Some Founders Can Remain: Kip Tiernan and Rosie’s Place

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Kip Tiernan is a founder’s founder. In the last 30 years she has founded Rosie’s Place and the Boston Food Bank, and co-founded the Poor People’s United Fund, Healthcare for the Homeless, the Women’s Fund, and Community Works. At age 77, Kip still works at the Poor People’s United Fund, but calls Rosie’s Place her “home”—the one place she will never leave. Kip was originally in corporate public relations and advertising, and anti-war work in the 1960s gave her a window on how to use her marketing skills for social causes. She has never looked back.

In the early 1970s, Kip observed women passing themselves off as men in order to find shelter in Boston. It was the Catholic Workers movement and Dorothy Day in New York City who influenced her to simply “be there “for homeless people. Respect, listening, and building a community of mutuality became mantras as she went on to found Rosie’s Place in an abandoned supermarket in 1974. She also took another lesson from Dorothy Day—do not take money from “the man.” As a result, a critical philosophical principle of Rosie’s Place, to this day, is to refuse all city, state, and government funding.

The early years at Rosie’s Place were similar to those at many progressive, sheltering organizations of the 1970s. It was volunteer-led with no paid staff during its first four years. People made do with what they had: an abandoned supermarket as a first home (sheltering women anyway, whether zoning allowed it or not) with few program policies except for a highly evolved mission and ethos around how to work with homeless women.

Kip spent the first eight years primarily fundraising, speaking to countless church and social clubs and college groups. She requested funding, clothing, volunteers, and food. She also worked five to six eight-hour shifts per week, talking with and listening to the women who came to Rosie’s Place—a classic founder, working endless hours to make the ship sail.

Kip is most publicly identified with Rosie’s Place, but she has never been its director or even a paid staff member. She was its founder, newsletter and marketing coordinator, shift volunteer, and continuous big-vision thinker; and today her “formal” role is on the board of directors. But she never wanted to manage the organization. Kip says she feels lucky—for her life, for the partners who have helped and supported her, for the women of Rosie’s Place who have both taught her and provided her truest community. This feeling of being a part of a community versus “owning an organization,” as she puts it, most directly reflects Kip’s self-awareness and ability to share leadership, characteristics that have been key to the organization’s openness to her ongoing involvement.

What is remarkable in this story is that Rosie’s Place has been flexible enough to allow for change, which has included different organizational structures as well as considerable growth (from an all-volunteer staff to a 50-plus paid staff with 1000 volunteers—a $3.1 million-dollar operation)—and yet still maintain its relationship with its conceptual and spiritual founder. It’s not for every group, but it has worked at Rosie’s Place.

There were several classic bumps along the way in the early years (people leaving over fundamental arguments about whether or not to take government funding, and later on about the organizational structure itself). Kip doesn’t maintain she was an angel through these times, but she was able to persevere to the other side of the struggle and to work with and accept changes when they came, and when they were appropriate. She is a self-described opinionated, big-picture thinker, but one who also credits many, many people with the success of Rosie’s Place, and who recognizes the importance of giving management authority to several excellent executive directors—particularly the current director, Sue Marsh and her predecessor, Julie Brandlen.

The lesson we can learn from Kip is to know where our strengths lie—but to remain humble in our need for others to make something whole. It also helps to be able to identify the strengths that others need to bring to the table. Openness to others attracts good people with complementary strengths. Finally, you have to have the sense to not micro-manage those who are willing to partner with you, particularly in the areas where they bring expertise. When asked why she thinks she’s lasted, Kip said:

There is no such thing as a lone leader. You cannot do it by yourself; nor should you feel ownership over what you do as much as you should relish being a part of the community created by the interdependence of things.

  • Her perspective is not static: “What worked 30 years ago, doesn’t necessarily work today.”
  • Let go of detail… Even if Kip sees things she would do differently (which she admits to, even 30 years later), she lets go of the small stuff and encourages staff members to find their way.
  • Staying true to the big stuff… A founder who finds a way to remain, while letting an organization grow, can gift the organization with the presence of a living, founding ethos. In Kip’s case, she’ll let go of the details but she shines the light on those founding principles that she put in place 30 years ago: respect for homeless women, support of women to be who they are, the importance of volunteerism, and the importance of not relying on funding that will negatively affect the mission. Kip calls this the “articulation of things that shouldn’t change. “

The balance of knowing your strengths and weaknesses and having enough perspective to let go of the small stuff, while being a standard bearer for the critical organizational principles, is a good lesson for those founders hoping to remain affiliated with organizations they care about. By the same token, organizations need to be flexible and create roles for their special visionaries or keepers of the flame. The board and staff of Rosie’s Place have figured this out along the way.

  • Tamara Alvarado

    Great article. I have a question though. How did she pay her bills? I am not trying to be flip. I really do want to know. Most founders actually work for their organizations. I worry about the ones that stay at their organizations longer because they need a source of income. Regardless, this is a great article about keeping the spirit of the “start up” phase alive.