In her role as Chief Operating Officer of the Barton Institute for Community Action Rebecca Arno has one foot firmly in administration and one foot dancing in communications. After a long career in nonprofit and community foundation communications, she has found a balance and depth of grace in her work that is unmatched. Listen to this down-to-earth communicator who has sparks of knowledge to share with both new and seasoned professionals.
Rebecca Arno is Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer of the Barton Institute for Community Action. She has more than three decades of experience in the philanthropic sector, including as Vice President for Operations and Communications for The Denver Foundation, and Vice President of Communications for the Daniels Fund. Rebecca has served on numerous boards including as chair of the Washington, D.C.-based Communications Network and of the Colorado Nonprofit Association. Rebecca earned her Master’s in Nonprofit Management from Regis University and teaches in the Masters in Nonprofit Leadership Program at University of Denver. She is currently board chair of Lighthouse Writers Workshop and serves as a board member of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative.
To build on the fun she has in her work life, she writes (poetry, fiction, and essays), competes (only with herself) in sprint distance triathlons, watches baseball (especially the SF Giants), and loves to hike, scuba dive, and occasionally fish with her husband of thirty years.
[00:00:00] Dawn Crawford: Welcome to this create good podcast today. We have Rebecca all the way from Denver, Colorado.
[00:00:07] How you doing?
[00:00:08] Rebecca Arno: Just fine raining here, which is unusual and it’s beautiful.
[00:00:13] Dawn Crawford: It is. Yeah, definitely. So why don’t you tell us your title and a little bit about your organization?
[00:00:20] Rebecca Arno: Sure. So I am the COO and CFO of the Barton Institute for Community Action and we are a nonprofit located in Denver, Colorado. Our goal is to provide social entrepreneurs who are working on creating safe community spaces with the support they need to do that. We. Four big projects under our umbrella.
[00:00:46] And they range from an initiative to provide safe parking lots for people who are homeless and living in their vehicles to an organization that’s developing a big community center in one of Denver’s neighborhoods that’s most in need. So it’s and everything in between.
[00:01:05] Dawn Crawford: That’s really cool. And I think, yeah, so coming to the south 10 years ago, I think we have a very different approach to our homeless population in the south. You know, it’s very much about shelters, you know, day shelters and then you’re on your own and that sort of thing. So I think Denver’s been really interesting in embracing that some folks are never gonna have a permanent address and how to help people through that.
[00:01:28] Rebecca Arno: Right, right. And you know, actually a lot of the people living in our safe lots. I say our, because I’m also on the board of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative that some of the people living in those safe lots Have just lost their housing and they still have their car. So if we can help them get back into housing really quickly, that’s awesome.
[00:01:51] Because then they don’t for go further down and, and end up on the street. So yeah, so that, so it’s less people who are in it for the long haul, living in their cars and more people who are in their cars and seeking to be in. Permanent housing of some kind inside a house. This is a very fraught topic, so we could go on forever about that.
[00:02:13] Dawn Crawford: lot. It’s a lot. Great. So you’ve had a great career in not-profit communications. How many years has it been since you’ve been doing this work?
[00:02:22] Rebecca Arno: Oh, gosh, I was thinking about that. I think it’s been so my first communications job in the nonprofit sector was in 91. So that would be 30 years ago, 31 years ago. Oh my gosh. And my current job, which I’ve been doing for the last four or five years is I’m doing communications. And so I went from being at the Denver Foundation, which of course I had a team and we were, you know, doing communications at, at a much more sophisticated level to now I’m one of a staff of four in our sort of hub office.
[00:02:57] And I’m the only communications person with some wonderful outside help. But it’s different. It’s very different.
[00:03:05] Dawn Crawford: Yeah, definitely. So, yeah. Can you share a little bit about your career and do it in 90 seconds or less?
[00:03:12] Rebecca Arno: Ooh, I will give it a try. Okay. So I got an amazingly useful creative writing degree from San Francisco State University. And then I needed to find a way to pay the bills and happily, I found my way to a nonprofit where I started as an administrative assistant. And once I discovered the nonprofit sector, I was all in.
[00:03:34] The fact that you could go to work and go to work for a mission versus somebody’s financial bottom line. I was all about that. So I then found out that if you can write and you work for a nonprofit. People like you and they keep giving you more opportunities to do things. So I, I went to work at a healthcare nonprofit and then a, an environmental nonprofit.
[00:03:57] And then my boss from the environmental nonprofit went to a community foundation in San Francisco, in the San Francisco area. And she recruited me to come with her. And that’s when I found my way to the community foundation field, where I spent. 20 years in different community foundations loved it, loved it.
