Are you ready to be inspired? In this joyful and enlightening episode of the Servant Leadership Library Podcast, Nicholas sits down with Christina Duncan, the Executive Director of Milagro House, a beacon of hope for women and children in Lancaster, PA.

Don’t miss this heartwarming conversation that perfectly blends thought leadership and real-world impact. Watch the episode above, read the full transcript below, or listen over at Spotify.

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Episode Transcript

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to the Servant Leadership Library Podcast.

I’m your host, Nicholas Paulukow, and today we’re diving into the heart of leadership with a remarkable guest. Joining us is Christina Duncan, the powerhouse behind the scenes as the Executive Director of Milagro House, a beacon of hope in Lancaster, PA, for a quarter of a century. Picture this: for 25 years, Milagro House has been the superhero cape for women with children facing homelessness and poverty, providing not just housing, but a ladder to education and a lifeline of support.

And at the helm of this operation is Christina, the maestro of compassion and change. So buckle up for an episode that’s sure to inspire as we chat with Christina about servant leadership, making waves in the nonprofit world, and weaving miracles into the fabric of everyday life. Welcome to the show, Christina. We’re excited to have you.

[Christina Duncan] Thank you for having me. I really appreciate you asking. Great opportunity.

[Nicholas] Absolutely. Well, what an amazing organization that you lead. Could you tell our listeners a little bit more about your journey, how you got into the role, and how you were attracted to Milagro House, the organization itself?

[Christina Duncan] Oh, sure. Like any leader at this point in my career, that journey was probably long. And I joke that, you know, I have two kids in their 20s, and when they were going to college and trying to figure out what their major was, I thought about so often how my colleagues and my friends, we say, you know, we went through college and where did you actually wind up?

So, you know, I was an art therapy major in college, psych and art therapy. So everyone’s journey is different, but I think that’s what’s really cool about that journey for your career because with each experience you have, it’s a building block for where you ultimately should be. And I honestly do feel that all roads led to Milagro House for me in putting together my background, my life experience, where I am in my life now, and what’s important to me.

And I think each one of those stepping stones from the past and my journey led me right here. So I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, but my journey has been kind of interesting because I didn’t start out to be a nonprofit leader. My parents were in nonprofit work, though.

And so that was a familiar environment in my house and, you know, that kind of work was something that I grew up with and understood, the difference between working in a nonprofit and working in a for-profit. But when I chose my career goals, you know, I wound up, I don’t want to go all the way back to the beginning, but what’s interesting is I wound up in for-profit with that major, working for Fortune 500 companies outside of Manhattan.

[Nicholas] I saw that in your resume. That was pretty impressive.

[Christina Duncan] So I spent some time at Merck. I spent some time at Coopers & Lybrand, which, when I was leaving, was merging with Price Waterhouse.

[Nicholas] Okay.

[Christina Duncan] And so I think I had the longest business card because we were a division, and it was the clash listing group of Coopers & Lybrand, Price Waterhouse. That was always a joke. We kind of had to have a ledger-sized piece of paper.

But I primarily worked in marketing communications and project management and strategy, working with companies to implement employee benefits when I was at Coopers & Lybrand to communicate well with their employees so that they would get the best out of their benefits program and understand how that benefited them and their families. So I did that for years. And it was at that time that I was expecting my first child and my then-husband had been offered a job in Pennsylvania, well, in Northern Maryland.

And when we had Jamie, I said, I cannot do this grind anymore. And so we moved to Pennsylvania because I have relatives in the Lancaster area. We had a brand-new baby.

He was three months old when we moved here. And I remember thinking, there is no way that the plan of me going to work for this company in the Philadelphia office is going to work. It’s just not going to happen for me.

And I think it’s then that I went back to where I was truly comfortable. And that was nonprofit work and making a difference. And there’s something about having your first child and what you want to leave them that makes you start to think about, is this it and how do you want them to grow up?

So backtracking just a little bit more. My mom was one of the biggest influences in my life and why I’m here in this position right now. She worked for, as I said, a nonprofit in Manhattan.

She worked for the American Friends Service Committee, talked about servant leadership, talked about promoting the lives of people and helping them live their best life and making sure those opportunities are available to them. I spent my childhood being dragged to just about every event that she ever did and meeting some incredible people along the way. And so when I went back to work, I said, I’m not doing corporate America anymore.

It served me well. It served me well, but it was not where I wanted to be. And so I went into my journey of nonprofit work, which is the second half of my career, which has been the last 25 years.

I served in various roles in nonprofits in the Lancaster community and then wound up at Milagro House, which was just everything that intersected with everything that was important to me. And so that’s how I made it to the chair that I’m in now. I’ve been here for eight years.

When I say everything that was important to me, my family, my children are the most important to me. I would say about half of their growing up. I was a single parent and I realized during that experience very quickly that I was very fortunate to have the education that I had and to be able to figure it out and have the resources for me to be able to get a job at a family-sustaining wage to support two growing kids who I adored.

I wanted to give them every opportunity in life. My family always stressed education as being an important foundation. And so here I had this opportunity to serve an organization whose mission is based in education and helping single women with children on their journey to lifelong or long-term sustainability and breaking that cycle of poverty once and for all.

So I can’t say my lived experience was the same as theirs, but there were enough things that were intersecting that it is my passion and so that always led to Milagro House for me and I’m thrilled that I have this opportunity.

[Nicholas] Well, that’s an amazing story. You know, I think it’s really neat to dive into there, but I’d love to hear more about your mother. It sounds like she instilled such leadership in you, right?

Like, wow, that is amazing. Tell us a little bit more about her, would you mind?

[Christina Duncan] Not at all. My mother unfortunately died young. She was only 57.

