A few weeks ago, we were able to get the whole team together at our headquarters here in Nashville for a staff retreat. Since the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020, we have been mostly remote, like many of you probably have, and we’ve had to pivot a LOT – from how we connect as a team, to planning for the future, to reflecting on how we’ve done as an organization. We’ve seen each others’ kids grow, backgrounds and houses change, and intrusive pets photobomb through a screen for well over a year now. So it was very nice to have this time together as a staff to regroup as a team and on a personal level, even for just a few days.
“Since the beginning of COVID — 18 months now!! – we’ve been rapidly adjusting and adapting to stay connected as a team and do great work together. Even when we scheduled the retreat earlier this year, we knew it may have to be postponed once October rolled around. But by God’s grace and mercy we did it! It was such a gift to be all together for several days sharing meals, brainstorming, reflecting, and starting to turn the page to 2022. We spent time digging into each of our core values, putting fresh language and life into them. In many ways, we didn’t know how much we’d missed presence with one another until we tasted it. What a gift!”
Co-Founder and Director of Operations
REVIEWING THE ORGANIZATION
Once we had all arrived in the office on Tuesday (October 19), we started off with each department giving an overview of how things have gone so far in 2021. As a staff, we enjoyed being able to hear each others’ accomplishments and highlights, insights we wouldn’t normally hear on a day-to-day basis, and how we’re all contributing to goals we have as a team in our own ways across departments. These overviews also helped us get ready to plan ahead (which we did later that week) and see how our various activities fit together to make the whole picture work. Here’s a rundown of what we discussed!
As we continue to work with our partners almost entirely remotely, due to the ongoing pandemic particularly in Africa, we’ve been able to continue our processes and even improve many of them, even though some of them used to be in-person. We stayed on track renewing grants with existing partners and successfully onboarded two new partners – BOH and OLPS – with new training materials and presentations. The onboarding process is extremely important even though it is time-consuming and challenging, as it sets us and our new partner(s) up to really understand each other and how our ongoing partnership will work. And our IDF toolkit was adapted so it can be implemented with a smaller group and facilitated by the partner instead of having to ask their teams to gather together in an outside location due to COVID concerns.
We saw a lot of great responses to virtual organizational strengthening events (such as webinars), and since these are so cost-effective and accessible, we really look forward to seeing what we can accomplish with our partners in this realm. They provide an opportunity for a greater number of partner staff to participate and can be archived for future reference, so it was very reaffirming that all of them were able to join!
We’ve also launched a new program in organizational strengthening, the Leader Collective, with our partners’ leadership! We’ve already facilitated four webinars, digital communications, and a five-session masterclass, with more to come as well. We’ll post a blog about that soon, but we are very proud of the ways it is already shaping up to be an amazing resource for groundbreaking organizations developing their communities.
We are proud of the relationships we’ve continued to cultivate in Africa, helping to spread the message of the importance of localized, community-based leadership. We’ve become more involved with the African Philanthropy Forum (APF), and our Director of Africa Programs is now on the board of the East Africa Philanthropy Network (EAPN). With the EAPN, we co-sponsored and had a session at their conference, organizing two peer learning forums, “Community-Driven Philanthropy” and “Evidencing Partner Strengthening.” All of these relationships help to build resources for our partners and provide some support for similar organizations!
Development & Marketing
We’ve been happy to spend more time over the past year connecting with our supporters, and we also rebranded our monthly donor community to the Fuel, a group of dedicated people who truly keep our work going in a meaningful, sustainable way. In February, we also spread our Choose LOVE message, for people who wanted to mix up Valentine’s Day this year through impact instead of the more normal celebration.
It was wonderful to see that our Back to School campaign surpassed its goal! The topic of menstrual hygiene management continues to resonate with people, as it is an extremely important part of adolescent girls’ and women’s lives and yet so many around the world still don’t have access to the resources they need.
Something that continues to challenge us is how to best spread our message of who we truly are and why our model is different and important. One thing that’s helped us get our message across in a different way is our TikTok, since we can make shorter, candid videos in a way we weren’t able to create and share easily before.
Right now you can learn more about who we are and how we got started through our co-founder Jena Lee Nardella’s memoir One Thousand Wells! Jena takes you through her personal journey of starting a nonprofit and figuring out how to make a difference as one person in a big world.
We’ve all had to continue to be flexible with COVID-19, but are so grateful that we’ve been able to stay strong and continue working with our partners in extraordinary ways, even if those priorities shift sometimes as they adapt to their changing circumstances. The only reason we have been able to do that, is because so many people continue to support us in spectacular ways, big and small.
Our team completed a new finance manual that helps clarify roles, responsibilities, and policies for the Finance Committee of our board and team going forward. This committee is one of a number of new board committees established to ensure accountability in our organization. These committees meet monthly, as does our team, to go over financials. We’ve grown in this area so much, we’ve already been able to start funding reserves for 2022, meaning that no matter what happens, our operations and our funding for our partners would be able to go uninterrupted for at least 6 months.
We also started outsourcing parts of our human resources, so that these processes are more efficient and transparent, especially since now more of our staff are spread out across the country (and world). We’ve been figuring it out over time and continue to, but we also meet as a staff several times a week to touch base on various subjects. Our full-time staff do performance reviews twice a year to decide our goals and measure how we’re doing on them.
We were so happy to have introduced two new interns to the team through our Vision and Call Internship, a program that enables us to provide experience and exposure to young professionals, expand our capacity, and prepare for future hiring.
