How to Build a Life-Saving Nonprofit from the Ground Up: Advice from Christy Turlington Burns
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We'll showcase the experiences of legendary women, entrepreneurs fierce up and comers and everyday women who found success their own way. Consider. This your real world NBA. Designed for the new now. I'm Kim as a rally and thanks so much for joining us today. The business world is full of pivots, but few have redirected their careers quite the way Christy Turlington Burns has done to have enormous impact. One of the world's most famous supermodels she has spent the past ten years creating and building a highly effective nonprofit mother counts. The goal of every mother counts is to bring down the number of maternal deaths worldwide, the death rate is unacceptably high says, Christie including in the US and most of those deaths are preventable. Every mother counts provides the education advocacy and support that's making a difference but getting the organization to where it is today was a long journey. It started with Christie's own experience in childbirth and her desire to make pregnancy and birth safe for every mother. Building this nonprofit has taught her invaluable lessons in leadership and had built an organization with impact. I sat down with Christie to her fascinating journey and what she's learned along the way. Kristie, thanks so much for joining me. Thank you so much for having me. Kristie you became world-famous at a very young age through your incredibly successful modelling career, and since then you have really used your power for purpose to address the critical issue of maternal health through the founding of every mother counts. For our listeners, can you tell us a little bit about every mother counts? I founded every mother counts in two, thousand ten and the impetus for getting involved in maternal health and becoming an advocate for global maternal health was a personal experience when I delivered my daughter grace who's now sixteen almost seventeen I had a postpartum complication. You know at the time, it was very ready and prepared for this phase of my life and I felt well supported in had lots of options for my healthcare. And yet the unexpected happened. But that experience really opened my eyes to a global tragedy, which is maternal mortality and asserted that journey then and I think. Partially the experience but then also the realization that there were hundreds and thousands of girls and women around the world who happen dying having very serious complications that were related to childbirth I was shocking to learn but also really I guess compelled me to want to do something about it, and so I started this journey in it took me a little while to figure out exactly how and what when I would do what I've come to do but it was a process of learning. And then going back to school and studying public health and global health, and then figuring out what I could contribute meaningful way to try to prevent these unnecessary deaths. So I hope in this conversation, we'll get into a lot about maternal health both globally and also here in the. US. But first, let me just take you back for your personal story. Where did you grow up? How did you get into modeling and did you always know you wanted to start organization dedicated to advancing women? No I did not know. I grew up in northern California. I'm from the East Bay area, my parents both worked for Pan. American Airlines my mom was a flight attendant. My Dad was out seven, forty, seven pilot, my mom's from Central America. So I guess I had this connection to a country and a community that were different than the community and country that I grew up in, and so I guess a credit her to kind of opening my eyes early on in having the experience of going back and forth to a developing country and having the kind of young brain to like just taken information in sort of. Disparities kind of really struck me van still do now I started modeling when I was like fourteen years old and it seems crazy now that I have a teenager of my own. But we moved as a family to Miami when I was about ten because of my dad's Job Panamerican was headquartered there and my dad was a training captain for a few years and then my sister and I were. And we were discovered for lack of a better word one day while writing our horses and taken to her photographs taken and with my mom permission, of course. Those photographs ended up into the hands of a local agency who then linked to be back to New York and so you know I I didn't know I'm so young at the time that I honestly didn't know like I didn't even look at a fashion magazine I didn't really know what a model was to be honest I was. Kind of mouthful of braces I still don't think of it as a career although I still do model on occasion and you know what? For me was exciting about it was travel like right out of the gate that was something that I had inherited through my parents like a love of travel and seeing the world and being off the beaten path and I just had the Siri adventurous kind. Of Spirit and so for me at at job, what it offered was independence because I was able to earn an income, be able to contribute a little bit to my family right? The dream it dream the dream and so yes, you know I, I stayed in school until I graduated high school and that I literally moved into my first apartment like days before he turned eighteen and I thought like. City and I am so independent. What life, and then as soon as I wasn't a student anymore who is a model like in my summers pert time suddenly, I didn't Lake I didn't like that. Like that description that didn't like it didn't feel like me. Right, so I started thinking about going back to school pretty early but I didn't actually do until I was about twenty five. So I'd say ten years into like working pretty steady I was like, okay. Now it's time and I enrolled at Nyu and that's kind of where I feel like I started to become a little bit more. I. Don't know committed to figuring out what I wanted to do and what