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how-to guide for staff supervision with Rita Sever

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Supervision is one of those things in our sector that we kind of fall into. Usually, we're promoted into a position where we have to manage people without ever really being given the tools to do so effectively. It is often overlooked in our sector but the quality of supervision is important because it affects productivity, morale, work quality, team interaction, conflict, and the overall culture of the organization.

In today’s episode, Rita Sever, an expert in human resources, organizational psychology, and nonprofit systems, talks about how to lead, manage people, and create a culture that is aligned with our organization’s anti-oppression work and values.

Myths that Rita wants us to walk away from:

  • Nonprofit workers don’t need supervision. Nonprofit organizations are full of kind, caring, and committed people, but that doesn't mean they don't need to be supervised. Even when people are extremely high functioning, they need a supervisor's tender touch and a culture that will encourage them along the way and help them succeed.

  • Power and privilege don’t exist in nonprofit supervision. Power and privilege have an impact on supervisory relationships. To work from an anti-oppression perspective, supervisors must be prepared for self-awareness – knowing their own background, norms, and hidden rules, and bringing that awareness to real conversations about how it affects their supervision, relationships, and treatment of others.

Rita’s JOIN framework on giving feedback as a supervisor

  • J - Join your supervisees before you give them feedback. You want to make sure you remember you're on the same side. So the join might be, “I know we've got a hundred deadlines facing us”, or “I know we both care about our mission”.

  • O - Observation and objective statement of what actually happened. For example, “the report was late”, or “you walked away when that client walked in.”

  • I - Impact. What was the impact of that objective observation? How did it impact the person, the team, the work?

  • N - What needs to be different. And that can be simply, let's talk more about how you could have handled that interaction.

Favorite Quotes from Today’s Episode

“I think the pitfall is that we are doing so much or so committed to our missions that we sort of take it for granted that everything will work out in terms of people because people are there to support the mission. So we just trust that it's all going to work, but even when people are extremely high functioning, they need that tender touch of a supervisor and a culture that is going to encourage them along the way and help them be successful.”

“It really does start with the preparation and ongoing preparation, not just for that particular conversation, but the preparation of self-awareness. Who am I? How do I show up? What do I think of as expected and, not just for the job, but like what my norms are, what are my hidden rules and then bringing that awareness to the conversation and having some real conversations about how is my supervision working, is there anything I need to do different, looking again, that am I treating people differently?”

Resources from this Episode

Leading for Justice: Supervision, HR and Culture

The Good Partnership


Cindy W.: Supervision is one of those things in our sector that we fall into. Usually, we're promoted into a position where we have to manage people without ever really given the tools to do so effectively. Later on that, the complications, challenges, and opportunities of doing work within social justice-based organizations or organizations committed to anti-oppression work, and then it can become a lot harder and more challenging just to understand our own privilege and how we, how that shows up in our supervision of others. This is something that I've thought a lot about, I know many of you have as well, and so I've invited a guest today for the podcast to talk about just that.

Welcome. My name is Cindy Wagman, and I am your host of the small non-profit podcast, where we bring you practical down-to-earth advice on how to do more in your small nonprofit. You are going to change the world and we are here to help.

So today's guest, Rita Sever is an HR expert, but I love her story. She started as an admin assistant and again, fell into the role of HR, really found her calling there. She grew up the youngest of six kids in a low-income family, and she often had the experience of feeling unseen and unheard. Rita became very focused on hearing and seeing others as individuals and within the groups that we live and work in. This led her to recognize the uneven playing field that we call equal, which led her to work in the nonprofit sector. Rita works with individuals, teams, leaders, and organizations to improve the culture and practice of supervision, thereby helping the organization to be more effective.

With a background in Human Resources, and Training, and Organizational Development, she weaves those practices together in her coaching, consulting, and training. RI Rita has an MA in Organizational Psychology and as a Certified Professional Coach, she's taught HR and a nonprofit at the University of San Francisco and Sonoma State University in California. Rita's new book is titled Leading for Justice: Supervision, HR, and Culture. Please join me in welcoming Rita to the podcast. Rita, welcome to the podcast.

Rita S.: Thank you, Cindy. It's great to be here.

Cindy W.: I'm really excited for this conversation because supervision, not something we do very well in our sector, but before we dive into all of the nitty-gritty, I'd love to just have you share with our listeners your story and how you decided that this is something that needs focus and attention and support.

