Women and Girls Foundation transitions into a new phase


In June, the Women and Girls Foundation was awarded a key $1 million grant for its Femisphere initiative from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation. CEO Heather Arnet says Femisphere seeks to create an ecosystem where women and girls in Pittsburgh have everything they need to thrive.

It’s been a tale of two organizations before and after the funding.

Starting in 2013, the WGF was in R&D mode for Femisphere, doing research, mapping current services, looking at the community needs and approaching funding partners.

As the first phase of Femisphere came to a close — a joint report with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services — Arnet says the WGF was under a cloud of uncertainty.

“How do you keep moving forward, continuing to put the track ahead of the train even though you aren’t exactly sure whether you’ll go one way or the other?” she says.

The name “Women and Girls Foundation” sounds like it includes an endowment, but Arnet says the nonprofit runs like a small startup. Everyone works long hours and wears a lot of hats.

In 2016, the WGF continued its annual fundraising and outreach, while also building community support for Femisphere. Contingencies were built into the planning in case funding didn’t come through. The situation required flexibility and strong communication, Arnet says.

“For most of our 2016-2017 fiscal year, we were making do with what we had financially and keeping all of that project planning and momentum moving forward,” she says. “It was a bit of a Herculean task for a small staff.”

Now, with phase-two funding secured, the WGF is undergoing rapid growth. Typically, it has had three employees; that increased to eight in one month.

Arnet has been reading management resources and she and her COO are working with a consultant to manage the transition.

“This is a good change, but we also want to be thoughtful around how we orient new people, how we build a new team and how we change how we do business on a daily basis now that we’re a much larger organization,” Arnet says.

Connect the dots

With Femisphere, the WGF is a connector and coalition builder.

While Pittsburgh has undergone an economic renaissance, single mothers with school-age children aren’t seeing the benefits. They represent 77 percent of Pittsburgh households living in poverty, up from 73 percent in 2004.

Arnet says the WGF is working with key community partners to improve the economic security of these moms.

Femisphere includes helping develop educational and workforce development programs that offer transportation and child care assistance, and higher quality child care within neighborhoods where most low-income moms and kids live. It will survey the need for non-traditional child care to serve service, restaurant and retail employees who don’t work 8-5.

The WGF is working with more than 90 organizations to establish a state-level solution to provide paid family and medical leave to all workers in Pennsylvania. Femisphere also supports the Women’s Law Project.

“We’re not a direct service provider, and that’s not our role. But we do feel that there’s a tremendous amount of good work to be done in helping to connect the dots and fix some systemic gaps in the system,” Arnet says.

Connecting more transportation and child care support to higher education workforce development means more single moms will take advantage of them and their poverty rates should decline. Finding ways for small businesses to afford paid family and medical leave for their employees should increase job retention and make more families economically stable.

Gains and losses

The growth is exciting, but the WGF faced administrative challenges recruiting and helping new hires hit the ground running. Arnet says it takes time to orient staff on the organization’s mission and to develop relationships between the new and existing staff.

“We’re trying to be very thoughtful about that change management as it’s happening so that we invest that time upfront,” she says.

One surprise has been how the office went from feeling too large — the WGF used to sublet part of its space — to too small in a short time, Arnet says.

The most useful tool she’s found, so far, has been a book by William and Susan Bridges, “Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change.” It’s been transformational for Arnet to learn that every transition — good or bad — involves some loss or ending.

“It’s been helpful, as we go through this transition, to think about what losses people might be experiencing and how do we talk through that,” she says. “We were three people, now we’re eight. There are things that the new people are doing that some of us used to do.”

There’s relief, but also moments where employees miss a task they enjoyed doing, but is no longer part of their job description.

“Understanding those moments and giving team members space to articulate them and work through them is really important,” Arnet says. “That’s been profound learning for me.”