[00:04:13] Moved to Denver to the Denver foundation. Loved it, loved it. Had a minor diversion to a private foundation for a little while, but came back to the Denver foundation. And then I decided I wanted to try something new. And here I am at the Barton Institute and getting to really start a new org brand new organization, entrepreneurial from the ground up.
[00:04:34] It’s been amazing.
[00:04:36] Dawn Crawford: That’s fantastic. that was great. Good job. That was very good. Very concise.
[00:04:40] Rebecca Arno: OK. I dunno if I was less than 90 seconds, but
[00:04:45] Dawn Crawford: that’s good. It’s good. So why nonprofits? Why do you do this work?
[00:04:49] Rebecca Arno: Oh my gosh. Well, the very first nonprofit I worked for. Was called the National Counts on Alcoholism and other Drug Addictions. And those issues were hugely impacting my family. And I did not know that there was a sector that was dedicated to making life better for people who had had problems in different areas of their lives.
[00:05:12] And once, once I discovered that and then started meeting people in the sector, The other people who work in this sector are the reason I’ve stayed in it for my whole career. It’s because we all make choices to be here because we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. And I love that. And we’re part of this hopeful vision of the community in whatever area that we might work, that we’re making things better for other people, for animals, for the environment. And I just think how, how amazing is it that we can actually make a living doing this work? I am so grateful. Yeah.
[00:05:57] Dawn Crawford: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And nonprofit folks are the most kindest folks, right. They
[00:06:03] just. And you already have so much rapport with them instantly just by knowing that yeah. We’re all in this opportunity and challenge world together.
[00:06:14] Rebecca Arno: Yeah, we, we we’ve made this choice and and we, I, I mean, almost everybody I know who works in nonprofits, volunteers with other nonprofits and, you know, anyway, we, we just see this as a, as a really great mechanism for changing the world. And let’s just get that done.
[00:06:32] Dawn Crawford: Yeah. Very cool. Yeah. So what’s your favorite thing that you like to do? And what’s your, what’s your favorite thing about your current job?
[00:06:41] Rebecca Arno: I love working with the community entrepreneurs who are creating our programs and also visiting our programs and then being part of the communities that are not being served by because we really see ourselves as partners with the people in community and we try to do good with them, not for them.
[00:07:00] And so being in those relationships and connections, I totally love that. And going out and and spending time with those folks is just fantastic.
[00:07:11] Dawn Crawford: That’s great. That’s very good. Okay. So magic wand time. What’s one thing that you would change about your professional life.
[00:07:19] Rebecca Arno: Less time with spreadsheets and more time with people
[00:07:22] Dawn Crawford: yeah.
[00:07:24] Rebecca Arno: or more time to write. I mean, that’s actually, I should say that because the other thing that I see so much is the amazing stories of all the people in community that we get to work with. I don’t have enough time to tell their stories in the way they should be told.
[00:07:41] So I want more time to do that.
[00:07:43] Dawn Crawford: Agreed. And I feel like we’re getting back to that meeting culture. I feel like with the, with COVID that we all got to kind of step away and like have meaningful meetings. and now it’s come back and I feel like there’s just a lot of meetings now. Right? Like, it’s been interesting for that.
[00:08:02] Rebecca Arno: Sure.
[00:08:03] Dawn Crawford:
[00:08:03] So what are you looking forward to in the next year?
[00:08:05] Rebecca Arno: Well, one of our projects is graduating from a wonderful project called Lifespan Local that we’ve had under our wing, since we were started, has gotten so big that they need to move out and become their own nonprofit, which is I’m so excited to see what happens next for them. And then for us that opens up some bandwidth and we can start looking for potential new partners.
[00:08:27] So. that process of talking with people in the community, finding out who’s doing creative things. Is there a project that needs the kind of backing that we provide? And so far all of that has happened in a pretty organic way. So I look forward to that organic process over the course of the next year.
[00:08:47] Dawn Crawford: Yeah, that’s great. You certainly achieved a lot with your career so far. Is there anything else you still wanna achieve in your professional life?
[00:08:53] Rebecca Arno: I would, I will say this. I I am very focused on the things that haven’t yet been done and the things that haven’t yet been done are making this a, an equitable world and especially the United States of America. A more equitable society. And I feel like my work there will never, ever be done as long as I draw breath.
[00:09:18] And so in terms of achievements, I would love to continue to make a difference in some way on, in that work. know, I think. We had this great awakening in 2020 a as, you know, white people in this country. And, you know, it’s, it’s work that I’ve been doing for a number of years, but it was so exciting to see like, oh my God, white people are finally getting it, that we have to do this work, anti-racist work.