Rita S.: Okay. Yes. I actually love to tell this story because when I look back, I'm really, it's always interesting to look back at your own story. So I was working at a nonprofit that had eight employees. It was an aid organization working to support people at the height of the epidemic. And one day that executive director came in and said, I get a new grant, we're going to double our staff. Who's going to hold our personnel files? What a typical HR moment or nonprofit moment. And I was the admin assistant, so I said that makes sense for me to do I'll take them. So then I had to figure out what to do with them. So I took classes, I found a mentor, and eventually, I ended up getting my master's in Organizational Psychology because I had found my place in the nonprofit sector.

And, at that organization, we grew while I was there, we grew from eight staff to 50 staff and being part of the team that really intentionally, designed and supported a culture that would support the difficult work going on and figuring out how to do the nitty-gritty of HR, the compliance, but more importantly, how to set people up for success and help the organization basically. That's where I found my calling and I went on to work at a larger nonprofit. I became an HR director and now I'm a consultant doing coaching, training, and consulting with nonprofits, specifically social justice organizations.

Cindy W.: Amazing. And there's a lot that we could talk about with regards to the regulatory stuff, but our focus, this conversation really is about what I think one of the sector's deficits, which is around how to create culture, how to actually lead, and manage people. We're really, we're not great as a sector overall at equipping people with those skills. So I'm hoping you can help. What, let's start with some of what's not working. What are some of the common pitfalls or challenges that you see with HR or even if it's not the HR function with supervision and leadership within organizations?

Rita S.: Yes, I think the pitfall is that we are doing so much, we're so committed to our missions that we take it for granted that everything will work out in terms of people, because people are there to support the mission. So we just trust that it's all going to work, but even when people are extremely high functioning, they need that tender touch of a supervisor and a culture that is going to encourage them along the way and help them be successful. Remove barriers, remove problems, be clear about what's needed help make sure the boundaries between jobs are clear, so there's no overlap. And that doesn't happen because we often say, here's your job and oh yeah, as you supervise eight people and that's this added, it doesn't matter. Exactly. And the culture sort of forms haphazardly, and often it is very strong because non-profits are full of kind and caring people, but sometimes bad habits develop and they aren't directed and then it goes downhill from there.

Cindy W.: It feels a little, it feels a little overwhelming to think about how we get started, how do we move from not being well equipped, not having good resources, so what are some of the things that we should start to think about or focus on? I always love the expression. You can't boil the ocean, right? Pick one or two things start to get that cause I feel like this is an ocean.

Where would you recommend for an organization that starting to think more or maybe not specifically for an organization, but individuals within an organization who maybe don't have the structure don't have formal support, but are stepping into supervisory positions? How do we do that well and intentionally?

Rita S.: And I just want to say, I love that metaphor. I haven't heard that metaphor and I love it. So yes, when you can only look at your pot of water, if you will. I think being clear about what you need and taking time to prepare as a supervisor. So knowing that you want to meet with your staff on a regular basis, so you're on the same page, build a strong, appropriate relationship with the people you supervise be clear about what success looks like, which is often where some of that individual prep time takes one of my actually asking them to do where could they run into problems and then having conversations about that. And then learning how to give good feedback, so people can hear it. And that again, takes some readings, some classes, some practice.

Cindy W.: Okay. There's a lot to impact there. I want to start when you say, like there's so much, I feel like we could spend hours talking about this, but you said we need clarity around what we need. And I want to clarify, I want to clarify that comment. Is that what we need from our teams, is that what we need for ourselves to feel confident? Is that what we need from our organization? What are, what, how should we be thinking about our sort of position in that scenario?

Rita S.: I wouldn't say all of the above, but in terms of supervision, it really, I think of the supervisor's job is setting the person up for success. So what do they need to know to be successful at this task, at this project, at this job, and having two-way conversations about that? This is what I think it looks like. This is what I think the time factors are. What do you think? Do you see it differently and go from there. I think the other factors in terms of how that supports the mission are really important, and thinking about also, and being clear about that and having conversations about that. And of course you, we always want to do our best to be self-aware about what do I need? Am I giving the information I need from my staff, from my own supervisor? And how can I ask for what I need and how can I help our organization grow to be more intentional?

Cindy W.: So now we have. Almost like a needs analysis. What do I need? One of my staff, even one of my supervisors themselves needs. And then we move on you, you mentioned you mentioned meetings and I feel like meetings are one of those things. Especially these days that people feel really heavy with. And I can, I know with our team, we actually canceled a lot of our internal meetings. Because there's just so much on everyone's plate.

