Donating money and volunteering at nonprofits or your favorite charity are wonderful ways to give back to your community, especially during the holiday season. But combining your passions, professional expertise and education? That is paws-itively extraordinary.
After serving for ten years in the U.S. Air Force, Sarah Bergstein, MBA ’21, knows how to take action. After adopting two rescue cats from Morris Animal Refuge, Bergstein wanted to do more—so she decided to use her unique work experience in the Air Force and MBA education to approach volunteering through a business lens with Fox Board Fellows.
In this episode of Catalyst, Bergstein takes us through her journey of leveraging the community engagement experience she gained as a public affairs officer for the Air Force to help her during her MBA program and eventually as a member of the board at her favorite nonprofit. She will offer tips on how anyone can get involved and start creating real change in their communities.
Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business about the pivotal moments that shape business and the global economy. We interview experts and dig deep into today’s most pressing issues. In this season, we’ll interview experts on everything from how hip hop influences consumer behavior to what’s next in artificial intelligence. Episodes are timely, provocative and designed to help you solve today’s biggest challenges. Subscribe today.
- Philly’s own chonky cat may soon have a forever home. Good job, internet.
- Fox Board Fellows
- Mr. B’s Instagram
- Netflix’s Cat People
- Morris Animal Refuge
Host: Welcome to Catalyst, the podcast of Temple University’s Fox School of Business. I’m your host, Tiffany Sumner. There is never a better time to get involved in volunteering and nonprofit work than the season of giving, which is fast approaching. Whether you’re looking to work with your local food bank or, like in the case of our interviewee this week, lending a hand (or a paw) to an animal rescue this episode will [00:001:00] motivate you to get started. Fox MBA alumni Sarah Bergstein joined us to chat about her time working as a board member of the Morris Animal Refuge. Sarah joined the board as part of the Fox Board Fellows Program for graduate students who are matched with a nonprofit organization and become visiting board members. She explained how her background in the U.S. Air Force and passion for animal rescue came together to help her make a difference in her community. She also offers tips for everyone, no matter where they are in their personal or professional journey, to get started creating a positive change in their communities. Sarah, I’m so excited to talk to you today, a fellow cat person. [00:02:00]
Sarah: Awe, thank you and thanks for having me, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Host: So what gave you the idea to partner with an animal rescue as part of your MBA?
Sarah: When I heard about the Fox Board Fellows Program I knew that I was interested in working in animal rescue for that work. Fortunately, as a part of the program, you are able to suggest a nonprofit or the type of work that you would like to do, and in this case, the Fox Board Fellows Program was looking for a way to partner with an animal rescue organization too so I was able to suggest working with Morris Animal Refuge. That was a wonderful partnership because Morris Animal Refuge happens to be one of the oldest animal rescues in America and the oldest in Philadelphia particularly. And so we have worked with them previously, we rescued a cat from them three years ago now at this point and then we rescued a second cat from them two years ago and so it gave me a way to work with them a little bit beyond volunteer work and to actually sit on their board and be a non-voting [00:03:00] member of the board for a couple of months. It was just such a great and wonderful experience I’m glad we got the opportunity to do it.
Host: That’s great and you have such an interesting and multifaceted background. I’m curious how did your experiences in the Air Force help you in your work both in your MBA and with the Fox Board Fellows?
Sarah: So my background in the Air Force is varied. I was stationed in a number of different places, I was on active duty for seven years and I’ve done three years as a reservist. I’m in the public affairs career field and that gave me a lot of opportunities to meet a lot of different people, interact with the communities in every place that I’ve been stationed. I work with every single facet of the Air Force so I get what I like to call a bird’s eye view, it’s essentially like doing public relations for the military, but because we are involved in everything that’s communications based, we get to see a lot of what the Air Force does as a whole. So that experience prepared me in a lot of ways just to have a multi-faceted [00:04:00] look at what we do in the military and it made me very adaptable as a person. Specifically, in wanting to work in animal rescue, I learned a lot about strategy in the Air Force, you know, we take this step and in every location, your station you work with all of the senior leaders, and in some places, your communities sit down and talk about you know where is this base headed in the next five years, ten, years down the line? Then, at a larger level, where is the Air Force headed? So we do a lot of strategy work and a lot of preparation work to be prepared not just for today but for the future as well. So what Morris Animal Refuge—coincidentally what they needed—was someone to sit down and say ok, as a nonprofit, what are we going to be when we grow up? What do we want to be? They had done strategy sessions in the past, but this was something that they were looking to accomplish. It hadn’t been done in about five years and what they really needed was someone to come in and take an unbiased look at the organization and say what are we really good at and what are our weaknesses and what do we want to do for the next five and 10 years going forward. [00:05:00] So it was a natural fit for me, having had experience doing that in my Air Force role in a couple of different places. It felt like a very natural fit for me to sit down and say okay well based on my experience with you know what I’m done, you can apply it to the military, I think we can apply it in this organization too and that’s what I spent my months doing with Morris.
