Above: STEMblazers Executive Director Wendy Merchant, left, and Adoption Options Executive Director Adrienne Elliott responded to questions from participants in JVA’s Executive Director Academy on Friday.


By Sandy Wiegand, Copyeditor and Writer at Joining Vision and Action

What’s the first thing new graduates of JVA’s Executive Director Academy (EDA) do when they get back to the office?

For JVA Genius Bar speakers Adrienne Elliott and Wendy Merchant, who completed EDA years ago, it was to connect with mentors. They wanted to keep learning new things.

On Friday, Adrienne, the executive director of Adoption Options, and Wendy, the executive director of STEMblazers, were the mentors. They took questions from last week’s graduating EDA class on board optimization, staff motivation, promoting equity and more. Here’s some of the advice they had to offer:

About the organizations

Adoption Options is a 38-year-old Colorado-based nonprofit that guides birth parents and adoptive families through the adoption process and beyond. Its programs include adoption of infants as well as a foster care-to-adoption program. Adoption Options is a nonsectarian organization with a proud tradition of inclusivity of the LGBTQ community.

Founded by Wendy in 2016, the Denver nonprofit STEMblazers works to inspire girls to visualize themselves in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers, and empowers them to pursue STEM professions. This includes introducing middle and high school girls to STEM professionals, taking the girls on related field trips, facilitating their participation in competitions and more.

Question: How do you motivate board members for action?  


  • Find people who are passionate about your organization and its mission. Keep them passionate by giving them a voice and meaningful work that aligns with their interests and talents.

Adrienne: “The biggest thing is: How do we keep people motivated and inspired? And that is by having them have a piece of whatever they like to do.”

  • Enlist the board chair as your advocate.

Wendy: “It helps having a chair (who is) as passionate as the executive director, who can motivate their team—checking in with their team, holding board members accountable between meetings, etc.”

  • Establish and keep board term limits to facilitate new ideas and energy. Enlist the great board members who are leaving in an advisory role, on a committee outside the board, as a volunteer or in another meaningful role.
  • Keep board meetings to a reasonable length.

Question: How do you empower your staff to advance your mission more independently?


  • Have a good onboarding process that helps staff see the full picture, not just the department or program they are working in.

Adrienne: “A lot of times what you will hear is: I knew we did this, but I didn’t know we did that. Give them the whole picture.”

  • Provide a clear organizational chart so staff members know who is in charge of what, and who to approach for particular issues.
  • Provide good job training that integrates new staff into the organization and its mission.
  • Share toolkits so your staff can talk about the organization in the community.
  • Listen to staff and provide them some input in decision-making.

Adrienne: “Allow them to have input, talk about what’s going on for them, listen to their suggestions, so they know they can come with ideas and we will implement some of those changes. They have more buy-in.”

  • Provide benefits to the extent that the organization is able. For small or newly formed nonprofits, this may consist of flex time and the option to work from home. For more established organizations, it might extend to health insurance and a 401(k)—along with pay comparable to that in the private sector.

Question: What are concrete things we can do to change the culture in our organizations?


  • Determine your organization’s core values, and hold people to those values.

    Executive Director Academy lead facilitator Sandra Harris Howard, right, with EDA graduates last Friday.

Wendy: “We defined our core values. And we go by that whether it’s the board, staff or volunteers. So there are ways we have to behave because we don’t want to corrupt that culture. Defining core values creates that culture—what you think is important will define your culture and values.”

Adrienne: “It has taken us about a year, but we have seven core values defined. We have them posted everywhere. When want to give kudos, we say this is the core values we have seen. And also when someone breaks one, they have to be accountable. That includes me. My staff know that if I do something offensive or that doesn’t follow a core value, I am accountable for that. It has been a huge help; it helps staff feel that we embody the values we project.”

Question: How are you working on racial equity in spaces that are predominantly white or predominantly people of color?


  • Serve diverse communities.
  • Educate

Adrienne: “We are one of few adoption agencies to have a seal of recognition from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. We work with gay couples, the LGBTQ community, and we promote that. We work with a lot of families coming out of child welfare, which don’t represent the families that are looking to adopt usually. We do diligent recruitment of families coming from same communities as the children. But that’s hard. So a lot of time we are in spaces where we are educating.”

  • Make your communications inclusive

Wendy: “I love this because we just rebranded August 1. Our new logo has four outlines of faces—we purposefully made it girls of different ethnicities. We want every girl to know: You’re already included. You’re not ‘invited in’; you’re already included.”

  • Hire diverse staff.

Adrienne: “Our staff is very diverse; we try to embody that inclusion as much as possible. We know we always have more to do. We bring in consultants; we looked at our core values. We try to think about: If we say we are inclusive, what does that really mean, how do we embody that?”