explore the various interests that I had a started to. Experiment a little bit with philanthropy and you know I various causes in my youth were becoming also kind of pandemics. HIV AIDS I grew up with me when I was eighteen nineteen years old I was losing people quite often. I. Knew many many people who had had HIV AIDS and who as a result passed away. Part, of those early drug trials, and so I had also some personal experience in interested global health from that perspective, and then you know over the years got to be part of some other incredible endeavors working on quibble health whether it was you know the one campaign early days or read when that was initiated after and I got to continue to travel but also start to learn about disparities right? Because not everybody has the same access to information let alone drugs, random services, and then I lost my dad when I was in my late twenties from one cancer and so again, public health like That's. One of the things that I go back to a lot when I think about my exposure to public health Zyban smoker in my early twenties and late teens to probably a losing my dad lung cancer while I was in in college at that was a huge Atar awakening and opportunity yeah. It was hard but I also, you know the way that I dealt with it was jumping in and learning all I could learn and then sharing my story sharing the story of my dad sharing my own story having been addicted to tobacco and cigarettes, and so I got in fairly early at a at an important time for prevention cessation around tobacco products. That was my first foray was going to the capital, a lot and I testified. With Senator Lautenberg in New Jersey. There's all of this tobacco cases and trials, and so I was able to lend my voice at a really critical time for that particular public health crisis, and so by the time I became a mom years later and there is another kind of crisis happening. I had some experience and some practical knowledge that I was able to put towards this issue, which is the one that I've been dedicated to for so many years now. You started every mother counts in two thousand ten. You tell us a little bit about the issue itself and you know we often think about maternal mortality being a developing world issue but I think you've educated us to the fact that that's in fact completely false. Yom. In. When? I started to learn about maternal mortality I really like I was shocked because I thought you know I'm becoming a mom and I don't even know that that that. This is an issue still like in the twenty first century that women are dying bringing life into the world So I that first realization event like digging a little bit deeper for me I. Think once they learned that there was a problem I thought. Okay. Well, clearly, this is happening in in low income countries. If it's happening at all, it's going to be happening in places where you know there's an infrastructure, there isn't a health system and then I learned in that process of exploring what was happening outside the United States that the US was ranked horribly also, we are in our second decade. Maternal mortality rates have continued to be on the rise and we are one of only two industrial. Desk sized countries with a rising maternal mortality rate. So back in two thousand and three when I became a mom, I think we were ranked forty first in the world and today we are ranked fifty fifth. So we've fallen really far behind in just ten years in just a decade. So you know I look at this issue as a global tragedy. which it is, and still there's this education curve around letting people understand that the United States is part of a global community. You know in two thousand, eighteen when I started every mother counts it was really important year for this issue, I think in part because the Millennium Development Goals were at the halfway point on maternal and child health maternal and health. Actually were the goal that had the least progress was they were lagging and to me that just felt shocking like why are women Myron and babies the ones that are not getting the carrot attention they need. So before starting the organization, I actually made a documentary film not films called no woman no cry and so between two thousand and eight in two. Thousand ten trial around the world really documenting stories of women and families, and meeting a lot of women in their final stages of pregnancy. It's not knowing how their stories would play out where the settings of they were delivering their children what kinds of access to they have an initially you know just distance itself was a huge barrier, the other piece was. Being able to access like trained skilled providers who were able to not only recognize complications before they were emergencies but also were equipped to be able to care for the women in this various cases that would come through the door, and then you know just two thousand and ten that really wasn't the awareness or the political will I would say in a number of countries. Including our own. You know there was this kind of building momentum a few first ladies and men a few heads of state restarting to talk about it as the millennium developments were getting traction and starting to build and I think the timing of my film coming out in two thousand ten in me coming out with it with you know some visibility in some recognition like. Having a platform to be able to talk about it, and really the film became this great medium for people to be able to see like their strangler statistics pretend to be able to see the faces here women speaking about their struggles in their challenges. But then also putting a framework which was look what can be done and so getting bad awareness and bringing people into that conversation not just heads estate or policy makers but everyday people. Like myself who gone through birth had a complication. And were able to have the care that they needed in that critical time when they needed it most that was the group of people that I really wanted to engage in. So a big part of what every mother counts