Below is a recent interview with Michelle Lynn Cangelosi, Vice President of Transformational Philanthropy at Heifer International
What first nudged you toward partnership development and the niche roles you have had throughout your career?
I was fascinated by international development work and different cultures. I loved to travel and spend time with people worldwide, so I applied for a job with Peace Corps and got it. I started developing partnerships with corporations and foundations to advance and fund more programs to support communities with the needed resources. This led to other roles with international organizations. Many of my positions have been either designed for me or a newly refined one to utilize my skills in networking and thinking through complex arrangements.
I believe that there can be a multiplier effect when the right parties come together to solve a problem and this motivates me. It doesn’t happen all the time, but continuing to learn and staying nimble, while understanding what drives your organization is key. Limiting factors in developing complex partnerships can vary from not having trust to not being able to agree on roles, or lacking the expertise or capacity to follow-through on commitments made. It is imperative to understand both your organization’s and staff’s strengths as well as limitations. Then, you can endeavor to seek out partners that can fill in for any short-comings, that also would benefit from your organization’s strengths.
Describe what a typical day for you looks like.
A “typical” day doesn’t really exist in my world. I am fortunate that I can organize much of my time, but I am somewhat constrained to meetings, conferences, events, site visits, and strategic planning sessions that are often instigated by other parties.
I think I have had a very interesting career. Typical titles have included the word “partnership” because I forge relationships with various stakeholders. Throughout my career, I have worked alongside governments, nonprofits, corporations, and academia. Since these audiences can be found in different spaces, I travel often. One day I might be meeting with a corporation that has a mutual interest with the organization I represent and we discuss synergies and see if there may be a fit to do something together. The next day, I may be visiting a farmer in Nepal and learning how she has diversified her products to increase her income.
Beyond the activities of networking and research, my work entails strategic mapping and idea generation around programs that may have a need for other partners to come in with their expertise and/or financial resources.
In order to remain productive under what often feels like a loosely defined role, it is important to set a strategy and key performance indicators. There are also portions of my and/or my team’s responsibilities that are more concrete and hitting those targets is important to remain relevant.
How do ideas come to you, and how to you bring them to life?
An idea comes to me in a variety of ways. It’s rarely linear. I often read something or see something and it sparks an idea and then I lean on my previous science training – I test my hypothesis. Sometimes I am correct and other times I am not, but everytime I learn more and apply it to future ideas and scenarios.
Are there any trends that excite you?
It is not so much a trend yet but something we are all watching in the fundraising space – the Great Wealth Transfer. Will Millennials stand to inherit trillions and how will they behave differently to past generations in their philanthropic giving. There are not only more options to give to – more causes, more nonprofits with nuanced missions, but there are different ways to give and invest in humanitarian development and social impact structures.
Working alongside various impact investors, venture philanthropists and others to see what solutions we could forge is exciting. All the while, knowing the next generations may have different interests, expectations, and ways in which they want to execute on their philanthropic goals is compelling.
Name a habit that makes you more productive.
I try to set my focus every morning through a devotional and take time to reflect on areas of my life that I am thankful for. I believe this makes me more productive and has begun to shape my management style, into one that is more thoughtful, compassionate, and vulnerable which helps my team become more productive as well.
Do you have advice you would give your younger self?
Life is not black and white, but rather variations of gray. I believe when you are younger, you have less experience across the board so you often can think of things more concretely. My adventures through travel, various positions, and volunteer work have shown me that while there may be norms, it isn’t always what you think. Spend more time asking why!
What is something you truly believe but that most others disagree about?
People can change. I have been learning that it may be easier to assume that people do not change but it is not always the case and tends to lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. All people have the capacity to change and many do when given the chance. I believe it is our approach to them that can often keep the cycle going. When you have the same expectations (and often bring judgement), it shouldn’t be surprising that people respond like before.
Recently, someone made a decision and when I asked how they came to that conclusion, they stated that it was their “four years of experience.” While experience certainly shapes us and allows us to often quickly assess a situation, and many times rather accurately, it is not always that clear and to assume so can be detrimental to relationships, hurt another person, or reduce the chances that someone could respond differently. You in essence set them up to be what you expect them to be. I have fallen in this trap, too, making determinations about someone or their behavior, especially when they have proven time and again how they will respond. But, is that kind? Is that fair? Is that how I want to be treated? Grace – unmerited favor, can break down cycles and allow people to change.
As a leader in the workplace, is there a habit or behavior you repeat would and recommend to others?
