Untold Innovation: A few minutes with Mary Delaney
By: Dani Clark
This year at Untold Content, we’re focusing on stories of Untold Innovation. As a firm committed to innovation storytelling from thought leaders across organizations and sectors, we have embarked on a journey to uncover stories of innovative thinking that are galvanizing change and growth in four main industries: tech, medical, science and human impact. We’ve asked you to nominate thought leaders in your field who are driving innovation, and you continue to deliver!
Our next innovation story comes from Mary Delaney, Executive Director of Community Matters. Our conversation moves from using a strengths-based approach to community-building to embracing the messy side of innovation— giving readers a fresh look into nonprofit work. Mary reimagines human-centered work as an opportunity to uphold people’s strengths, rather than solve problems. So, take a mindful moment and read our interview with Innovator of the Month, Mary Delaney.
P.S. Keep sending in those nominations of others for us to highlight in our Untold Innovation series. You can complete our nomination form or email us with their information.
Mary Delaney’s Innovation Story
Mary Delaney is the Executive Director of Community Matters, where she leads a dynamic team in creating a thriving and more just community in Lower Price Hill. Mary is the founder of Community Matters and launched the organization in 2014 alongside residents to create a new and innovative approach to community building.
UC: What is your field of speciality?
MD: There’s lots of different ways people describe it, but I would call it community-building—that seems to capture my work overall.
UC: Where does your personal innovation story begin?
MJ: My personal story, which is really what drives my professional story, is rooted in where I came from. I grew up in a very low-income family, and there’s a lot of ingenuity and innovation that happens in that space, even though people don’t usually call it that—you’re always trying to think of a different way to do something, a better way to do something. When I left and went to college, I discovered that I really did have that drive to try something different. That drive came from, in some ways, wanting to get out of where I grew up. It wasn’t until later in life that I started calling it “innovation” or “thinking outside the box.”
It wasn’t really a planned out pathway, but when I look back, I see exactly how all the different steps in my life led me here. We can plan as much as we want, but it doesn’t always matter. The experiences are what matter.
UC: Tell us about the innovative work you’re currently doing.
MD: Basically, at Community Matters, we’re trying to tackle what most people just call a “problem”, which is, in a nutshell, poverty. We want to approach this work differently. In the traditional way, you look at a social problem, you assess it, and you come up with a “solution”. For as long as I can remember, that’s always been the challenge presented to non-profits: prove that you can solve a problem. In reality, and in a lot of non-profit spaces, you can’t actually solve certain problems because they are systemic.
To tell a small community, “Solve your problems,” just doesn’t work. If you approach it that way, you end up either always hitting a wall or just putting Bandaids over issues. It’s as if you have to fool yourself into a solving mentality, when it’s not really possible. While you can’t actually solve it at this level, but you can change the way that you’re approaching it, which is not looking at it as a problem—that leads to something different. That’s why I call my work “community-building” instead of non-profit management.
At Community Matters, instead of saying, “Okay, here’s a problem, let’s fix it” we say, “Okay, here’s an opportunity, let’s invest in it.”
People in our neighborhood have ideas, interests, passion skills—all of these things that don’t get invested in, because the old approach views the people involved as one thing: poor. Instead of looking at what communities lack, we prefer to focus on what they have and invest in their strengths.
One of my biggest fears growing up in a low-income community was that I would always be in that box, that I would always be someone who was poor, and people wouldn’t see all the other things that I bring to this life. So, for a long time, I hid where I came from. A lot of the folks that work here at Community Matters come from similar experiences. Instead of being part of addressing the community’s challenges, a lot of us were just the recipient of someone’s goodwill. The outcome is different when you involve the community you’re hoping to support.
For example, we have a food pantry, which at its core is a pretty transactional service, right? We have the food, we give out the food. But within that program, we decided to change the way that we ask folks questions when they come in. Instead of saying, “You need food, what else can we give you? What else can we help you with? Where else do you need support?” We ask questions like, “What are you interested in in the community?” or, “Are there other ways you’ve been wanting to get involved or engaged?” From conversations in the food pantry, community members have become staff members, leaders, a new community council president, and directors of artist initiatives—all of these things that would have never been discovered had we just said, “You don’t have food; we’ll give you food. See you later.”
