Finding Balance Through Community
An Interview with Sharmon Lebby,
President of the Nonprofit,
the Ethical Network of San Antonio (ENSA).
Being a nonprofit leader can be a balancing act and no one knows that better than Sharmon Lebby, president of the San Antonio, Texas-based organization, Ethical Network of San Antonio (ENSA). ENSA is a local network for independent professionals and small businesses prioritizing ethics in their work and purchases. ENSA prioritizes the promotion of minority and women-owned businesses and as both a Latina and woman-owned business, it was our pleasure to have joined them in May for their Ethical Chat, series on Instagram Live, which focuses on business, vision, and values. Recently we caught up with Sharmon to talk with her about nonprofit, leadership, creating community, ENSA’s pandemic pivot, and getting back to normal.
JNPC: How's everything going?
SL: Good. How are you?
JNPC: We've been just moving forward, we have brought on two new grant writers, and we are working on expanding our services to the urban areas of Texas, like San Antonio.
SL: That's awesome. That is super exciting. I am so happy for you guys.
JNPC: Thank you! We were inspired by the Ethical Chats that you have been conducting on the ENSA Instagram and wanted to do something similar by interviewing nonprofit leaders like yourself. We think it is a great way to let people know about other businesses and organizations in the community. And we appreciated you inviting us on there so much that we knew that you needed to be our first interview so that we can turn the tables and stick you in the hot seat.
Let’s start by having you tell us about the Ethical Network of San Antonio. What would you like the public to know?
SL: Thank you for that, and for this platform. We aim to inspire in any way we can! One thing I want the public to know is that we are all about fostering community and we want to make sure that the community understands sustainability and what that looks like on a local level. We want businesses to know they're not alone because it's so hard to build a business alone.
The Ethical Network is all about educating the community about sustainability in a way that helps small, local, sustainably ethical businesses grow and thrive. We want to make sure individuals know that shopping doesn’t have to be a series of impersonal clicks online, that there is benefit in creating relationships within the community by shopping local.
We want to tell businesses too that we are here to support them, provide resources, and introduce them to other members that can provide resources as well. We do this by creating community-based events. We have our Good Market, we do the Ethical Chats, we are building a podcast and we host regular business meetups.
JNPC: That’s amazing Sharmon!
You are the president of the Ethical Network of San Antonio. How did you end up in your role? What do you like best about it and what do you find are the biggest challenges when leading a team?
SL: We started out a group of five women, all entrepreneurs, in this space and we were just a group. We did that for, I guess, about two and a half or so years. Eventually, we came to a crossroads, it was time to decide what we were going to do with this organization. We had been doing Impact Hours, a few clothing swaps, and our Good Market, which had been really successful.
We had created a lot within the community, so we opted to become a nonprofit, and in order to do that, we had to select our officers and create this whole structure behind it. So I ended up just kind of falling into this place because as we were going through the job listings, everybody was volunteering for the different positions and when we got to president it was like, “Okay, I guess that’s me”.
I just fell into it, but I hope that I've managed to create a structured organization. This past year we got our 501-C3 status, so we are officially a federal non-profit, not just a nonprofit within Texas.
JNPC: Congratulations! What do you find are the biggest challenges when leading a team?
SL: It's been really interesting because I've always considered myself a natural. But I think as I've gotten older, I've changed the way I lead.
I was always a great motivator and good at encouraging people and empowering them to do just about anything needed. Then I ended up with a team, in the midst of this pandemic, and I was just about grace and mercy.
I feel like the biggest challenge in leadership for me is finding that balance between giving people what they need and then still being able to meet my own needs while making sure things get done in an efficient manner.
JNPC: I think it's like the saying, you have to be able to fill your own cup to fill the cups of others. You have to find that balance of still making sure that things get done, but also making sure that you're refilling your cup constantly so that you're not running on empty and can provide help to your team.
When you get to that point, you can't be of help anywhere else. There is a lot of people in nonprofit I believe that struggle with that. Compassion fatigue is a big threat and during a pandemic, while you are trying to care for your team and those in your personal life, there is a hard balance to strike so you don’t burn out.
SL: Yes, it's been such a learning experience. I think I’m learning more about myself because I think I'd always approached leadership with the attitude that leaders have their leadership style, and others just have to adapt to that.
Now my thinking has changed, and I feel I need to adjust my leadership style to each individual. I want to make sure my team is taken care of and that my team is okay.
JNPC: During the pandemic, one of the big downfalls for ENSA was the loss of in-person networking and in-person events. What did the pivot to online look like and how did it affect ENSA?
SL: It was a huge pivot. I feel like we did a complete 180 because we had completely relied on all these in-person events. We had to completely pivot to online and I spent the year building up our Instagram, and really focusing on our social media.
