Alumni Spotlight: Jennifer Roccanti, On My Own of Michigan

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Jennifer Roccanti is the Executive Director of On My Own of Michigan, a nonprofit that helps make independent living possible for people with developmental disabilities. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Jennifer about her experience reversing a three-year trend of net deficits at On My Own and her experience in the Center’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast, with many important causes to champion; what led you to pursue a career in your particular field?

Roccanti: That’s a great question. My career has taken a bit of a winding road to get to where I am today. After college, I started working in minor league baseball, where I was a director of community relations. Even before college, I worked with a whole bunch of nonprofits, but college sparked a love for volunteerism and the nonprofit sector. I knew nonprofits would be part of my life in some way. Through my work in baseball, I started helping nonprofits raise money and awareness but it became difficult to maintain a good work-life balance in that job. So after baseball, I went to work for a consulting firm in Arlington for a year to learn nonprofit best practices, which was incredibly helpful. While I was there, I started volunteering at Miriam’s Kitchen, which is where I was when I participated in the Certificate Program.

Working with people experiencing homelessness was a volunteer job that I had fallen in love with in college. Every Thursday, I planned my schedule so I had no classes and could go to a local soup kitchen and serve dinner. Miriam’s Kitchen, and the work they do, was an incredibly intentional career choice because I wanted to do more in that area. In my more recent transition to On My Own of Michigan, the decision was made less because of the type of work we do and more about the kind of challenge the organization faced. All of my career choices have been intentional but working with people with developmental disabilities has been a great side benefit of taking on the challenge of turning an organization around, which is what attracted me to On My Own of Michigan.

Most of the people, probably all of the people on my staff, are here because of the people that we work with. They were drawn to working with people with developmental disabilities. You have to have passion if you’re going to work in the nonprofit sector. But for me, my passion comes from making organizations better, and I can do that in many topic areas. My passion shows up, but it shows up differently. It doesn’t mean I don’t spend time with our programs, because I do. I get frustrated when people feel you have to have immediate passion for the mission itself, because I think that grows. As long as you’re passionate about something that the organization does and you’re willing to put in the work to improve it, that’s what matters.

CPNL: In your first year as Executive Director, you managed to reverse a three-year trend of net deficits at On My Own, in addition to building an operating reserve in preparation for program growth in your organization. What did it take to help lead this change and financially stabilize the organization? What advice would you give to other nonprofit leaders that have to manage similar organizational change?

Roccanti: I love this question because it speaks to my passion for making organizations better through clear strategy and getting stuff done. So, when I first came to On My Own, and this is something that I learned through the Certificate Program and then through my experiences in the workforce, it’s crucial to have a plan for the first 90 days. As part of that plan, it’s imperative, especially in leadership positions, to listen before you do anything. In the first 90 days, I talked with all of our staff. I spoke with all of our board. I talked with some former board members, the founding families, and the people we serve to get a sense of what’s working well, what’s not working well, what we should start doing, and what we should stop doing. Collecting all that information helped me identify some low-hanging fruit in areas where we can immediately make our work better, things we can immediately stop doing because they are not positively impacting us.

That first year I got serious about what we focused our time on. It’s really easy, especially in the nonprofit sector, to keep adding, and eventually, your workload becomes unmanageable and leads to burnout. But I take the strategy of minimizing everything. I’m a minimalist at heart, at home, and at work. I tried to eliminate as much as possible to allow us to focus on what mattered. And at first, what mattered was getting money in the door because we were on the verge of closing because we couldn’t pay our bills long-term. So, I worked to secure from a couple of board members 5-figure 3-year pledges to help stabilize our operations and begin building up that operating reserve. I say that as if it was easy, but our donor pool is tiny. So, for small nonprofits who might be reading this, money didn’t fall from the sky for us. We had 2 to 4 board members who understood where we were as an organization and, thankfully, trusted me and my vision for where we were going—digging deeper than they had previously to make those pledges. So, it wasn’t like I could call a donor and say, hey, I need $50,000. We didn’t get gifts like that. A few angel board members understood where we were and what we needed and trusted that we could get there with some help.

