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In this podcast episode, Heather interviews Karen Erren, President and CEO at Feeding Westchester. As a leader of a non-profit food distribution service, Karen is familiar with showing care to others, but that doesn’t mean she was always a perfectly caring leader.
What Karen shows in her conversation with Heather is the effort that leaders have to put in to be there for their teams, especially during these trying times. Karen exemplifies being a caring leader by taking her place among her people, not above them. She meets them where they are each day, and expresses the importance of genuine and transparent vulnerability.
- Have high expectations for yourself and your team.
- The best thing you can do for someone is to believe in them.
- Stretch yourself, innovate, and fail.
- See yourself clearly, and the way others experience you.
- Be a part of your team every day.
- Be genuine and transparent. Share as much as you’re willing and say, “But I’m here to work with you now.”
Karen Erren currently serves as the President and CEO of Feeding Westchester.
With over 15 years of experience in food banking, and work experience in corporate advertising and marketing, Karen specializes in Strategic Planning, Fiscal Oversight, Relationship Cultivation & Stewardship, Change Management, Board Relationships, Fundraising, Major Gift Procurement, and Capital Campaigns among others.
Karen earned her degree in Communications from Stephens College.
Joys of Nonprofit
I have been here since late July, early August, but I have been in food banking for about 15 years now after corporate advertising and marketing. I loved the work of corporate advertising and marketing, but I had zero affinity for the product. So, transitioning from corporate advertising and marketing into nonprofit leadership really has brought me a great deal of joy and gratitude, frankly. My nonprofit journey was through fundraising and development, so it’s a mission instead of a product.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors
My observation of my team is that the stress and concern for our community is counterbalanced, though not totally, by their commitment and passion for our neighbors who need our help. I have just been delighted, appreciative, and ecstatic that every single one of them is here honored to be able to do this work in a global pandemic, when our neighbors need us more than ever. One of the things that I really treasure about the Hunger Relief System is that we food banks provide food, for the most part, to food pantries, kitchen shelters, and other organizations that feed the hungry. It truly is neighbors helping neighbors.
One of the reasons that I consider it really an honor to serve our partners is because they know that neighborhood. So, when we go to food distributions in partnership with our pantries or other organizations, I love the dialogue that occurs between those that are sharing the food and those that are receiving the food— “How’s your grandma? Is your dad feeling better? Is your mom back to work?”— those types of interactions that solidly tell the story that this is a community. These are people who care for their neighbors and want to make sure they have food on the table always. One of the things I think about a lot is the tough periods of time in my life where my family and our friends has sort of carried me through. What we find is that even pre-COVID, many of those who come to our pantries or our direct distributions for help, they just don’t have that network of people who can carry them through the hard times. Essentially our food pantries, and our direct distribution programs become that. I love to tell our supporters that they are caring for someone’s mom, someone’s grandchild, or someone’s brother. In a family structure or situation that for whatever reason they don’t have that network, you are that network.
You got to try new things. You have to stretch yourself. You have to innovate and you have to fail. I have limitless examples of failure when it comes to leadership. When I was a younger leader, I was self- indulgent. I’m very expressive and very verbal, and I do say I have a very short fuse. I think we have to be willing to see ourselves clearly because there are the stories that we tell ourselves and there are the ways people experience us. What I most want to accomplish is that my team is as delighted to come to work every day because we work really, really hard. That is the lens through which I need to filter my decisions and filter my behavior and filter—the way that I treat others.
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