We started the Ethical Chats as a response because we couldn’t do the Impact Hours, which were networking events where we brought in entrepreneurs to talk about their businesses and their journey as business owners. This was a way to make sure businesses still had a platform and to make sure people could still see them.
Everybody started doing these Instagram Lives and I thought “We can do that!”. We can interview and have these little chats with business owners and get to know them personally.
We also hosted our markets online. It took a lot of research, a lot of figuring out how other people were doing things and how we can work and rearrange that to fit our model and our mission. Our Christmas in July was specifically a trial run for our usual December Good Market to make sure we could offer businesses some kind of beneficial platform if everything still had to be virtual in December.
We became very social media-focused and it worked. We were able to grow our Instagram enormously. We started a Twitter and YouTube account. We started monthly newsletters as well to make sure we had another digital aspect of getting information out to people.
We completely changed the way we operate and it was great to find new ways to educate people and new ways for businesses to get their information and their products out there. It was a rough time but it was also an opportunity to focus on a social media strategy while so many people were online.
JNPC: Speaking of social media, for a small nonprofit who might be having problems, building their social media, do you have any tips for them on building an audience without a budget?
SL: YES! Community and relationship building is going to be your number one goal. I think as a nonprofit organization, we tend to operate like this abstract impersonal entity that is just out there. But our biggest success was found in building relationships and literally creating our own community. It is about commenting on different people’s posts and reaching out via DM to let people know that you love what they're doing, or inviting them to collaborate, or just telling people what we offer. You do want to be careful about appearing spammy; the goal is to build authentic relationships.
Learn what your community is doing and how you can help them. You want to know how you can fit into their lives and into their circles.
JNPC: I agree that a lot of nonprofit organizations struggle because they are an abstract concept to some. They don’t have a product with which to build brand loyalty. Brand loyalty must be developed in a different way. And the way that you can do it is through community.
I think that sense of community is important, especially for smaller nonprofits, many of who don’t have a budget or a social media manager but need the public to invest in what they do. I know you do most of the social media day to day for ENSA, don’t you?
SL: I do. And it's always interesting because I'm trying to make it as neutral as possible, but then people message with a “Hey, Sharmon!”
JNPC: What’s next now that we've rounded the corner in a sense with the pandemic? People have been vaccinated. People are ready to network and mingle again and get back to normal. Is ENSA starting to get back to normal? Do you foresee that kind of return to your original plan or are you continuing with the virtual programs?
SL: I have a feeling that we're probably going to have this hybrid organization where we do a little bit of both, because there were definite benefits to the virtual part and we were able to reach more people, but we definitely want to get back to in person.
We have two events planned for the end of the year that are definitely going to be in-person, a fashion show coming up in October, and then we have the Good Market coming up at the end of November. We are hoping maybe for an in-person business meetup, but we're still trying to figure out what that would look like. We want to respect people that don't want to be in-person quite yet.
There's a ton of stuff that we want to do but we're kind of easing into it because the team is so small right now. We don't want to overtax ourselves by trying to do too much and planning events is time-consuming.
JNPC: About your upcoming in-person events, are those open to the public?
SL: They are! The fashion show will be ticket-based. We are hosting it with another non-profit, the Texas Fashion Industry Initiative. The Good Market, as usual, will be free and open to the public.
JNPC: I’m local to San Antonio so I’m excited to attend! I know that one thing that you are focused on is promoting businesses that are normally underserved. Businesses that are owned by women, businesses that are owned by people of color. It’s very important work and I would love for readers to hear your point of view.
SL: I started my business probably about four years ago, about the same time we started the organization. And it was a very white space. You just did not see a lot of people of color, not even as models for the brands. So many of us who are committed to this space were just not being represented. I struggled a lot with that.
A friend of mine who had started her business about the same time and was one of the founding members of the Ethical Network was in the same place. We were very focused on showcasing women of color, and not only that but keeping everything size-inclusive as well. Bringing that lens on representation and inclusion into Ethical Network was really important to us. But, as the only two people of color in the group, it was sometimes a challenge to get other people to understand where we were coming from.
So as the organization evolved we had the opportunity to put a focus on that. One of the big challenges was that it's really difficult to find these businesses within San Antonio.
I knew they were out there so it was just a matter of changing the way we do things. I think people get in a rut and let people come to them. If you only know certain people, then you're only going to find people just like them.
I started going out every weekend to search for new ethical businesses at farmer's markets. I started talking to them and finding them on Instagram and being very intentional about reaching out to them and then giving them a platform and telling them what we wanted to do for them.
We want to help. We want to give support. We want to make sure people know that these businesses are out there.
A huge part of our mission became making sure that we were giving all these people a platform. In this effort, we created our list of Black-owned businesses and a list of Hispanic and Latinx businesses. We're working on the LGBTQ businesses and Asian-owned businesses.