[00:09:44] And and now it’s like a year later and, or almost two years later and people are like uh, whatever, you know, and I’m just thinking it’s ridiculous that people are just sliding back, you know, it’s sort of like, oh, well, you know, not don’t really need to do that work so much.
[00:10:02] And. I will never stop doing it and rabble-rousing other people to do it. So so I’d love to, I’d love to do more of that.
[00:10:11] Dawn Crawford: Yeah. And I feel like people still need the tools. Right. And I think that’s where communications can make a huge difference is by building those tools and, you know, talking to the organizations who are doing it well and how to, how do they do it? Unpack it. Like let’s build a toolkit, you know, like something, right.
[00:10:29] Rebecca Arno: And I think there are things out there it’s just a matter. Let’s make them accessible to people. And, you know, I think the communications network actually did a survey about what people have been doing to build equitable communications and they have a bunch of Resources on their website that I can give you a link to.
[00:10:49] But yeah, that’s you know, I think that there are people who are doing this and you’re right. We have to just get the word out and make sure people have the tools that they need to need to get it done.
[00:11:01] Dawn Crawford: Absolutely. Okay. So what advice do you have for a person who’s either joining the nonprofit field for the first time or transitioning to it in mid-career
[00:11:11] Rebecca Arno: Well, first of all if you think you’re coming to the nonprofit field and this is more for the transition people, if you think you’re coming to the nonprofit field to work less and to maybe sort of hang back and be chill. This is not the sector for you
[00:11:26] you are gonna work harder. You’re gonna work harder for less money.
[00:11:30] Welcome to the nonprofit sector
[00:11:33] Dawn Crawford: Yeah. And more emotionally. Yeah. It’s like , you’re
[00:11:36] Rebecca Arno: and your work will never. Yeah. And your work will never be done. I mean, literally we are working to make the world better and. And, and I, and I have worked for nonprofits like hunger. I was on the board of Hunger, Free Colorado. We hoped at some point that we would get to a point where we worked ourselves out of business.
[00:11:54] Unfortunately I have not seen that time coming yet. I think, you know, we, in the nonprofit sector work really, really hard, but if you. Can create your own personal boundaries and your ways of refreshing and recovering, because I’m a very big believer in that. There’s a book called Sabbath by Wayne Mueller that I just love about how, if basically, if Jesus rested, we can also rest,
[00:12:22] Dawn Crawford: that’s a good point.
[00:12:24] Rebecca Arno: No, we’re not more moral than Jesus by working ourselves to the bone.
[00:12:29] So let’s take some Sabbath time for ourselves. And, and so I think it’s really important to build that into your as an nonprofit professional.
[00:12:38] Dawn Crawford: Okay. So our next section of questions is around feedback on your ideas. So it’s not necessarily management feedback or, you know, annual review stuff, but it’s about really how you get that collaboration from your peers on your creative work. So how do you professionally process criticism and feedback on your.
[00:12:56] Rebecca Arno: So I am hungry for feedback. I thrive on feedback. If I don’t have it, I create opportunities for it. And I think you need it to make the best product, especially in communications. You know, we only can have the knowledge of how our communications products are perceived. Through our own lens.
[00:13:21] And if we’re trying to move an audience that is not identically like ourselves, we better the heck be creating feedback loops. And so to me that seek it out. I thrive on it. and then what I do is as I get feedback as, and this has, this has happened much more effectively as I’ve gotten older. I used to, you know, when I’d hear a piece of feedback, I’d be like, oh, you’re right. Oh, you’re right. Oh, you’re right. You know, I’d agree with everybody. And now I am much more discerning and I think it’s okay to be discerning because that’s what our skills that we’ve developed as a communicator have allowed us to be.
[00:14:00] We can be discerning as we’ve taken feedback, but sometimes. You have to challenge those biases. Are you being too discerning? Are you listening to the wrong people? So, anyway, it’s a big process. I think about it a lot and, and actively develop opportunities to get more feedback in my life.
[00:14:19] Dawn Crawford: Yeah. So what are some, of your tactics to get that feedback? Some different, more novel ways.
[00:14:24] Rebecca Arno: well, one of the things that I do is I, I heard once and I haven’t fully Done this yet, but I heard that you should a mentor. Who’s two generations older than you and two generations younger than you. So for me as a gen Xer, sort of late gen Xer, I mean, early gen Xer, whatever sixties, anyway I have, you know, I have mentors who are in their eighties, seventies, and eighties, and I have, but I also need to have mentors who are in their twenties and early thirties.
