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Transcripts - Episode 04: Lauren Asher

Updated: May 14

Transcripts

Episode 04: Lauren Asher

Naomi Castro

Hi, I'm Naomi Castro and this is the Castropod. This season I talk with college presidents and nonprofit leaders who make things happen. What things? Big things! Important things. Things that have a tangible effect. And I want to learn how they do it.

And talking tangible, if you've ever applied for federal financial aid, like in the last seven years or helped the student with that, you may have clicked that button that allows the IRS to talk to the FAFSA and then they get all the income info. Yeah, that.

An actual real-life person, a team of people made that happen. Pretty technical, right?

Well, Lauren Asher, who helped to lead that work comes at this with a deep understanding of the challenges that students living on the financial margins face. And she comes with some really beautiful insights on how to move our work forward and still take care of ourselves.

So come on, hang out with me, as I talked to Lauren, former executive of TICAS, The Institute for College Access and Success.

Naomi Castro [June 27, 2019]

Thank you so much for giving me some of your time.

Lauren Asher

I’m happy to be here.

Naomi Castro

Yay. So this is a podcast or something to help me learn about leadership questions in the nonprofit world and the community college world. And when I when I put these kind of requests out, my executive director, Linda Collins said, oh, you need to talk to Lauren. So that was that was pretty good recommendation. But you're you're doing consulting now. You were you're the former president of TICAS. So can you can you tell us how you ended up there? Like what was your journey a little bit?

Lauren Asher

How much of the journey do you want? Well, I'll start with I moved to California to work on healthcare access issues at the Kaiser Family Foundation, after working on a range of women's and kids issues for a long time. And then after that, I freelanced for a bit and I was writing a lot of papers and getting very isolated and a friend said, oh, I know somebody who needs some help and lives in the Bay Area. And I at that point with a great I don't even care what it's about, I just want a person to talk to.

Turns out it was guy named Bob Shireman, who I'd met before, incredible policy entrepreneur, just brilliant about what it takes to make systems work better for students and particular expertise around student aid issues. And he had started a new nonprofit literally, with a Nolo press kit out of a box, had no staff had no office was using it to write about some issues and trying and generate support for some policy change, which turned out to be successful and hired me to do a project.

It was fun and we started doing some more projects and then before I knew what we were staffing up this new organization, and hiring people and renting offices month to month and few years later, after we'd built it up some, decided it should stick around and not just be a short term project. He went somewhat unexpectedly, to work for President Obama. And I took over.

Naomi Castro

Wow.

Lauren Asher

Literally, we would hire people saying this might just be a year or two. It was designed initially to be just a shell that you could kind of put things in and take them out of. But we realized that there was this gap in combining deep expertise about financial aid policy and an orientation towards student outcome and success, that most of the expertise was in the institutions or among the regulators. And students aren't always their first order of priority much as they might want them to be or think that they are.

And the advocates for students for affordability, access and success generally didn't have that depth of expertise. So we filled a space that I think hadn't even been defined starting with talking about student debt as a policy issue and not just a personal problem, and building out what became the income-based repayment plan now multiple plans for federal student loans.

Naomi Castro

Which I am on, by the way, like, yeah, I was like, thank you. Thank you. I'm on the income based repayment plan. Yes. And also the, the you guys were behind the the having the IRS

Lauren Asher

IRS Data Retrieval Tool.

Naomi Castro

Oh my gosh,

Lauren Asher

So that it's easier to fill out the FAFSA. Yep, that was that was the first project I really owned on my own and learned a lot about coming in. I had no background in student aid or higher ed except as having been a student. But a lot of the system and policy and process issues around how do you connect low income and underrepresented populations to the resources and tools and information they need to make it in a world where getting that kind of access is just taken for granted when you're in a different economic bracket or education bracket. Sort of stripping away those assumptions and rethinking how you talk about things and how you do things.

I mean, that's, that's what I've always done. It's just been different issues. So part of how we got to the solution for the IRS data transfer into the FAFSA was from work I had done on the earned income tax credit, years before.

Naomi Castro

Ah that makes a lot of sense.

