Episode #10: Shawn Jeffers

Shawn Jeffers is the Executive Director of Little City Foundation, a large human services nonprofit providing services to individuals with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities throughout the Chicago area. Shawn is also an adjunct professor at Northern Illinois University teaching classes on nonprofit leadership and public administration.

I asked Shawn about his career history and he prefaced it by joking about how it didn't use to take as much time listing it all. He's been a direct care worker, a counselor, a clinical director (all within the space of developmental disabilities),  a unit director, a State facilities director, and a State associate director in Springfield. Then, finally, a nonprofit administrator. All of these positions dealt with human services, either in the space of developmental disabilities or forensic mental health. There are 102 counties in Illinois, and there are very few that he hasn't touched throughout his career. 

We delved into the differences between public and nonprofit sector:

"Cash flow. In government, there's really no sense of cash flow. No mission no margin, no margin no mission. Proximity to the people who hire, fire, and assess your performance is rather direct. How close you are to your stakeholders is immediate, too, which was much different than the State." 

We also talked about the relationship of Little City to the State:

"I often find myself in an adversarial position towards our funder, the State, because often times it's at odds with that of my constituency. I can't go to the families we serve and say, 'Sorry, I can't serve you.' We have to other means." 

We discussed Little City's recent merger with another human services nonprofit and the pushback of nonprofit mergers and acquisitions within the sector. There's a fear of loss of identity. A fear of unemployment. Shawn spoke about how it's critically important for his team to show the value proposition. 

One of my favorite quotes from the episode was the repeated statement, "No mission no margin, no margin no mission." Here's a good article that gives some context to it. 

Quote of the Show: "You're either at the table or on the agenda. I'd rather be at the table."

"They're really teaching the Harvard Business School way. One of our case studies was WIllow Creek Church. They were really promoting the notion of sustainbility of the nonprofit sector. My love and passion alone won't keep the lights on. It helps! You need it. But as much as I was this touchy-feely emotional leader, they impressed upon me the importance of understanding the situation you're in, and responding, and even better yet, anticipating where you'll be, and coming up with strategies on how to avoid it. So my language did change.

In regards to challenges of autism:

"The most remarkable and fulfilling for me is the commitment, love and joy, and the battle of families who are dealing with something that most of us cannot. Their purposefulness, their passion is inspiring. The family is a partner with Little City."

How do you manage your time?

"I have fun. My hobby is collecting and cultivating relationships. That's what I enjoy. Each of those instances has given me an access to very unique people...Every day my dad woke up with a purpose, and that meant something to me. I'm very much like him."

Our discussion on Millenials was brief and to the point (hopefully, this persuades the lot of you who are groaning right now to continue reading). First, Shawn reflected on what he would change about his career:

"If I could press reset, I'd enjoy it more. I wouldn't feel proud of losing vacation days. You can fool yourself into believing everyone needed you that day. No, everyone needs you at your best. I paid for those moments of 'one more meeting' and 'one more memo.' It's a marathon, not a sprint." 

With that in mind, I challenged him by bringing up how I thought Millenials sort of instinctively understand this point. Self-care, I believe, is hardwired into us. His response: 

"The challenge there, and this is just an observation, we have to find a happy medium. If I'm in surgery and the doctor says it's 9 o'clock I have to take my break, well, you're leaving in the middle of the play. Your vacation is important to you, but not so much for the person on the operating table. Work hard, play hard, and find the balance."

Advice: "You first have to understand you. Find out about your drivers. Try and find what sustains you, mind, body, and spirit. Care about something. And if you care about something that benefits others, you never grow hungry. You never grow starving for 'Did I make a difference?' or 'Did it mean something?'"


Show Notes: