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Field Notes

Staff Spotlight Podcast: Get to know Colette Stanzler

Colette Stanzler
October 11, 2022

Listen, watch, or read a conversation between Root Cause’s Managing Director, Abby Fung, and fellow Managing Director, Colette Stanzler. Learn about what drives her in her work, her journey in Collective Action work through various projects, and what she thinks makes Root Cause special in the nonprofit consulting industry.

Listen on Anchor or Spotify.


Abby Fung (00:09): Hello everyone. Thank you for joining our conversation today. My name is Abby Fung, and today I’m speaking with Colette Stanzler for our Root Cause Staff Spotlight. Root Cause is a Boston-based nonprofit consulting team that helps drive effective and enduring social change. Since 2004, we’ve worked with hundreds of nonprofits, foundations, government agencies, and educational institutions. Colette and I were two of the earliest employees of Root Cause. We both came from the corporate sector and joined shortly after we had graduated from business school. I have so much affection for Colette because we’re not only colleagues, but we’ve also experienced major life milestones together, becoming mothers, juggling work and family life, and now serving as managing directors at Root Cause. I am so pleased to be in conversation today with my dear friend and colleague, Colette, welcome to the podcast.

Colette Stanzler (01:05): Thank you, Abby. I’m really excited to be here having this conversation with you.

Abby Fung (01:10): So our first question, can you tell us about your professional path to Root Cause? What led you to join the social sector?

Colette Stanzler (01:19): Sure. So I come originally from the business sector and was ready to make a move and decided I would go to graduate school to try to figure that out. I was definitely interested in moving into the social sector, but really didn’t know what that meant. I had been on boards of nonprofits and volunteered all my life but not sure what I was going to do professionally. When I went to business school, I took a social entrepreneurship class with Andrew Wolk, who is the former CEO and, and the founder of Root Cause. And in that class I really started to explore you know, how I could bring my business background, my business experience, as well as the business education I was getting in graduate school to the sector and really looked at, I had more recently come from a finance firm in global equities and really thought about bringing more rigorous information to the nonprofit sector, specifically for individual donors and small foundations who might not have staff or team to do research on different social issue areas and or nonprofits. And so how could we bring really accessible, easy to read information to them to help make their decisions, their investment decisions into the nonprofit sector. And so I did independent study while in graduate school. And then when I graduated I launched a research division at Root Cause. So that was my path.

Abby Fung (03:05): Well, we’re so glad that you made that decision to join us all those years ago, Colette.

Colette Stanzler (03:09): And Abby. You know, when I joined Root Cause I think my background was very similar to most of the team’s backgrounds having come from the business sector or specifically from business school. And you had a similar background, right?

Abby Fung (03:23): Yes, that’s right. As you were talking, it was bringing me back <laugh> to the beginning of my career as well because prior to Root cause I had worked in investment research and then I had worked running a healthcare line of business at Johnson and Johnson. And one of the reasons that I was also excited to come to Root Cause was the ability to bring those financial skills, those analytical skills, those project management skills to a place where we could utilize them for social good. And you know, it’s been really great to be doing that with you all these years. Has it been 15 years now? More than that, I think now, Colette?

Colette Stanzler (03:58): Yes, yes it has. I know that because when I graduated from school, I had just had my daughter Juliet six days before and she is now 15. So <laugh> Yes. And Abby, I attended your wedding as well, so we have indeed gone through many milestones together.

Abby Fung (04:18): Yes. Lots and lots and milestones. Well, I am really glad to have made this journey with you, Colette.

Colette Stanzler (04:23): Me too.

Abby Fung (04:25): My next question is that given your very long tenure at Root cause you’ve obviously worked on a lot of projects. Do you have a particular project or social area that really stands out for you?

Colette Stanzler (04:37): Sure. you know, obviously having started the research division a lot of my work in the early years, I’d say the first eight years or so was focused on conducting research across different social issue areas, really figuring out what were proven models, what worked you know, what were best practices and making that information publicly available. Research reports as well as you know, we conducted assessments on hundreds of nonprofits. That work was really interesting. But I would say over the past 10 years or so I have continued to do research related work and strategic planning, but moved more into collective action. And collective action is also known in the field as collective impact. We call it collective action because we are always focused on action oriented work when working with our partners to lead to impact. 

And I would say informally we started working on collective action around 10 years ago with the funders in Youth Violence Prevention Collaborative, although we were not calling it collective action at the time, but that’s where a number of funders came together to invest in strategies to reduce youth violence in a specific strategy. They worked on increasing access to summer jobs, which was proven to engage youth and keep youth not only engaged during the summer, but then to, to go back to school and remain in school. So that was an informal collective action work. What I would say is our real foray into this work though was through the Boston WINS or Boston Workforce Investment Network project that was funded by State Street initially funded as a four year $20 million project, which was work between multiple stakeholders, including five nonprofits that worked with Boston youth on either college or career readiness with 24 high schools in the Boston Public School district obviously with State Street as the funder Root Cause served as the backbone organization or the facilitator of all of these different stakeholders.