Lauren Asher

So I knew about the 4506 T and IRS Form that lets you send a third party your tax transcript.

Naomi Castro

Well, I started college as an undergrad in the ‘80s. And so and I was first in my family to go to college. And so filling out that paper FAFSA was, it was nerve racking. And you know, my dad, like taught me how to do my taxes. And, you know, I was just so I was so worried I was going to make a mistake and wouldn't be able to go to college because I'd mess up. And then my more recent graduate work when I was like, oh, wow, you can just they'll just talk to each other? This is amazing like, I don't even I wish you could quantify the amount of stress that that saves.

Lauren Asher

Well, it did reduce the average FAFSA completion time by many minutes, like from an hour to 20 minutes

Naomi Castro

Times, however many students apply for the FAFSA every year. Do you have any idea how many that is?

Lauren Asher

It's many millions. I know where to look. But each of the numbers a little different. And not everybody uses the tool but a significant portion do

Naomi Castro

You don't have to use it, but you can.

Lauren Asher

Don't ask me to go into the specific categories of tax filers who can because that would fill up the whole time.

Naomi Castro

No, no, no. Thanks. Well, this is awesome. And then can I ask what what made you decide to to say goodbye and to go into consulting?

Lauren Asher

Sure, well, I had been at tickets for over 13 years, including the initial consulting time and had been running it for over eight years and realized that the role needed to evolve in ways that were not my favorite things to do. And that I was also starting to get a little it was becoming a little bit of a grind. I loved my team I love the issues still would happily work with all those people and all the same things, but that the the role of ED needed to become a much more traditional role. We were a true startup. Then I took it through kind of the first phase of post fart startup development.

And after, at this point, the ED needed to be basically fundraising all the time. I had been able to land big multi project grants from a small number of funders that let my job be more hands-on substance and management. And that's what makes me the happiest, so I gave my board chair nine months notice

Naomi Castro

That was very generous.

Lauren Asher

Well, it was a little bit like that scene in Annie Hall, you know constantly, hardly ever, depends on which side of the screen here on for me nine months was generous for them. It felt like why won't you just stay until we find someone and I know that can take years if you don't set a hard stop point. And for me, I needed to know that I was building towards a specific time when I was gonna figure out who I was outside this organization where I had learned and grown so much, but I almost couldn't separate my professional identity from anymore. I couldn't even quite tell you what I did, specifically because we were such a tight team. And I knew I needed to take a little bit of space to figure that out.

Naomi Castro

Yeah, that's great. Good, you set your boundaries. You gave everybody a transition, you know, enough time to plan it out.

Lauren Asher

And it worked out. And I know it was it was challenging. I went from, you know, 60 to 70 hours a week, 80 hours a week, those last few months. And that was the other thing was that I have a son who is getting ready for middle school and hadn't been the primarily available parent since I become an executive director. I was home for dinner most nights but I still everything was very compressed and I wanted to see what it was like to be able to say sure I'll stay home during that random Teacher Training Day. Instead of ah.

Naomi Castro

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. With a 12 year old at home myself, I feel ya.

So what when I was preparing for this, I did a little mini lit review of, you know, kind of contemporary things, and, and certainly talking to a bunch of college presidents and some nonprofit leaders. One thing that is just crystal clear is that effective leaders just never stop learning. Right? So, you're always like, I don't know if it's in your DNA or exactly what but there's always learning happening. So I'm wondering if you could share, if you have anything in particular that that you've just been really geeking out on lately. And and maybe it's it's a book that you're you're giving away and talking about to everybody or maybe it's a podcast or just some, you know, new concept that you've come across, what do you what are you learning these days?

Lauren Asher

Well, part of the joy of having more time is being able to read more for pleasure. I kind of stopped reading nonfiction for myself, because I was reading so much for work. And one of the books I picked up and read is called The Financial Diaries. It's written a couple of years ago, I can tell you the name of one of the authors, Rachel Schneider, a really interesting deep dive into how working poor in your poor families are trying to manage in an era of increasing economic instability, even when you have jobs. And the role of instability and how how what used to be a kind of focus on opportunity and growth is increasingly shifting to prioritizing stability first.

