“Be resilient.” With Penny Bauder & Laura Deaton

Multiplier is helping foster a healthy, sustainable, resilient, and equitable world. Our programs work in alignment with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which challenge leaders and policymakers to address global threats in 17 interwoven areas critical to our collective survival. These include eliminating poverty, securing gender and racial equality, mitigating climate change, preventing environmental […]

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Multiplier is helping foster a healthy, sustainable, resilient, and equitable world. Our programs work in alignment with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which challenge leaders and policymakers to address global threats in 17 interwoven areas critical to our collective survival. These include eliminating poverty, securing gender and racial equality, mitigating climate change, preventing environmental exploitation, and building peaceful and inclusive societies that leave no one behind.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Deaton.

Laura Deaton takes the word accelerate seriously — especially when it comes to solutions to the world’s intertwined social, environmental and economic challenges. As executive director of Multiplier, a nonprofit accelerator that helps social entrepreneurs get on the fast track to impact, Deaton has an insider perspective on the new generation of entrepreneurial nonprofits, the rise of collective action initiatives, navigating cross-sector innovation and other trends reshaping the social sector.

A hands-on leader who can shift from strategy to operations in a blink, Deaton shepherded Multiplier through a period of unprecedented growth, more than doubling the number of projects in its portfolio and increasing annual revenue from $6 million in 2013 to $20 million in 2019. Day to day, Deaton advises Multiplier’s 50+ projects across four program areas and oversees a team of nonprofit development and support pros. She’s as committed to Multiplier projects’ missions as the founders are and throws her considerable energy into helping them turn big ideas into even bigger results.

Before joining Multiplier in 2013, Deaton racked up years of senior leadership experience in strategy, operations, program and fund development, communications and investor relations. She directed national policy research for a “think tank” project of a large private foundation; led the formation of a nonprofit focused on breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty; served as managing director of a women’s healthcare center; developed and headed marketing and communications for a Silicon Valley tech start-up; and served as executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the East Bay.

Deaton holds a law degree from Duke University and is a former adjunct faculty member at Duquesne University’s School of Leadership and Professional Advancement. She earned the NonprofitPRO 2020 Lifetime Achievement award and received a 2018 Social Impact Award from the Harvard Business School Association of Northern California. She was inducted into the Boston University Collegium of Distinguished Alumni for outstanding national service in the nonprofit sector. She’s a published academic author and has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I was born in Atlanta, and both my parents are native Southerners, with families hailing from Little Rock, Arkansas, and Paris, Tennessee. My father was an auditor and on the road during my early childhood, so my older sister and I were raised by our mother, a psychologist who was a nurturing and loving suburban mom. We lived in Atlanta until elementary school, when my dad’s job took us to a small Miami suburb called Perrine.

Back in the 1970s, South Florida was still stuck in an Old South time warp. Although we moved there more than 15 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, Dade County Public Schools had not yet fully integrated. A few years before we arrived, a U.S. District Court ordered “reverse desegregation” to speed the process. White families could send their children to private schools, follow the court order and send them to schools in Black neighborhoods, or join the “White flighters” and move away. Our parents decided that keeping us in public school was the right thing for our family. So, my sister and I were among a small group of White children who crossed actual railroad tracks to attend an all-Black elementary and middle school. It was a formative experience that I still carry with me today. It was the first time that I really experienced what it was like to be in a minority group — we were the ones that were different.

My sister and I went back to visit our childhood roots earlier this year, and we were both saddened to see that 45 years later, very little has changed. The railroad tracks still mark a visible racial and socioeconomic divide and the school’s student body is 89% African American, 9% Hispanic, and less than 2% White.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Multiplier is helping foster a healthy, sustainable, resilient, and equitable world. Our programs work in alignment with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which challenge leaders and policymakers to address global threats in 17 interwoven areas critical to our collective survival. These include eliminating poverty, securing gender and racial equality, mitigating climate change, preventing environmental exploitation, and building peaceful and inclusive societies that leave no one behind.

We care deeply about ensuring that all people, regardless of geography or income level, have secure access to clean air and drinking water, nutritional food, and adequate sanitary and health systems. Our projects and programs in this area run the gamut. They are working with low-income and minority farmers in California to build regenerative and sustainable local food systems and helping eradicate a whitefly virus in Africa that is decimating the cassava crops that 800 million people rely on for food and for family income. They are building networks of elected water officials and water policy makers and they are helping cities like Flint, Michigan update their ancient water systems and replace lead pipes and infrastructure with modern, sustainable solutions.