Host: Yeah and that’s such a cool way to get some on-the-job learning through a program like this, is to find those transferable skills or like aptitudes. It sounds like strategy and in terms of communications is really your passion.
Sarah: It’s really a personal passion of mine that I didn’t know I had. We talked a lot about different logistics and organizing things and there’s a lot of stuff that you’re in charge of in the Air Force in a number of different ways but that organization type stuff and that strategy looking forward and saying okay where are we at right now and where we going I actually found through doing that work in [00:06:00 the Air Force and then doing it with the Morris is something that I’m just like oddly personally passionate about too.
Host: And also the cats I’m sure.
Sarah: It helped that it was working with animals. Because I was very passionately interested in working with an animal rescue organization and my partner and I wanted to find ways to maybe volunteer a little bit more with Morris because we love them so much and two of our cats come from them. But we also—this gave me an opportunity to look at the organization from a different lens. I was doing my MBA at the same time which gave me the opportunity to approach Morris from a board-level position so it ran concurrently with my MBA education as well and opened another door for me that I didn’t know was possible. I never thought of myself in my early thirties as having the opportunity to be a board member for a nonprofit but that’s something that I learned is available to so many of us really no matter your age and so it’s just an interesting thing that I didn’t know I could do that I was able to do because I was in my MBA program.
Host: That’s really fantastic [00:07:00] and I think from what I have heard in my experience with the Fox Board Fellow Program is that they’re very smart about how they connect the boards with the students, the MBA students to make sure it is mutually beneficial.
Sarah: Absolutely. They definitely evaluate your interest and I think they take a lot of care to make sure that you were working with an organization that you would care about and so I really love that they open the door for me to be able to suggest to them that this was something that I was passionate about because now they’ve been able to create that relationship through my experience and then they get to continue that on in the next year and have future board fellows who will not only get to work with the Morris going forward and have that Fox Board Fellows and Morris Animal Refuge partnership but that strategy work that I was able to do with them for those months is something that that board fellow can continue to carry on and execute all of the action items that came from that strategy session. So not only were we from the Fox Board Fellows perspective able to provide [00:08:00] the Morris some sort of strategy going forward but now we also are able to help walk through that process of continuing, accomplishing the things that Morris set out to want to achieve so that’s an even cooler thing because it’s like a gift that keeps on giving.
Host: Absolutely. Is it possible for you to talk about some of the strategies or at least some of the things that you accomplished as part of that project?
Sarah: Yes absolutely. I actually spent a majority of my time while I was an active board fellow attending board meetings, interviewing with each of the board committees, figuring out what the problems were that the Morris felt like they were facing, what are some of the challenges, we did a lot of SWOT analysis. I talked to the staff, I got to go and interact with people and really I was in a more of a listening role the entire time I was an active board fellow. On the side, for the board fellows curriculum, I was also doing research about creating a strategy for nonprofits and so I was able to turn out a research report to Morris and give them all of the step-by-step [00:09:00] processes for how to go about conducting a strategy session. The goal that we had set between the Morris president and the executive director and myself as part of the project. By the end of my session and time with Morris as a board fellow, we wanted to be able to give them a schedule to be able to execute that strategy session after I had graduated from the program. So what I was able to do is not only create that report but also evaluate where they were, figure out what some of their goals were going forward, and then also determine what were some of the things that they wanted to cover during that strategy session. Now the bonus and we can talk more about this but a bonus to all of that is once I went through that entire process I graduated from the program and was offered the ability to come and be a part of the Morris board and so that lent itself to me being able to be a part of that strategy session and actually walk through the process and if you would like me to [00:10:00] I can talk more about what that went like because that strategy session just happened about a month ago.