So how do we, I know that there's no one size fits all answer. This is how many meetings you should have, but how can we think about the right level of support and contact and. And what should be accomplished in those meetings, but then also making sure that we step back and let people fulfill their roles.

Rita S.: I think that meeting analysis is the part that makes the difference for every meeting you have, as a team looked at what is the purpose of this meeting, who needs to be here? Because often people don't need to be there, but you think you're going to hurt their feelings if they're not included. So talk about who needs to be there. What do we want to have the outcomes of this meeting be? And how much time is this worth for the organization? What is the value? Because often we do fill up the time, whatever the time is, we're going to fill it up. Having said that, I think it's also really important to include some moments of fun and connection.

I'm a big proponent of those little silly icebreakers because they make the meeting work. They get people in the zoom room, the virtual room, and they help us connect, and remember that we'd like each other, we at least liked the outcome of our work together. And I would also add that I think the one-on-one meetings with our individuals supervisees is critical. It doesn't have to be every week, but at least once a month, making sure that is a sacred meeting because that's going to keep the ball rolling. That's going to keep communication flowing and keep the work going.

Cindy W.: What should we include in those meetings?

Rita S.: My basic framework for those meetings is three things. And it's always a two-way conversation. It's not just the supervisor talking at the other person, the staff member it's, what's working, what's not working. And what's next meaning what are the priorities between now? And when we meet again to make sure you're on the same page with that.

Cindy W.: Excellent. So simple. Yeah. Yeah. But I'm sure it brings up a lot of really valuable insights.

So as a supervisor for formal or informal supervision, when, what's working is easy, right? Great. This is all going well, what's not working is a little harder. How do we start to, how do we make sure our teams are supported in the what's not working in a way that doesn't undermine them or make them feel Oh, my goodness. The only word that's coming to my mind is incompetence, and I don't know if that's the right word, we don't want to make them feel bad about needing support. So how do we balance that fine line?

Rita S.: Part of it is if you do this at every meeting and it is a two-way conversation, so they are free to bring up, I'm really struggling with this or this didn't go at all the way I wanted to. That helps that it's two-way. And that also means I'm not happy with, you didn't tell me this person was gonna be there at the meeting, and that really threw me. So it's a real two-way conversation. But the other part is, if you do it on a regular basis, it normalizes it. And the important thing is to both understand that feedback is information. It's not judgment. It's not criticism. It's information. You both need to, again, fulfill the mission is what this is all about. So if I tell you that your last report really didn't meet what I was looking for. Let's talk about it. It isn't really about you. It's about the report so learning how to give that feedback in a way that it comes to process information and it is designed to help the person be successful.

Cindy W.: So let's dig into the feedback piece because I think that is something where a lot of people struggle and I have some sort of, thoughts around or questions that will come up. I'm sure as we talk, but giving feedback is hard and scary, and especially when you like the people you work with. So how can we, how can we, how do we do it? How do we give feedback in a meaningful way that will land in a way that people understand, as you said, that the feedback is the information it's not criticism or anything else, it's helping people to move forward. But yeah how do we do that?

Rita S.: So I actually have a pretty simple formula, simple in terms of it's easy to understand it doesn't mean it's easy to do, but it does help. And it helps to prepare to give the feedback and even to give the feedback. And the formula is J O I N. J is for join that before you tell them. What the feedback is, you want to make sure you remember you're on the same side. So the join might be, I know we've got a hundred deadlines facing us, or I know we both care about our mission, so you're joining with them.

Cindy W.: It's almost like empathy.

Rita S.: Yeah. We're on the same side basically. Then the, O is observation and objective statement of what actually happened. The report was late. You were rude to a customer, whatever it is. Although that one, even to myself, because that's an interpretation, that's not an objective observation. The observation would be you walked away when that client walked in.

Cindy W.: Or the client was upset or something. Yeah.

Rita S.: Yeah. Yeah. That shows how this works as preparation because I corrected myself there before I talked to someone, then the J O I is impact. What was the impact of that objective observation? How did it impact the person, the team, the work, and then N is what needs to be different. And that can be simply, let's talk more about how you could have handled that interaction. So this J O I N statement is an opening statement, and then you run into a conversation of what do you need, how can I support you? What, how do you think it could have gone different? It's not just you say it and walk away.

