Education

Dawn Forbes DiStefano Brings to Square One a Blend of Passion, Business Sense

Balance Sheet

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

For Dawn Forbes DiStefano, it was the quintessential all-or-nothing proposition.

As the search for a successor to Joan Kagan, Square One’s long-time president and CEO, commenced last summer, Forbes DiStefano knew what few outside the organization — and probably few inside it, as well — knew: if she did not prevail in the nationwide search, she would no longer be working for the Springfield-based provider of childcare and other services for children and families.

That’s because the position she held at the time — executive vice president — was to be eliminated as the agency continued on a course of restructuring its top management.

But Forbes DiStefano, one of roughly 60 candidates to apply for the post, certainly had a leg up on the others — in large part because she was in that position. But also because she and Kagan had entered into what she described as a ‘shared management’ situation, one that familiarized her with all aspects of this operation and fully prepared her for the role she was seeking.

“I don’t think it was a shock that I was able to answer questions with more detail and probably more insight than other candidates, because I worked here,” she told BusinessWest. “But I worked really hard over the past 30 years to position myself to apply for a position like this.”

By that, she was referring to a lengthy career in the nonprofit realm, most of it at the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, but the past five at Square One, where she has displayed what she and others consider perhaps her best strength — an ability to combine a passion for the agency’s mission with a strong business sense and attention to the bottom line needed to make sure a nonprofit can survive and carry out that mission.

It’s a mindset that embodies a quote she attributes to Sr. Mary Caritas, the long-time president of what is now Mercy Medical Center, and uses often: “no margin, no mission.”

Her outlook on nonprofit management, and her take on her own management style and the need for that balance between business and mission, are further summed up as follows:

“My management style is direct, it’s collaborative, it’s mission-focused, with an acknowledgement that we’re running a business. And to a certain extent, as a nonprofit, that’s a tax status — it’s not a way to do business.”

Forbes DiStefano, who took the helm in late December, leads the agency at a time of perhaps unprecedented challenge — most of it brought on by COVID-19, although it was a difficult time for nonprofits even before the pandemic reached Western Mass. While coping with the pandemic and its day-to-day decision making, execution, and ongoing efforts to create an environment “not in crisis,” she is also planning for the long term and life after COVID.

“My management style is direct, it’s collaborative, it’s mission-focused, with an acknowledgement that we’re running a business. And to a certain extent, as a nonprofit, that’s a tax status — it’s not a way to do business.”

She admitting to disliking the word ‘normal,’ at least in the way many are using it now, and told BusinessWest she isn’t sure what ‘normal’ will mean moving forward. She will help create at definition, at Square One, anyway, while also continuing to build on the legacy and broad portfolio of programs she’s inherited.

“When Joan arrived, we were the expert in early education and care, and we remain the expert in early education and care,” she explained. “She knew that she wanted to focus on families and a holistic, family approach; she knew that children would thrive and families would stabilize and become self-sufficient if we were serving whole families. We have the foundation, and we want to keep building on it.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Forbes DiStefano about her new role, her long career in nonprofit management, and how she intends to apply all she has learned to effectively write the next chapter in this agency’s long history.

 

School of Thought

In many ways, Forbes DiStefano said, her career has come full circle. Well, sort of.

Indeed, she went to Boston College and then UMass Amherst with the goal of becoming an elementary-school teacher, although she never really made it into the classroom as an instructor, as we’ll see in a minute.

But she is now leading an agency specializing in early-childhood education, but not devoted to that exclusively, as it was decades ago.

Dawn Forbes DiStefano

Dawn Forbes DiStefano wants to build on Square One’s foundation of serving whole families, not just children.

Flashing back to her college years, or just after she graduated in 1993, to be more precise, Forbes DiStefano said she encountered a challenging job market and had trouble breaking into the profession locally. She recalled a conversation she had with the superintendent in Southwick, who happened to be her high-school principal in West Springfield, about her struggles.

“He told me that it might have been worthwhile for me to do my student teaching here in Western Mass. instead of in Boston — we hire local.”

After spending some time at home thinking about what to do with her life and career, she decided to take what she could find, and this was a job at the YWCA of Greater Springfield as a receptionist. She didn’t take it expecting to stay more than 23 years, but that’s what happened, because, well, “I found my home … I found my calling,” she explained. “I was just smitten by being surrounded by women and girls whose mission — and passion — was to make life better for women and girls.”

Despite this enthusiasm, boredom quickly settled in. However, she would soon take on a new and rewarding role, somewhat by accident.

“We would get piles of mail every day with grant applications, RFPs, and proposals, and told the executive director at the time, Mary Reardon Johnson, ‘we should be applying for some of these grants; we’re doing amazing work here,’” Forbes DiStefano recalled. “She sort of flippantly said, ‘I don’t care what you do, just don’t lie too much; practice, do whatever you want to do, stay busy.’”

She did all of that and started responding to grant applications, and in short order, she started to get some approvals. And this eventually led to a role as grants manager, and then as director of Resource Development, playing a lead role in a capital campaign and raising funds for a number of building projects and new-program creation.

“It was an exciting time to be a part of the YWCA,” she said, adding that, while her teaching degree came in handy in many ways, she never did enter the classroom.

In late 2015, with a change of leadership at that agency, she decided it was time to seek a new challenge, and to get some advice on what the next chapter could and should be, she invited Kagan out for coffee.

“With 100% of our families experiencing something, whether it’s poverty, hunger, or homelessness, we know that the majority of our children have experienced some level of trauma at some point in their life.”