And one of the stories was even about someone who went from a job that over a year would be more lucrative but unpredictable in terms of time and when the money was coming in and a long commute to a job that would probably pay less over the course of the year, but you knew every month, you could cover your bills. And that so much of how our assumptions are set up about what people are supposed to do, what is good money management, what are we supposed to be telling, particularly folks who don't have high incomes to do, how we think about the economic life cycle of a household just doesn't hold anymore with the what things actually cost and what things actually pay. And the way work is structured.

And those are all issues that have interested me throughout my life. But it was just, I'm not doing it justice. It's a mix of data and very close analysis and interviews with individual families that tells this difficult story, but also then says alright, here's what we need to do to rethink our assumptions and create tools and expectations and resources that are designed to better support families today and to really acknowledge that this instability isn't just a temporary problem. One of the things I found was that income fluctuates by 25% in a given month, at least once for just about everybody and then far more in range and frequency, the lower down the scale you get.

Naomi Castro

I am very fortunate to have a strong and steady income. But I remember times in my life when I first started working for a community college, we were paid once a month. And I thought, how am I going to how am I going to make it for 30 days with no paycheck? Like that was crazy or in consistencies in child care and grooming have young children are oh my gosh, growth spurts.

Lauren Asher

... or car breakdown,

Naomi Castro

… or hospital? Well, we could we could write a book, right? Yeah, all of that. Yeah.

Lauren Asher

So I had gone from citing a study that these folks had done, but never actually reading much of the detail and advocating against some efforts to make people pay their student loans out of their paychecks. Which sounds fine and I think it's fine as an option. But if you think about how a lot of low-income people have more than one job or may not have an employer but might be contracting, and it's, it's something that sounds simple, but it doesn't actually work well for the people who most need help. To actually be able to read this book and then talk to the author. And I've sent links to articles to like 20 people since then.

Naomi Castro

Fantastic. Well, it sounds like a good read. I'll put it in the program notes.

Lauren Asher

It is genuinely a good read.

Naomi Castro

Excellent. They need a better the hook for the title. I don't know about that. I’ll edit that out.

Lauren Asher

She's now working on, that author is now working on a project called I think the the thousand dollar project [editors note: it’s called The Worker’s Strength Fund]. She's trying to help figure out how you create more financial cushion, the first thousand dollars, a financial cushion for households because all the research is showing that pretty far up the income scale. A significant majority of people feel like they couldn't cover $1,000 expense.

Naomi Castro

Yeah, absolutely. Okay, so now that that's a great recommendation, Excellent, thank you. So that this is a question that's going to go back to your TICAS days right. And it's actually one of my main motivators for for reaching out to folks because books don't answer this question.

When you have an institution, an organization like ours, or our world is mission driven, right, and so, the folks that we hire are autonomous, they're great at what they do, and but they also you know, they, for the most part, want to be left alone to do their thing. And, but as an organization, you have to worry about getting your name out and having some consistency and messaging and like the the business world would call it branding and but also you, you have an approach a philosophy.

So sometimes those two things can be, again work against each other. How do you how do you find the Goldilocks zone? How do you find that space between, you know, letting these great folks do their wonderful work, but also saying staying consistent with messaging and approach and things like that?

Lauren Asher

Well, I was lucky to get my early training in nonprofit culture and management at an organization called Children Now that's been around for a long time, but this was in its very early years.

Naomi Castro

Children Now is wonderful organization, highly, highly recommended. Great work.

Lauren Asher

Well, the founding communications director who was my boss and the founding policy director, very consciously integrated their work. In fact, they went around and did trainings around the country for other children's advocates and what they used to call “the blend,” which is how do you connect policy, communications and advocacy in a way that they all reinforce each other and kind of add up to a whole greater than the parts instead of doing them on separate tracks and trying to connect them up later. And it is what makes for effective social change work.

But it's not always how organizations are structured. And it requires a lot of relationships, relationship building and collaboration and internal communication, that if you don't see how it all fits together could just seem like more work. But I saw how it worked. And I benefited from it especially as someone who has always had one leg in policy and one leg in communications that a lot of other people I knew in communications were like that plumbers the end of a pipeline, someone came to them with something and said, you know, just make this flow out of these pipes. It wasn't strategically connected.