“Especially as a new intern (and working remotely) the staff retreat was the first opportunity I had to connect with the whole Blood:Water staff in person. It allowed me the opportunity to sit down and talk with everyone, learn more about their individual roles, and better understand what I could contribute to Blood:Water. I came away from the retreat feeling more connected to the staff, with a stronger understanding of how Blood:Water operates, and prepared to do my job!”
Donor Relations and Communications Intern
LIVING INTO OUR VALUES
Later on Tuesday, we started our four values exercises that were dispersed throughout the rest of the week. Before we showed up, we read a few articles to prepare for how to think about our values (How to Establish Values on a Small Team and
Making Your Company Values Measurable), and each of us brought an object to represent one of the values. For example, I brought a little music box my brother bought me for Christmas one year and connected it to how it brings me back to the basics to represent our value of dignity.
The goal of this activity was to establish three to five behaviors for each of our values to lay the groundwork for a code of conduct all of us will follow. Each behavior had to be observable, measurable, and attributable to everyone in the organization, no matter their department or role.
For each session, we separated into small groups, where we were tasked with choosing no more than eight words, actions, or characteristics that come to mind when we think of that particular value, which we then wrote on a big sticky note. Once we had done that, we came up with clear behaviors for that value that we could do as individuals and would like to see others do, and wrote the three to five we agreed on on another large sheet.
After around an hour, we met up as a whole again, pasted the sheets together on a piece of wall, and went over what we came up with. As we had time through the rest of the retreat, we each voted on which four words and four behaviors between all the groups’ work for each value we liked most based on how well they fit the standards set.
Session 1: Community
Our definition: Ending the HIV/AIDS and water crises means seeing communities come together. It’s about teamwork and healthy relationships. It’s not just about what you can do; it’s about what we can do. Focus on the growth of a community, and its success will be for everyone.
Some words that resonated with us: empathy, diversity, vibrant, interdependent, safe, vulnerability
Session 2: Integrity
Our Definition: We do what is right even when it requires more work. We don’t cut corners. Ever. Our work is excellent; our relationships are honest; and our finances are clean because we believe in the mission and its life-changing impact on communities. We will always prioritize doing it right, and do what we say we will do. And when we fail, we will be honest about it, find a way to correct it, and learn from our mistakes.
Words that resonated: principled, authenticity, trustworthy, transparency
Our Definition: Working for basic health care can intrinsically foster dignity in a community. We want our actions and attitudes to do the same. When we tell someone’s story as he/she would want it to be heard, we honor the story. We are about inspiring people by sharing a humanized account of others, and therefore, being human to one another.
Words that resonated: intrinsic worth, value(d), ubuntu (I am because we are), respect, human(ity), honor
Session 3: Teachability
Our Definition: We do excellent work, but we are not perfect. Our values demand that we be transparent with others about the challenges and lessons that we are learning. We value listening and being willing to be wrong. Being teachable shows that we are less interested in our own pride and more concerned about the best interest of the mission. Our transparency doesn’t compromise the confidence of a donor; it builds it.
Words that resonated: courage, curiosity, humble/humility, adaptable
Session 4: Responsibility
Our Definition: There is a message of repentance that we accept because the world isn’t how it should be. The way we live affects the way others live. Once we are aware, there is a responsibility to live that out. First, we own the problem. And then, we own the solution.
Words that resonated: implicated, ownership, accountable, stewardship
It was really reassuring to see the way words came up multiple times across groups, and how there were ways we were all already putting our values into practice. And it was fun to see how creative all of our team members are, and the way we were able to trust each other to fully and honestly share our opinions and viewpoints to get the job done. Activities like this are so helpful to making sure that as an organization, we are living out what we say is important to us, not only with each other, but to partners, supporters, and everyone else that allows us to do what we do.
We currently have a committee distilling all of this information to later share with everyone as a code of conduct. To see what we chose for behaviors and for a deeper dive into the exercise and our values, stay tuned for part 2 of this blog yet to come.
“Our time together as a team gave me so much excitement for the place we are as an organization and the direction we are charting for the years ahead. While we have had retreats in the past, the kind of discussions we had and the values exercise that we pressed into were significant firsts. For me, It was an affirming reminder of how deeply connected and aligned we all are, in spite of being scattered remotely across the country and world. It spoke to our commitment to building a stronger organization deeply rooted in the values we stand for, as we grow our team and expand our work with partners.”
Director of Africa Programs
While we really did get a lot done together, it was also really nice to be able to connect personally in ways we hadn’t gotten to in quite a while. On Tuesday night Liz and her husband Brian, had us all over for homemade, wood-fired pizza. On Wednesday, musician Neal Carpenter opened up our day with some original songs, and for lunch we split into groups according to who wanted to go where. Thursday morning, Tommy Bailey, associate pastor from the Village Chapel came to open our day with prayer and devotion, and that night we went to Top Golf for some fun and snacks.
Friday morning, we closed out with a debrief of the whole retreat and some group pictures. Then everyone headed out their respective ways. This may have been a short time in the scheme of so long working remotely, but it really was refreshing to get to see everyone and really connect in a way we hadn’t all gotten to in quite a while. So here’s to hoping it won’t be too long before we get another chance to do so, and to the wonderful organization that got us all together in the first place.
“It was so great to have to have everyone together in the office having meetings, catching up with conversations and eating lunch together again. It felt like we’d never been apart but also felt like it had been years all at the same time. It was a great reminder of how much I admire each one of my coworkers and how we genuinely care about each other and the mission of Blood:Water.”