[00:14:56] And I love to gather people around me and connect with people who I can send materials for feedback who are in other generations. I think that’s really, really important. And. Asking people, if they’d be willing to review things for me before I send them out you know, people like to be asked for their opinion and I think that’s a really good thing to do.
[00:15:23] So looking at that multi-generational I think would be, would be one tool that I use. Another one is new employees. So if you work in an organization. Anytime I have new employees, people who are like first six months on the job, I listed really, really closely to what they say, because all of that stuff that we’ve gotten inculcated with and we’re using this language and this acronym, those people have no idea.
[00:15:52] And they’re the ones who are gonna question you. And if you create a, an environment of trust with those folks when they come in so that they know you really want their feedback and that you you’ll welcome it. The, the results are tremendous.
[00:16:06] Dawn Crawford: That’s really great. I love that. Yeah. So yeah. Is there any certain style of feedback you like to receive and how do you kind of communicate that to your colleagues.
[00:16:15] Rebecca Arno: I like it. I like quick feedback so. And this is hard, cuz I know sometimes people need to think about it and then they need to think, okay, well Rebecca’s my boss. Do I wanna share this with her? Or would Rebecca really be interested in this? I want it as quickly as possible. So my goal, my goal is to share with people who work with me that no, if you see something wrong, do not hesitate.
[00:16:42] Tell me now cuz I wanna know. And. Yeah. I mean, that’s, that’s just, my favorite kind is the, is the, the quick kind. But also, you know, I, I think when people are brave and they really disagree with you, I just think that’s amazing. And I’m so grateful to have that because. Not the kneejerk unkind feedback that comes from a place of the other person’s ego, but the truly like, you know, I deeply disagree with you and I really think you need to rethink this.
[00:17:17] I’ve, I’ve very much valued that
[00:17:21] Dawn Crawford: absolutely. Yeah. And be able to explore that with them They’re right. Or they’re wrong. Right. And that’s, what’s nice. It’s like black or
[00:17:27] Rebecca Arno: Yeah, well, and I love these or there might be something in there, like they might be wrong, but wait a minute. That part, that part is right. So I love these questions. I love these questions about feedback. I think it’s just people who are good at getting and giving feedback. It’s a superpower. It’s just something really important.
[00:17:49] Dawn Crawford: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And communicators. we’re just inundated with feedback, you know, whether it’s yeah. Feedback on social, on posts, on , you know, before it even hits live, right. How much we get from people and how much we have to sort and organize and yeah. Absorb all of this impact and all this yeah.
[00:18:09] Feedback from folks. So is there a style of feedback that doesn’t work for you
[00:18:13] Rebecca Arno: The kind that comes to me after it’s useful. So, I’ve sent that newsletter out with the article that you secretly read and thought was terrible. And you decide to wait until after oh yeah. There are some comments on social that say, oh, that I, I, you know, this really isn’t very good. And then you say, oh yeah, I forgot to tell you. Give it to me when it’s. If it’s not, you probably don’t wanna hear it.
[00:18:44] Dawn Crawford: that’s true. That’s fair. Fair. Okay. So you’ve talked a little bit about yeah. Avoiding burnout, self care. So yeah. How do you, how do you take that Sabbath? How do you avoid burnout?
[00:18:56] Rebecca Arno: Well, my daily practice, so I have daily and ongoing practices. Daily, I meditate every morning and. I find meditation to be incredibly, incredibly beneficial. I move my body. So I’m a I’m a woman of size, but I, I love to move and I do sprint distance triathlons, which means I have to train in three different sports in the summer.
[00:19:25] So I bike, swim and run. Actually I don’t run. I walk very fast but I don’t run. and, I just love to read, I read. I love to read fiction, nonfiction, poetry, everything, and just sort of absorb new ideas.
[00:19:43] and then just spending really quiet quality time with my husband and my family.
[00:19:53] I have a big family that. I’m one of five kids and three of us live in this area and all of our kids and all, you know, so and my mother and my mother-in-law and all of the people. So I love to spend time with family. And yeah, yeah. That’s, that’s a lot of the things.
[00:20:11] Dawn Crawford: And so what makes you come back to work every day?
[00:20:13] Rebecca Arno: It’s not done.
[00:20:15] Dawn Crawford: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:20:16] Rebecca Arno: And I feel really, really grateful to be doing this work. I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude. And when I think so I live with my 91 year old mother-in-law and, or she lives with us. I should say we didn’t move in with her. She moved in with us so she. Wonderful and very sunny and, and a great roommate.
