Cheryl P Johnson of COTS: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization

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Eliminate the poverty mindset. Many think that nonprofits, or “social impact organizations” as I prefer to call them, are created around this idea they mean just that: no profit. It revolves around a poverty mindset, that at the end of the day, you should be broke and poor. You have to understand that it’s a business structure that means that you don’t have to pay taxes. At the end of the day a nonprofit or social impact organization needs to be financially sound and have a healthy reserve during lean times. It’s a business!

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

Purpose-driven and accomplished, Cheryl P. Johnson is dedicated to alleviating suffering in the world wherever she finds it. For more than thirty years, she has improved the lives of homeless families in Detroit through her work at COTS. Founder and president of her own independent consulting practice CPJ Consulting Group, Johnson leverages her vast knowledge of the nonprofit sector from her executive education in nonprofit management through the Harvard Business School and teaching experience to provide nonprofit start-upand board development consulting.

Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

I always start my backstory with my why, the most important thing in my life and what literally influences everything coming from me. Even as a young child, I knew my role in the world was to relieve suffering. But I saw “suffering” as so much bigger than physical pain. I’d heard someone who’d said, “If something bothers you, then you’re the one to change it.” I started out in pre-med and thought I’d land as a pediatrician — until I realized how much I disliked physics and chemistry!

My turning point came as a sophomore in college. I took a class in behavioral psychology and had an opportunity for a summer internship at a school that worked with children with autism.

I remember this one child whose autism was so severe that many times they had to restrain him to prevent him from injuring himself and others. He couldn’t speak and it was very difficult for him. My last day there, he turned and looked at me and he said, “Good-bye, Cheryl.” I’ll never forget it, because three months earlier he couldn’t say that, he couldn’t formulate those words. That took me to a place of understanding the impact that I could have in places where people are suffering. That brought me into this work, to have an impact on the community, in our world and personally allowing me to show up as my best self.

I started working with young people after college. I enjoyed it so much and saw the effect that I had. But I didn’t have the sense that I have now, in terms of breath and understanding of sabbatical, including rest and moments where you pause throughout the day and reflect. After 10 years, I got burned out. I decided to take a break from working with youth — and it brought me to COTS. I didn’t know anything about COTS, except that at that time they were focused on helping people in our community who were homeless. I became the new shelter director, that was in 1990, and the rest is history.

Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your nonprofit?

At the end of the day when I go home, and at the end of my life, whenever that is, I want to have made a difference. I want to be a pebble that hits the pond, and the ripples are still moving when I’m off the scene. This happens frequently now, when I’m in a restaurant and a person will tap me on the shoulder and say, “You helped me.” The other night, I was at a play and had an opportunity to meet the playwright and he found out who I was and said, “You helped many folk in my family.” That’s what continually helps me to show up. Poverty and homelessness, all the social ills that we see, don’t have to be. I believe that our collective work can shift the needle. I’ve had the pleasure of being at COTS now for 33 years.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

During my 33 years at COTS, there has been pure brilliant innovations. After being somewhere for a while, you begin to have moments when you have conversations about how we are making a difference, are there other things we can do better? After talking to our wonderful families and the people that we partner with, we saw two things. We saw that there were several generations of poverty. COTS had been focusing on housing, but the core, the root here is poverty. How do we address that? And how do we do that across generations, to have an impact today that will sustain itself over generations?

From that came the approach of our theory of change, Passport to Self Sufficiency™ (PTS), which is tied to a coaching and mentoring model, trauma-informed and research based, and focuses on supporting our families in five domains: housing, health and well-being, education, economic mobility, employment and career. We understand that if a family member is lacking in any of these areas, it impacts everything. Now, 10 years later, after focusing on the whole family, we see the amazing impact that it has not only on the adult person in that home, but also our children who are thriving and thinking differently, in terms of their own self-regulation: How do I show up at school? How do I see my future? This is generational impact!

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

A young woman was referred to our emergency shelter maybe five or so years ago. This young lady came in with eight children. I went downstairs to meet her. It was nine in the morning, and I could smell alcohol on her breath. Fast forward two years later. We’re finishing up a photography project with a renowned photographer where community leaders partnered with the children in the shelter. I’m walking out the door and a young woman walks up to me and said, “Do you remember me?” I didn’t. She told me her name and I immediately remembered her. She was the young mom that I had met at 9 a.m. a few years ago.

She looked totally different. She said that after arriving at COTS, we got her into a treatment facility; she shared in that moment that she had never seen a sober day with her kids in 15 years. Now she’s sober, has moved into one of our housing programs and is getting the support that she needs for her family. She successfully engaged with her mobility coach and has accomplished goals in all of the five domains. She always highlights that, “My kids get to know me as a sober mom, and I get to know them as a sober mom.”