has stood for really is you know it's we've been invitation for more people to participate in becoming part of the solution right? Give people the language and platform. To be able to share their stories to be able to bring others in to be able to point them to what kinds of policy change needs to happen. It's interesting. You say two, thousand three when you had your daughter because I lost a friend who I grew up with. Brooklyn. In two thousand and three she was giving birth to twins and she asked away. Yeah and I was You. Know even as you're talking now I was thinking that you know her story seemed very isolated and it was so upsetting, but it just seemed like something bad that happened to her and I think there's a little bit of this kind of isolating the stories in a way so that we don't see it as this issue, which is that this is a systemic issue that's happening in. This country in every country and there are concrete things that we could be doing. That's right I mean sadly, you know you can't really pick up a magazine or newspaper today without reading story about a maternal death and it's not to that they weren't happening before might your friend but as you say, they were not getting any kind of media attraction for sure I think in part because. My sense is that they're still so much fear around it. I. Think there was a time not long ago where people did die in childbirth they died in childbirth frequently just hiding alone has made such huge advancements in public health. Now, we have so much more information and I would say hospitals became sort of primary place where women would deliver their babies and then what we found a retired was that choppers became incredibly over medicalising and so we have. We have women who are dying in this country because they have chronic health conditions, they might not have insurance. They might not have adequate coverage where they're not coming to care not seeking care as early as they should be able to address. Their health conditions, you had issues of racism, institutional racism, systemic racism, and you have explicit and. Implicit bias at our institutions that are medical facilities but you also have a case of medicals Asian so you have you know perfectly healthy women who could deliver naturally. You have our system saying, yeah you know we actually want to induce you and we're going to rush this this. Very, normal physiological process and in doing. So with drugs, you know there are instances where those drugs are causing heart attacks or hypertension, and that's putting women at risk and when women have Serie C sections, it's real surgery. Right sets people up for potential risks and certainly postpartum risks or subsequent complications with their. Next pregnancies and so there's a whole lot of things that that could be avoided. If we were looking at, you know at this in a more comprehensive or holistic way, you are really trying to influence the way. The World thinks about this issue educating as you say, policy makers, influencers, and everyday people to understand this issue. If that wasn't hard enough, you're actually building an organization which we all know building any organization comes with struggle. So what challenges have you faced in building your organization maybe give us an example of one of your most difficult moments and really what gives you strength in those moments I had started a couple. Of businesses so I could like in the experience of starting a nonprofit to some of the learning that I experienced with starting businesses I guess looking back I think what's really important? No matter what you start is having a plan right having a clear plan, a business plan. I was clearly taking this seriously, but I didn't see myself actually starting an organization I started with a with a campaign and the campaign resorted to help the film along and I thought there were a lot of organizations out there and many of them had maternal health as one of their focuses. But what I found after a couple of years was that. Not, any of them had mother at the center of them right. There is a lot of organizations that were very focused on on the baby and they were looking at the mom as really the vessel of like healthy start to childhood childhood development and all those things but not for the mom herself. So interesting. Yeah and so the every mother counts and I panicked almost last minute tonight should be call it. That in the end, it was so important that we kept mother in the the name and what the organization would called and what we stand for, and what we do is that it's just that like we need like the mom to be center of this because you can't have a healthy child healthy family without a healthy mom there wasn't any organization who was saying like, Hey, lay people who are not a policymakers. Share, your story people here this information they say, what can I do and so we really became that entity and I. There's a lot of learning that happened like I thought when we went to the process of becoming a five. Oh, one C. Three I'd always heard that is took a long time. Right is could take a couple of years for us. It didn't take long and suddenly there were. So we had to neither put aboard together I had to like. Start to hire people at I didn't want to move too quickly. I really wanted to make sure that we weren't just there because we were being told to be there because there was a gap I really wanted to his as mindful and thoughtful about what we were going to be in. So I wanted to go slow and yet there was this opportunity and the time was right time was passing or getting towards the end of the Millennium Development. Goals there is conversations about what the next set of goals we're going to be with sustainable development goals like the it was needed now So you know looking back after ten years. I don't know that I could do it any differently, but I sometimes thinking like, okay, I want to be more plannable and yet you can plan plan plan and then who knows what's GonNa Happen Honestly I now have the team that probably