A conversation with Corinne Cannon, Founder and Executive Director of Greater DC Diaper Bank
As Thread navigated the process of defining our core values, we looked to our Thread Spool for ideas and inspiration. Many of our partners live and breathe by a set of values and we have seen how doing so elevates the organization internally and improves impact externally. We asked our partner Corinne Cannon, Founder and Executive Director of Greater DC Diaper Bank, to share her experience with leading with values. The Greater DC Diaper Bank’s mission is to empower families and individuals throughout D.C., MD, and VA by providing a reliable and adequate source of basic baby needs and personal hygiene products.
Hire well! No, really, hire well! Create a team of people who all think very differently about the process to accomplish the goal but believe in the goal.
Thread: What process did Greater DC Diaper Bank use to define its values?
Corinne: “Process” makes it sound so very formal! And some of it was, while some came about without much thought but then we claimed it and enshrined it in our work. In many ways our mission has been our greatest guide – we provide essentials for families to thrive. And that word – essentials – is intentionally not defined as “diapers” or “formula” or “insert tangible item” because the reality is every family needs different things. We found out early on that some families have an incredible need for material items and other families have an incredible need to give back. We are there for both kinds of families and everyone in between. Because we’re not tied to items, we’re also able to be responsive and agile when it comes to developing programs that meet the needs of our partner network. We are an anti-poverty organization that uses tangible items, not a tangible items organization that addresses poverty.
Thread: How does the culture of Greater DC Diaper Bank reflect your values?
Corinne: We are families supporting families and that guides all we do. We have failed if in doing the work of being there for economically vulnerable families we fail to be there for our own families. Put another way, we can do incredible work and our job can fit around our lives — not our lives fitting around our job. I am wildly protective of the culture we have created – and I think our whole Team is – because we’ve created something very special. The Diaper Bank is very intentionally like no place I’ve ever worked! We hire carefully and we trust each other as the core of all we do. As a Team, we are all most interested in getting the work done well – that means being responsive and agile in our scheduling, in our ideas about how the work happens, and in our understanding of our roles. It also means helping each Team member set clear boundaries and molding the work around those boundaries as much as possible.
Thread: What do you and your team do to ensure your unique culture is fostered among your supporters?
Corinne: Transparency is the biggest way we foster an understanding of our culture and our work – if you invite people in, if you ask for help in an open and honest way, they will bring their best to you. When one person brings their best it both allows and encourages others to do the same. Multiply that by dozens of people, and then by hundreds, and we are truly blessed to have an army of supporters who believe in and carry our values forth into the world. Our entire Team talks to and interacts with every one of our audiences – partners, donors, volunteers – on a regular basis. Very early on we had two mantras: “If you want to help with this work, we will find a way to get you involved in a painless way” and “say yes.” Both brought us to some interesting places sometimes! We’ve added diaper/tampon drives to every kind of event and party you can imagine, we’ve spoken at some unusual gatherings, we’ve created a thriving Ambassador program based on the idea that we only need some porch space and your ideas, and we’ve opened our doors up to literally thousands and thousands of people of all ages, backgrounds, and ability levels. We have found that most people want to get involved in the issue of poverty and change it for the better, but they haven’t found an easy entry point. By being very open and honest about our work and inviting others in, we’ve expanded this community’s view on poverty and on their own ability to impact change.
Thread: How have your values guided you through the biggest changes as Greater DC Diaper Bank has evolved?
Corinne: Because we aren’t tied to one way of thinking about this work it allows us to question it. We’ve had two key points where we could have gone a safer route and we decided not to, and those decisions have been our best ones. We decided, against the grain, to commit fully to the idea of measuring program impact. Not just the outputs of diapers out the door or dollars into families’ budgets, but the outcomes and impact of our programs. It was a costly decision, but it was true to our values and our mission. It has rearranged our programs, our partners, and how we see our work – all for the better. We also decided to expand our offerings beyond diapers in response to requests from our partners and our families. Offering more items means we can more fully support families and it’s opened up the conversation with our supporters about what parenting in poverty means. This decision has impacted every aspect of our work and means we’ve outgrown our space in half the time we thought we would.
Thread: What advice would you give to other nonprofit leaders who are striving to build a healthy and consistent values-driven culture?
Corinne: Hire well! No, really, hire well! Create a team of people who all think very differently about the process to accomplish the goal but believe in the goal. Don’t hire yourself – think honestly about where you are weakest and then hire people who are strong in those areas. Invite people into the organization in an authentic way – you can’t just show everyone how great your organization is; you need to share your struggles and ask for help. Talk deeply and often about what you’re trying to accomplish together and why – think BIG on that issue and then really big on the SMALL details to make it happen. Build the place you’ve never worked before but always wanted to. When you trust your team and your team trusts you, what you can do will blow you all out of the water.