Multiplier also envisions a world where workers, their families, and their communities are sustained by industries that balance economic necessity with sustainable solutions. We have several projects focused on ensuring that fishers, harvesters, farmers and the systems that support them adopt sound environmental management practices, reducing the need for approaches that further harm our climate and deplete our natural resources. For our sustainable seafood projects, the same practices that improve social and economic conditions in fisheries also protect our oceans and endangered marine ecosystems and species. We also have projects that are tackling economic equity. For example, one program works on helping convert baby boomer-owned businesses to worker-owned coops before the owners retire and sell off the business or it is acquired by a larger corporation. This strategy helps sustain locally owned businesses, preserves jobs, and protects against family displacement while aligning profits with democratic ownership values. A little-known fact is that worker-owned coops are also often more sustainable and help fuel the local green economy as well.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

My first job as an executive director was with a disability advocacy organization back in the early 1990s, just as the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed to challenge discrimination and remove barriers to help people with disabilities lead independent lives. The bravery and positivity of people facing almost insurmountable barriers to education, housing, work, and even moving freely in their own communities fueled my desire to ensure that social and economic justice stay at the core of my own career.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

My passion has been a progression, not a single ah-ha moment. Before I landed at Multiplier, I held several ED roles and had also done a fair amount of social impact consulting. My husband and I had relocated to the Southeast in 2005 to be closer to our aging parents. When we returned to the SF Bay Area in 2011, I had an opportunity to really think about what the next chapter of my career would be. I knew I did not want to spend half my life on an airplane and that I wanted to work and live locally, but I also wanted to find a role where I could have global impact. Though my husband and I both love kids and I have led a number of child-serving organizations, we decided early in our marriage not to raise children. To me, that means that the way I live and how I impact others during my time on Earth will be the only footprints I will leave behind.

Can there be a better legacy than helping save our planet for future generations? I don’t think so. So, that’s what I strive to do every day, all day. I’m so fortunate that my personal values map directly to the work that I do and the way that we serve our projects, who also share this same passion. I care deeply about fostering future leadership and am honored to work alongside many now-gen and next-gen leaders who are tackling our planet’s biggest challenges every day.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I didn’t start the organization I run, but I did “birth” its new iteration, and our mission is to help start, launch and scale new enterprises that will save our planet. At any given time, we are supporting around 50 projects at once. I joined what was then called the Trust for Conservation Innovation in 2013 and immediately began to build and grow our strategy for impact. We quietly piloted our accelerator model of service delivery for the first two years. When we could see the difference it made, we worked with a consulting firm to build out a formal strategy. Over the course of the next year, we officially become an accelerator, broadened our service areas to reach far beyond conservation and environmental protection, and then rebranding as Multiplier.

It really was an “if you build it, they will come” moment out of “Field of Dreams.” We grew from a $5 million nonprofit service provider to a $22 million accelerator in the course of the next few years. And, even during this challenging time for our economy and our country, we are continuing to thrive and grow.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Our organization is based in Oakland, California, and in December 2016 our human resources manager died suddenly and tragically in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that took 36 lives. Amanda Allen was my colleague and friend, and I was her mentor and coach. Navigating my own personal grief and our team’s collective grief while still charting a path forward was one of the most challenging periods in my many years as a leader. As hard as it was, I realized in real-time that handling an unexpected event or crisis really just hinges on accessing already-in-hand leadership tools. At the top of that toolkit was authentic, open and heartfelt communication across our entire community of stakeholders.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

Early in my career, I took a job as director of public relations and outreach at a national nonprofit. When I arrived at my desk on the first day of work, they had me fully outfitted with everything I needed, right down to business cards. So, I happily went about my work, getting to know partners and collaborators and handing out my new cards. After about a month, some friends from Ohio came to visit for the weekend. When I proudly gave my friend my business card, she got the weirdest expression on her face and said, “How many of these have you given out?” I replied that I had probably given out a few dozen and asked her why she was asking. Turns out that there was a typo — the printer had omitted the “l” in public. I still wonder today if anyone ever caught that my card said that I was the Director of Pubic Relations and was just too embarrassed for me to tell me! Life lesson — look closely at anything that has your name on it!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

At the first organization I led, we were committed to having the people to whom we provided services also govern the organization, so our Board of Directors included Diane and Marvin, both adults with cognitive disabilities. Before each Board meeting, I met with them in advance to go over the agenda and the discussion items and answer any questions that they had so that they could participate fully and share their own thinking. As I worked more closely with them, I realized my own limitations when speaking — I was using language filled with complex words, metaphors, and subtext that wasn’t easily accessible on first pass. This was a rich lesson that I still carry with me today. Really, they were my best conversational coaches ever, and I have used that learning to strengthen my own communication and facilitation skills. Ever since that time, when I’m working in groups, I’m really cautious that information is digestible for everyone and that all stakeholders are empowered to contribute.