[00:20:41] But when I think about being her age and I think about what I will want to look back on I recognize how incredibly lucky I am right now in my life to have so many of amazing opportunities to make a difference in my volunteer life, in my work life in my home life. And, and. Oh, my gosh. It’s just makes me wanna dance.
[00:21:06] I just I’m so happy to be able to do the work that I do.
[00:21:10] Dawn Crawford: it is incredible. Yeah. The thing, Find a job that doesn’t feel like work. I mean, that’s, I mean, our, our jobs feel like work. Like it is, it is work , you know, but it is.
[00:21:19] Rebecca Arno: But it’s but, but we also, I mean, think about other types of jobs we could be
[00:21:24] doing. And I have done some of those jobs and I’m glad I’m not picking bales up out of a field. Like I was teenager stuff like that.
[00:21:35] Dawn Crawford: That’s true. But I think, yeah, it is work, but, it’s just so fulfilling. It’s so neat to be able to change the world in so many different ways. Okay. So the next section is rapid fire. One answers, right? Like you should have a single word answer. Very few people have been able to, to pass this challenge with communicators, we all wanna add more reason, more rationale, more color to our answers.
[00:21:57] Rebecca Arno: Oh my gosh,
[00:21:59] Dawn Crawford: so you ready?
[00:22:00] Rebecca Arno: one word. I only
[00:22:01] Dawn Crawford: one that’s the goal. okay. You ready?
[00:22:05] what’s your favorite word?
[00:22:08] Rebecca Arno: Lavender.
[00:22:09] Dawn Crawford: What’s your least favorite word?
[00:22:12] Rebecca Arno: Official
[00:22:13] Dawn Crawford: what’s your personal nonprofit cause or passion.
[00:22:16] Rebecca Arno: one word, one word.
[00:22:20] Dawn Crawford: That’s good. There you go. See what nonprofit cause gets too much a.
[00:22:24] Rebecca Arno: None.
[00:22:25] Dawn Crawford: What’s your favorite curse word?
[00:22:28] Rebecca Arno: Shit. I say it about a thousand times a day.
[00:22:31] Dawn Crawford: yes. And then these ones, you can add more words to them, but so what other profession, other than your own, would you like to.
[00:22:39] Rebecca Arno: I would love to try being a full-time writer.
[00:22:42] Dawn Crawford: Yeah, that’s great. And then what other nonprofit professional organization would you like to hear? On this podcast?
[00:22:49] Rebecca Arno: So there’s an organization in Denver called the Equity Project and this amazing woman, Dwinita Mosby. Tyler is their executive director. If you don’t know her or haven’t talked to her, she would be amazing. Oh, I would love to hear from her. Oh, gosh, there’s so many. This is really hard. OK. So I know they’re a big foundation, but I think the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation does amazing stuff with communications and really his communications for good. And I think they would be amazing. It might be interesting for you to think about having Sean Gibbons who’s the head of Communications Network on so, you know, sort of talking from the larger organizations to the smaller organizations he’s, he would be a hilarious interview.
[00:23:34] Let me
[00:23:34] just tell
[00:23:35] you that guy is personality plus Oh, my gosh. Oh, I just, oh okay. There’s planned parenthood of Colorado, a planned parenthood of Rocky Mountains,
[00:23:46] Dawn Crawford: yes.
[00:23:46] Rebecca Arno: Adrienne Mansanares, who is their CEO is amazing, but their anybody on their communication staff would also be amazing. They are fantastic. Lauren Casteel from the Women’s Foundation in Colorado. Super cool. Okay, well, I’ll stop there. I, I mean, I could, I could probably go on for hours.
[00:24:07] Dawn Crawford: Yeah. Thank you so much. Yeah. I knew you would have a lot of people for that one. You’re the big, you’re the networker. You are the hub of
[00:24:14] Rebecca Arno: I
[00:24:14] Dawn Crawford: all
[00:24:15] Rebecca Arno: much I love to connect people. I
[00:24:18] do. It’s one of my favorite things.
[00:24:22] Dawn Crawford: That’s all my questions. Thank you so much for being part of this. I, yeah, you are the connector. I think your personality has, we haven’t talked to each other in a long time and your personality has not changed at all. So I love it.
[00:24:37] Rebecca Arno: oh my. Thank you so much. It’s
[00:24:41] I, I am a, a blessed person and I just think what you’re doing is really great. Getting these voices out here. I, I will go on your, and now I have to go and listen to the other episodes.
[00:24:51] Dawn Crawford: Well, thank you so much for joining us and thank you for everybody out there. Who’s listening. Have a great rest of your day.