I also had to make some staff changes. I did some restructuring to ensure our staff was aligned on what mattered and that the right people were in the right roles. Fast forward to where we are today. We have the strongest team we’ve ever had. So compared to where we were five years ago, that staff is doing the work of 15 even though we’re five and a half staff because they also know how to minimize. They know what matters. They’re innovative. They’re willing to do what it takes to make us better.

So, finances first, then getting the right people in the organization, and then focusing on where we needed to take our programs next. I came in in the middle of 2017, and in 2018, we started our strategic planning process to determine what the community needed from our programs. And that’s where we built our vision for the future, which will see us changing or ending some of our legacy programs and launching three new programs. We launched the first at the beginning of this year, we are launching the next one in 2023, and then we’re working on an affordable housing development that hopefully will be open in the next four years.

CPNL: On My Own is an organization that helps support people with developmental disabilities as they build and maintain their independence. How will your newly launched programs—Independence Prep, Independence College, and Independence Village—help to fill the service gaps people with developmental disabilities encounter?

Roccanti: We realized there were some golden nuggets that we could pull forward from our legacy programs into the future, but there were gaps in our ability to move people more quickly into independent living. Our legacy programs are our skill building program and our independent living program. Our skillbuilding program offers a handful of workshops and social activities each week designed to help our members learn independent living skills and build friendships. But you can only do so much in a classroom when people go back to live with their parents, right? It’s not experiential. It would be like participating in the Certificate Program, when you are not actually running a nonprofit. The lessons hit differently. So, through our listening and exploration process, we realized that what was missing from our programs was that independent living experience. And so that’s where Independence Prep and Independence College came from.

Independence Prep is for teens and young adults still in school. Here in Michigan, students can stay within the public school system until they’re 26. So up until that time, most are still living at home and haven’t had experiences away from home. Independence Prep allows them to see what it’s like not to have their parents wake them up in the morning, not have their parents lay out their medication for them, not have their parents remind them to eat lunch or make dinner. It lets them experience being on their own. It gives them opportunities to learn from failure. Not waking up with their alarm and being late for breakfast, overeating and not feeling well, or forgetting to take their medication. What happens then? We provide a very supportive environment that allows the families to see what independent living could be like after school ends.

Too often, we would get calls from families and parents who were in their seventies, eighties, and nineties saying, “My kids have been living at home for the last 50 years because after school ended there just weren’t any programs that we could afford or wanted to be part of. But I’m planning for the end of my life, and I don’t know what to do next.” Those are heartbreaking calls to get, and so we wanted to start engaging with families while they were still in the free public school system and receiving support. That way, they are ready to transition to independent living when school ends.

But we also know there is a gap in services after high school ends for those students who aren’t going on to a college track but don’t want to stay at home forever. We asked ourselves, what is needed? And that’s why we designed Independence College, an intensive, immersive, two-year residential program. During the program, you learn independent living skills in a classroom during the day, and then you stay with us at night to use those skills in a real-world setting. For example, you learn to cook with us for lunch and then go home and make your dinner. You learn how to take the bus, and then you take the bus with us to get to your internship site. Through our strategic planning, we found that what needed to be added was an immersive experience that supported and helped people transition to independent living more quickly.

The other gap we see is affordable housing. It’s not unique to people with developmental disabilities, but the vast majority of the people we serve live on fixed incomes: either government benefits plus some part-time work or only government benefits. While rents around here are lower than in the DC area, they’re not far off. So, it’s hard to live independently on a fixed income here. That’s where Independence Village comes in. Our affordable housing program is for people with and without developmental disabilities, so it’s an inclusive space supported by our community. The support services we currently provide in our independent living program will be offered on-site.

Another problem we’ve observed within our organization and other organizations serving people with developmental disabilities is that we can easily fall into the trap of shifting dependency from the family unit to the organizational unit. And that’s not what we want to do. We want to be a support system for people, but we aren’t interested in making people dependent on us to live independently. We are very much in the teach a person to fish camp instead of giving them fish, even though it’s sometimes easier to give people fish than teach them how to fish. So, in the last few years, we’ve shifted more of our model to that educational space. Our hope is that once you go through Independence Prep, you’re then ready to transition seamlessly into Independence College, and once you finish Independence College, you need a much lower level of ongoing support to maintain your independence within Independence Village.

CPNL: What is one significant challenge you have faced as a leader in the nonprofit sector?

