Leader to Leader: Sister Paulette LoMonaco
Leader to Leader: Sister Paulette LoMonaco
By just about any measure, Sister Paulette LoMonaco is one of the legendary figures of the New York City nonprofit scene. She served as the executive director of Good Shepherd Services for nearly four decades. During that time, Good Shepherd became one of the largest social service providers in the city, housing more than 80 youth development, education and family support programs.
LoMonaco stepped down from running Good Shepherd at the end of 2019. When she did, she was widely celebrated for her contributions to the city. The Pinkerton Foundation honored her with a $2 million grant to Good Shepherd. The New York Times wrote a profile of her entitled “Why A New York Nun Fought the Power.” It doesn’t get too much bigger than that, at least in the nonprofit sector.
Now that she has been retired for more than a year, NYN contributor Greg Berman reached out to LoMonaco to ask her to reflect on her career and the lessons she has learned about leadership. Of course, it will come as little surprise to anyone who has met her that she hasn’t left the work behind. Over the course of a wide-ranging phone call early this month, she shared her wisdom about leadership growth, fundraising and the current state of New York City, among other topics.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Berman: Tell me what you did before you became the executive director at Good Shepherd.
LoMonaco: I was hired to be the program director of a residential program for adolescents here in Manhattan – the one that I'm back living at now. At that time, it was pretty revolutionary because most of the residential programs for adolescents were off in the woods, either upstate or out on Long Island.
I came to open this residential program, because I previously had had experience as a child care worker and program director. I have a master’s in family and community development from Columbia, from Teachers College. I really took all of the coursework from the school of social work, but at that point, you couldn't get an MSW unless you quit your job and went full-time.
Around 1978, Sister Mary Paul left Good Shepherd. And the board asked me at that point to become executive director. I turned it down.
Berman: Why did you turn it down?
LoMonaco: I just felt like I didn't have enough experience, even though we were a much smaller agency at that point. So they hired someone else. He was there for two years and left. And then they asked me again, and I just felt like I had to do it. That was 1980.
Berman: If you could cast your mind back, what felt like the biggest challenge when you took the step up from program director to executive director?
LoMonaco: I think for me, the biggest loss was not working directly with young people. That was a significant change for me, and I experienced it as a real loss. I realized that I would have to do more through staff than directly. I had to learn how to work through other people and delegate.
The other thing that I had to do once I became executive director, and this is a well-known story within Good Shepherd, is that I had to find my voice. I was basically a quiet person, much more self-contained. And one day, I was down at ACS, or whatever it was called in those days. I was trying to get approval for a budget modification. And the commissioner, she wouldn't agree to it. We had the money, but she just didn't want to let me move a line from one place to another. And Jenny Morgenthau, who would go on to become the executive director of the Fresh Air Fund, pulled me aside and said, "Look, you're new at this, but if you're going to be a good executive director, you have to find your voice. You can't let this happen to you, because it's not just you it’s happening to. It’s happening to Good Shepherd, the agency."
I thought about that a lot. For me, finding my voice meant that I had to know social policy. I had to be able to speak from my experience working with young people and families. I had to be able to articulate staff concerns and desires and hopes. I really had to do some internal work on myself to free myself. That was a project for me to work on. But I love having projects to work on.
Berman: And how would you say your religious faith affected your leadership style?
LoMonaco: I think my religious faith has played a strong role in giving me the confidence to take this responsibility on, to find my voice, to not be afraid to speak.
Berman: Over the course of your career, Good Shepherd grew to a budget of more than $100 million and over a thousand staffers. Did you have to change as a leader along that path or did you remain the same person from 1980 through 2019?
LoMonaco: I absolutely did not remain the same person. I think that learning how to manage change and how to enjoy change, was something that was very, very important, especially as I got older. One of the downfalls of getting older is getting stuck and not being willing to embrace new ideas. I have really learned, sometimes the hard way, to be open to hearing other people's ideas and to really be self-reflective.
At Good Shepherd, I tried to embody some of Robert Greenleaf’s theories around servant leadership. Servant leadership is about bringing out the best in other people. Servant leadership says that the most important thing a leader can do is to help other people reach their potential, to help other people grow. So I've always tried to surround myself with people on my team who are smarter than I am and who have different ideas and who want to learn and grow.
Berman: Over the years, Good Shepherd acquired several smaller nonprofits. What lessons did you learn from this process?
LoMonaco: In my mind, establishing organizational culture is the most important thing that needs to be done. The first time we did a merger, a foster boarding home program merged with us. I thought it would be easy. But we didn't pay enough attention to their culture and our culture. And we didn't pay enough attention to middle managers.