She never knew my kids, which is a gap that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to. She was an incredibly strong woman at a time in our country’s history, our culture’s history, when strong women were kind of suspect. It was the 1960s.

I grew up in the 60s and my mom really made it her personal mission, I think, through her work, but also the fact that she had two daughters, that her daughters were going to grow up to be independent women who thought on their feet and who did not take the perspective of others for granted or dismiss them. And so her work, not only her profession, but her volunteerism was working with people who were in a lower socioeconomic class or who were marginalized because of the color of their skin. And so in my household, I grew up understanding that we are all the same and that whatever we had to do to have our voice as young women, it wasn’t just an option.

It was not a choice. It was a responsibility. And so she would probably take some chances with some conversations and things that she had through her profession and volunteering to really put herself out there and to challenge herself and to challenge her thinking and in turn, then challenge her daughters to understand our responsibility in our community and in our world.

So sitting back and watching the world go by was never an option. She was also just an incredibly elegant, warm person who would accept and talk to anyone and make them feel like they had known her forever and that they were welcome and comfortable regardless of their works and their experience and whatever had happened to them. They were comfortable in her presence and in her home, and I’m forever grateful to her, and I miss her terribly.

[Nicholas] What a wonderful woman. It would be amazing to meet her because that’s such a groundbreaking thing that she had done, and I think that’s amazing.

When we talk to other leaders, a lot of the things that have made us who we are are because of some of those experiences. So that’s why I wanted to ask a little more. Hopefully that was not too prying, but what an amazing woman.

[Christina Duncan] No, because I talk about her often and I wish she were here to see where I am now. I think she’d be very proud. I think she would not just be proud of me, but I think she would say that’s exactly what I was trying to achieve for you and your sister, and that would make me really, really happy to know that she knew that.

[Nicholas] Oh, well, I bet she does know that, right? Yeah. Oh, that’s amazing.

And talking a little bit about your journey, where you’ve been, a lot of the listeners that are learning, we hear this from a lot of college students, like I have to figure it out, and what if I mess this up? And you said something really eloquent, right? You’re like, listen, I went for a certain education.

I knew a path, and the path took me to here. And I think, talk to some of the younger listeners about how that’s a healthy thing, you know, maybe, or your experience, because a lot of them today think that maybe that’s a failure, right? And I think it, from what I was hearing, it’s more of an opportunity, right?

I use these skills and abilities to get me where I am today.

[Christina Duncan] That’s 100% true. It is not a failure. I think, like I said, everything is a building block.

We try and we think we have to figure it out. I think there’s a lot of pressure on the generation of kids in college now to figure it out and to pick this career and go for it. If you do that, you’re missing everything that’s around you saying, have you tried this?

Have you tried that? Have you thought about this? Are you too afraid to think about this?

Because you think that’s something that isn’t going to either earn you money or isn’t going to satisfy maybe your parents or whatever. But in the end, it’s your passion that’s going to make you the best leader. And you cannot be passionate about something that you’re just kind of, you know, straddling as I have to do this, and it’s this constant internal conflict.

I don’t think, you know, in both of my kids, you know, their college journey, I really tried not to put that pressure on them that you have to choose. One went to a really competitive, I mean, they both went to college. They were both in competitive programs.

But neither one of, well, my younger one is doing more of what he went to college for. My older one is not. And he’s happy.

He’s just happy. He’s enjoying life. Not to say his education didn’t matter to him.

He learned many lessons, and he also was a music major. He loved music, but that’s not his profession. But I think kids and college students these days, and we do this at Milagro House.

I’m going to give you kind of this little, so when people are still worried about everything around them and, you know, Milagro House’s base, its mission is providing women with children an opportunity to get access to education. They’ve never, ever, ever had that opportunity because when you’re living in poverty, you’re in constant survival. So you don’t just sit back one day and say, hey, let me apply to college and figure out this tuition and a student loan.

You’re not doing that if you’re working three jobs and you can’t put food on your table. That’s a luxury that you don’t even think about. So many of our moms are in jobs that are just helping them get by, right?

And so when they come into Milagro House, and most of them are the age of a college student, some of them are older, and when they come into Milagro, some of them are a little younger, when they come into Milagro House, we seriously ask them this question. And it’s almost, it’s uncanny to see their reaction to this question. We say, what do you want to be when you grow up?

[Nicholas] I ask that every day.

[Christina Duncan] Well, nobody, no one ever asked me that. Of course, no one ever asked you that. And you have a right and a responsibility to explore that question to the best of your ability.

So while they’re here, they may come in and say they want to be a CNA. And that’s great. They can be the best CNA in the world.

Good for them. Go for it. Is that your passion?

Excellent. Then we’re going to help you do that. But is that what you want to do?

Or is that what you’re thinking of? And then you get the response. You get the, if I could really do it, I would get my nursing degree.

Or if I could really do it, I would be a paralegal. Or I would go to law school. Or I would be a teacher.

But I can’t do that. Well, why not? So Milagro House is all about exploring your passion and giving people space to do that.

And college should be about that too. It should be about giving you space to do it. Space to explore what is the best possible journey for you, not for anybody else.

Because that is the only way you will eventually sit in a chair, 25 or 30 years from now, on a podcast and say, this is what made me who I am today. And I’m going to guarantee you it’s not a straight line. It’s a zigzag.

And that zigzag is okay. And you should take it. You know what?

If you graduate with a degree in teaching, and you love teaching, and your line is straighter, that’s great. But you know what? In that line, there’s always going to be experiences of what kind of teacher are you.

[Nicholas] That’s right.

[Christina Duncan] Maybe you thought you wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, and you’re teaching high school biology, and you’re happy as a clam. Well, that was a journey, right?

[Nicholas] And it’s an amazing way that you explain it because it kind of makes your, you know, I feel like very comforted by the way that you go over that. And it’s kind of true, right? Like, you know, my career path is not the same as what I originally wanted to do per se.