Roccanti: I think, especially in my role as Executive Director, it flows between 2 camps. One is finances. One is staff. I don’t think that’s unique. I’m sure you hear that from everyone you talk with but let me try and put a unique spin on those if I can. So first, finances in the nonprofit sector and how we get funding. I don’t know the right word, but on the contributed revenue side of donations, we sometimes twist ourselves into a pretzel to be palatable to people. Certain foundations require specific formats. Other foundations require other formats. Some donors won’t fund certain causes, and others won’t fund other causes. So many restrictions and requirements are put on nonprofits to get minimal funding. I know in the nonprofit sector we don’t like saying this, but it can feel like we’re all fighting against each other.

What’s unique about On My Own, compared to my experience at Miriam’s Kitchen, is that at Miriam’s we were primarily funded through donations. That shifted a bit over the years as more money came in from the supportive housing they offer, but most of the funds came from contributions. When I arrived at On My Own of Michigan, it was about 50% donations and 50% fees for the services that we are providing. At first, I was like, “oh my gosh, a nonprofit charging its clients to use its services?” Coming from Miriam’s Kitchen, that felt so foreign and almost grotesque because I hadn’t yet understood from an Executive Director’s standpoint how important it is to have an earned revenue stream. So, in the future, especially as our vision takes shape, we will probably get most of our funding from earned revenue, not all coming from the people that we serve directly, but through providing services that the government or other people might want to pay for, because we’re saving them money in other ways.

We are in a strong enough financial place now to think about these big projects we want to launch. But it won’t be easy to raise the revenue we will need for these big bets. We need at least 1.5 million dollars in cash to do our affordable housing project. I will have to return to our small donor pool to ask for money. I will have to find many new funders who will give us the startup capital to bring affordable housing to Metro Detroit. That’s not easy, so as much as we believe in our vision and the work that we do, the importance of the work we do, we have to fight for every dollar, and it just makes the annual budgeting cycle hard.

What I’ve always promised to do is put our staff in that budget first and make cuts everywhere else for as long as I can because staffing is the other bucket that is hard in a few ways. It’s hard finding the right people who have the ability and the willingness to always look for better ways of doing our work. People who come to the work with a shared philosophy for how we provide services to our clients. So that’s been tricky, but as I’ve said before, we’ve currently got the best staff that we’ve ever had. That’s come through trial and error and having to make some hard decisions.

CPNL: How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?

Roccanti: I think most of all, the Certificate Program specifically, and the other education I’ve added on since then, has helped build my confidence, especially as an Executive Director. It’s very lonely at the top. I heard that on my way up, but never really understood what that meant, and how isolating it can feel. So, having experiences like the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program helped me hear from other leaders and helped me tuck some things back into my brain for later use. When I participated in the Certificate Program in 2010, I was a Development Associate, so the lowest position in our small development shop. So, I had to tuck the lessons in, but I often think back to things I heard and reflect that I’m not alone, and this is tough for others, too. It also helped in my work at Miriam’s Kitchen. I’m trying to think what my capstone project was, but I remember it was directly applicable to my work, and it led to either a new project being launched, a promotion, or both. Overall, I am a lifelong learner, so if it was up to me, I would be in a classroom all the time and do the Certificate Program all over again, because it’s just so helpful to have the time to sit and think.

CPNL: What advice would you give to professionals who are considering participating in the certificate program?

Roccanti: Perhaps 2 things. Do it because of the time it will give you to pause and think, if nothing else. The time to think is incredibly valuable. If you’re anything like me, you’ll leave with dozens of ideas, ways to improve your work, and ways to improve yourself. So that alone is valuable, as is the time you put into connecting with your cohort and sharing ideas and hardships with the others in your class.

The other thing I’ll say is, I’ve only been able to do my 2 certificate programs at Georgetown and then my MBA because I got scholarships. I might have had to take a little bit out of pocket for my second certificate, but I found money to do it. Don’t let finances be a barrier. Ask your organization and ask foundations if they will fund professional development. When I was there, the Certificate Program itself had a scholarship program. I took advantage of that. So, there are ways to do it on a nonprofit salary. When I did the program, I was making $35,000 a year, so I could not afford the program on my own, taking money out of my pocket. But through the certificate scholarship and contributions from my organization at the time, that’s how I made it possible. So, there are ways.