October 15, 2019
Joanne Foster Encourages Her Staff to Impact the Organization

Joanne Foster: We want to ensure that we will be here for the long run
Joanne Foster, executive director at HOPE (House of Peace and Education) in Gardner, says upon realizing that studying French in college was hindering her more than it was helping, she involved herself in a community studies program. From then on, she was hooked on the nonprofit world.

Now working nearly 25 years in the nonprofit sector, Foster says her experience shapes the way she leads at HOPE, an organization dedicated to helping women and children at risk build their confidence and skills to succeed in life.

Here is her story:

After I dropped French, I got involved in a community studies program. That changed everything for me. I had been planning on going to law school, but then I got an internship at the Friendly House in Worcester and I was hooked. I started working at the Friendly House after college and stayed involved in community development and affordable housing for over 10 years.

I started serving as co- executive director at the Oak Hill Community Development Corporation in Worcester when I was 27 – my first stint in a management position. My colleague and I decided to apply as co-directors and it turned out to be a perfect match. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had and I would love to find someone who would co-direct with me at HOPE.

On a personal level, our joint leadership allowed us to be engaged in the work at a high level, while still finding time to balance family life. I usually worked four days a week; it was a sustainable schedule. On a professional level, our partnership highlighted our different areas of expertise: she had experience in finances and fundraising and I was interested in program policy development. Together, we were the perfect pair. It is very difficult to bring all these skills and competencies to an executive director position, but together we had the best of both worlds to serve the community.

My leadership style has changed a great deal since my work with the Oak Hill CDC. There, I was only 27 and was young enough to think I had the answers to everything. Now that I have matured, I realize that part of being a leader means involving the entire staff. Here at HOPE, the organization belongs to all of us. We have a vision that each person here has the capacity and ability to impact our mission.

Everyone plays an integral part of this vision. It is not just meetings between the executive committee, the board and me – the staff is always part of these conversations to keep them motivated. I cannot motivate my staff with bonuses, but I can motivate them by making them feel accountable and responsible for this organization’s future. It should encourage all of us to know that we play an important role.

When I was serving as chairman of the board of selectman before arriving at HOPE in Lancaster, one pivotal moment changed my leadership style tremendously. A local on-call firefighter died and left behind a widow pregnant with two children. As a volunteer, this young man did not have benefits. The town was divided on this issue. The experience humbled me as a leader; I learned that I had to lead in a manner that was not about what I believed, rather what would help heal and bring the community back together.

This experience helped me realize that a leader does not necessarily need to have all the answers. Instead, a good leader will listen to people to understand how to reach a solution or overcome a problem. I have used this leadership style here at HOPE. I try to emulate what one of my old professors called the leader on the balcony – someone looking down at the people below to understand what they need from you.

I know when I’m succeeding as a leader when my organization maintains stability in our staff and volunteers and consistency in our programs. Though I have only been at HOPE for two and half years, the majority of the staff has stuck with me through the leadership transition. Even our 60 tutoring and mentoring volunteers keep returning year to year.

We are a small organization, so as executive director I need to make sure HOPE can ride these tough economic times. One of the things I have been working on is pulling us back to our core so we can come out whole on the other end of these times.

The future I see for us is continually building measured growth. We cannot successfully serve our target population if we do not continue to innovate and expand our services. I see a future of measured growth in the next three to five years to further serve the needs of women and children in this region. We want to ensure that we will be here for the long run.

As told to Jessica Owen, December 2010.

Learn more about HOPE by clicking here.

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