In that conservation, she told Kagan she liked grant writing and knew there were opportunities for people with that unique and coveted skill. But she said she couldn’t write grants for just anyone or anything.

“I told her that the magic of grant writing comes because it’s something I care deeply about,” she recalled. “I told her I wanted her help because I had been offered a few opportunities, but wasn’t sure I could make it with those agencies.”

She wasn’t expecting to be given a job offer, especially because the agency had recently hired Kris Allard as vice president of Development and Communications, and wasn’t — at least initially. But she credits Kagan with sensing, and then seizing, an opportunity to strengthen Square One by bringing her on as a full-time grants officer.

But her role would soon involve much more than that.

Indeed, she would take a deep dive into the agency’s financial status, which at that time was “very unique and somewhat worrisome,” as she put it, and would eventually take on a broader role as chief Finance and Grants officer.

Over the next several years, she and Kagan would guide the agency through some difficult but necessary steps to stabilize the agency financially. These included closing Square One’s early-childhood education center in Holyoke in early 2017 — the agency still has a presence in that city with other services — and also a consolidation of services focused on infants and toddlers, with a greater emphasis on preschool.

“It was a very methodical and financially driven decision-making process,” she recalled. “And this is where Joan and I started finding a balance between the two of us. Joan is a social worker; she understands people and the strengths people bring to an organization, and she is phenomenal at program development. I think what I brought to her is an equal understanding of people and certainly the same amount of passion for children, but I really came to it with a fiscal mindset that we need to get this business financially viable.”

Through a hard focus on maximizing enrollment, creating efficiencies, and reducing expenses (often, again, as a result of difficult decisions), the agency, which was seeing annual deficits of $1.5 million or more only a few years ago, was at the break-even point for fiscal 2019.

“We have seen a massive improvement in our financial stability,” she said. “And we did that while keeping children and families at the core of what we do.”

 

Successful Succession

Forbes DiStefano told BusinessWest that she credits Kagan with taking a number of steps to successful transition to Square One to new leadership, work she believes will create a seamless passage of the baton.

“Joan reorganized Square One back in the fall of 2019,” she explained. “One of the senior-level administrators was leaving, and she [Kagan] took the opportunity not to announce her retirement, but certainly organize and structure the agency so it would be ready for when she was ready to announce.”

As part of that organizing and structuring, Kagan created an executive vice president’s role for Forbes DiStefano, one she said would enable her to make a desired transition away from the finance side of the operation and into a shared leadership role.

“From the fall of 2019 to the summer of 2020, we enjoyed that relationship,” Forbes DiStefano explained. “Joan was very mindful, very practical, and extremely generous in that space; I think some leaders want to be in a shared-leadership position, but then, when it really comes to fruition, they don’t want to be. Joan really lived it.”

As noted, there was a nationwide search for a successor, something the agency’s board, Kagan, and Forbes DiStefano all thought was necessary. In the end, she said her 30 years of experience with nonprofits, her five years in Square One in roles that exposed her to all aspects of its operation, and especially that time in that shared-leadership role, positioned her to excel in that search.

Moving forward, she intends to use all that experience and learning, both on the job and in the classroom — over the years she has added a bachelor’s degree in nonprofit management and a master’s degree in nonprofit management and finance — to guide Square One through the next chapter in its long history.

While doing so, she must first contend with the pandemic, which has tested the agency in myriad ways. Overall, she said it has been Square One’s goal to create a calm, safe place in the midst of the pandemic, and in most all ways, it has been successful in that mission.

“We’re making decisions minute by minute about the health and safety of everyone at Square One,” she said. “What we have done very well is read, digest, interpret, and then operationalize all the CDC and DPH guidelines for health and safety. We don’t want you to be in crisis when you’re here at Square One. We understand that there’s a crisis going on our world, but our job, every single day from 7:30 to 5:30, is to create a stable, warm, non-crisis, non-traumatic environment for children to be able to learn and thrive.”

Meanwhile, Forbes DiStefano said she, Allard, and other members of the leadership team are focused on “expanding what we do well.”

That broad phrase includes early-childhood education, obviously, but also other services, including those focused on the mental health of children, needs that have only grown during the pandemic.

“With 100% of our families experiencing something, whether it’s poverty, hunger, or homelessness, we know that the majority of our children have experienced some level of trauma at some point in their life,” she explained, noting that Square One has, in recent years, expanded what would be considered traditional mental-health services — referrals to therapists — with an early-childhood mental-services center called Cornerstone.

Launched as a pilot program, the center has grown in size, scope, and services.

“It’s designed to be both a physical and a social/emotional space — you can’t help but feel calm when you walk in,” she explained. “And I think it’s the most outstanding achievement we’ve made at Square One in the last five years.

“What we’ve created is a space where children can come with their peers,” she went on, adding that, instead of one-on-one therapy, there are group activities, such as games and book reading. “Everyone is experiencing some level of healing; it’s children helping each other learn how to cope, have healthy reactions, and reduce the triggers. And teachers are learning as well; they’re watching the therapist engage with the children.”

 

Bottom Line

Moving forward, Forbes DiStefano said it’s her goal — and now her job — to build on the solid foundation that’s been built at the agency and continually look for new ways to carry out the overriding mission: to improve quality of life for children and families. And there are many aspects to that work.

“It’s my job to welcome everyone to the table, make sure that our services are working seamlessly, and then find opportunities to bring new partners, new donors, new investors, and new ways of thinking to build on the good work that exists here,” she said.

That’s all part of managing Square One with that mindset, and with that balance, she described earlier.

As she said, ‘nonprofit’ is a tax status; it’s not a way to do business.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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