Kristin Gavin. (Photo by Alan Brian Nilsen/ABNphotography, courtesy of Gearing Up)
Moving On is a series of Q&As with social impact leaders who are leaving their organizations for new opportunities. Here, they will share what they learned and where they’re headed.
When a nonprofit’s founding director leaves the organization, it can feel like they’re dropping their kid off at preschool for the first time: It’s hard, but they know it’s the best way for that kid to grow.
That’s according to Kristin Gavin, who founded Gearing Up, a nonprofit that serves women in transition from abuse, addiction and incarceration by leading bike rides and teaching bike safety skills, in 2009. Back then, she was its sole staffer working out of one recovery house. Six and a half years later, the organization has served over a thousand women at four recovery homes and transitional housing facilities as well as the Riverside Correctional Facility, and her staff has grown to include six full-time members and numerous volunteers.
Gavin recently quit her job at Gearing Up to become the general manager of Indego, Philadelphia’s bike share system. Generocity Editor Julie Zeglen spoke to her about when she decided it was time to leave, why she was attracted to the Indego position and what it takes to sustain an organization through its founder’s departure. Their conversation has been edited for length.
Generocity: Can you first summarize what you did as the executive director?
Kristin Gavin: Because I was the founder as well as the executive director, my role was constantly evolving. When I first started, I was the executive director of me. By the time I left, I had six full-time equivalents and a staff that was functioning in a more robust capacity.
A term that the consultant that we’ve been working with uses a lot is “hold the whole,” and that’s really what I grew into doing — really understanding how all of the different components of our organization were working and just being sure we were talking to each other. I viewed it a lot like being the coach to the team.
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I also had very traditional responsibility around financial management and ensuring the integrity of our finances. I think that having been the person who started the program, I was very intentional around how I wanted to see our programs executed, so I worked really closely with our program staff in at least the real formative years of our organization. It wasn’t like we were a traditional education program that [has] curriculum. What we did was really new and innovative and so I was really hands-on in how we grew and developed our programs. Our direction was very much on depth over breadth. We didn’t want to serve 600 women in the Philadelphia area, we wanted to serve 200 women in a really deeply meaningful way, and so how do you do that? We spent a lot of time talking about how we design a program and train staff to develop these services.
G: How many people have gone through the program?
KG: We’ve served over a thousand since launch in May of 2009 — generally, about 200 women per year. Since launch, over a hundred women have earned their own bicycles. [Editor’s note: Program participants earn bikes after riding 150 miles.] This year, we’re set up to have about 35 women earn their own bicycles, and we’ll serve about 65 women at the prison. About a third of them will earn a certificate of completion, meaning they’ve been in the program, and the way it works for women in our prison-based program is that they’re eligible for “earned time,” which is a reduced sentence.
G: How does it feel to feel to be leaving, since you are the founder as well as the executive director? Is it kind of like giving up your baby?
KG: Yeah, there is a tremendous sense of nostalgia and gratitude and genuine bittersweetness. Last week and the week before, I was doing a lot of wrapping up, and I was almost viscerally overcome with gratitude for all of the people who got on board when Gearing Up was this idea and I was in my living room kind of harassing people with emails, saying, “This is something you should help me with!” — so, board members and committee members and volunteers and people who just kind of believed in this idea and got on board, and the amazing, amazing women who open up their lives to us, and really trusted us and do trust us.
The bicycle is this really special thing that can create a connection between two people who have nothing in common. That’s really what Gearing Up has been, just a different avenue to connect people via a bicycle. We happen to be working with women who have really experienced marginalization and have had a lot of people not respect them and have all the reasons in the world to not trust people. I’m so grateful that so many women trusted us to say, “I’ll go out on a bike ride with you,” and acknowledging all the vulnerability that they have around meeting new people or going to places and just letting us be a part of their lives.
G: Why was moving attractive to you? Why, after six and a half years, did you decide that your time at Gearing Up was coming to an end?
KG: We had actually been [already involved in] a succession plan for me. We started in the spring of 2015 and we knew that our timeline was anywhere from 18 months to three years. So, [my departure] ended up being a little sooner than we anticipated because this position [at Indego] opened up, but we had been doing the work already, and a lot of part of why we had been doing the work was, I really recognized that my role had shifted.
I started Gearing Up because I fundamentally believed that the women I had known through this one recovery home I was working with [Interim House] deserved the opportunity to ride a bike. And so I did it at this one place, and I saw it work, I saw how magical it was, and then I just started pounding the pavement to make sure this could work at other women’s centers and at the prison, because I knew that so many of our women were coming from the prison. I had a chance to go in and see what the reality of that was like. Then I had the opportunity to grow as a leader and as a professional, and I really identified the things that I loved about leadership and the work that we were doing with Gearing Up, which was access to bikes — people, connections and access to bikes.
I also realized that, as the founder, it can be really hard to grow a program when you’re so connected to the actual development and growth of it. If I can lay a strong foundation, someone else can come in and take this organization to the next level. That’s really what the last 12 months have been about — creating infrastructure — so that someone else can come in and say, “All right, this is the next part of the vision,” because where we are now was my vision.
G: What are some things from this position that you can take with you to Indego? What did you learn during your time at Gearing Up that will help you directly in your new position?
KG: What’s attractive about Indego and about how the City of Philadelphia has launched the Indego system is that there’s a real commitment to making Indego Philadelphia’s bike share system — so, having a system that reflects people living in Philadelphia, which means that there’s a commitment to low-income communities and communities of color having access to a bike share system that’s reliable, and that can be an alternative form of transportation, so it’s affordable. That is really attractive to me.
Also, I love working on a team. Indego’s a much bigger team that Gearing Up has been. I look forward to both the opportunities and the challenges of a bigger team.
G: Will you be involved with Gearing Up in the future?
KG: Well, I certainly plan on riding with the ladies. They can’t get rid of me that quickly!
In terms of actual formal involvement, we have a job announcement currently on our website. Board and staff are very hands-on with the consulting firm that is leading the hiring process for the next executive director, so they will call on me as needed, and I am completely accessible to help out in whatever capacity the board and the staff see fit. I think that the real goal is letting a new director come in, work with this board and the staff and the consultant, and then me, when they need.
We purposefully left ambiguity around what my role will be because it really depends on this next person’s vision and leadership and desire. So, I’m trying to not be be the quote-unquote founder, the helicopter parent. The analogy we keep using is, I drop my kid at college, or preschool.
Our program manager and our development director are acting co-directors for the winter while we hire an executive director, and the board chair is very hands on. We’ve got support from the Philadelphia Foundation for the consultant who’s been working with us since the very beginning of the succession plan. So, [we have] really strong infrastructure and a great team in place. And I know that they will call me when they need me.
G: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your time at Gearing Up, or about moving on?
KG: It’s just been the greatest gift to me. I moved to Philadelphia in 2007, I started it in 2009, and I think that this is the type of thing that could happen in Philadelphia because Philadelphia is the type of city that embraces really authentic grassroots work at a time when the bike culture and the biking community [is] really evolving here. I just feel so much gratitude for everything that has happened in the past six and a half years.