It follows my education. But I realized that there’s all these stumbling blocks sometimes, right? You’re never going to be able to do that.

You can’t do that. And when those voices were in my head while you were explaining the mission of what you do for these people, it just wells me up in such gratitude for what you’re doing. Because all of us, in some level, probably experience the same doubt or fears.

And it’s kind of like, you know, finding a support system to lean into it. I’m first generation in this country, and my mother, my father came here when he was five. And so there wasn’t really anything established here, right?

But the one thing that my mother instilled, as well as my father’s, just said, like, just try it, right? We don’t necessarily have the money, but try it. And they never stopped it, which really instilled in my, I don’t know how they did it, but my mother figured out a way to allow us, my sister and me, to explore those opportunities.

And what a blessing, right? And so I hope I’ve done the same for my four children. We’ll see what they tell us someday.

[Christina Duncan] Yeah, you do.

[Nicholas] What a wonderful thing. Well, so, you know, would you say your journey, I wanted to explore a little bit more, your corporate life, now to your nonprofit life. Was the big change based around core values?

Could you go over that a little bit more? Because I think a lot of people might have that same conflict, not conflict, but discussion in their head sometimes, right?

[Christina Duncan] So there’s a couple of things I want to say to answer that question. The first thing is, yeah, it was core values. And that doesn’t mean that corporations that are run well don’t have really good core values.

Right. It doesn’t mean that corporate companies are horrible places to work. They aren’t.

I had incredible mentors, and I also worked for two really incredible progressive companies.

[Nicholas] Okay.

[Christina Duncan] So I learned a lot of business lessons there that I apply today, and I want to go into that in a second. But for me, the tipping point was holding Jamie when he was born and realizing that my life at that point in time consisted of me having a suitcase packed in my car at all times and calling my spouse and saying, I’ll see you in three days because I’ll be in Cincinnati. When I left the house that morning, I didn’t know whether that was where I was going to be for three days or in Boston or, and remember when I was in that environment, you traveled to see clients.

There was no Zoom.

[Nicholas] There were no Teams, you know?

[Christina Duncan] I’m really dating myself here. But, I mean, I remember how big the first cell phone I had was.

[Nicholas] Come on, that was the bag phone. Yeah, it was the bag phone.

[Christina Duncan] It was, it had the, you know, you pull up the antenna. I thought I was all that. So, I really dated myself for those of you watching this, you’re probably laughing hysterically right now.

But anyway, so you traveled. You went to see your clients, you worked with your clients, they knew you, there was tons of face-to-face. When I wasn’t traveling outside of the state, most of my clients were in the financial district and Wall Street and the hustle and bustle. It was a crazy, wonderful ride.

But I was young without kids and I realized that was going to be hard for me because my worth and my personal core values were around family and my kids and that wasn’t going to work. And I didn’t want to be one of those people who were fitting their children into their lives. That wasn’t going to work for me.

So I had the, and that’s not to say you don’t work hard in nonprofit. I’m going to go back to that too. But for me, I was able to leave a very structured, high-pressure corporate environment and was able to stay home for a couple of years and then my second son came along and I was always doing freelance work.

My graduate degree is in market corporate and public communication. So I was freelancing. And when I went back to work, I wanted to go somewhere where I felt like I was making a difference.

And so the nonprofit piece just popped up. And again, I truly believe these things pop up in your journey and you’re not supposed to say, oh, you know, I’m not going to think about that. Or I could never do that.

Or that’s ridiculous. I don’t know. They’re in your face and they’re kicking and screaming saying, pay attention to me.

And so that’s what I did. It gave me some, the first nonprofit I worked for gave me the flexibility to, to be home a little bit. And, but, but it was each progressive experience in nonprofit was, was, you know, more responsibility.

And I truly believe, and I think right now it’s more acceptable. But when I started my nonprofit journey, if I said what I’m going to say now, probably people would say, oh, that’s crazy. Nonprofits should be run like for-profit businesses, period, to be successful.

So what I do now is all of the things I love, but there’s a deeper level of meaning for me. Again, that doesn’t mean somebody who’s making a lot of money isn’t successful. That’s great.

I’m not downing one or the other. What I’m saying for me is this is the full package. I can take the things that I loved about business and working for Fortune 500 companies and visioning and strategy and business plans.

And I can take all that and I can put it in an environment where I really feel good about our mission and what we’re doing. And I think that’s the other reason that this position is my ultimate position, because it takes everything I learned in business. We’re in a huge stage of expansion right now at Milagro House.

I’m taking stuff that I did 20 years ago and realizing their value to apply them to a nonprofit environment. And I think, frankly, that’s part of why the board hired me to begin with, was that I did have this business background. And, you know, a heart for nonprofit and a heart for that mission.

I’m like a kid in the candy shop right now. I’m doing everything I love and everything that I feel great about that I’ve learned over my career. And I get to apply it in a place that I have no doubt is a life-changing organization for so many women.

So I’ve told you a lot about myself and what I just said to you. If you think about what I said about my mom and being a strong woman and my journey, like it’s all right here. It’s all right here in my office.

And it literally is where I’m supposed to be.

[Nicholas] Wow. What a blessing, though. Right.

I think all of us, you know, we run a system called EOS, Entrepreneurial Operating System. Oh, there you go. I live that.

I could tell you everything. And one of the things they talk about is the EOS life. And I kind of when I heard you say that, it’s the EOS life.

Like I say every day, like when I recheck myself every morning, I wake up. Am I doing things that I love with people I love fairly compensated for what I’m doing? Right.

And there’s more to that. But it’s really like that’s kind of what you’re saying. Right.