Sustainability in a sense has, I hesitate to use the word whitewash, but it's kind of what has happened. It's become this whole other beast. So many communities of color and indigenous communities have been sustainable at their foundation. It’s just interwoven into their culture, and we want to make sure to shine a light on that and broaden what sustainable means with respect to culture and the environment. Also, of course, the way we treat people and their labor and the respect to artists and their work, it’s almost like we are redefining sustainability.
JNPC: Thank you for sharing that journey, it’s very inspiring. What do you see as coming next for you as a professional?
SL: That's a good one! So, I have been on this journey of making this a full-time position. I think I've realized that I am very service-oriented and that's what I love. I have a business, but even in my business, I always saw it as an educational tool. I wasn't just trying to sell things to people, I want to connect with people to teach and learn from them and bring joy and light into their lives.
I like this nonprofit journey; I enjoy the educational aspect of it. I love talking about it. I love helping these businesses grow and thrive and just seeing their wins. I love seeing them work together. The key is community over competition, and I really want to promote that. When one of us wins, all of us win. We can make this happen together.
JNPC: It seems like a ripe atmosphere for like mentorship as well. Would you recommend for women that might be just starting out on their journey of entrepreneurship or nonprofit leadership or even sustainability, find a mentor? How important do you think that is in finding your place as a leader?
SL: I think it's extremely important. I think many times with businesses, people try to hold tight on to how they've accomplished things. They have struggled and they don't want to give away all their information, but I think it's so much easier to think “Hey, I did this so that you don't have to”.
Mentorship is actually part of our individual membership program. We will talk with you one-on-one and you get the chance to connect with business owners and allow them to mentor you. It has to be a reciprocal relationship, but that is part of our membership, the opportunity to talk with people and learn from them. It's something I do in my own life. There are a few people that I'm mentoring.
I believe that as a leader, if your team cannot function without you, you haven't done your job, right. You should be able to walk away, and everything is still working because you were a good mentor.
JNPC: We were talking earlier about providing self-care for yourself as a leader. I think to be able to do that, you must let your team be self-sufficient and you must know that they're able to be so that you can step away and take time for yourself.
As the leader of ENSA, what do you see in the future of the organization?
SL: I have big dreams. I see us as a pillar in the community and a resource, for individuals and for businesses and even businesses that don't necessarily consider themselves as ethical and sustainable, but as a place where they can come and learn and grow.
We understand and we're about progress over perfection. Not everybody's going to be perfect. Not everything is going to be good, but I feel like these little things will help us all. That is just what I want to see is ENSA as this central networking hub where people can learn.
I see us having all these events within the city and being a central place where sustainability is just a thing. There are so many different entities in San Antonio that are doing things in different aspects of sustainability and what I really want is for ENSA to be the organization that brings them all together.
JNPC: I love that I think you're going to get there for sure. I'm excited to watch you grow!
How can people get involved and help?
SL: So, one way is by becoming a member, whether you're a business or an individual. We do certify our business members, so if you're not necessarily an ethical, sustainable business, you can join as an individual and we can help you get to the point where we can certify your business.
Another way to get involved is by donating. We're a nonprofit 501c3 charity. The third way to help is as a volunteer. We’d love anybody to help, even if you don't want to do a full year-long commitment if you just want to help with one of our events, because we are looking for help with both the fashion show and the Good Market.
If you want to help with one of those events, we would love to have you. We’d like to have volunteer help with blogging or social media as well. We always tell people that if they want to get involved just tell us what you can do and we'll find a place for you.
The biggest way to get involved is to shop the businesses. We're building our business directory, but when we also have those lists of like the Black and Latinx owned businesses, and we have our Asian owned list with about six or so businesses on there right now.
We're trying to build that list so if you know of businesses that we should connect with, please let us know! Many are very small businesses, and we want to make sure they have a platform. We want to make sure people know about them.
JNPC: Thanks, there are so many opportunities you offer to help. Do you have any final words or anything else that you want people to know, or any words of encouragement for nonprofit leaders or women that are thinking about going into nonprofit leadership?
SL: I want to tell people what I often have to tell myself and that is just keep going, take your breaks if you need them, but just keep going. I think we fall and we fail sometimes, but you just pick yourself back up and you should celebrate those little things, like celebrate the fact that you got like five extra Instagram followers in the day.
JNPC: Thank you Sharmon, I think that’s the perfect sentiment to end on. Thank you so much for sharing with us today and giving us the opportunity to talk with you.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity
About Ethical Network of San Antonio: The Ethical Network of San Antonio (ENSA) is a LOCAL network for independent professionals and small businesses prioritizing ETHICS in their work and purchases. Learn more about ENSA on their website and follow them on social media.
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