(Photo by Lora Reehling)
Moving On is a series of Q&As with social impact leaders who are leaving their organizations for new opportunities. Here, they share what they learned and where they’re headed.
It’s hard not to point to Neighborhood Bike Works as an org in transition that’s doing everything right.
The West Philly-based nonprofit engages and empowers local youth by encouraging leadership development and teaching new skills through urban bike riding and mechanics. It’s gone through a hefty amount of change in the past few years, from the closing of several sites to a physical move to a tightening of mission. Now, it’s losing the executive director who oversaw much of that change.
Erin DeCou has been the organization’s ED for the past four years. Previous to joining the team, the food education advocate was an AmeriCorps VISTA working in farmers’ market development in Camden, then the first-ever executive director of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. After next earning her master’s in public administration from Rutgers, she traveled to India to work on developing farm cooperatives, until landing back in the city and finally NBW in 2012. Now, after 10 years total in Philly, DeCou is leaving for New England to get back in touch with her love of farming and the outdoors.
It’s a change that could have wracked the small organization, but instead, its board of directors, staff, and even volunteers, participating youth and DeCou herself have rallied to make the transition to a new ED as smooth as possible.
In her Moving On interview, DeCou talks with Generocity Editor Julie Zeglen about the tricky balance between being collaborative and being decisive; how she’s helping NBW’s new director step into the role as she steps out; and the biggest reason she considers it a “privilege” to have led NBW. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Generocity: What did the organization look like when you first joined? How has it changed over the years?
Erin DeCou: There’s been a huge amount of change and transformation and ultimately growth in the organization in that four-year period of time. I came in after a period of a lot of instability for the organization — there was a total of four executive directors in two years. At the time I started, we actually had four physical locations in the city and one off-site program in Norristown. And it was pretty clear right away that it was unsustainable. Our budget was under $400,000 and we were running programs all over the city and just didn’t have enough staff and resources to keep that going.
From our Partners
So, the first couple years were really challenging, as you can imagine. We ended up making some really hard decisions to close a couple of sites, and really just tried to focus in on what our strengths were. I’d say about two years into my time at Bike Works, things started to really shift dramatically. We had focused our work to be really about youth development and youth leadership development particularly, and I think we became a lot better about telling our story and connecting with foundations and donors.
Also, when I first started, we were headquartered in the basement of a church on Penn’s campus. We just pulled off this really major organizational restructuring and then we moved into a street-level space on Lancaster Avenue just this past September. We’re now just in one space that’s much more conducive to the work that we’re doing.
G: What’s something you’ve learned about leadership that surprised you?
ED: I think for me, leadership at Neighborhood Bikes Works has been a fine balance between being collaborative and being decisive, and both of those things are challenges in different ways. [There is] the importance of involving a lot of different voices in especially major change processes, but also trying hard to not get too bogged down in too many options and too many voices. So, finding that combination of getting input, getting buy-in, making sure that growth and change is a community process and not just one person’s decision, but also having the confidence to make a hard decision, even if not everybody is behind it.
G: Why are you leaving? Where are you going?
ED: I am leaving for a couple of reasons. One is that it feels like the really major things that I came to Bike Works to do, I’ve accomplished in some ways. And not to say that the work of Neighborhood Bike Works is complete because I think there’s so much great work that the organization can do and will do, and there’s still a great need. But essentially, it felt like a good stopping point for me, personally. Like I said, I started in a really challenging moment of organizational flux and I feel really good about the work I’ve been able to do with the team at Bike Works to stabilize the organization — physically, in terms of space, and organizationally, in terms of what we’re doing.
The other point is that I felt like I was ready for something new. I’ve lived in Philly for 10 years and I’ve really loved it, I love the city and I really value all of the connections I’ve made, but I grew up outside the city working on my dad’s peach farm — more of that country lifestyle — so I’ll be moving to western Massachusetts to do something a little bit different.