Like you’re doing what you love. And I think that’s really, really important. I think all those that are listening to that when you look for a job, right, it’s not just about the career.

It’s about like fitting with the mission and the vision of the organization. Whereas sometimes they are words on the wall. But organizations that really live, right, we’re attracted to nonprofits because of their mission.

Right. And so there are for-profit companies that still can do that. You know, but it’s a very powerful thing when everybody is driven by the same mission.

That’s amazing.

[Christina Duncan] And I think, you know, in reading, I held it up. I know most people are just listening to this. They just tell us about traction.

I’m part of an executive director’s group through the High Business Center at Elizabethtown.

[Nicholas] Okay. Yeah.

[Christina Duncan] And that’s where I learned about this book, Traction. And I started reading it. And I remember I kind of cracked it open one evening after a kind of busy day thinking I’m just going to read a chapter.

You know, all over now. Peering through this book, like, yes, this is what we’re trying to do. And some people may say, how could you possibly implement the EOS management system that’s laid out in Traction in a small nonprofit?

Well, you can. I mean, you have to do some adjustment. I mean, right now we have seven staff people.

We know we’re a small staff, but we’re on the verge of expanding and doubling our staff and our ability to serve twice as many women and children. And so this is an opportunity right now as we embark on our strategic plan, which we’ve just started for the next two, three years. This is a Bible.

It’s a worthwhile information roadmap of how you should look at any business, no matter what size it is, if it’s for profit or nonprofit, to bring your team along with you. And have them be not only responsible, but tied into the success and the decisions they’re made and trusting them to make the decisions. This is, if somebody describes my leadership, I hope they’ve described it, even if they haven’t read the EOS, have read Traction.

I don’t, the staff will tell you that please don’t ever call me the boss. It makes my neck hair bristle. I can’t stand it.

Because I really do look at myself as just the conductor of some really incredibly talented people. And we’re at it. We are at a really great time in this organization where I can, I want to empower and entrust the staff.

And I also need to grow to understand what my role is going to be and how that’s going to change because we have more people working for us. So there’s, as they say in the book there, I think we’re at the letting go of the vine stage.

[Nicholas] Ah, yeah. There’s a practice for that. I, we can sideline that one too.

[Christina Duncan] Yeah, but, but it’s really important. I think in, in anybody’s leadership journey that they understand at what point they understand where their value is and that it’s not a dictatorship. And it’s not, um, you, if you have all the answers, then I think you’re, you think you have all the answers.

I think you’re doing it wrong. I mean, only, I think in the book, there’s one quote I wrote down because I knew we would be talking about it. One person can make only so many decisions and solve so many problems.

If you take one person, you multiply it by right now. We have seven, seven amazing perspectives, seven amazing opportunities to make decisions. And I don’t have that many hours in the day.

And no leader does. And so you’re, you’re really missing opportunities. If you’re thinking you’re the only one that has the capability to make decisions.

[Nicholas] Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I think what a lot of it is too, and what we learned through our journey, we’ve been utilizing EOS for about three and a half years. And, and it’s really about clarity, right?

So like I have a seat kind of on the bus. I’m the right person at, at this moment to do what I’m doing. However, the understanding is, is relevant to where the organization grows.

I may not be in that seat and it’s truly a seat of ownership in the organization. I’m not the boss. I’m, I am the owner of that seat.

And, and the owner of the seat has the capability to make some of these decisions, but so does other people. And I think it’s really, I have to get traction done, not to add to your reading list, but EOS just released kind of a summary book called People. And people.

[Christina Duncan] I think I saw that because I was going through to see if there were other materials that I could use and work.

[Nicholas] Tons of them.

[Christina Duncan] Okay.

[Nicholas] Tons of them. And there, there is tons of, there, there’s tons of books. One’s called How to Be a Great Boss that you would give to your team to assess them.

And then the people one goes over the whole system at a high level. And it really, even if you get it on Audible, it gives you an entire play by play from a story perspective, that’s very impactful. And so I encourage anybody to check that out.

But what a system that empowers kind of a lot of clarity. One of the nonprofits that I’m on the board of, I, I’m also on a committee too. And I decided for our committee, I would implement the EOS L10 meeting.

And I was like, oh man, they’re going to kill me. Right. All ages, all demographics.

And I’m like, they already think I’m nuts. So let’s see how far I can drag this. And at the end of the meeting, they said it was the most concise, fluid meeting.

We didn’t waste any time. Everybody had input. And that’s the goal.

And so very encouraging. So it’s amazing. I get super excited to hear about your journey there.

[Christina Duncan] Yeah, we’re, I mean, this is the right time to think about that and growth. You know, nonprofits grow. I think there’s somewhat of a misunderstanding sometimes that nonprofits are small.

They kind of stay stagnant. They do what they need to do. They stay in their place.

But really vibrant, impactful nonprofits that are solving community issues and having true impact in the community have to grow just like businesses. They also have to understand when that growth is the right size. And I think one of the other things that I really love about Milagro House is that we have never in those 25 years that you mentioned, wavered from our mission.

There has been no mission creep. And that, that to me and coming into an organization eight years ago and seeing that there was never any mission creep or let’s, let’s chase this grant or let’s chase this program or let’s chase this because it will make us bigger, better, you know, whatever. In essence, it doesn’t make you bigger or better.

It makes you watered down and ineffective.

[Nicholas] Right.

[Christina Duncan] So for us to be able to be effective for Milagro House, it has always impressed me of the people who came before me who were able to hold that line and see the importance of what we do and the impact of what it is. We, we don’t necessarily have to do it better. We have to enhance what we have.

We have to change the design. You know, things are very different than they were 25 years ago. Opportunities are different.

Partnership opportunities and collaborative options are different. And we have to seize the ones that work for us to get us to the point that we need to be, to be able to offer what we offer to the women and their children that, that we have part of our program. So, yeah.

