Below is the transcript for our podcast, South Carolina Nonprofit Leader: Debbie Bower, Senior Resources. Huge thanks to new media intern Sarah Royal for work in creating the transcript. Listen to the show here.
Welcome to the Idealist podcast. I'm Amy Potthast, and this is the Nonprofit Career Month Podcast. October is Nonprofit Career Month, a month of activities to promote the diversity of career opportunities in our nation's nonprofit sector. Learn more at nonprofitcareermonth.org.
Today's guest is Debbie Bower, Executive Director of Senior Resources, a South Carolina nonprofit that provides seniors services, resources, transportation help and Meals On Wheels, so that they can live healthy and independent lives. Debbie started her career with a bachelor's degree in Recreational Therapy, and soon found herself working as an activity director at for-profit and nonprofit assisted living facilities throughout the Midwest. When she relocated to South Carolina, she was drawn to the mission and programs of Senior Resources, because the organization allowed her to continue working with seniors on issues that matter to their lives. She started there as a Volunteer Administrator and Program Director, and over the course of many years has worked her way up to the Executive Director position.
Amy: Thank you so much, Debbie, for coming on the show.
Debbie: Thank you.
Amy: I was hoping you could start by giving us your title and explaining what Senior Resources is.
Debbie: My name is Debbie Bower, and I am the Executive Director at Senior Resources, Incorporated, which is basically like a council on aging, and we serve the Midlands area of South Carolina, primarily Richland County.
Amy: Which is where Columbia is, and then the outlying areas…?
Amy: What are your day-to-day responsibilities and tasks?
Debbie: Well, I serve at the discretion of the board, and I have a staff of about 42 individuals, and my job is to make sure this agency runs smoothly, and to make sure that we get the kind of grants that we need and the matching money that we need in order to do the programming that we do. Our mission is to do in-home, community-based, and volunteer service opportunities for seniors to keep them out of institutions and in their homes as long as we possibly can. So my day-to-day responsibility is to oversee all of the programs and services and management of this agency, and the 42 people and over 1,000 volunteers who work here.
Amy: What skill sets do you call on most often?
Debbie: Well, probably managing is the skill set that I have, because I have to manage a lot of people, manage a lot of grants that come from different types of funding sources, so being out in the public, communication is a big part of my job – I mean, I have to communicate with funders, grant writing is a key, so if I had to really think of three it would be managing people, managing resources and grant writing, and public relations.
Amy: That's a hefty set of skills that you have.
Debbie: [laughs] Well, you know, I've been in the business a really long time, and those are skill sets that you need. I obviously have not perfected them – I'm a work in progress.
Amy: How did you first get involved, either as a volunteer or intern or as a professional, in the work of nonprofits?
Debbie: Well, I did not start out in nonprofits. I have a degree in Recreational Therapy, and I lived in the state of Illinois and could not, at the time that I graduated from college, could not find a job in the field that I wanted to work in.
Amy: What is Recreational Therapy?
Debbie: It's recreation with a therapeutic aspect. You've heard of "Occupatonal Therapy," and you've heard of "Physical Therapy," and people spend a lot of their time in recreation, and there is a way to use recreation as part of someone's therapeutic advance towards whatever. It's like psychiatry – we do a lot of psychiatry with creative writing and art expression and those kinds of issues.
Amy: So, kind of like as a wellness method?
Debbie: Exactly, as a wellness method. So, I started out in nursing homes in the city of Chicago, and once I moved out of the metropolitan area, I ended up in a small town in Illinois, and they needed an activity therapist for a nonprofit council on aging, and I applied and got that job. And basically, except for a little stint in a psychiatric hospital as the Director of Activity Therapy in Ohio, from that moment on in Illinois, I've always been in the nonprofit sector. That was probably back in the early '80s, so it's been over 20 years I've been in the nonprofit sector.
Amy: And then did you move to South Carolina because of Senior Resources?
Debbie: No, I did not – the jobs that I've had are the result of me following my husband around, when he got job transfers. I always accused him of, you know, trying to dodge me, but I just kept following him around [laughs], and I ended up here in South Carolina about 15 years ago, and I had been working with the senior population for so many years, even when I was not in the nonprofit sector, that I knew if I wanted to work for seniors I needed to work for this agency Senior Resources. They fortunately had a job position open, and I started out here, it'll be 15 years in March, and I've been here ever since. I started out in a small program – one of the programs of this agency – called Neighbor Care. It was a grant-funded position through a grant with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and from there I went to the director of the Meals program, and I've been in this position as the Executive Director for about the last nine years.
Amy: That's a great example of growing from a position to another position into another position in a single nonprofit – that doesn't always happen.
Debbie: For this area, this is a very large nonprofit, when you figure that we are a private nonprofit. We are not associated – we're not like the Red Cross, or the Cancer Association, or the Heart Association – we are not a nonprofit that has national ties. We are a private nonprofit that just serves this particular community, and so we are considered a fairly large nonprofit. So we do have about eight or nine separate programs, so we do have a lot of mobility in those programs. However, I will tell you that one of the things that I have found in nonprofits, especially in this one over the last 15 years, is that we do not have a large turnover in staff, and even though I've been here 15 years, I have director-level and support staff who've been here a lot longer than I have.
Amy: That's wonderful to hear – that really shows a commitment by them to the work and to your organization, as well.
Debbie: And you're right, and I think the thing is that when you start – I have found, andhaving worked on both sides, having worked in profit agencies that still were social service but still were profit agencies, and nonprofits – what you find is that you can make a living. We're not any of us rich, but you sure do have to have passion for your work. And if you have the passion to do this, usually once you get into it and you see the effect that you have on people and how big of an impact your programs are making in people's lives, that that passion just grows, and it does cement you. You get to the point where you just can't imagine doing anything else, or even wanting to do anything else.