Cindy W.: Is there any circumstance where you'd actually want the person, your, or your supervisee to say it, like sometimes we know that we're wrong or that we did something that didn't work out that well?

Rita S.: Absolutely. You might start that conversation with the question of how did that go for you? Yeah. What did you think the formula is good for when you know, you have to give feedback that is going to be hard, so absolutely approaching it in different ways, how did it go or let's talk about that. That's great. Yeah.

Cindy W.: Cool. Excellent. I love that framework. It's so simple as you said. But it's, I, the piece that I actually liked most is that we use this to prepare because I really do think that so much of the challenge is that we don't like confrontation. We feel like this is outside of our comfort zone. So one of the things I want to talk about is timing, right? Because we talked about monthly meetings with our team based on what I know, this kind of feedback where something does go wrong shouldn't wait, am I right? So how do we even, I was just talking to my husband about how you prepare someone for a meeting. If you ask to talk to them and it's super vague, you can get their back up and they get really anxious and you don't know what's happening. So how do we even flag that, like this conversation is coming?

Rita S.: Yeah. And that's a little tricky because if there are if you're finding yourself needing to give a lot of feedback before your monthly meeting, I think you need to have more meetings because you don't want it to be this heavy-duty. I need to talk to you in my office and people. No, no good is going to come out of that. So I would say start out having weekly meetings, even if they're 15 minutes. And then when things are going well, let up and go to less meetings in terms of, if something egregious happens of course, you're going to have to talk to them sooner. And then I think it's basically, we need to have a conversation to debrief what happens. Let's meet as soon as we can, so you are upfront, but it's not, again, I need to see you in my office. It's less.

Cindy W.: That's so helpful. One of the things that you and I talked about before we recorded that I'd love to as we near the later part of the podcast to talk a little bit about is understanding power and privilege within organizations and how that affects supervisor relationships. One of the things that I know both you and I are very committed to is social justice and anti-oppression work, but we are both CIS white women who hold a lot of power and privilege. And when you're supervising people who might be racialized or face other forms of oppression, it's hard in the sense that we want to live our values. What does that look like? And so I'd love for you to talk a little bit about how leaders can, and I'm hearing this a lot in our sector from white folks who are in supervision positions, where they want to do good work, they want to support their staff, and they want to make sure they're doing it from an anti-oppression perspective. So how do we start to think about, and bring that lens into this practice of supervision?

Rita S.: That is so important to do, and it really does start with the preparation and ongoing preparation, not just for that particular conversation, but a preparation of self-awareness. Excuse me. Who am I? How do I show up? What do I think of as expected and, not just for the job, but what my norms are, what are my hidden rules and then bringing that awareness to the conversation and having some real conversations about how is my supervision working, is there anything I need to do different, looking again, that am I treating people differently?

And what I see often is, white people, not generalizing, but just what I've seen. We often inadvertently questioned people of color more maybe because we don't know if we're coming across right or appropriately. And so we'll say, did you do that? How's that going? And more so than we do with people were more who are more like us. Watching that again, asking for feedback making sure we're not, stepping into micro-aggressive commentary or assumptions. So doing our own work basically is what it comes down to, and then being open to feedback.

Cindy W.: Yeah. I want to talk a little bit about that, but before we do it, I actually want to shout it. It's one of my clients without naming her, she's I get another suspended white woman, highly educated. And so a lot of things that she's starting to do the work to understand her perspective and how that has been formed by her privilege. So things like prioritizing certain grammar things, she's stepped back and has and has been thinking like, okay, this is a factor of my education and that's not true of everyone's education. And so how do I still make sure that we are a welcoming work environment when I am very picky about grammar? And how does that shape the, and it's such a little thing, but at the same time, I thought it was such an insightful reflection that, so much of our ex my experience of the world and your experience in the world is very different from a lot of other people. I just thought that was a really interesting example of what privilege can look like. And we know with job postings and education requirements, you know.

Rita S.: And I would just add that if you are someone who is new to the ideas of privilege and how that's gonna play out in an organization, do some research about white supremacy culture in organizations, because it'll really help trigger some, hopefully, some deep thoughts about that kind of way that privilege shows up, our sense of perfection and our sense of overwhelm and expecting overwhelmed. So that's a great example of that, for sure.

Cindy W.: What are some books or resources you would recommend to anyone who wants to go down that to go through that journey?