So I think looking at a nonprofit as a business and running it as a business with the same undercurrent and values of nonprofit work, I think it is kind of the secret sauce to long-term success.

[Nicholas] It’s amazing to kind of add to your comment there. Working in the nonprofit sector myself, from a volunteer aspect and other areas, it’s amazing to see so many entrepreneurial nonprofits.

[Christina Duncan] Right.

[Nicholas] There’s a wonderful organization called the Samaritan Center. It used to be called Samaritan Counseling Center. And inside that organization, it is so entrepreneurial that they actually have created, and I think have been part of your organization over the years in the history, if you go really far back. Right.

And all of these little entrepreneurial problems, like things that came out of the nonprofit space to create their own standalone, just is amazing to me. And it’s so amazing to see the people that are so passionate about it. And one of my friends, Dana Hachin from HDC, she was on the other day and said, hey, listen, Nick, our job as a nonprofit is to solve root issues, not constantly solving symptoms.

We all can volunteer, but volunteering, although wonderful, continues to do that actually does not change the root issue. Right. So we need to be, her advice was we need to be solving root issues.

And I think that goes along from regular business for-profit and nonprofit. But that was impactful to me. Yeah.

[Christina Duncan] It’s funny that you bring up our friend Dana Hachin because the expansion, Milagro House’s expansion is tied to a partnership, a very valuable partnership that we have with HDC Mid-Atlantic. Our expansion is actually the adaptive reuse of the old St. Joseph’s Hospital. And Dana Hachin and her team are, you know, HDC Mid-Atlantic is an incredible nonprofit that works to solve the issue of affordable housing, which touches Milagro House too, because when our moms leave, they need a place to live.

[Nicholas] Right. Yeah.

[Christina Duncan] But anyway, I met Dana because they’re in phase one of the project with the building they’re building right behind Milagro House. And I called her just to figure, you know, ask her what was going on and, and to talk about it and to learn more about HDC in this project that I heard about. And part of that conversation I said, is, you know, we would love to collaborate with you at some point, you know, we just think there’s so many intersections in what we’re trying to do for people who are moving forward.

And, and I guess maybe a month later or so, we had a phone call and she said, how about phase two? And I said, I don’t know what it is, but I think we’re in.

[Nicholas] She’s, she’s a wonderful woman.

[Christina Duncan] Yeah, she really is. So, part of our expansion is actually part of this partnership with HDC Mid-Atlantic, although our expansion will be, we will actually own part of the building, the development and getting that building to its fruition with affordable housing and Milagro House as a partnership, the two very strong, really cool nonprofits in Lancaster. That’s what I mean about collaboration.

Collaboration, we can only move so far standing on our own four walls, but, you know, partnerships with, with really great dynamic nonprofits and Lancaster has a ton of them. We can leverage all of our strengths instead of asking donors to fund our projects, which is the same as someone else’s project. Why, or program, why would you do that?

We need to, we need to all work together to, to have a greater impact. So we love collaborating at Milagro House. That is how we’re getting bigger and programmatic and just this expansion.

That’s the collaboration. But even programmatically using our community partners, just like I said, leveraging our strengths is a really important part of growth.

[Nicholas] That’s amazing. I mean, I, I’ve connected with HDC in many ways for many years. They’ve been a client of the company that I run and so it has been, oh man, 15 years maybe, but, but delving into the history of how the organization started as well comes from kind of my personal side was actually started in Columbia from one of the Catholic churches, realized that they needed housing for their community, which then became HDC and then HDC Mid-Atlantic.

It’s just amazing to see the history, but you’re right. Like in business, many of us have coaches or they have peer groups. You mentioned like a peer group, you know, it’s the same as what kind of what I’m connecting.

You’re saying that your peers you’re working together to create greater good than trying to individually do it. And I think that’s amazing. What a great inspiration and leadership, right?

Some could say, well, we need to do it on our own and you’re leading by bringing other leaders together. So I think that’s amazing. Yeah, but break into a little bit.

You mentioned this when you were explaining your mother, you said she, she was, she was really impactful to you for servant leadership. Tell me a little bit from your perspective, what you think servant leadership is.

[Christina Duncan] So servant leadership, I think it’s something that’s always been part of my DNA without the title.

[Nicholas] Okay.

[Christina Duncan] I think I learned from both of my parents, particularly my mom, about putting others first and developing them to their full potential so that, you know, in the end, everybody is moving forward and everybody’s doing a great job and you’re all meeting your goals and whatever you need. That’s more business-y than she was. But her, one of the things I mentioned at the end was her, her willingness to make somebody feel important in her presence and also to make someone feel that their value and their worth in whatever conversation or task or whether it was something in her office or something in her volunteer work was so important to me to witness as a kid growing up.

And so that’s the same thing that I hope that I do. And I’ve worked for all different kinds of leaders. And I’ve learned a lot from all of them, whether they were really good leaders or whether they were not good leaders.

Like it was even in those, to the people who are listening, you are going to have a job experience that is not going to be great. But that doesn’t mean that you walk out of there going, that was a waste of time and it was a failure because I think in some of those situations is when you really learn the most about yourself and your integrity and your worth and your, and whether you felt that you had a voice there or was it, you know, as, as it says in Traction, was it a dictatorship? And, and so, you know, when you, when you think about servant leadership and when you think about it, and when I think about it at Milagro House, when I think about our team of people, you can teach somebody any skill, but like you can teach anybody a skill.

But if you don’t have people who feel like they are in some way growing and developing, which is very challenging in small nonprofits.

[Nicholas] Right.