couldn't have been by my side in those early days and so over time and trying to figure out like where could we have the most impact starting small and then you know learning through our partners and having like really working on the sort of trust based glance remodel, which is. Like I, view our grantee partners around the world as true partners, and they know better than anyone what their needs are and what the needs of their communities that they serve aren. So really being a an entity that could really get behind those individuals in those smaller grassroots organizations unrelated to support system that they needed to be I really think of ourselves as like an engine that can really help incubate other ideas and other models of care that are effective but too small and falling through the gaps from these larger NGOs. It's so interesting what you said about timing because I think in every entrepreneur story, there's always this incredible timing question right like things happen when they're supposed to happen and you want things happen that don't happen you have to kind of plan but at the same time be very nimble because you really can't control. Yes. There are those very difficult moments. So when you doubt yourself and you're you're thinking, why did I do? This is even GonNa work have you had those moments and if so what gives you strength in those moments? Yeah and I feel like at made some decisions around hiring sometimes which have not been ideal. You know it's like we had a lot of volunteers early on because. We were small people wanted to be in participate and I think that seemed like such a gift like how how, mazing what's. And then of course, as you grow, you know you have to professionalize. At a certain point you kind of get what you pay for. You also need to see people that became a no a big step in in professionalizing, and so much more clear about like what our needs are and really getting the person. That's the right fit. For that we're still a small team or eleven people I feel like my team right now is is so strong and they all have such unique skills to be able to bring to the table and I want to be the kind of leader that surrounded myself with people who are creative thinkers that are problem solvers but that are also that you. You mentioned Nimble Agile, right right. Other challenges. Gosh, and the I think there's been a lot of funders that have come to us and wanted to give us more money than we even ready to You know be able to deploy to be honest but to do something very specific that wasn't necessarily what we were meant to be. Right. So there were early days where I said no to large foundations in people say like how did you do that and I thought I don't want to get into position where it's the tail wagging the dog I don't WanNa be pushed into a corner I wanNA have the. Ability, to evolve into move as we need to end, if you get stuck because you have a funder that sort of calls the shots for you, I can see how much of a trap that was in in the NGO world and I didn't want to be a part of it. So that made us have to be creative and had to find other ways to raise funds and really our goal was raising funds, but primarily to educate the public. So could we educate the public engage people and get them to feel like they were a part of something part of a movement part of a solution and so That's been like figuring out our own way and there's a lot to be learned from what people have done. Another organizations have done out there I'd ask questions, how would you do differently? Why did you choose this country? This I mean we bit off more than we could chew early on to like we're a tiny organization where we have a partners in six countries, and at one point, we had eight countries like that's not manageable because he didn't want to make a commitment and then have to renege on a commitment when you're talking about people's lives and so how do you learn and how do you figure out? What's your threshold? Where can you know? Where does it become a strain on another organization where where you know where do you become not the value add that you imagined yourself to be in? So that just takes a lot of like a lot of of reflection. I was GONNA say soul-searching exactly. My Gosh starting at a nonprofit I often tell people that are busy like there's no exit strategy. Right misnomer. Chatterjee. Not, that I want to stay in business businesses that example to right like if you do what you what you set out to do if you stay with your mission, the hope is that these. Stupid deaths relate to call the desert or unnecessary. They won't be happening anymore. You need to be there until you get there and I don't see our issue particular being the kind of issue that just goes away and ten years you know that's so interesting. So it's really a mindset. So you really have to have your North Star just like you did when you were deciding what funding to take you kind of have to keep true to your mission and be flexible as to what's happening for example, right now with Covid, how is that affecting every mother counts? So as covid hit the first thing that happened, which was really surprising for us in a way was the conversation. Immediately went to people are afraid of hospitals people pregnant people don't want to go to the hospital to deliver and that resonated in such a strong way because first of all, we advocate for a number of safer settings for women and having more birth options, right than just hospital births, and around the world, we need to do better to have more options for women who are terrified how do we address their concerns? How do we protect not only the moms and the families that are afraid to go into these facilities but then do we really make sure that that the health workers are adequately protected in early days that wasn't happening? So there was fear on all sides we know. That fear based medicine fear based healthcare is not good for anyone, and so that was one of the first things that we did I joined a task force the governor Cuomo. Set up that was around Kobe and