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Dominick Albano Of Full Circle Fund On How To Take Your Company From Good To Great

Embrace a Growth Mindset: Practicing an active open mindset is key to sharing power. While good leaders have a lot of expertise, they also have to be willing to be humble and take a step back when they don’t know a lot about new industry trends or market segments. It’s about valuing both lived and learned experiences.

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dominick Albano.

Dominick Albano has three decades of experience in community building, employee engagement and social impact in both the business and nonprofit sectors. Currently, he serves on the senior leadership team as a Vice President at the San Francisco-based Full Circle Fund, a nonprofit that connects community-based organizations with individuals and corporations who provide their skills, experience and financial resources to help build resilient communities.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I always knew I wanted to work in communications. When I was younger, I remember my grandfather was glued to breaking news about Watergate. Growing up in northern California, I wonder how he developed such strong opinions about something happening on the other side of the country. There was always a stack of newspapers on the dining room table and the TV or radio news filled the air, so I began to understand the power of the news media to shape perceptions. “How do you know what you know?” has become increasingly important to ask in the era of 24-hour news cycles and lack of fact checking on social media. Communication has the power to inform opinions, mobilize communities, and impact social change.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Early in my career, I worked for a national land conservation organization where I wrote a piece titled “Ethnic Ethics in the Environmental Movement” with a call for more diversity in the predominately white environmental movement. It was the early 1990s and there was push back from long-time environmental leaders. Since then, the sustainability movement has evolved to include environmental justice initiatives to address a range of issues in communities of color from access to parks and open space to climate change to job training in renewable energy. I learned the importance of advocating for your community — and for change — even if it makes others uncomfortable. It is important to remember change is never comfortable when you are advocating for something bigger than yourself.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

After college one of my first jobs was working in fundraising which included a range of writing assignments. My boss at the time, a former high school English teacher, would mark up my work with a red pen as if it was a homework assignment (this was pre-online editing). After three months of this I had accepted this is how we would work together. Then one day, I checked my inbox to see a grant proposal I had written with a Post-it note saying “great job” and a smiley face (this was pre-emoji culture). I popped into her office to ask if she had reviewed it. She had read it through and had no changes. “You’ve made great progress. I can see you are taking the corrections and learning from them.” I walked over to a colleague’s cubicle and shouted “No changes! I got an A.”

I learned that a formal education can get you in the door but on-the-job experience will get you to the next level. Continue listening to constructive criticism and be open to making changes along the way. Good leaders never stop learning. Great leaders never stop evolving.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

While some organizations provide funding, and others provide volunteers, Full Circle Fund provides both. Our volunteer Members are often successful professionals who want to give back to the community with financial resources and sharing skills and experiences to help nonprofits grow. Our Tech Accelerator Fund has gained popularity as more technology professionals want to use ‘tech for good’ in helping nonprofits make a much needed digital transformation, especially during the pandemic. Our Corporate Nonprofit Accelerator Fund provides opportunities for corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs to donate both funds and engage employees to volunteer for four month projects with nonprofits to help develop strategic plans, new marketing campaigns, and much more.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Remember your ‘why’ — why you are doing the work you do. So easily projects become paperwork, resources require revenues, and excitement is daunted by expenses. This is true in both the corporate and nonprofit sectors, so it is important to look within ourselves to find purpose. What gives us the resilience — and the good humor — to put it together and keep it together. That sense of purpose whether launching a new consumer product or implementing a new social impact initiative can help balance burn out.

The reality is everyone at every level struggles with burn out, especially with remote work blurring the lines of work/life balance. It’s important to take time off to recharge. What good is unlimited PTO if employees are not using it? Create a safe workplace to normalize talking about mental health. Ultimately, it is also about finding the right organization that recognizes the value of staff taking time to recharge in order to deliver the best results. Use that time off to reconnect with your ‘why.’