[Christina Duncan] And so what I, what I try to do is give people the opportunity, whether it’s a smaller task or a larger task, it’s always going to move them to the next level. And unfortunately, with nonprofits too that are small, where you don’t have a lot of the levels of growth and we don’t right now, what you have to be okay with as a leader is that you’re actually in some cases, you’re preparing them for their next great job. And that’s the same thing that we do with our women that are leaving our program, the next best thing in their life.

And that’s okay. You shouldn’t sit back and say, well, they’re going to leave in a year. I’m not going to invest time in them.

That’s crazy. Because in the time that they’re with you, if they feel that way and if they feel empowered to make decisions and if they have opportunities to learn, it doesn’t mean that you can only promote them every year in a small nonprofit. But are they learning?

Are they engaging? Are they feeling as if they have worth? That’s servant leadership.

That’s not me sitting here saying I make all the decisions. You guys just follow them. In preparing for growth, we do have a director level position here.

That sounds silly. We have seven people, but we do. We have three directors because that’s the leadership team that is going to take us to the next level.

And when we have double or triple the staff, those are the people we’re going to hire under. And so right now they’re honing those leadership skills that they’re going to need to do that. And I’m trying to provide them with every opportunity that I can to do that.

And it can be day-to-day projects or it can be going to a conference in Miami, which you sit there and you say, well, you’re a small nonprofit. Why are you sending somebody to Miami? Because it’s the best conference she ever went to and she still talks about it and she still implements things that she learned there.

Talk about return on investment. That was a small investment for what she has now grown into in her position and her confidence and being empowered to make decisions. That’s what you want.

So that’s to me, that’s my definition of servant leadership. It’s bringing everybody along with you, not keeping people under you. And as I would watch my mother do, listen to people’s perspectives all the time. Hear their stories. I think servant leadership is knowing a lot about the people that are working for you and not just their skills and where they went to college and what their salary is.

[Nicholas] That’s well said too. I think one of the key things too that we learn is that it’s that inquisitiveness, right? Like most really great leaders that are servant leaders are really great inquisitive people.

And they ask questions to learn and they’re really empathetic and they understand it. And it’s not that it’s necessarily that they’re doing it, they’re doing it to learn themselves, right? And to improve and grow, but then also to help that person.

I love the word, right? And I can’t wait till you get to the accountability chart with EOS, because the word that you utilize is 100% empowerment. Empowerment and accountability that that gives you after you have simplified what you need for your organization, gives those individuals such empowerment that it just as a leader, it makes you so fulfilled to see someone be able to then learn and grow with that ownership.

It’s just amazing. Yeah.

[Christina Duncan] I think we’re fortunate here too, because when you look at what we do, we are offering our program for the women that we’re serving. It’s actually kind of a servant leadership model. We are showing them and giving them opportunities to develop and grow in what is best for them.

And we’re just giving them the support they need to get there, right? So we use the word empowerment a lot around here with the women that we serve. We talk a lot about confidence.

We talk a lot about owning your truth and advocating for yourself and for your child. And in a sense, that’s a form of servant leadership. It’s a form of showing women that we work with that your life isn’t defined by what your past was or the survival or the trauma or whatever it is that you experience.

Your life is defined by your decisions and what you think is best for you and your children. And by doing that, I mean, we’re solving a huge problem in our community. I mean, the reason why we work with women with children is because 60% of households, not only in Lancaster County, but nationally, that live in poverty are headed by single women with children.

And so 60% of people. So there are all sorts of reasons why that is. Some of them are cultural.

Some of them are just, you know, the disparity in gender roles or divorce or poverty or coming from a single parent family or domestic violence or whatever it is. Women are primary caregivers of children. So their inability to pick up and move, lack of transportation and stuff.

And so we’re looking at this demographic as our ability to make change in their life means we think we’re hitting the ground. We’re helping them hit the ground running. We’re also helping them, you know, break that cycle of poverty once and for all through education.

We’re looking at long term. So when we look at women that we’re working with, we’re applying some of those exact same principles that I’m hoping I’m also applying with my staff, talent, confidence, knowledge, right there. And so if they feel that, then they can be the best possible staff person with the people that we’re working with.

If they don’t feel that, that’s awfully hard for them to feel that in the people that we are helping on their journey.

[Nicholas] Yeah, that’s amazing. Could you kind of relate kind of what the empowerment that you’re giving and the education you’re giving to these women, like you’re empowering them almost with like leadership skills, right? Like how to be a strong individual leader, like give us an example, like how you apply that right from your experience might be different than theirs.

Like, but how do you, how do you teach them to empower themselves?

[Christina Duncan] Well, I think the first thing is not to make assumptions about people when they come in and what we say as a staff is our ideas about what’s best for them goes out the window. It’s what they want for their lives. And we’re simply here to walk alongside them and help them with the bumps in the road and help them with the resources that they need to get from A to B, whatever their A to B is.

We also have a responsibility to help them and give them the space they need to figure out what that is. And that’s not finite. I mean, like I said early on, that can change.

You can come into this program and think you want to do one thing and then you realize all the things that you could possibly do. And it’s really about giving them space and safety and having them be in a supportive environment where many of them have never had that opportunity, which is sad. When, you know, poverty is about survival and poverty is about making decisions in the minute.

It’s not about thinking about your future. It takes a while for some people who have experienced those kinds of limitations and trauma to relax enough to say, I really see the potential. Yeah, which is why we don’t put a maximum amount of time that you’re allowed to be in our program.

They’re allowed to stay here. We just had a mom and moved out who was here for almost three years. She was in an education program.

She was working towards the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. And there were also some things in her life that we wanted to make sure when she left here, she was as supportive as she possibly could be. So we weren’t just going to say, oh, that’s your problem.

So each family, every journey is customized. So we’re empowering them in little tiny steps that add up to a big picture.