So it began as a 20,000,000 dollar 4 year project. It then was extended two more years and another 6 million. And through that, this was a very formal model of collective action in which there was, you know, structure at all different levels within the organizations and across the district and regular data reporting. The five organizations reported set targets across each of the public high schools that they were serving youth in. And then reported every two weeks on how they were progressing towards those targets. Across 11 milestones, again related to raising awareness about college or career post-secondary plans about applying for them, getting financial aid, having internships and summer jobs, and then receiving coaching once they graduated from high school and, and started college. So through this work, these programs were able to serve 69% more seniors than they had before the work began, and achieve a number of milestones that maybe they wouldn’t have had otherwise without the intentionality of that coordination.

What is really exciting though, is that we were funded to do a strategic planning process with Boston Public School Leadership and to really figure out how they sustain this work after the initiative sunsetted how with varying capacities at each of the high schools and with obviously different demographics and needs of students that they are working with, how they can do the coordination of college and career readiness partners to ensure these students are are receiving the resources and the services they need in achieving key milestones. So right now we’re implementing a professional development coaching model to start to roll out across the school. So that was a really exciting one because it’s been, you know, we’re on our eighth year of it from successfully running that collective action initiative, but now working on how it can be sustained within the public schools, which is where it belongs and will even be strengthened. There are, because moving beyond just even those five nonprofit partners, there are many other partners to bring into the work that also focus on college and career readiness.

Abby Fung (09:35): Colette, I’m so impressed that this was a project that you shepherded over the course of eight years. So you saw it from the inception and the launch all the way to now having the responsibility for it reside within the Boston Public School system. Is this kind of longevity or duration with which you work with a client very common to your work at Root Cause?

Colette Stanzler (09:59): Yeah, that’s a good question. I would say working that closely, intensely for six years, one other time that we did that was on addressing chronic homelessness with MAHAS through a Pay for Success initiative that was also six years where we were the independent evaluator validating data for the state in order for funders to receive reimbursement. So that was another six year project. But typically, no, I would say our projects range from three to six to 12 months. I do think we have very good relationships with our clients that we may often work with clients for multiple years, and I have many examples. BPS being one that we’ve worked with, I’ve worked with probably for 12 years, but on six different projects. So there’s often many follow-on projects or in other collective action work that we’re doing other places we may help with the design of the initiative and the facilitation of a strategic planning process. And then we do a follow up project on the implementation phase of that strategic planning process. A third phase may be to build the capacity of the backbone organization as it should be a local community based organization and not us for the long term. And then there may be a fourth project of coaching gradually rolling off the project that’s a similar model to work that we’re doing in Springfield right now.

Abby Fung (11:37): That’s wonderful. And just for our listeners who may not be familiar with some of the acronyms you used, BPS stands for Boston Public Schools and then MAHAS stands for the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance. Thank you. Yes, <laugh>. And it’s so, so wonderful that you’ve been able to partner with them for such a long time. My next question is, given your longevity working in this sector, what changes have you observed?

Colette Stanzler (12:06): Sure. I, you know, speaking from my own personal experience of conversations that I’ve had with nonprofit leaders and community leaders and and funders as well as reading that I’ve done, I would definitely say I’ve seen a shift in more humility in the sector. Even if we think about a lot of us who came from the business sector came from the skills that we developed working in for profit sector or going to business school and bringing those skills in the understanding that this work is honestly so much more complicated and there are so many more barriers and who needs to be at the table. So I would say over time for sure that there has been increased humility in what people know and don’t know and how much time this work takes. I would say there’s a lot more focus now on collaboration.

I may be biased on that because of the work I do in collective action. But in collaboration as opposed to the silver bullet, one organization is able to solve a really big issue because as we know, regardless of how small you may be focused, you may want to make a particular problem you’re trying to address. It’s impacted because people and families are impacted by so many other things in their lives. So more intentional collaboration, even if it’s not as structured as a collective action initiative, but more funders, you know, intentionally funding organizations to work together on something or organizations really making the time to do that more with one another. And then I would say another shift, and I think we see this in a lot of the, you know, periodicals and journals that are out there as well, is the focus on community prioritizing and leading this work.