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

How much time do we have? There is a long list of people that have helped me over a 30+ year career. I have been very lucky to have caring mentors, coaches and advocates. Mentors talk with you (as you ask for advice), coaches talk at you (as they share insights) and advocates talk for you (when you are not in the room). You need all three. One thing they all have in common is to instill a sense of risk taking. Young professionals are more open to taking risks because they have less to lose. But as our careers progress, it is easy to get stuck in our own playbook of what works instead of evolving and continuing to learn new approaches and different perspectives.

One piece of advice my grandfather gave me in high school was to “work hard, study hard and ask for help.” That continues to guide me. And now I am more likely to offer help to young professionals because of the great mentoring I received early in my career. Asking for input is a valuable skill regardless of title or position. I am mindful that my skills and experience provide a level of privilege so it is important to use it constructively.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

Good organizations think outside the box. Great organizations think as if there is no box. Great organizations are less focused on keeping up with competition and more open to create new ways of addressing ongoing challenges or problems. Every challenge is an opportunity to be great.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

At Full Circle Fund we recently redesigned our “Power and Privilege” training for volunteers to more effectively collaborate with nonprofits. The original training was developed in 2019 for skills-based volunteers to learn how to work collaboratively, respectfully, and effectively with professionals from all backgrounds. There is sometimes a bit of a ‘culture shock’ when professionals from the private sector volunteer at nonprofits which typically have fewer resources. Nonprofit organizations are often built by doing more with less. What might seem like standard business practices in the private sector like data analytics or persona mapping can be difficult for nonprofits whose staff focus on underserved communities. Unlike most corporate diversity training which often start with unconscious bias, the Full Circle Fund Power and Privilege training starts with personal identity and how different parts of an individual’s identity show up during interactions with others.

The key takeaways developed in 2021 can also be applied to most workplace cultures to differentiate them between good and great. This is especially true for organizations that value diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. Too often, we hear senior leaders say things like “when I was in your position, I was able to hit all my goals” without acknowledging the industry — indeed the world — has changed in the 10+ years since they were in a similar position. Good leaders recognize how much has changed. Great leaders know that they have to change to do what’s best for their colleagues, customers, and community.

  1. Recognize Perceptions: Great organizations recognize systemic and racial inequity impacts us all regardless of individual ethnicity. The key is understanding our personal identities — lived and learned experiences — shape our perceptions and sometimes our bias. Understanding we’re all the same, but we were all presented with different choices is key to understanding our identities and seeing our privilege.
  2. Understand Relationships: Great organizations recognize the differences and similarities of every team member regardless of title. We all deserve equal respect. Understand and acknowledge there is a mutually beneficial relationship between volunteers and nonprofit leaders. The same is true for workplace relationships between established leaders and emerging professionals.
  3. Become More Self-Aware: Great organization’s team members must be self-aware of assumptions they bring to engagements, the space they occupy, and time they take up. When volunteers provide pro bono skills to nonprofits, including volunteer boards of directors, it is an opportunity cost that requires investment of time — one that can reap great benefits. The same is true for leaders serving as a mentor, coach or advocate, engaging with young professionals. Self awareness comes from bridging the gap between intentions and their impact on others.
  4. Embrace a Growth Mindset: Practicing an active open mindset is key to sharing power. While good leaders have a lot of expertise, they also have to be willing to be humble and take a step back when they don’t know a lot about new industry trends or market segments. It’s about valuing both lived and learned experiences.
  5. Own Accountability: Practicing self-awareness, humility, and acknowledging or apologizing when at fault is key to sharing power in order to build trust. Often nonprofit leaders know more about the community they serve than the skills-based volunteers. Great leaders need to trust that team members have done the work to understand a new market segment or new product category. Trust is only earned after accountability is taken, and trust is the key to successful volunteer engagements.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

Purpose-driven businesses begin with clearly articulated values. Our research found this is especially true for Millennials and Gen Z employees who want to work for companies that reflect their values such as environmental sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and income equality. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs often include an ‘in-service’ volunteer day at the local food bank or beach clean-up. Those volunteer opportunities are valuable. But to be a purpose-driven business, company values must be put into action every day. No business operates in a vacuum — employees live in the communities where businesses operate — so businesses need to create opportunities for employees to contribute to building resilient communities. Employees see the challenges of local communities — from economic inequity to education, from the environment to health — so employees and customers want purpose-driven businesses to be part of the solution.