[Nicholas] And I mean, you’re solving the root problem, right? Like they leave to be able to be sustainable, which not many nonprofits have that ability. I mean, it’s amazing what you’re able to do.

And it’s really amazing how those things that you say that you’re doing for them are almost like how we develop individual leaders in our work environment, right? We leave them space to grow. We create their own plan.

That’s amazing. So I mean, I think the listeners think sometimes like this leadership thing is this big mysterious thing, when in reality, we’re kind of applying basic things in our life today that help us to be good leaders too.

[Christina Duncan] Yeah, I think the final thing, not final, but the one thing I do also want to add to that is when we’re working with moms and children, this is a two-generational model of poverty alleviation. If we can stabilize, help mom stabilize and help her get to the point where she wants to be, then her children are less likely to experience poverty. They’re less likely to drop out of school.

They’re less likely to be affected by drugs and alcohol. And when they’re 25, they’re more likely to be in a job with a family-sustaining wage. And so when we look at mom, we’re also looking at these.

I mean, right now we have 13 children living at Milagro House. So we’re also looking at those kids and what support do they need to get into a classroom and hit the ground running just like their peers who have had the advantage of a really good preschool program or a Head Start program. We want them to hit the ground running and have the same potential as an opportunity that their peers.

And so for us to have really the luxury of having these moms with their children here at Milagro House means that we’re affecting two generations. We’re not affecting one generation. There are times, I mean, time after time after time in 25 years, and I’m sure every executive director that’s been here before me has had this experience where somebody has come up to them and said, I was a kid at Milagro House.

[Nicholas] Wow.

[Christina Duncan] This recently happened to me where she said, she came up to me and she said, after I’d spoken somewhere, I was a kid at Milagro House and I was there when I was nine and Milagro House, first of all, was the only place that I felt accepted my mom for who she was. That’s powerful for a kid.

[Nicholas] That is super powerful.

[Christina Duncan] And to have her say to me, after hearing you speak, not me because I’m great, but just hearing me speak about the program, she said, I’m not ashamed to say I was a kid at Milagro House. As an adult, I look back and I look at what, you know, I benefited from with my mom. And it was also the first place where like I felt safe.

I had my own bed. I wasn’t living here for two weeks and then living with someone else someplace else for a month. Those are valuable stories and what we do say, and this is true.

If you live in a Lancaster community, you have run into a mom or a kid from Milagro House. I guarantee it at least every month or so that you don’t even know it.

[Nicholas] Right.

[Christina Duncan] I mean, there are business owners, customer service reps. They’re in management. They’re in health care.

They’re in lawyers’ offices. They’re the, they’re the mom sitting next to you on the bleachers watching your kids play soccer. People have this perspective that they could pick a mom out from Milagro House in a crowded room.

And I tell you, you cannot, you can’t. And so that’s enormously satisfying as well as it’s enormously humbling that I know that even me, that I can walk around with somebody and find out I work at Milagro House and then they can say to me, I was there. My sister was there, whatever.

That is, that tells you a lot about impact, but it also tells you a lot about the need for these services in our community.

[Nicholas] Well, and I think it also kind of brings full circle, like the mission, like the mission works and, and the, and it’s empowering them to be successful too. I think that’s amazing. You know, you talk about kind of the mission, you were talking about some education on traction, you know, because you’re, you know, such a, a wonderful leader.

What, what kind of like resources or books or things would you encourage someone that’s trying to learn some of these skills? I mean, it does, it’s not inherent. I’m sure you didn’t wake up one day and say, I’m going to be the best leader ever.

Like, I’m sure you were able to develop that. Could you share some of that wisdom?

[Christina Duncan] Yeah, I, I really think that the best advice I could give to somebody who’s trying to answer that question for themselves is that regardless of where you are in your career or your journey toward leadership or at what level of leadership you’re in. Lencioni says you have to be humble, hungry and smart. I think that’s what he said, right?

[Nicholas] That’s right.

[Christina Duncan] And the hungry part is, is not just about looking for that next job and that higher level of pay. Hungry means that you are seeking out people who are sitting in the chair you want to sit in. Yep.

And you’re having conversations with them with no ulterior motive, except to find out why they got there and how they got there and why they’re successful. It can be calling somebody up out of the blue and taking somebody out to lunch or to coffee. It not only gives you the opportunity to network, you’re not looking for a job.

You’re just looking for what makes that person tick. And the more you do that, the more you see these intersections of wisdom that can help you on your path and your path isn’t necessarily going to be that person’s path and you’re not going to wind up in that chair, right? But there are commonalities toward everybody’s leadership journey.

And when I say hungry, I mean, talk to everybody. Like, don’t be afraid. Join networking groups.

When you get into leadership, two of the most valuable things that I do right now are, one, this group I just talked to you about through the High Leadership Center at Elizabethtown College for Nonprofit Executives. Joining something like a chamber leadership group or a nonprofit, they have a nonprofit leaders circle that I’m part of. In a small nonprofit, being an executive director, and I don’t mean this in a horrible way, it can be very lonely because you don’t have a lot of staff where you bounce ideas off of.

You have staff that you work with. But from the perspective of actually your skill set and what your responsibilities are in your job, it can be a little bit lonely. And so you really have to find people that you can share those stories and gain some, hey, if this happened to you, how did you work through this?

[Nicholas] How’d you handle it?

[Christina Duncan] I can’t tell you how valuable that is.

[Nicholas] Well, I’ve learned over the years that when I get in those situations, I’m like, well, you know, maybe they did everything perfectly, right? And you listen to them and they’re like, it goes back to Patrick Lencioni. Are they humble?

Wow. When they’re humble, they’re like, well, I can tell you the 800 things that I messed up and the one thing that’s successful. And it took me a long time to realize when I interviewed these people, like they’re just people too on their journey and they really have different experiences that they can help you with, but you got to talk to a lot of people.