So I had this great education in strategic advocacy and using research and thinking about what do we need to know How do we change people's minds? What do we want them to do? How do we fit it all together at every stage of the process? So I've taken that with me in all my work. And at TICAS were like, the founder and my colleague had similar orientation, and he also had a lot of Hill experience. That's how we started was, we did not want to be what we call the paper shop. We didn't want to just generate content, it's pretty easy to raise money for reports. But to have them make a difference is a whole different story.

So we only did work that we thought was policy relevant. We designed it to be policy relevant, and we, from beginning to end, thought about how everything we were doing was building on other parts of our work. So whoever we brought in was brought in with that culture and assumption and it was very collaborative. For some people too much so and for others, it was great. But I'd say in addition to having a brand part of that, as your voice to like we had a point of view about how you talk about things, how you present evidence.

And I used to joke that if you didn't like to play the game Taboo, you would not succeed at tickets because all the ways you'd really want to say something we probably couldn't say because they were terms of art in particular worlds that we were in whether it was law and policy and legislation, or in higher ed in particular, or one of our funders was uncomfortable with a certain framing and so we're trying to work around it. So you had to be really coordinated to make sure that you were being both clear and accurate, while also being accessible and motivating.

Naomi Castro

Excellent. Yeah. Let's just if we can just make that part of our onboarding process and.

Lauren Asher

But for people who came out of the research world, or the academic world or more segments, segmented roles and organizations, it could be challenging and it could also be hard as a manager to define the job really clearly, because when you're a small organization, everyone does more than one thing. But at what point are you looking for technical skills? Like the ability to manipulate large datasets? And and can you find that in someone who's also got sort of an instinct for what might be relevant to policy, or how to write for a non-expert audience. And as you grow, you can specialize more and that brings some of those those challenges about ,it wasn't that there wasn't autonomy, but you have to be really clear about where, who needs to know about what when, and we got better and better at that as we went along.

Naomi Castro

Well, also in the digital age, right, your your stuff gets out there, and, and once it's out there, it just spins right, which can be fantastic and phenomenal, but if we put out like so I can imagine someone feeling annoyed if I'm kind of bugging them, like, this is a great slide deck, but our logo isn't on there. And that can seem at the surface level, just annoying, like, oh, why is Naomi bugging me about this? But once it spins out there, if somebody finds it, and they think it's wonderful, and they want to contact us, they need to know who we are.

Lauren Asher

Right.

Naomi Castro

Yeah. I mean, I mean, that's a very surface level kind of thing. But

Lauren Asher

But I think that's right, that balancing that sort of appreciation for detail and accuracy with action orientation, especially with social media, a big challenge for us was, who needs to see tweets? It seems so simple. But if you want to be part of the public conversation, at this point, you've got to be out there and there are lots of less informed people opining and getting their opinions repeated. So how, we were very careful about making sure that we could back up anything we said. And you also need to be able to move fast and so that's a constant challenge, especially as the media change, the channels change and the way you express yourself publicly changes and multiplies. And the new cycle also is now 24 hours.

So how do you create breathing space for people who are, for me the bigger challenge was less about autonomy. Because the people I worked with were so good that I felt like they knew when to come to me. And it was just learning that balance of when do you need to bring somebody in and then then they go, because you know, they'll come to when they should. It was about how do you help people who are so committed breathe. How do they look at all the things that they know they could have an impact on if only they have the time and choose among them so that they are not feeling overloaded? And so that when you do have to really pull out all the stops for something a big deadline or something that comes up unexpectedly they aren't already fried? Yeah. And I can't say I completely cracked that nut. For myself or for anyone else. Yeah,

Naomi Castro

But that kind of coaching and then helping to focus as part of the organization's strategic thinking as well.