We work to create opportunities for people to share more about their strengths and not just what they need that day. It’s important to remember in this process, that if you don’t truly believe in the strengths of people [or your work], then you won’t find them. A lot of times, it’s either easier or more comfortable to default back to the old models, because at least you know what your outcome will be. But, again, you’ll never discover all the potential if you don’t believe it exists.
UC: A large part of what we’re talking about when it comes to belief, whether it’s belief in yourself or in the people you’re working with, has to do with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. The way we tell these stories have the potential to nurture positive beliefs or solidify negative beliefs. What other roles do you feel that storytelling plays in innovation? Could you describe the importance of storytelling to your own work?
MD: Oh, definitely. For us, especially in community work, storytelling is the way. You can get really technical and jargony in non-profit spaces, but the storytelling is how we translate and communicate between all the different parts of the work. It’s a pretty natural language in communities. Folks love to tell stories. It’s just a way that people tend to understand things.
But more importantly, it’s also how you can take this concept and show folks how it actually plays out. I can share an example about how changing the language and approach in our Opportunity Hub changed the ultimate outcome. One of our residents originally came in for help getting an ID. Through conversations that were based around her strengths and ideas, she ended up joining our resident-formed artists group. The following year, she became the leader of the artists group, and now she’s the president of the community council–the first new president in 30 years, and the first person of color to become president in our community’s history. This is what I mean by the power of changing a few questions at the beginning, and investing differently. We’re all storytellers, even if we don’t think it’s true that we are. I know a lot of our staff is intimidated by it. They’re like, “I’m not good at telling stories. What do I say?” But then if you ask a few questions like, “Tell me about your day or last week, or a day that stood out last week,” or story comes out.
There’s a lot of pressure for non-profits when it comes to storytelling. We’ve learned over time that there’s a balance in this industry between fundraising and your work. That’s the weird part about non-profits–in a for-profit, your work is what also generates the money. In a nonprofit, your work doesn’t usually generate the money. You have to go sell it. And it’s a story that you’re selling. So, we have to be very mindful about the stories we tell and not misusing them. There’s a push that storytelling can be really powerful in marketing or in getting donations. And that is very true, but we have to be careful not to use those stories in a way that the person doesn’t intend for the story to be used. The person has to be at the center of the story, not the organization. We’re part of that person’s story, but on their terms, not on our terms.
UC: What one piece of advice would you give to future innovators?
MD: Okay, one piece of advice. Let’s see, if you’re not messing up, then you’re probably not doing it right. You have to mess up sometimes to push forward. If you are truly entering a new space and trying something different, then you’re going to mess up sometimes, but that’s an important part of innovation. That’s something I had to learn. It’s hard to do. You feel like such an idiot. You feel like a failure. But it’s where all the best things–that we’ve done anyway–have come from; when we realize, “Oh, we realize that we messed that up,” and then changing.
It never ever happens that you just generate an idea in a brainstorm space, execute it, and then it’s perfect. It doesn’t work that way, especially in community work, because communities are messy. So, if you approach it with the mentality that, “If I didn’t get it right in ideation, then I didn’t get it right,” and you just abandon it, then I feel like you’ll lose a ton of ideas that could have legs. You’ve got to let them go into that space and get messy.
A question I ask everyone I do job interviews with: “How do you handle it when your idea gets kicked around?” Because a lot of people can latch onto their idea. Then when it gets into that implementation phase and it starts to get kicked around a little bit and maybe changes and morphs, they may think, “Must’ve been a bad idea.” I could not disagree more. If it just went out there and didn’t change at all, then it’s probably not a strong idea. You know, it didn’t get any better.
Thanks for reading Mary’s innovation story. You can read more about our Untold Innovation Stories series in our Untold Innovation Stories kickoff post.
*Interviews are not endorsements of individuals or businesses.