After the first merger, we paid a lot more attention to middle managers. We developed relationships, we had coffee and bagels with them before we even began the merger process. And we worked really hard to make sure that nobody lost anything in the process. You don't want to take away anybody's salary in the merger. You want to get buy-in from as many people as possible beforehand about the value of coming together.
Berman: Obviously taking on additional programs comes with a burden of fundraising for them. You have the reputation of being an extraordinarily successful fundraiser. What was the secret to your effectiveness?
LoMonaco: The secret was the strength of our programs. It's easy to sell something that's working. So it's the success of our staff and our program participants that has made the difference.
When I first inherited the agency, the Sisters (of the Good Shepherd) used to bail out the agency when needed. One of my directives, in assuming the role of executive director, was to develop a strong board and to raise money.
Over the years, we were able to put several things in place that strengthened these efforts. We were funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation for 10 years. They gave us general support that helped us to build a really strong infrastructure. And early on, we realized the importance of understanding our metrics and making decisions based on real-time data.
I began planning for my retirement a good 10 or 15 years before I actually left Good Shepherd. I thought that for the agency to survive, it would be really important for other people to develop some of the skills that I had been fortunate to be able to develop. And that includes fundraising. I was never the only one doing fundraising. The foundations and corporations got to know and experience other members of my senior staff. And that made a big difference, I think.
Berman: As time passed, I'm sure you must have been aware at a certain point that you were being talked about using terms like “legendary.” I'm curious how you experienced that. Did you find that you had become so well-entrenched that you were getting too much deference internally?
LoMonaco: I think that the deference really came from the outside world, not internally. Basically, I have been the only nun in a major role in the city’s human services. There were some people on the outside who were very deferential to this. But internally, I don't know, you’d have to ask other people that I’ve worked with on a daily basis. I think people have always been honest with me internally.
I genuinely like people, and I'm always trying to develop my listening skills. I’ve gotten plenty of pushback along the way. One thing I think that we didn't pay sufficient attention to in a timely way was the question of racial equity. I got a lot of pushback from our senior leaders on that. Before I left, I was able to hire a wonderful woman, Diana Noriega, who reported to me and was focused full-time on equity and racial justice. And under Michelle (Yanche), Good Shepherd has gone even further, looking over all of our policies and procedures and so on. That was an area that staff really pushed me on, and I appreciated it.
Berman: Our field is undergoing some pretty significant changes at the moment. We are living through an era of very real staff agitation, and along with that, a push for greater transparency. Do you have a sense of how you would have navigated this new world order had you stayed?
LoMonaco: I don't know. It's hard to say. So many shocking things happened as I was leaving. Something had to change. It's hard for me to know what I might have done. I know I did my best once I realized maybe five years ago that we had to focus more on racial equity. When I look and see what Michelle is doing now around transparency and racial justice, I realize she's doing far more than I did even a year and a half ago. And I think that's great for the agency. I think everyone has different challenges to deal with during their time in leadership.
Berman: How did you know that it was time to step down?
LoMonaco: I think I was getting tired. When I retired in December 2019, I was already 76 years old. I could see that while I still had the love and the passion for our mission, I didn't have as much energy, and I was starting to have some medical issues. You can't act like a 40 year-old forever.
Before I left, I laid out several things that I really wanted to have in place. I wanted to sell our building in Park Slope. I wanted to leave all of our program spaces in good order and renovated so that it wouldn't be a stumbling block for people coming to work with us. I wanted to increase the endowment. And we accomplished all of that. Those were the goals I set out for myself at the end.
Berman: How are you spending your days at the moment?
LoMonaco: The last number of years, I've been on an international board that helps build capacity for Good Shepherd programs, particularly in the global South. The headquarters is in Rome, and there are local mission development offices in a number of other countries. I envisioned that I would be doing a lot more traveling, assisting the Good Shepherd International Foundation. But now, I'm Zooming like everybody else. I am also assisting with a number of other projects for the Good Shepherd Sisters.
Berman: How are you feeling about the state of New York City at the moment?
LoMonaco: Oy vey. Look, I think the most wonderful thing in the world is the stimulus package. I just hope that New York gets its fair share because the people in the communities that we serve, places like East New York and Red Hook and South Bronx, are really hurting.
Berman: What advice do you give young people who are interested in following in your footsteps and becoming a nonprofit leader?
LoMonaco: I think the greatest challenge is to have the courage to face yourself, to look at your strengths and weaknesses and to build a team, because this is very, very hard work. You need to be willing to put in the time to hone and develop your own skills so that you can lead others and speak truth to those in power.