maternity care and his office helped us to sort of broaden the definition of safe birthing sites in the New York area, and we were able to identify great partners who had are in Brooklyn who were able to they've found a cited. There was already this process of trying to get this person who are running, but we were able to help expedite that, and so this percenter is now up and running it's. Called the Jasbir Center of Manhattan because it's it's based in an old jazz hostile that's provision and it was a perfect setup. It's functioning really well, and we made these advances already covert where now they're always safety protocols which have been implemented across the board in not only the New York state but across. So many states because New York really was a front runner in learn so much early on and has been so open about what? Happened, and then I think for for a lot of people seeing this sort of, I, covet than the disparities the striking. Information about most vulnerable to the pandemic and what which populations were the ones not getting the care because they already weren't getting the care who was suffering the most who was not getting you know getting seen these are the same populations that we've been focusing on. Trying to support through all of grassroots community led partners right. I understand like how systems need to be strengthened how the way people are trained to receive people that again, this racism, this bias that exists in our in our system Howitt's harming people and so. Yeah, I mean, a lot of the storytelling we've we've created over over many years getting burn America's the film series that I launched before last election. Just. To keep internal health like you know up on the agenda in the election process. And we didn't think we had to write. So in this four year period, it's been actually an incredible time to drum beat louder because the need is been so clear and as we know women's health has been targeted at as planned parenthood has been targeted as more and more facilities have been shutdown and women live farther and farther away from from quality. CARE. You know it. It's been such an important time in. So there are more bills that have maternity care. At the center, there's a whole mommy bus of bills that has been introduced by the Black Maternal Health Caucus and lots of legislators including camera Hera's Senator Booker. And and because of Covid at because a lot of those bills hadn't been passed, they've been able to integrate language. That is cool specific. To address disparities, racial bias, all these things that were there. But now this is opportunity and so again, going back to the timing is everything. The silver lining of this pandemic for us is that it's really woken up a lot of people to to the systemic problems and the populations who are are truly the most vulnerable and will remain so. Until. We're able to get a real handle on this. Well, that leads me to my last question but just hearing what you've just said makes me very optimistic but obviously, these are very difficult times for everybody. What makes you optimistic in this very difficult time? In addition to seeing these opportunities come up and to be in a position as organization to be able to say like I know. So many a solutions to these problems popping at to be able to help like silicate those conversations to bring more voices to the. to bring more diverse wastes to the tables. That has been that that gives me hope because there's your receptivity that people want to hear those perspectives now more than ever. But I have to get my own kids honestly, my daughter is blowing me away by focusing and her passion for Social Justice and hurt her use of her own platform, which is relative to you know who she is in the world but it's she's relentless like she is gone a day without posting about Brian Taylor, not a day. I see this this group of youth who are participating in such a way that I don't see them becoming complacent make other generations like my generation was just to see that this like the youth culture like. People are are awake and I hate the expression woke but they are in a time when they understand technology and they understand the positive impact of the connectivity about community and they eat have a voice. and. They know the power of that voice and so I gotta say that might my kids and their peers and you know. Kids that I don't even know that Susan Sparring me right now he's giving me hope. While Christie thank you so much for joining us. We look forward to everything you continue to do with every mother counts and we will be there. Hopefully Seneca woman can support you in lots of ways but I hope I, hope our listeners now get a sense of the incredible impact you have made for the last ten years and will continue to make. Thank you so much. Thank you so much. Such good and important work Christy Turlington. Burns shows us why truly every mother counts. Christie has built a highly effective and impactful organization and there's so much. We can learn from her experience as a social entrepreneur. I have a plan and be prepared for success as well as failure Chrissy thought it would take a long time for her nonprofit to get going. But when things fell into place more quickly than she expected, she had to move fast to build a board and hire staff second be smart in you're hiring you want diversity voices and talent, and you want people who are Nimble Agile and who can deliver and if your organization depends on volunteers realized a certain point, you'll have to add professionals to your team if you're going to grow. Finally stay true to your North Star to the kind of organization you envision when one large Gandhi offered much-needed funding Christie said, no, she didn't want a major donor calling the shots or if she says the tail wagging the dog, she stuck to her vision and the enormous impact and success of every mother counts speaks for itself. Made by women is brought to you by the Seneca Women podcast network and Iheartradio with support from founding partner. PNG.