Lauren Asher

Yeah. And also, what we were successful at was flexibility. So I had someone who always came in at 8:30, and always left at 4:30. Because that was the schedule that worked for her. And she would still be often picking up stuff at other times from home if she needed to. I was home for dinner almost every night, I had the first baby at TICAS. But we had many more I wrote our family leave policies, and that was my prior area of work. And we really, really believe that people need to be able to put their families first. And because folks there were so committed and have to spend a lot of time chasing people down it was more, figuring out how to work and how to be available for enough internal communication, that we can move things along and then we had people in locations I had somebody who moved from DC to Monterey and kept doing federal policy work.

Naomi Castro

Wow

Lauren Asher

I had someone working out of Philadelphia, on her own, went to DC a lot.

Naomi Castro

I remember my, one of my first summers as a principal, I had gotten a small grant to give to teachers to do more curricular work over the summer. And I mean, the hilarious thing is, this is work they would have done anyway, but I just got to pay them. It was fantastic. And so I had like one teacher who kept coming in every day. And I said, you know, if it helps you to work here at the site, you're welcome, my office is open, we can bounce ideas off each other. But you can work from home in your pajamas. That's totally cool. I trust you. Like, I know you. Like you have to produce a thing at the end. So I don't you know, it's cool. Just do it. Go do it. I trust you.

Lauren Asher

I think that trust matters a lot. And being clear about how you build trust with the manager, and what the culture is. And we felt like we needed to be in the same place enough to really get the benefits of that kind of collaboration and convergence. But, and also sometimes email, it seems efficient, and then it turns into a nightmare of just endless iterations that you could have resolved in a conversation. So sometimes it was even things like pick up the phone, like, let's, let's think about what are the instances where it actually be better to just pick up the phone and just put all that stuff out there, even though it seems kind of small, that could make a big difference? Especially for people working off site who's can start to feel isolated.

Naomi Castro

We have a lot of remote staff. And we, we, when we're able to, and we have Zoom meetings, we make sure we have the video on so as you can see each other's reactions and whatnot. And then we have specific days that we all come into the office. And yeah, yeah, it's a it's a new world of work that way. It's exciting. It's hard to navigate sometimes, and sometimes it's just like, oh, I have my slippers on and my dog on my lap and I'm going to do so much more today because I'm relaxed. Yeah.

I think do I do have a another kind of meaty protein packed question? A lot of times, sometimes we have to make hard decisions. And the honestly the easy answer and the the pat answer that you hear is well, you just you combine and you build consensus and you think of it in a different way. But sometimes you have really external constraints. And you have to choose between two really great things and you can't combine them. Or worse, sometimes you have to choose between two things that you don't particularly love either one, like two things that you would rather not pick. How do you make those kinds of decisions?

Lauren Asher

It actually interestingly reminds me of a question I asked people I interview for almost any job, which is what do you do when you realize you have two things that both need to get done and they can't actually get done as planned? What you don't want to hear is I just figure it out. What you want to hear is I go talk to the people who these things are for. And I have some ideas, and then we work out, we figure out the priority or we escalate it to whoever can decide, you know, before it's too late. Or some version of that.

So when it's when it's me, and in an executive position, certainly there are tough calls there. hiring and firing decisions there. Can we afford to give everybody raises this year? There are external events that happen that when you're doing advocacy work, you can't, you feel like you can't ignore even though they're going to tip the scale. You got a big report due the following week and or a proposal and then something blows up in your field and you know, who sucks it up? And how do you turn that into something that feels like not just an arbitrary choice and not just a burden.

But on the hardest ones, I think I have a pretty consultative style. I had a great executive team, we would think about the cultural impact. How is it going to affect our staff? How is it going to affect people's sense of belonging and confidence? And should we talk to our board, Sometimes I would use my board chair as a sounding board. And ultimately, the decision is up to you. And you know, you have to be able to own it and be credible. Sometimes you want to give out less or more information because you want to protect people I found generally, more is better, but you have to be really thoughtful about how to do it.

And so I spent a lot of time not just on what is the decision, but how do we communicate the decision so that it does the least harm, if it's something that's tough in that way? Sometimes it's telling someone I know you want to do that, but I think you're gonna burn out and this other thing is more important, and let's think about someone else we know who might be interested or you know, here's a way to think about it. So you don't feel so bad.

