What happens when 15 of Sonoma County’s most interesting women nonprofit leaders get together? A lot of laughter and support bubbles out of the room. Partnerships and friendships are formed. Ideas and best practices are generously shared.

A circle of support is created.

In February, Community Foundation Sonoma County convened women leaders from Sonoma’s nonprofit community to connect and reflect. The Women Changing the County retreat provided these leaders more than just an opportunity to safely explore their organizations challenges and strengths, but to also look deeply at how to care for themselves to better lead their organizations. The retreat content was generated by real concerns, challenges, and interests that each leader expressed prior to the convening to best use each person’s valuable time.

The retreat was led and facilitated by Elizabeth Brown, Community Foundation Sonoma County CEO. She said that she was inspired to create the retreat to connect the many great women nonprofit Executive Directors she has met throughout the county. The guiding principle of the retreat was “accelerating trust.” Beth said, “I wondered if bringing these women together in a retreat environment could result in meaningful sharing and connection.” There was clearly great interest in this idea as more than double the number of women applied than were spots available. “These women absolutely wowed me. Not only did they share of themselves and create a support system that will be ongoing, but they provided each other with concrete ideas related to board development, team management, fundraising, and work/life balance that they are already implementing.”

“The investment of time was 100% worth it as a participant (BIG thanks to Beth and the board for being such visionaries) and I plan on following that vision for our organization,” said Volunteer Center Executive Director, Cami Kahl. “I am now looking to find the funding and time to hold a leadership, board, and a staff retreat to allow everyone in our organization to thrive in this way.”

We asked a few of these busy leaders to reflect on their experience together.

You used Strength Finders as a tool to learn more about your natural strengths and to better understand your fellow retreat participants’ role in our County. How will this tool shape the way you move forward in your work?

This tool was new for me and confirmed what I knew about my personal strengths and gave me new insights about how these strengths are used at work both as the top leader of the organization and when working in teams.  I also saw first-hand how this tool can be used to unite a group of people who do not yet know each other.  The strengths each retreat participant shared in our first night together gave us a glimpse into who they were and how we might best engage with them over the next 24 hours.  I think this authentic sharing of strengths, which is inherently positive, was a strong place to start what was to be a very powerful and engaging event.  Moving forward, I have set course on creating a leadership retreat for my team (our first in 3 years) and we will use this tool as our guiding anchor for the day-long convening.  I am so excited to get to know my team through the lens of our strengths and imagine excellent outcomes in our work flow as a result.

Cami Kahl, Executive Director, Volunteer Center

Keeping yourself healthy, happy and passionate was an underlying theme for the retreat. What new ideas surfaced from the retreat that you will be incorporating into your life?

The idea that allowing time for exercise during my “regular work hours” is not only okay but actually fosters creativity and drive, that it is restorative and NECESSARY has changed my life!  Also, that just 30 minutes a day of moderate movement COUNTS!  This “permission” and “license” to not run a marathon at 5:00 am but to simply build a “practice” of movement into my life where and when I need it the most is transformative.

Deborah Dalton, Executive Director, Mentor Me

What impact will the retreat have on your organization?

Ceres is a relatively young organization at 9 years old and we are still evolving our own best practices in many areas. I’m excited to have a peer group of organizations with different levels of staffing, different budget sizes, and different ages with whom to share ideas and experience. All of us on the retreat were willing to be completely open and transparent about what’s worked and what hasn’t for us, what we’ve learned, and the questions we are wrestling with. For the first time I don’t feel like I have to figure everything out on my own.  I’ve already shared something from the retreat with our Development Director, and I’ve already reached out to two retreat participants about different issues.

Cathryn Couch, Executive Director, Ceres Project

Your time together created an additional network and resource for sharing best practices, creative thinking, and skills. How will you leverage that network?

I felt a shared sense that we could call on one another at any time to talk through big questions, difficult situations or just to talk through an idea as if forms.  Most of us do not have budgets to support professional consultants, coaches or to attend conferences, so the investment by the Community Foundation in this retreat, essentially giving us to one another, was like granting thousands of dollars for professional development and consulting to each of our organizations.  Truly!

Deborah Dalton, Executive Director, Mentor Me

What did having this time and space with other women leaders mean to you?

It was one of the greatest gifts I’ve received in the 10 years since I began to conceive of and launch Ceres Community Project.  It was incredible to experience how quickly we bonded as a group, and how open and transparent we were able to be with one another.  The time away from the office, the incredibly inspiring setting, and the container that Beth provided allowed me to put down – for these 30 hours – the role and responsibility of being an Executive Director, and to see through the individuality of each of the other women that there is no “right way” to do this job. I was able to re-center in my own strengths and my own way of leading. And finally, I now have 14 friends, each of whom has the ability to deeply understand the unique role that I play at Ceres, and to support me in a way that very few people can. I look forward to strengthening these friendships and continuing to learn from one another for many years to come.

Cathryn Couch, Executive Director, Ceres Project

We loved seeing how you incorporated fun and community into your time together. Please share a happy or amusing memory from the retreat.

On the first day, we were introducing ourselves in our small groups using the results of the Strengths Finder.  With each introduction, the room would erupt with laughter, affirmations, teasing, cheering and supportive gestures.  It was like being at “Meeting on Sunday” in the deep South!

Deborah Dalton, Executive Director, Mentor Me

When I first arrived to my hotel room, I was overjoyed to see the big fluffy, pet-hair free bed, fireplace, ocean view and bright white robe that I jumped up and down on the bed like a 5 year old girl.  Many of us said that day, that after years and years of heavy lifting leading nonprofits, the notion of self-care and celebrating strengths and successes had dimmed, so the hotel room sort of symbolized the opportunity for renewal.

Cami Kahl, Executive Director, Volunteer Center

Congratulations to these amazing leaders; we are so proud to have each of you in our Community!

Nikki Buckstead,  National Alliance on Mental Illness Sonoma County (NAMI)

Soledad Cardona, River to Coast Children’s Services

Lisa Carreno, 10,000 Degrees

Cathryn Couch, Ceres Community Project

Deborah Dalton, Mentor Me

Melanie Dodson, Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County (4c’s)

Cami Kahl, Volunteer Center of Sonoma County

Melissa Kelley, Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation

Collette Michaud, Children’s Museum of Sonoma County

Lisa Micheli, Pepperwood Preserve

Cheryl Parkinson, The Living Room Center, Inc.

Amee Sas, SOCO Nexus

Mary Stompe, Petaluma Ecumenical Properties (PEP Housing)

Alena Wall, Northern California Center for Well-Being

Laura Zimmerman, Sonoma Valley Education Foundation

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