Rita S.: Wow. So many. And of course, I have to talk about my own book. I'm going to put that first, just to be self-serving Leaving for Justice, it's subtitled Supervision, HR, and Culture. And it really is about walking the talk internally. Other ones, of course, How to be an Anti-racist, that it took me a year and a half to read because every three pages I'd have to stop and think about something. So it was really powerful. And these aren't directly about supervision, but they do help us understand. Where we're coming from the some of that white fragility. So there's a lot that, again, it goes back to our self-reflection and self-awareness,

Cindy W.: That's so helpful. We're running out of time. I did want to circle back. I have in my notes norms and hidden rules because I thought when you mentioned that it was worth exploring that a little bit more. So let's talk about that before we wrap up, because, and I think that example we touched upon is an example of that, but what are some other types of sort of hidden norms that we don't understand have an impact on people or unintentional impact that create that culture that might not be aligned with our mission.

Rita S.: And that's a huge conversation, but a few examples are you mentioned one that we expect people, every job description, just say bachelor's degree master's preferred where really isn't really required because you're excluding a whole lot of people when you say that. So I always feel good when I see a job description that says or equivalent experience, because they've found about that for using phrases, like using your common sense. That's another hidden rule. Common sense to me is not going to be the same as common sense to somebody who grew up in a different culture, as a different color, different orientation. It may look very different. And so that's another loaded term. We apply in term, I've seen it in evaluations does not use common sense.

And I always correct it when I see that. What do you mean, be specific? When I worked at a head start program and one of our hidden rules that I recognized after I learned about all this was the rule that was never spoken but was very much in place about how parents need to handle their children when they came into the building, we had a very, I had a very middle-class white approach that you need to make sure your children sit next to and are quiet so that they don't disrupt the work that's going on. And other cultures feel like they will run around and do what they want and it's up to everybody to take care of them. And so that's an example of a hidden rule that you're not going to talk about, but it's very much going to be in place and judgments are going to start coming up. If you don't talk about it.

Cindy W.: I want to, we were going to wrap up, but I have one more question, which is, if you are in a position of formal power supervision, but also informal power and having the privilege associated with, being a white or, could be being a man or what have you in an organization.

One of the things. I think a lot of people that I hear from a lot of people is they're really afraid to make a mistake, they, in their minds, are committed to social justice. They are committed to anti-oppression and they're terrified that they're, learned racism is going to show through almost right, because we all have it. We all have learned internal racism. That is the system we live in and we're raised in. And they're very afraid of making a mistake and being called out on that mistake. And I'd love to hear your thoughts on, let's say someone we supervise who is a different race than us calls us out and says, you know what? That was racist. Or maybe they call it out in a slightly different way, but, how would we as a supervisor handle that situation in a way that again, aligns with our, I'd say intended values. And how do we step back and really see that situation and not get emotional? I say this from experience, our first reaction is always to go on the defense it's always but I am not racist or I am not this, but that's not a helpful response. So how, what's a better response?

Rita S.: Yes. And I think what you said is the key to it, that understanding that we all grew up in a racist society. And so it isn't a personal affront if someone says you did something racist, or even if you are a racist, it really takes practice. But being able to respond in a way that is open and curious, I'm so sorry, what did I do? Tell me how that landed for you? And not asking them to explain the whole history of what happened, but in the moment, how did that land for you? And I'm sorry, and I will work to do better. I will research more to learn about. Thank you for telling me. So responding with curiosity and appreciation, because boy was that brave. Especially if somebody used supervisors telling you that was a gift that was very difficult to do for most people. So being open and grateful and thinking about it, even if you end up saying that, wasn't what I meant. And understanding that's how it landed.

Cindy W.: Yeah. Yep. And I keep hearing that over and over again in conversations, it's not about intention, it's about impact. And focusing on that and how we can do better. I Rita thank you so much for joining me on the podcast and for this I think really important conversation, where can our listeners connect with you and learn more about you?

Rita S.: Thank you so much, Cindy, this has been great. My website is and my books are available wherever you get your books.

Cindy W.: Amazing. Thank you, Rita. And thank you for all the work you do. And of course, to our listeners. We get to do what we love to do because you're out there doing what I think is the hard work. So keep up the amazing work and we'll see you next week. Have a good one.

Well folks that's it for today's episode of The Small Nonprofit, I'm your host, Cindy Wagman, and this show is brought to you by The Good Partnership. As a reminder, if you want more resources around raising more money for your small nonprofit, visit and download our free fundraising strategy guide. I'll see you next week.