G: I’ve heard from a couple people who I’ve interviewed for this column that they’re leaving either because, though they still love what they do, they need a change, or else they think that the organization needs fresh leadership. How do you feel about leaving?
ED: It’s definitely bittersweet. I’ve felt since the beginning that it’s a privilege to work at Neighborhood Bike Works. It feels great to be leaving, and I’m looking forward to my next phase, and it also feels definitely sad. I’ve been able to work with really fantastic people, both our staff and the youth we’ve served. I’ve never worked in an organization that has that much heart.
We also went through a pretty intentional bit of transition planning, so I feel really good about when I’m leaving and, not just all the work we’ve done, but how it’ll continue to move forward.
G: You were involved in the selection of the new executive director, and you’ll be staying for the next couple of weeks to help with that transition. Can you talk about that process a little bit?
ED: Absolutely. I have to give the Bike Works board of directors a huge amount of credit managing that process really thoughtfully and on-track. I told the board I was leaving in the late fall, and it was important to me, because I was moving out of the city and not looking for another job right away, that I give as much time as possible to think through the next step. We had about six or seven months with the board and the staff as well to think through the search process. Through weekly conference calls and a chairperson to keep us to it, we were able to come up with a job description, get it out there into the various networks, to connect with community organizations in the city of Philadelphia and outside, and I think we were able to do a really effective search and ultimately choose a really strong candidate.
Even through the search, it was really great to have that collaborative element that Neighborhood Bike Works really holds dear. We not just included the board and the staff, but we included members of our youth council in the interviewing and hiring process. It felt like in the end, many of the people whose voices were most important were at the table and able to help us choose the right person.
Steve Maluk is our new executive director. He just moved to Philly from Seattle. I think we got pretty lucky — he’s been working at organization called Bike Works. He was not the executive director, but he had been there for several years and was the director of shop and operations, so he came with this really excellent and unique set of skills that he’s able to step right in and move the organization forward.
G: How will you two be working together until you leave?
ED: We’re halfway into the side-by-side working together. He’s been really open to hearing my experience with working with our staff, with our youth, with our donors. What I’m trying to do is hand off the important connections I’ve made, showing him what’s worked and what hasn’t for me, and also giving him the space for him to think about how he wants to do things differently. He’s there full-time, and I’m working part-time, and we have five weeks where we’re overlapping.
G: That’s great that you can stay at least part-time as you’re getting ready to move.
ED: Yeah, I think it would be a little bit of a shock to the system to just stop all of a sudden. I’ve been working so intensely at the organization for the last couple years, so it’s great for me, to be able to slow it down slowly.
G: What advice would you give to someone else going through this process? Words of wisdom for making it smooth?
ED: It feels like every organization has a different way of approaching it and a different outcome, so I don’t think there’s one-size-fits-all for this kind of thing. I think that what worked really well for us was having a really close collaboration between our board of directors, which of course gets to make the final decision, and our staff and the wider community — our youth, our volunteers, even. I think that’s the hard thing: You have to have somebody leading the process who’s willing to get a lot of buy-in from a lot of different constituent groups, because sometimes that doesn’t happen. Leadership transitions are a dangerous time and a lot of things can go wrong, and I think the more you can get more voices into the process and on board with supporting the next director, the more successful you’re going to be.
G: Anything else you’d like to share about your time at NBW?
ED: I mentioned before that it’s really a privilege to work at Neighborhood Bike Works. I feel like I’ve learned so much about young people in my work at Neighborhood Bike Works. It’s been incredible to see young people come into our program as 12- or 13-year-olds and get really hooked — it might be about bikes, but it might be hanging out with our staff and peers in the program. Our youth started a youth council three years ago, and that group of youth [is] planning a workshop to teach at the Youth Bike Summit next week in Minneapolis, and it’s just been one of the most exciting things for me to see, how these young people come in and step into these opportunities and can grow so much and pass that on to younger kids in the program and people outside of our city. It’s been really fun to watch and something that a lot of people in Philly don’t get to see often.