved greatness, as well as how we keep them great. He also liked, and supported, the merger of a pair of organizations (Yo:Durham and Partners for Youth) to become even stronger, more impactful non-profit as PYO.
Second, the emergence of ReCity has had a profound impact on our thinking, because of the collective work done within the network to strengthen and support each other. In the beginning, the ReCity concept was presented as being more efficient, with greater impact at the program level, not at the organizational level. But as we’ve all collaborated, we’ve helped not just our constituents, but each other as leaders, grow in our capabilities.
Then in the fall of 2016, I went through another incredible program, Leadership Triangle’s Transforming Leaders program. While I felt transformed and reinforced by my time in Transforming Leaders with Jesica Averhart and the amazing team there, I was sad when I left the program, as I was the only grassroots non-profit leader in a room filled by corporate executives. It was impactful training, but lacked the non-profit perspective in a big way.”
ReCity Network: “So, with those three organizations and their approaches to leadership converging to influence your thinking, what did you do next?”
Julie Wells: “Being at ReCity for PYO’s operations, we talked a lot with Rob Shields and other leaders in the network about how leadership and organizational stability are the two key ingredients for non-profit success. We continued to push ReCity’s thinking to have an impact at organizational level and not just programmatic in approach. We also looked at creating a leadership institute for non-profits—while Duke’s program was great, it had price considerations that would be prohibitive for many non-profits, and it only lasts a week. While Transforming Leaders offered a longer program, it needed to translate better to the larger, non-corporate non-profit community.
So, we decided to bring the three—Duke, ReCity, and Leadership Triangle—together to form something new, starting with a pilot cohort of ReCity Network partners. Dr. Wynn and Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs believed the services of this unified effort would be so impactful, they granted the funds to take care of two-thirds of the $2200 in expense for each leader, requiring only $500 and a signed letter from the respective board chairs for each executive to participate.”
ReCity Network: “Tell us about the program’s core principles.”
Julie Wells: “We operate from the seven sustainability goals established by the North Carolina Center for Non-Profits. Each leader would select areas where they have gaps or desires for improvement. For example, at PYO we are focusing on board management, development/fundraising issues, and re-articulating our vision and values for the future.
As the cohort is moving through the curriculum, we’re finding areas where each leader needs work, such as questions related to financial stewardship. Together, we find synergies among our group of partners and work on deficits together when we have them in common. For example, a pair of organizations needing marketing support might enter a joint agreement to be able to hire an outside agency when one alone can’t afford outside help.”
ReCity Network: “We all know that great leadership programs have an impact on executives both while they go through the curriculum and of course after they graduate. What’s been the early impact you’ve observed, as your cohort is just past the mid-point of its eight-month journey?”
Julie Wells: “in our very first session, leaders spoke about personal work journeys and the paths they took, from watching their parents' relationships to their jobs, to travel, education, and other influences. They found lots of commonalities. Especially compelling was the fact that several leaders had lived lives similar to the clients they serve, and that everyone was concerned with equity.
Also, we come together in agreement that impact for those we serve comes first, above all else, including ourselves. We are very intentional about saying, ‘It’s no longer about you, and you may learn that you’re not the right leader for your organizations.’ As we take that approach, we go through the history of each organization, how it’s evolved, and where it’s going, along with identifying the gaps in skills and leadership the organization needs to meet its goals for the greatest impact. We emphasize that this program’s biggest differentiator is that it’s not about strengthening individuals, but strengthening organizations.
As a result, I saw a majority of our participants feel really grateful to be able to tell their stories in a safe place, as some realized that they might be a great leader for the present, but not for the future. But that’s healthy, as long as they have strong transition and sustainability plans. So, they are making long-range vision plans for their own exit or to transition to roles that will better suit how they can maximize impact, such as heading up programming.”
ReCity Network: “What’s next for the Unity Fellows program?”
Julie Wells: “Any time you do something for the first time, you see ways you want to improve, things you missed, and notice what work really to amplify on the next go-around.
We have some ideas already—there’s a great creative tension among the three partners: Duke, ReCity, and Leadership Triangle. One example is to center each Unity Fellows cohort around certain issues challenging the community. These could be environmental, or how to serve our elderly, or even an academic approach to ending poverty.
Also, we’ve noticed that this group is so effective because as ReCity partners and through our interactions prior to joining the network, there are pre-existing relationships with baked-in dynamics and synergies, which allow the group to progress in its understanding of each other and the issues the community faces at a much faster pace.
ReCity Network: “Ultimately, what do you see as the endgame for these groups as they graduate?”
Julie Wells: “Actually, it’s a process of equipping these leaders, by stripping back the self and amplifying the organizational approach, to realize that the way forward is not through 4,000-plus non-profits operating in Durham, but a much smaller number of consolidated, efficient, focused organizations fighting the good fight, and doing it together even when they’re not formally merged, through strategic partnerships that benefit the organizations at leadership level and their respective constituents through better, more impactful programming that eliminates drivers of poverty and promotes drivers of success, all in an equitable fashion.”
Stay tuned for more information on Unity Fellows, a joint project of Duke University, ReCity Network, and Leadership Triangle.