More recently, I had the great fortune to work alongside Ted Legasey, who, after he retired, served as a board member for several nonprofit organizations I worked with. Ted — who co-founded and built SRA International, a business focused on information technology and systems integration — is one of the most humble and inspiring leaders that I’ve ever met. He uses his acute awareness of social and political frameworks to navigate challenges and build win/win opportunities for every organization he serves, all while lifting others up to shine. I’m certain that Ted’s leadership was a big part of why Fortune magazine named SRA one of the “100 Best Places to Work in America” for 10 straight years.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First, it is about acknowledging where we find ourselves today. We are in the middle of a pandemic that threatens our global health and economies. We are also facing a climate crisis of epic proportions. And in the U.S., pervasive discrimination continues to cause systemic social, economic and environmental injustice. If we can open our eyes and truly center on our reality, then we will be more likely to work together to solve for these entrenched global challenges.

Across all geographies — local, regional, national and global — policy makers need to put partisan politics aside and work jointly to ensure that all community members, not just special interest groups, are their priorities. A big part of that will need to be ensuring that policy makers are well-informed and using real science and data, not fake news, to drive their decision-making. Cutting through the falsehoods and working together across party lines or country borders will be a critical step toward saving our planet and its people.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Inquiry before advocacy. This is one of the most significant yet simple concepts I use every day. It works like this: Before you open your mouth to share your perspective, make sure you understand where your audience is coming from and asking them to share more, so that you can actively listen and draw out their concerns before trying to address what you think they are worried about instead of what may actually be at the heart of the matter. After many years of putting inquiry and active listening first, I’ve found it makes it much easier to add value with my contribution, in part because others already feel heard.
  2. Stop solving problems. Hildy Gottleib, a colleague of mine, wrote a great book called “The Pollyanna Principles: Reinventing ‘Nonprofit Organizations’ to Create the Future of Our World.” There’s a whole bunch of goodness in this book and I highly recommend it, but one of the key takeaways is that if you are always solving problems, then you are constrained by the concept of the problem itself and you get stuck in a cycle of getting rid of something bad, instead of understanding Pollyanna Principle #2, which is that “each and every one of us is creating the future, every day, whether we do so consciously or not.” Our Multiplier tagline “People. Planet. Possibilities.” is intended to reflect this focus on co-creating the future we want to see.
  3. There is no glamor in nonprofit leadership. I’m laughing even saying this because I think I’ve known that all along, but it’s important. I often speak with young idealists who say, “My goal is to some day lead my own nonprofit.” It always makes me chuckle, and I ask “Why in the world would you want to do that?” Or, I talk about it with mid-career for-profit folks considering a sector change. Seriously, for people who are motivated to become leaders, the nonprofit sector is a tough proving ground. Your (multiple) bosses are your Board members, and they often have very little bandwidth for coaching and advising. You also wear more hats at the same time than most folks are capable of — CEO, COO, CFO, chief fundraiser and kitchen crew. Honestly, I can’t count how many days I’ve spent setting up and then cleaning up venues in the wee hours after fundraising events. If you are driven by a passion for mission jump on in but be prepared to spend most of your work days feeling like an octopus juggling eels.
  4. Vision isn’t enough. Charismatic, entrepreneurial leaders who have game-changing ideas will fail if they don’t surround themselves with people who can help convert their vision into strategy, funding, and programs. It’s why we work alongside visionary leaders to help them bridge the gap between vision and impact. So many amazing planet and people-saving ideas don’t see the light of day because there isn’t easy access to a competent support team to help entrepreneurs make it past the early lean days.
  5. Policy change matters. You need at least three legs to build a stable stool, and policy change needs to be one of those legs, along with the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. Broad impact comes when great ideas can be modeled and then either replicated or scaled; and almost without exception, policy barriers spring up once proof of concept for an idea is in place. Since policy change involves moving entrenched governmental systems to a different place, it is a long play and the tendency is often to worry about that later, but in reality policy change needs to be integrated into the plan from the start.

If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I’d borrow the words of Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and say, “I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is,” and “You must unite behind the science. You must take action. You must do the impossible. Because giving up can never ever be an option.”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?” ― Robert K. Greenleaf, “Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness”

I discovered Robert Greenleaf very early in my career and immediately his writings resonated with me. Greenleaf coined the phrase “servant leadership” and believed that a servant leader focuses on the growth and well-being of people and communities while more traditional leaders are often focused on the accumulation and exercise of power at the top. In contrast, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. At Multiplier, we hold servant leadership as our top value.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

There are so many people! At the top of my list are Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Malala Yousafzai, two amazing women who are path-breaking in their work on behalf of children, women, and the civil rights of all of us.

How can our readers follow you online?

@deatweets on Twitter


This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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