This has become increasingly important as the U.S. has become more polarized by social issues such as climate change or even the pandemic. Employees and consumers want purpose-driven businesses to take a stand on issues. We saw that with the #MeToo movement in 2017 and #BlackLiveMatter protests in 2020. Simply put, purpose is only as valuable as the actions behind it.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

Solve new problems in new ways. While the pandemic has been challenging it has also provided opportunities to rethink business models. We often hear ‘let’s get back to normal’ but normal wasn’t working for large segments of society — and for many of our work colleagues. Good organizations have used this time to reevaluate their products and services. Great organizations did that as well as reevaluate what does the customer really want? What do employees really need? It’s less about restarting engines but returning the focus to what we do as an organization — and as leaders — to help people solve their problems. It is more about creating a new normal that is equitable.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Diversify your revenue. FCF started as an informal network of friends who benefited from economic success and wanted to give back with both time and money, going ‘full circle.’ Over the past 20 years, it has evolved into a passionate community with many of the individuals who work for Forbes 500 companies have suggested it would be great to have corporations provide employees to volunteer with nonprofit organizations. After a pilot test with senior managers, we developed a new Corporate Nonprofit Accelerator initiative that broadens our impact and helps corporations reach their social impact goals — and diversify revenue sources.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Listen to your team. In both the private and nonprofit sectors, there is a hierarchy of leadership and some feedback from ‘front line’ staff is filtered to senior management. It is important for senior executives to be accessible to all levels of an organization. Whether in structured all-staff Town Hall-style meetings or casual conservations, authenticity is key to relationship building. Ask team members what they are working on or what they think about a recent change to employee benefits. Listening to input — and making changes — is what distinguishes organizations struggling with The Great Resignation from those with high employee satisfaction.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Listen to your stakeholders. We regularly conduct surveys to gather input. And perhaps more importantly, we conduct interviews with external partners to constantly improve our programs. This was especially important in our recent redesign of our Power and Privilege training program. Stakeholders will share feedback in casual interviews that they don’t share in surveys. Be prepared to learn things about your organization — and the stakeholder experience — that may surprise you. And be ready to change even the smallest nuance so it does not become a nuisance.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Design the culture you want based on articulated values. So often executives are focused on creating the next big thing, they hire people for their skills without considering how that individual will impact the overall workplace. Company culture shouldn’t happen by accident. It has to be thought through to attract and retain the skills and personalities that contribute to the workplace you are trying to build. Work culture is as important — and some might say more important — than the product or service you provide.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Reimagine Philanthropy. Major urban centers like San Francisco, New York and Chicago have benefited from economic growth, in part, because companies find a talent pool to help them grow. Emerging business centers like Austin, Texas; Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; and Phoenix, Arizona are also experiencing growth. An attractive city culture typically has great restaurants, museums, or social life, accessible public parks and open space, affordable housing, and investment in infrastructure. But the very thing that attracts business is also creating or highlighting problems in communities, so employees want companies to be part of the solution of helping the unhoused or addressing climate change, or access to quality education.

My nonprofit and corporate colleagues often talk about the need to rethink the role philanthropy plays in community solutions. I once read that the revolution will not happen through a RFP (request for proposal) from a grant making organization. To Reimagine Philanthropy is to ensure that nonprofit organizations are at the center of funding decisions in the communities where they operate. Too often grant makers are listening to major donors about where they want their money to go. But many of those donors don’t fully understand the challenges of an issue. For example, to address the complex issue of homelessness, we must address mental health, addiction, income equity and more.

Nonprofits are at the center of providing community solutions, so they need to be at the table to set priorities for funding and building resilient communities. To Reimagine Philanthropy is to move away from traditional metrics like number of people served and more toward helping nonprofits build capacity. Imagine if NPOs (nonprofit organizations) had IPOs — an investment in the potential to do more.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Connect with me on LinkedIn or follow Full Circle Fund on Facebook, Linkedin or Twitter.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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