And I think that used to be a lot more, you know, in the work we are doing and, and others we’re doing around, let’s make sure you know, that we have the community at the table in our working groups providing feedback on initiatives that are being designed or plans that are being developed. But the shift to it needs to be the community who prioritizes the needs where they live and work. And then, and really driving that forward and leading that work with consultants such as us or other nonprofit direct service organizations supporting from behind. So I would say those are some of the big changes. And then I guess a fourth thing around performance measurement is I would say there has been an increased focus on performance measurement and the importance of data and rigorous data and ensuring that, you know, nonprofits are reporting on all types of different data.

I think that that was a rise a number of years ago, but that I think I am seeing a shift, and certainly when I talk with clients about performance measurement is really being much more focused on instead of so much data or that has to be so complicated or the most complex data to collect is really about what is the data that’s the most relevant that your team, your program team is actually going to use and do something with it and refine your programs as a result of it. Where are there opportunities that as opposed to you know, all quantitative data that there can be more storytelling from families and highlighting some of the amazing on the ground stories too. So that kind of shift I’ve seen as well.

Abby Fung (16:07): That’s so interesting. Thanks for sharing your insights about some of the changes that you’ve seen in the sector, especially since you came into Root Cause to work on research and assessments. It was really interesting to hear the changes that you’ve seen in performance measurement and assessment and evaluation. So one question I have for you Colette, is what keeps you excited about this work? What keeps you engaged in doing this?

Colette Stanzler (16:38): So I guess I would answer that two different ways. I would say, you know, what keeps me excited about it is I just really, really enjoy the people that I work with both at Root Cause internally, really passionate people, really motivated, committed, analytical, really amazing people. And the people that I have an opportunity to work with are partners in the field as our clients. And that may be individual people who live within a community that may be nonprofit leaders. It may be people who work within nonprofits who are on the frontline, the case managers or the advisors, people in the public school systems and, and funders. Just really amazing people and very interesting and I’m always learning. So there is a lot that I can hopefully bring functional experience in strategic planning or facilitating people or helping design a performance measurement system.

But I’m always learning about you know, why do these issues exist? What are new ways to think about them? What are barriers that we should be thinking about that maybe we weren’t thinking about? And so that makes it very interesting to me. And then I would just say the reason I remain engaged is that there’s just still so much work to be done to ensure that individuals have access to basic needs, much less access to opportunities to enable them and their families to thrive. So there’s just a lot of work still to be done. And so I am still here at Root Cause.

Abby Fung (18:34): <Laugh>, absolutely Colette. And then what do you think differentiates Root Cause from some of the other consulting firms or some of the other stakeholders out there?

Colette Stanzler (18:48): Yeah, I would say a few things. I’ve already talked about this before when I explained why we call it collective action, but I would say Root Cause has always been extremely pragmatic and action oriented. So again, you know, when we leave, whether we are delivering a strategic plan or performance measurement system or a design for an initiative that we want, we want something to happen with it, that our clients actually use it and find it useful and start implementing it. And even better yet, we love it when our clients start to do the work when we’re still, you know, in the planning or the design phase with them. So I would say action oriented has always been very critical for what we find really important. I think we also really partner with clients.

You know, certainly my favorite projects are those where, you know, our weekly meeting is not us just giving an update or showing some slides, but we are in it, in the messiness of it brainstorming and really thinking through tough questions or coming back and sharing research and, and challenges that we found from doing the research or going out and starting to answer some of the questions that we came up with together. And really brainstorming together with them additional questions to answer things to research or solutions to what we’re finding. So I would say you know, certainly that partnership and working side by side and, you know, in these collective action projects that comes across really clearly as they move from design phase into implementation. And if we’re still involved, where we are behind the scenes, at some point, you know, no one needs to hear me facilitate another meeting or you know, whatever it may be.

It’s them doing it. And our role is very much partnering with them on whatever support we can provide to ensure they’re ready to go with materials you know, confident in facilitation and have come to the goals that they need. So I would say those are the big, the big things, you know, action oriented partners, the partnership focus. I would say too, and this is a bit again just because of my background and how I joined Root Cause, there’s definitely rigor to all the work that we do and analysis and research. So a client may come to us and be interested in a strategic plan, but there’s a lot of work that goes into ensuring that the ideas are the right ideas, the path forward is the right path forward, not just for that particular organization and team, but really for the sector and the issue that they’re trying to address.

And so what do we need to do beforehand or be clear based on the materials we review that they already have that we know that it’s the a proven model and best practices and they have the capacity to do that, and they’re the people that, that are there to be impacted and want to be impacted by their services. So often we need to, you know, start a project with that research and that analysis in order to have a strong foundation from which to work on strategy. So I would say that would be something else as well.

