Lynne Telford, the CEO of Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, spent the first 20 years of her career working in finance. In 2000, with her children grown and out of the home, she and her husband decided to take stock of their lives. “He always wanted to be retired, so he is,” she joked, “and I always wanted to be more involved in the community.”
Starting as chief financial officer for Pikes Peak United Way, Telford shifted her career from finance and industry to the nonprofit sector. While working for Pikes Peak United Way, Telford also spent four years as the executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, which provides resources and education to nonprofits in the Pikes Peak region. When the CEO position at Care and Share opened up in 2010, Telford jumped at the chance. “That job just called to me,” she said. “I just knew that that was the job for me. I love the really basic need related to food. With my background in finance and nonprofits, at that point I felt ready to take on the job at Care and Share and now I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years.”
How did you make the transition from the finance sector to the nonprofit world?
A lot of people helped me along the way. One of the first lessons I learned was from Cheryl Tolley, who was also working at United Way. Coming from my finance/industrial background I was so focused on, ‘We need to put our efforts where the biggest bang is and really optimize our work.’ Cheryl taught me a really important lesson right up front, and that was, ‘It is important to honor every single donor.’ Sometimes a small gift might be coming from someone who has a lot of capacity and they just want to test the system, but very often a small gift is coming from someone who doesn’t have a lot to give and this gift is very precious to them. In either case we really need to honor that generosity and philanthropy, and that was a concept that was new to me at that point. She’s right —and I still live by that philosophy.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I think it’s morphed over time because we’re always learning. My main philosophy is to surround myself with really awesome people who are smarter than I am or who have expertise or strengths that are different than mine so that we can really do great work together. I don’t ever think I’m the smartest person in the room, but I do think I’m good at pulling together those people that we need. It’s really our team that makes all the difference.
What do you look for in team members?
I think there are some things that are trainable and some things that are not. I look for a good attitude. I look for somebody who wants to figure out how to get it done. I really won’t hire somebody who complains about a former employer. I think that’s an excuse, right? I’m looking for someone who is going to see the positive sides of things. How do we get things done? At Care and Share we’ve seen some tough things to get through. I think of Waldo Canyon Fire, and the current pandemic and I need people who are going to look at this situation and say, ‘OK, how are we going to get it done?’ Not, ‘Can we get it done?’ but ‘How are we going to get it done?’
What is one of your most difficult leadership challenges, and how did you overcome it?
Right now we are still dealing with staff fatigue. We’ve been in the midst of [COVID-19] for a long time. As soon as we realized that the pandemic was upon us, we knew that people would need food, so we ramped up and we’re still ramped up. Even though we’ve been able to add some equipment and some people to help with the response, our folks are just working really, really hard. We recently took time, we took a day, to be together — on Zoom of course — and after that really great meeting, I wish I had done it sooner. We thought because we couldn’t be together in person would it really work for everybody to be on Zoom? We hadn’t done it and it’s really important for us to connect with each other as a team. There are about 60 of us in two locations, and we have people that are working from home, but a lot of our people can’t work from home. Forklift drivers, truck drivers, so it’s really hard for all of us to stay in communication, and that turns out to be real key to our morale.
What do you see as future trends in the nonprofit sector?
We’re seeing a lot more partnering between nonprofit and for-profit organizations. The nonprofit organizations do collaborate well together. We’re getting new interest from corporations. We have seen studies that say that employees are looking for companies that do some social good, and so partnering with an organization like Care and Share shows that — both in helping us financially, providing volunteers. Volunteering is a great way to do a teamwork sort of activity in a company, so companies are discovering that. We’re seeing that become more than a one-time interaction. It’s really becoming partnerships between for-profit and nonprofit organizations.
What advice would you give someone just starting their career?
First of all you need to do something that you really love. Some people think that nonprofit work is easier than for-profit work. It’s just as hard. Like any job, you have to have a huge enjoyment for it, or how do you get out of bed in the morning and face the day? I sometimes think of myself as just a big Girl Scout and ethics are super important to me, and the appearance of being above board is really important in the nonprofit world. Donors that don’t trust your organization won’t give to your organization. They won’t support it in any way. It’s very important to be clear about being straightforward and honest and letting people see the information related to your work so they can see that it’s happening just the way you say.
I think it’s important to never under-hire. We’ve gone out and done searches and spent a whole lot of time and thought, ‘Well should we just take the best candidate?’ We always do better when we step back and start all over again until we get that perfect person. I think they’re out there. When you find a person that’s really attached to your mission and has the skills that you need, it’s magic.
— Join Phil Long Dealerships and the Colorado Springs Business Journal for the 2021 COS CEO Leadership Lessons with Lynne Telford, 4:30-6 p.m., Oct. 7, at the Ent Center for the Arts.