31 Jul Nonprofit Spotlight: Choices Women’s Clinic
August’s conversation is with Michelle Sawney, the Director of Patient Services
at Choices Women’s Clinic in Orlando, FL.
Secret Sauce Ingredients
- Authentic Community in the Office
- Investment in Staff’s Human Capital
- Self-Care and Realistic Expectations
- Priority of Mission Over Influence
What does Choices Women’s Clinic seek to accomplish in the community?
Michelle and her team work to “encourage and equip women and men to make informed pregnancy decisions” by offering a host of free services like pregnancy tests, medical consultations, ultrasounds, and STI testing for qualified patients. For women that have already decided to terminate their pregnancy, post-abortion care and support groups are also made available. Life coaches are accessible to vulnerable women at risk for pregnancy as well.
What kind of organization culture is found at Choices?
In his bestselling book, Managing the Nonprofit Organization, Peter Drucker writes that the most important thing a nonprofit can do is “ build the organization around information and communication instead of around hierarchy.” Because each layer of an organization is a “relay” during which information can be manipulated, misinterpreted, or lost, information is better transferred between those that use it in “flatter” organizations. Michelle notes that at Choices, “there is no ‘upper level’ vs ‘lower level’…we look at each other as peers. We work together as a team, because we know that without volunteers, we don’t exist. Because volunteers are a majority of the staff members, we treat them like staff members.”
Michelle also spoke at length about the “family” the Choices staff had become and how the emotionally and mentally taxing nature of the work knitted them closer together. “No matter what you do, you’re going to take this kind of work home with you,” she said. “I couldn’t do it without the support of the women that work here – we encourage one another and talk it out before we leave for the day so the burden isn’t carried by our spouses or children.”
“There is no ‘upper level’ vs ‘lower level’…We look at each other as peers. We work together as a team, because we know that without volunteers, we don’t exist. Because volunteers are a majority of the staff members, we treat them like staff members.”
How does your organization measure success?
In the healthcare sector (much like in the larger social sector), big wins aren’t typically seen overnight. “It’s hard to measure from day to day which women we see will ultimately choose life,” Michelle said. “We may not know until months later whether the client decided to procure an abortion or keep the baby.” Because the Choices staff has no control over a woman’s final decision once they walk out the clinic’s doors, other metrics are used to determine the staff’s success as well. “We want to make sure women feel loved and cared for when they leave here. Education is a critical dimension. When women leave, do they feel like they’ve been given all the information they need to make a healthy and well-informed choice? That’s how we know we’ve done our job.”
How are the volunteers and staff members at Choices developed personally and professionally?
Like many nonprofit organizations, Choices relies heavily on the generosity of donors and volunteers in order to care for women on Orlando’s margins well. In order to leverage their volunteers to the fullest extent possible while creating an environment in which they want to continue serving, Michelle said that intentional efforts are made to help these individuals identify, refine, and practice their skills, talents, and passions. Volunteers are also given different tasks throughout their tenure to give them greater insight into how the organization functions and holistically cares for patients.
Volunteers are also given different tasks throughout their tenure to give them greater insight into how the organization functions and holistically cares for patients.
“We want to diversify staff roles so they don’t just feel like they are only limited to answering phones, filling out charts, and completing monotonous tasks,” Michelle remarked. “For example, our receptionist answers the phones but also hopes to become a health coach one day. To help her build expertise in that area, we put her in a position to teach a unit on healthy living in our parenting classes.”
What are some of the largest challenges faced by Choices? How does the staff persevere through them?
While Choices has thirteen paid staff members, the clinic relies heavily on roughly 25 volunteers each week to conduct pregnancy and STD tests as well as serve as client advocates. These services are invaluable to the nonprofit and reduce the organization’s expenditures, volunteers have more flexible schedules than staff members and can take off more easily. “We can’t regulate consistency like we can with staff,” Michelle noted. “For example, we’re experiencing more volatility this summer as some of our volunteers are college students or parents that need to stay home with their children.”
Despite the weekly gaps in scheduling that inevitably arise, Michelle said she has a peace about the work and continues to push forward. “We’re always out in the community and at churches looking for volunteers,” she remarked. “But we aren’t in control of what God does. All I can do is pray, ‘God, You know what we’re doing here and what our purpose is – we know that’s pleasing to You and we know that You will provide.”
What gets you up in the morning to do this job? What inspired you to join this organization?
Many nonprofit employees are attracted to the sector because of their own personal exposure to poverty, trauma, or need. “I’m a single mom and I remember the difficulty of making that decision,” Michelle recalled. “I feel like the resources and support I was given made an enormous difference – I want to show other women that just because this is where they are now doesn’t mean that this is where they have to remain.”
Because Michelle places much greater priority and value on the mission than on her own personal influence or success, she also finds job satisfaction in preparing the next generation of clinic workers and advocates. “The Lord shows me everyday that there’s still someone out there that needs encouragement and resources,” she remarked. “The people that come as volunteers give me a chance to pass education and training off to others that can continue the work when I’m no longer here.”
“The people that come as volunteers give me a chance to pass education and training off to others that can continue the work when I’m no longer here.”
What advice/encouragement could you give to those that are also passionate about this line of work and want to see communities restored?
While wanting to be “a good person” can sustain an individual in the nonprofit sector for a short period of time, Michelle suggested, something deeper and more profound has to happen for passion and commitment to deepen. “You have to really check your motives as to why you’re doing what you’re doing…it has to be bigger than yourself,” she said. “It has to be something other than ‘I just want to make a difference.’”
She also noted the magnitude of the problems nonprofits attempt to tackle and the burnout employees can experience if they feel the need to eradicate the injustice on their own. “You have to really pray about it. When you’re dealing with abuse, loss, and death, there’s a lot of torment and pain that these clients feel. You need that strong foundation in Christ – those things are all bigger than you and you can’t handle it by yourself.”
“When you’re dealing with abuse, loss, and death, there’s a lot of torment and pain that these clients feel. You need that strong foundation in Christ – those things are all bigger than you and you can’t handle it by yourself.”