Abby Fung (22:26): I really appreciate what you just said about situating the client’s project work in a particular geographic context or a particular demographic context. And is there a particular project <laugh> that you’re working on that comes to mind when you, when you talk about contextualizing them in their appropriate geographic or demographic or social space?

Colette Stanzler (22:53): Sure. one would be a project that we’re doing in the North End, which is a neighborhood in Springfield, Massachusetts. And this is a collective action initiative called North End Community Connects. Mass Mutual Foundation funded Root Cause to come in and was an initiative that was already in place. And they were interested in thinking about how maybe there could be more intentional collaboration or collective action between the key stakeholders that were already coming together, community residents, a number of nonprofit organizations, and them as a funder. So we’ve been working in a strategic planning process with them and now are in this implementation phase. And there is an organization who provides a number of services and is very trusted in the community, the new North Citizens Council that is the backbone organization. And so this will be a program, this collective action initiative will be a program one of many programs they already run, but that will be run out of their organization.

And there has been a lot of intentionality there on developing relationships with residents, figuring out how to bring residents, but many residents, not just those who raise their hand regularly for these type of projects, but how to bring other residents in and really ensure that they are the ones driving what the work is forward. And so it’s about a thriving north end about this neighborhood, but that could be anything, right? That could be from healthy pregnancy to, you know, healthy aging and, and that’s a lot and can be overwhelming. So they’ve, as a community, focused in through the strategic planning process on community wealth building, and they are determining what that means from financial literacy workshops to improving access to jobs or skill development for jobs. So there’s the community wealth building and then greater access to services in general and, and less redundancy and overlap. So those are the two strategies that they’re working on and, and coming together on a regular basis to figure out how do they start to take steps forward together based on their own skills and interests in planning community events.

Abby Fung (25:30): Colette, I loved hearing about all of these project examples where you’ve, you and your team have really customized your approach and your work and your deliverables to ensure that you’re meeting the needs of the client and their communities. So that was really fun and very impressive to hear. Now we want to turn to a little bit more about you, and this is a little bit of a fun <laugh> madlibs portion of our conversation. I’m just going to ask you a couple of quick rapid fire questions about you and you just let us know what you think of off the top of your head. Are you ready?

Colette Stanzler (26:08): I’m ready, <laugh>. I dunno, I don’t love these questions, but I’m ready.

Abby Fung (26:14): Okay. Can you tell us what you are passionate about?

Colette Stanzler (26:19): I’m passionate about my family, my children. I have four children, ages between 10 and 17. So I love doing things with them. I do a lot in our community to volunteer for their activities, sports activities, theater, dance, whatever it may be. Really like doing that. I’m involved with an organization where mothers and daughters volunteer together. I really enjoy doing that with my daughter, volunteering in many different places with her and having that time. I love reading.

Abby Fung (26:57): That’s actually a great segue to our next question for you, <laugh>. What is something you are currently reading, watching, or listening to?

Colette Stanzler (27:08): So I’d say on the watching side that’s easiest for me. I watch whatever my kids will make time to watch with me. I’m currently watching the Harry Potter movie series with my 10 year old Charlie. My teenage daughter makes some time for us to watch Gilmore Girls. I try to watch some football with my son and I. I have been watching Yellowstone, my husband enjoying that after our RV trip out there that summer.

Abby Fung (27:39): Oh, that sounds so fun. So my next question is, in your spare time, doesn’t sound like you have any spare time, but <laugh>, if you had spare time, what do you like to do? 

Colette Stanzler (27:52): I enjoy reading. I try to make some time for reading. We spend a lot of time out in this area walking the trails. There’s, you know, trails that were walked on hundreds of years ago by the indigenous people who lived here. And we try to try the kids out there on the weekends with us for some time in nature. And even though there’s often a lot of pushback to get them out there, once they’re there, it’s really nice and able to have a lot of deeper conversations than we do in the chaos of every day at our house.

Abby Fung (28:25): Absolutely. And then the final question is, in 10 years, this is the change I hope to see.

Colette Stanzler (28:36): Oh, so much change. As I think about the different sectors, social issues that we work on and the different types of clients that we work with, so many changes. I guess a change would be that there’s less need for the type of work that we do with clients, honestly. Less need or that it becomes easier, less challenging and complicated to address some of the most core issues that we face today.

Abby Fung (29:08): Thank you so much, Colette. It’s been great having a conversation with you. And I am so glad that we were able to take some time out of our busy days to catch up and, you know, hear about your journey and the many, many clients that you’ve helped and worked with over the years. And anyone who’s interested in learning more can go to our website where there will be more information about these projects and a number of podcasts featuring more of our colleagues. Thank you so much for joining us.

Colette Stanzler (29:45): It was so great chatting with you.

Abby Fung (29:46): Yes, it’s been a great conversation.

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