There were times funders wanted us to do things, vendors that we relied very heavily on, that we knew were not necessarily in our interest, or we're beyond our capacity. And sometimes, after careful consultation, I would say no. We can't do this and that other times we would say, all right, we're going to say yes, we know this is going to be tough. Here's why we're saying yes. Here's what I think we can get out of it. Bring everybody in. But I don't think there's a single answer. I do think that it's almost never a better decision if you make it alone. Because you can't see all the angles from where you sit. No one person can.

Naomi Castro

And, and, and we surround ourselves with really smart people. Like we do that on purpose. So yeah, let's let's utilize those, those beautiful brains and incredible experiences that people have. Thank you.

I have a few more here. I have some rapid-fire questions. They're a little goofy. Don't think too much about him. Coffee or tea?

Lauren Asher

Tea

Naomi Castro

Black tea or green tea?

Lauren Asher

Neither because I'm hypersensitive to caffeine. Otherwise I would have answered coffee.

Naomi Castro

Oh, like peppermint? Chamomile?

Lauren Asher

Peppermint. Rooibos. I don't know how to even pronounce it but it's sort of as close as you can get to tea.

Naomi Castro

Fantastic. Beatles or Rolling Stones?

Lauren Asher

Depends on the day.

Naomi Castro

Favorite Flavor of ice cream?

Lauren Asher

Mint chip.

Naomi Castro

Same same.

Lauren Asher

Also coffee but now it usually has actual coffee in it, so I can’t have it.

Naomi Castro

Best $100 you ever spent or 100 or less.

Lauren Asher

Wow, I'm thinking back to when that represented even more money than it does now. And I, I was given a gift of a very fancy high-end frying pan that I loved and I had a roommate who ruined it. And I decided to replace it. And it was I think, like 70 bucks, which at the time was a huge amount for me, and I still use it.

Naomi Castro

Oh, yay. Okay, excellent. So it was really good, well spent.

Lauren Asher

It was well spent.

Naomi Castro

And you enjoy cooking?

Lauren Asher

I do.

Naomi Castro

And do you have any guilty pleasures?

Lauren Asher

Oh, yeah.

Naomi Castro

I mean that you'd be willing to share.

Lauren Asher

A friend of mine was very surprised that I really enjoy the show Ballers.

Naomi Castro

That's great. Is that the one with The Rock?

Lauren Asher

Yeah. It was as close as I could get as a follow up to Entourage. You I was very sad when Entourage ended.

Naomi Castro

Excellent, excellent. Do you binge watch anything?

Lauren Asher

Now that I am not working full time and more I occasionally do and I almost always regret it.

Naomi Castro

Excellent, excellent. Are there any other other any other tips or insights that you would give to folks who want to learn how to be effective nonprofit leaders?

Lauren Asher

I feel like part of this time I've taken as a consultant was to even figure out if I've learned things and what they might be. And it's been nice to have that time to reflect and also to be available to other people as they're working through their own decisions and leadership challenges.

Which I am on, by the way, like, yeah, I was like, thank you. Thank you. I'm on the income-based repayment plan. Yes. And also the, the you guys were behind the the having the IRSe more hands-on substance and management. And that's what makes me the happiest, so I gave my board chair nine months noticeld care and grooming have young children are oh my gosh, growth spurts.also had a lot of Hill experience. That's how we started was, we did not want to be what we call the paper shop. We didn't want to just generate content, it's pretty easy to raise money for reports. But to have them make a difference is a whole different story.

Invest in yourself. Often when you have a lot of management responsibilities, you feel like you're always trying to catch up and you can't afford to do anything that's not directly related to your job. But if you're invited to be in a working group, or participate in a professional development seminar or something like that, try and say yes. Because taking that little bit of space out of your day to day drill, almost always yields new insights and new relationships.

Naomi Castro

That's fantastic advice. Lauren, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time.

It's almost never a better decision if you make it alone. That's the bumper sticker from my conversation with Lauren, that and tried to say yes to opportunities to develop yourself as a professional. The book Lauren recommended The Financial Diaries and links to some of the organizations she mentioned are all in the show notes that and that tissue mentioned to you can check out the transcripts at castropod.com


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