I think that’s great advice.

[Christina Duncan] Yeah. And I think you also, if you’re bold enough, I think you have to be comfortable asking them that question.

[Nicholas] Yeah.

[Christina Duncan] Tell me a time when you really screwed up because I really think that’s where your true leadership and your skills and your ability to be humble and problem solve, you know, are you taking responsibility for that mistake? Because, you know, every leader should have two words. Every leadership master or I’m sorry, because we are all going to screw up all of us just because you’ve reached some level of leadership.

It doesn’t matter what level it is. You better be comfortable with saying you’re sorry to somebody. You also better be comfortable with rolling up your sleeves because the other thing is, I wouldn’t do, I wouldn’t ask anyone on our team to do something that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself.

It doesn’t mean I’m going to do it every time or have the capacity to do it, depending on where I am in the week. But if they know that I would do that, if I were there, that’s enormously powerful to people who are on your team.

[Nicholas] It creates that trust, like Lencioni said, right? Right. If without trust, you can’t build a great organization.

[Christina Duncan] You can’t build. So, and frankly, doing some of the stuff is actually really fun because sometimes you feel a little bit out of touch as a leader. And getting down, not down, but getting back into the day to day sometimes for periods of time is really helpful to connect to your mission and to your team, but frankly, to connect to yourself.

And the other thing I would say with a leader is that you should always look for an opportunity where you can grow yourself. And I’m really, really thankful to the board and to that I have had an opportunity recently that I’m planning right now. I’m actually a Baldwin leader through the Lancaster County Community Foundation.

[Nicholas] (1:00:07 – 1:00:07) Yeah.

[Christina Duncan] And that concept is that leaders need time, not just to work on leadership for the organization. They need time to really disconnect and work on their own core values and what makes them tick so that they can then come back and be a better leader. And so, we’re challenged with doing a project that has nothing to do with your organization.

You can’t do anything about your organization. It has to be about you. But in the end, it also has to connect you to the next level of whatever you want to be in your organization.

[Nicholas] Yeah.

[Christina Duncan] And so that was an opportunity I’ve thought about for several years. I went for it this year. I was fortunate enough to be one of the chosen leaders and you have to challenge yourself and you have to be scared and I’m going to take a risk and I’m going to jump and I’m going to be scared and I’m going to do it.

[Nicholas] Yep. And that’s where you get the most growth, right? That’s the next growth.

Right. I think one thing that’s amazing, what you were saying there too, in the EOS world, when you get into that, we call it a clarity break. Yeah.

And it’s a system at which scheduling and listing these questions that you take time to contemplate to reset your thinking on how to work on the business instead of in it, which sometimes we all say, well, we’re doing that all the time, but no, when you step away and you actually take the time to slow down and think about it, it’s an amazing experience because all of these things start to become more creative, more thinking.

Yeah. So amazing. I’m so happy for you that you’re able to do that.

[Christina Duncan] Yeah, I’m really excited and I would also say the most important thing when you do that is that you’re not comfortable.

[Nicholas] Yes. My one mentor, I said, I have different mentors as I’ve grown as a leader, and he said to me the one time he goes, the day that you stop feeling uncomfortable, you probably should quit. And I’m like, wow, that’s a little harsh.

And he goes, because that means if you’re that comfortable, then you’re not having any impact anymore. Right. And so that’s amazing.

Well, Christina, wrap us up a little bit today. What are your parting comments for everyone today?

[Christina Duncan] Well, first of all, I think the fact that if you’re still with us on this podcast and I haven’t really bored you to tears, the fact that you’re even listening to this podcast and the fact that you’re even thinking about where leadership fits into your life is a huge step in identifying the kind of leader you want to be and your own journey. And you shouldn’t take that lightly. This shouldn’t be something that you fit in after the fact.

This should be something that’s always front of mind. It should be something where you’re always putting these kinds of conversations first and that you aren’t afraid to have conversations with other people, as I said. But secondly, you should really see your journey as just that, a journey.

There are never absolutes in that journey, and you should always be open for the things to get thrown right in your path. Don’t try and climb over those rocks. Figure out why they’re there and figure out if that’s the next best thing for you, because in those journeys and being uncomfortable and being scared and jumping off a cliff, it’s sometimes when you find the most beautiful, wonderful opportunities for you.

And I will say I would not be sitting in this seat had I not paid attention to one of those rocks and not just climbed over it and kept going straight. Wow. And so I think being willing to be vulnerable, understanding that leadership also doesn’t always mean that you’re this huge extrovert and out there.

You know, I have a secret for you. I have a theory that all leaders are introverts. And the reason I have that theory is you can be on, but I’ll tell you, leaders go home and they need to shut off their brains.

And sometimes the last thing you want to do is be out there with people and that’s okay because you need to recharge your battery. So leaders are not always out there being type A and impressing rooms full of people. That’s not your goal.

Your goal is to be humble in yourself, figure out what rocks your world and do it and pay attention to the journey and not take that journey for granted.

[Nicholas] I love it. That is so empowering. What a great summary.

I mean, unbelievable. Well, I appreciate you sharing that with us today. And Christina, I appreciate you being with us today.

You’ve been very impactful. And everyone, that’s a wrap for today’s episode of Servant Leadership Library. A huge thank you to our incredible guest, Christina, for sharing her wisdom and her passion for serving others through her role as Executive Director of Milagro House.

And remember, folks, true leadership isn’t about the spotlight. It’s about illuminating the path for others to shine. So let’s take a page from Christina’s book.

And keep spreading those rays of hope and empowerment wherever we go. Until next time, this is Nicholas Paulukow signing off. Stay servant-hearted.

Stay inspired. Keep leading with love and see you in the next episode.

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