Adaptive Leadership and pivoting to meet the needs of The Avery Center
Updated: Jul 18
In the Foundations of Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship class, I learned many valuable lessons. One of which was the need for helpers to be considerate of the needs of the organizations and populations they intend to serve.
Coming into my internship at The Avery Center, I had a few ideas of what I thought the organization and the population they served needed. I based this assessment upon consultant work I had been performing for the organization over the course of several years. Even so, I started my time in my internship seeking to understand the needs of the staff and the beneficiaries. Setting aside my own understanding of their programs and engaging in active listening allowed me to better conceptualize their actual needs. By not pushing my own agenda, it was clear what I had intended to do with my internship would not best serve The Avery Center or their clients. Working as a consultant remotely from Florida is much different than spending hours in the office with the staff that dedicates countless hours to making change. It was time to pivot.
In many of the articles I read about social innovation and entrepreneurship a common theme emerged. Ethnocentricity hinders development and effective strategies for change. Often these examples can be seen in the paradigm of western cultures applying their frameworks to problems people in developing countries face. Yet, examples in the United States can also be found. The anti-trafficking movement is largely headed by government agencies, nonprofits, and faith-based groups. Survivor input is often lacking in many critical areas, such as policy work and legislation, direct service provision, prevention, criminal justice responses, and outreach.
What is unique about The Avery Center, a small nonprofit in rural Colorado which somehow has grown to have a national impact and reputation, is their centering on survivor experiences and insights. In sociology, there is an idea called Critical Mass Theory. Essentially, a certain percentage of people from an identified group need to be present within a system to begin having influential power. Usually, this is around 30% of the people in a system. At The Avery Center, there is a critical mass of survivors working within the organization, not only as beneficiaries, but also as directors, program coordinators, and board members. Being in this human-centered environment often inspired me to listen more and talk less.
So, a few weeks into my project, I ditched my plans to scaffold a new program on top of an existing program. The pandemic had a major impact on the job program for survivors. A self-sustaining business structure of selling donated items online became irrelevant once the market became saturated with recently unemployed individuals using the same online platforms. With more competition, items were selling less frequently and for less money.
This did not deter The Avery Center, in the summer of 2020, they seized upon opportunities they saw and started offering the job program to remote participants. They sought out new methods of selling used goods and capitalized on a business idea that had been previously discarded during a strategy operation meeting. A year later, at the start of my internship, and as the dust of the pandemic had started to settle, it was clear that all the real-time changes to the job program that helped it to survive a global crisis were now putting strain on the staff and the beneficiaries. Everyone involved in the program had the shared vision of providing economic empowerment to survivors, but how to get there and what support structures were needed was no longer clear. At the brink of opportunity and innovation, my next steps from this point was to dedicate my time to helping the staff reimagine the job program and design a program that could beneficial to survivors and self-sustaining in a post-pandemic world.