Reiterate, learn from mistakes, adapt, and stay flexible. I think this is a basic part of life, and the better you become at it, the more contented you become under all circumstances. Now, having said this, I also highly value SOPs – standard operating procedures. They provide guardrails and continuity when things are changing. They also allow visibility into your work from other teams, new hires, and provide clear guidance so that practices are efficient and normalized. I just keep them on Word so that they can be updated as often as needed.:-)
Can you explain one strategy that helped you grow your business or organization, and how it helped?
Scenario planning and having options of how you would pivot under different circumstances has helped Heifer International grow and remain relevant. If COVID has taught us anything, it should be that things change. Organizations that are able to modify quickly are better able to capitalize on those changes. While processes and protections should be in place, common sense and adaptability should also be part of your ethos to ensure that you aren’t left behind.
I have held two positions during COVID and like many, have needed to adjust my programming, staff relations and hiring, as well as become comfortable with a virtual, online world. This required different, nuanced skills. Most of my career has been spent building in-person relationships and reading a room. Zoom or other video conferencing doesn’t easily lend to being able to do that, so I have had to develop other skills.
Name a failure you’ve had and how you overcame it.
I don’t particularly like the word, “failure.” I think all missteps can lead to a better product, or more informed solutions. It is in proposing something and testing it that you learn, so how is that a “failure?” Perhaps I am overly optimistic but having a background in science and learning to take a data set and observations and form a guess as to what that could mean and being wrong is still learning and gaining new information which leads to your next guess being more likely to hit the mark.
I have missed the mark throughout my studies and career and to overcome it – you get up and try again! Thinking through what went wrong, where in the process, etc. is how you come up with better alternatives to the first try or tenth and that’s what matters. Rather than dwelling on the “failure” – take a more positive approach. What did I learn, what can I avoid next time, and what can I do to better set myself up for success going forward – are questions you should ask. And then, reflect. I write down my reflections often because in the moment I may feel things that pass and that I have a hard time recalling later. I also don’t want to oversimplify or exaggerate after and journaling can help me stay more accurate.
Is there a business idea or advice you’re willing to provide others free of charge?
It is an interesting question – I often think of products but not necessarily new business ideas but one that my head keeps circling around has to do with single travel at mid-life. There are lots of businesses that support travel in your 20s or in retirement at 60 and beyond, but what about in your 40s and 50s. We have the resources, often want to make the time, and are interested in active things – or at least I am!
When I travel, I take cooking classes, do something physical like diving or biking and also take in the arts. I want experiential travel. I would love to see this packaged for people that do not have the time or experience to plan it. I have been traveling pretty extensively for 20 years so I am relatively versed on what I want and like and which companies to look at for excursions, etc. but I do not think that all travelers or potential adventurers are and thus may find it very intimidating to start. Having a dedicated platform or company that offers these trips, would be wonderful.
Tell us about $100 you recently spent. What did you spend it on and why?
I was fortunate enough after a conference recently to spend personal time in Bali, Indonesia. For $96 I went on an overnight camping trip to a lake area with five other people. We experienced everything from great food, natural beauty and waterfalls, to visiting a local family and temples. But the highlight was joining cultures together under the Milky Way, star-gazing and singing along to a local playing the guitar. It just reminds me how connected we all are and the beauty that exists in the world.
Is there a piece of software or online service that helps you maximize productivity? How does it work?
While there are program management apps and other productivity software solutions, I find getting to read is a struggle. I often get distracted and can’t find the time so that is where Blinkist comes in. It is a subscription service that has non-fiction book summaries via audio, and often written too. I enjoy this because I can get the main ideas and yet don’t need to read through hundreds of pages. It also can help you decide what to read next – if you like the 15-20 minute summary then you may want to read the whole book for additional examples and context.
Do you have a book you recommend to other aspiring leaders?
My team and I are studying Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. It is filled with examples and topics on how to be more vulnerable so that you can be a better, more curious leader.
Brené says in her book: “A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” She notes that in order to build daring leadership and courage within your organization, it is important to create a culture in which brave work is rewarded. Yet, this can be hard to do as we often have classic behaviors that go against this type of teaching. The reason my team and I are studying through this book is to address straight on how we can be more supportive, have difficult conversations, and be real while remaining respectful and kind. I believe that this type of work has been critical to us having a more cohesive, productive team.
Do you have a favorite quote?
A favorite quote – who can pick only one? “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired and success achieved.” – Helen Keller
While not a quick, snappy quote, it resonates. Often in the hard moments, in the questioning, in the uncertainty, in the trials, you find out what you are made of and in that, and the perseverance that ensues, it shapes you into a more thoughtful, compassionate, and knowledgeable person. If used well, challenges become motivators and clarifiers and help to produce better future outcomes.