Amy: Yeah, I definitely agree with you there. It's hard to even imagine stepping away.
Debbie: Oh, absolutely.
Amy: Another thing that your story, I think, illustrates really well is that whether you're working for a business or for a nonprofit, your commitment to your issue area, which for you is the senior community, has been consistent, and I think that's something that a lot of nonprofits really value. And I'm wondering, when you're on the hiring side of a table, not looking for a job yourself but you're hiring new staff, if that's something that you'd count in someone's "plus" category.
Debbie: Absolutely, I think that you do have to have the passion, and usually you can tell in an interview whether someone is just looking for a job or if someone, like in my case when I interviewed here, I interviewed for the sole purpose of the fact that I wanted to stay working with seniors, and I knew that this is where I needed to be. And you can usually tell that in an interview, if the person has the passion for what you're doing, because, I mean, you're working with people's lives each and every day, and you just have to be able to dig deep within you and do the right thing for the client, and I think that that shows in an interview. Definitely that's a big plus, when I look: Where they're going, does that match where we are and where we're going? And if it doesn't, it doesn't mean that that person doesn't have wonderful skill sets and wouldn't be wonderful in many, many jobs, but they're probably not the right person for our agency.
Amy: Yeah, it's just part of the match – if it's a right match.
Amy: So I had one other question for you. We have a series of taglines going along with Nonprofit Career Month, like "Work that Pays," "Work that Matters," "Work that Challenges," and I wanted to ask you specifically about the impact that you and your organization do.
Debbie: Really, I would almost call it, "Work that Makes a Difference." When you work for a nonprofit, you are doing work that makes a difference, and it makes a difference in people's lives. We do very basic kinds of things here – we provide transportation, we provide food, we provide companionship, we provide respite, we provide home care – so these are basic needs that we provide. And you do become, whether it's an employee, or whether it's an intern, or whether it's a volunteer, I think they become inspired by the work that we do because they become inspired by the clients we serve. So I would say that nonprofit work is "Work that Makes a Difference."
Amy: That's so great – I'm just sitting here trying not to choke up, just looking at my grandfather…
Debbie: Oh, your grandfather – did you know what your grandfather does? He provides our Meals On Wheels participants with poems every month.
Amy: I've seen his operation! I've seen the entire assembly line.
Debbie: Oh, he is fabulous, and we also have a yearly breakfast called Every Senior Counts, and he was highlighted last year, and your aunt told the story about how he met his wife, and we laughed and we cried – everybody, all 300 people, through the whole thing, and he sat there very proudly during the whole thing. You know, but it is – we really make a difference in people's lives, and what's great about your grandfather is that he is quite elderly himself, but here he is doing what? He is volunteering his time and his talents and making a difference in the lives of the people that we serve Meals On Wheels to every day.
Amy: And I have to say, if we're going to talk about my grandfather, his whole life has been in service to other people…
Debbie: It has been.
Amy: …and he himself was a nonprofit professional. It totally makes sense to me know that things like that are what keeps him going.
Debbie: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, he's a treasure, we love him.
Amy: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. Is there anything else that you wanted to add?
Debbie: The only thing I would add is that, I'll just give you an example of my husband – we've been married for 38 years, and there was a time in our married life in the beginning where he really did not understand my passion for this work. I mean, he was glad that I did it and was glad that I had a job that I liked, but he actually thought that, you know, maybe I was wasting my skills, that, you know, I could go into the business world and I could do this, and I would say, I have no desire to do that. I like this, I like working with people, I like working for people, I like being their advocate and making sure that they have what they need. Well, he's been in the business world his whole life, but what I find just remarkable is that he hit a certain age – and I'm not so sure all people don't hit this certain age – when he looked at me one day and he said, "I wish I could look back on my career and know that I had made a difference in somebody's life." And he said, "I now know what you mean." And from that day on, he has volunteered more, he's gotten very involved in volunteer activities we have at the church, he attends all of our volunteer and fundraising sessions. In the beginning, you know, when we all get out of school and we're all pursuing careers, we look for one thing. But there does come a time in our life when we really look at ourselves and what we have accomplished, and we ask ourselves, "Have I made a difference?" And what's terrific about nonprofit work if you have the passion for it, is that every single day you get up knowing you're going to make a difference, and every single night you go to bed knowing you have. And I can't think of a better what to live your life.
Amy: And I think a lot of people do get out of school and they think, "What are my skill sets, and what's the highest bidder for that skill set?"
Amy: And yeah, I think that's definitely one way to look at the workforce – at least it's an organized system, which is very much different from how I looked at the workforce when I was getting out of college – it is a little bit different from thinking, "What's going to drive me internally, to make this work something that's my life's work?", in all sense of that word.
Debbie: Exactly. Well, I have really enjoyed this!
Amy: Thank you so much for your time.
Debbie: You are so welcome!
Learn more about Senior Resources at seniorresourcesinc.org Listen to more Nonprofit Career Month podcasts at nonprofitcareermonth.org/podcasts. Special thanks today to Kathy Moreland and Herman F. Allen. This show was produced with the help of Sarah Royal and Douglas Coulter. I'm Amy Potthast. Thanks for listening. To find more good things to do, go to Idealist.org. If you've enjoyed our podcasts, please show your support by going to iTunes and leaving a review and a rating of this episode or others you've liked. You can also send us feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.