That was five years ago. She came in here without a GED, without a driver’s license, without housing–all those things that are necessary to thrive in the community. Today, she’s been working for COTS well over three years full-time. She is a voice for this organization and those with lived experience. She is in college, just graduated with her associates degree and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree; so obviously she went and got her GED. She also has her driver’s license and maintains her home.

All of her kids are straight-A students with one now on their way to college. There is a person on our board, the COO of a national company, who came to this board because of her voice, because of his encounter with her and hearing her story. She made such a lasting impression.

That is one of my favorite stories to tell.

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

I literally believe that one of the most challenging reasons why it’s so hard to move the needle is because of our own narrative about people in poverty. When we challenge and change our narrative about people living in poverty, then all of the resources, all of the innovations, all of the things that are necessary to really change that will come into place. There has to be community will.

Our community holds harmful and negative narratives about people in poverty. Two of the main culprits are fatalism and paternalism. It’s a faulty, harmful narrative that gets in the way of our society eradicating this social justice issue. This is what feeds politics. Narrative work requires a daily reckoning, where we challenge the narrative, which forms and influences how we engage with people. If you believe a certain thing, you behave a certain way around it. If we get the narrative right, then we will address and solve the issue. We will look at access to housing, healthcare, childcare, food and transportation very differently — all the resources people need in order to thrive successfully in the community — but it always starts with the narrative.

How do you define leadership? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership evolves over time. When I came in as a leader here, I was modeling something that I saw from my previous employment. Over time I began to create my own leadership voice and style. I draw from all of my experiences and things that I’ve learned, and over time you evolve into the leader that is required at a particular place and time. Today, I practice stewardship with a focus on shared power. When you share power and partner with your staff, you are moving away from self-interest to one of empowerment. I’m a big fan of Peter Block who writes about this in his book, “Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest.”

Right now, we are involved in some internal restructuring at COTS. Normally, when an organization restructures, it goes from the top down. The leader says what the restructuring is going to look like, and staff are responsible for executing. I’m not doing that. Instead, I say OK, do you see the problem? Can you acknowledge it? What is the framework that we need to have so that we don’t see that problem? And I leave it up to them. They’re the ones who have to execute (the solution), so they have to own it. This is also the best way to hold folks accountable to their own solution.

Based on your experience, what are the 5 things a person should know before they decide to start a nonprofit? Please share a story or example for each.

Before starting a nonprofit, a person should:

Be clear on your why. I coach and give advice all the time for people who want to start a nonprofit and the question I always ask is: Why? And normally, when people peel through their “why,” it may become clear that they’re not supposed to start a nonprofit but are supposed to partner with one. Or sometimes your “why” is so big, like “I just want to help people.” Your why needs to be clear and succinct to you and to those that are going to support you.

Eliminate the poverty mindset. Many think that nonprofits, or “social impact organizations” as I prefer to call them, are created around this idea they mean just that: no profit. It revolves around a poverty mindset, that at the end of the day, you should be broke and poor. You have to understand that it’s a business structure that means that you don’t have to pay taxes. At the end of the day a nonprofit or social impact organization needs to be financially sound and have a healthy reserve during lean times. It’s a business!

Understanding that this is some of the most difficult but rewarding work. Most of the time you are not dealing with a product but dealing with heartbeats, touching lives, having an impact on people and the community.

A nonprofit can’t be started on a dime. Keep your 9-to-5 and work on (its development).

Start it right the first time. Surround yourself with a board of directors who are diverse, who have an approach that’s different than yours but have the same goal of moving forward.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your nonprofit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 

I would enjoy sitting down with our beloved Mayor of Detroit Mike Duggan. COTS model for moving people out of poverty is one of the solutions for creating a thriving Detroit. I would love for him to ask me the tough questions, like “What could this look like in our communities?”

Can you share your favorite Life Lesson quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

I have three favorite Life Lesson quotes that I’d like to share:

“A child can’t be what a child can’t see.” That’s important to me as a mom raising four amazing human beings, that they saw the progress in my life. All of them have exceeded me, getting master’s work and even doctorates. My youngest, David, had his head in the clouds when he was young (and I was worried). But after he finished college, he went right into his MBA. I asked him why he did that, and he said, “Didn’t you expect that of me?” Of course, I did. But it was unspoken.

“Choose to serve where your gift is most needed.” Right now, where I need to be is Detroit.

“Wear the pearls but use the power.” I love to dress up, but I love to wield the power that comes with it, too.

How can our readers follow you online?

Follow along with me and COTS at:


This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.

Cheryl P Johnson of COTS: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.