Host: I would love that, please we’re all ears.
Sarah: Yes, so it was a really great experience, oftentimes so now as a reservist in the Air Force you come on orders for like a period of time, you’re essentially like a part-time Air Force member so you come on orders for a period of time you get a bunch of stuff done but then you don’t really ever get to see it to fruition because a lot of times you’re just sort of the planning step and then you’re not on orders long enough to actually see it through so you don’t get the benefit of knowing like how did this engagement go or what was the impact, what’s the data we can collect from what happened. So that’s how I felt going into this strategy planning session. I was like, man, I’m going to get to do all this awesome prep work and then I’m going to graduate and I’m not going to get to see the fruits of what happened. well in an awesome turn of events the board invited me to be an active board member, I accepted that position happily and I was able to sit on the strategy team and host that strategy [00:11:00] session and I’m so proud to say that we hosted it last month, it was a virtual session. This is the first of three sessions that will happen and the board was so lit up. The way that we walked through the session all of the planning and preparation and the interviews that we had done in the data collected allowed for us to all sit down as an organization and zoom out and say okay as a board here’s what we understand that the staff has, doesn’t have, needs and really needs like quickly now how can we go about making that happen today, tomorrow and you know months and years from now. So the first session was amazing. The president, the executive director, the board and the staff all were extremely pleased with how that first session went. So I’m really looking forward to diving into that next session and the one following that and it’s going to be really cool to be able to be there to carry out all of the awesome things that they get to do because of all this planning.
Host: That’s such a fantastic story. So what’s next with your work with the Morris Refuge Center? [00:12:00]
Sarah: I will continue to remain on the strategy team which is something really exciting for me because now when we have our next board fellow to come on this coming semester, I’m going to get to work with that person and so I feel really proud that I’m able to sort of carry on like the Fox name along with this program and that we’ve created this awesome relationship through the Fox School because now we’re going to have some really smart business student come on board with us and we’re going to get to say, hey here’s what we dreamed up when we went through this strategy building session. Now we know from going through the session with all of our board members that this is what we want to accomplish and now that you’re here, board fellow, you’re going to get to help us walk through all those milestones and do all that data analyzation and tracking and metrics capturing so that we can make sure that we’re sticking to the plan that we set for ourselves. So that person is really going to get the fruits of the labor because they’re going to get to see all the cool stuff actually get put into action and I’m really excited for that person—I just can’t wait to have them on board. [00:13:00]
Host: That’s so great. Do you consider yourself to be a mentor?
Sarah: In this capacity, I would say yes. You know, I’ve had a lot of really cool opportunities in the Air Force as an officer to be put in a position of being a leader but I’ve often considered myself a mentor to my young Airman, many of them are either you know just out of a little bit out of high school some of them have some college, many of them remind me of my younger brother and sister. So in a lot of ways, I feel like a mentor on a regular basis within my job and so it’ll be a great transition to have this board fellow on board, too, and just be able to work alongside that person and kind of just like link arms and say hey I remember when I was right where you are and now you’re going to get to come alongside me and you’re going to get to do all this really cool stuff too.
Host: That’s such a great setup for the next question I’m going to ask you, which is; what advice would you give to people in your position, when they want to get involved in the community whether it’s volunteering or something else? [00:14:00]
Sarah: You know I’m always surprised when people come to me and they say you know I don’t have any experience doing X or I’ve never really worked with Y or you know I don’t have the qualifications or the certifications or I don’t know yet know where to get started or I think I have to have some sort of qualifications before I start. I talked about how the catalyst for my nonprofit work is doing the most good where we are and the catch to all of that is you just have to get started. So whether it’s reaching out to somebody on Instagram and just following a post and being involved that way or if it’s sending a donation when you have a little bit of extra money or there’s a volunteer event if you show up to it or there is a way in which you can work at a call center or volunteer your time or donate resources. It doesn’t have to be on a large scale. There are so many little things that every single one of us can do in our own community to make a massive difference and the key to that is it takes all of us doing that little thing whatever it is, [00:15:00] it takes all of us collectively doing our one little part to add up to the whole. Oftentimes, you think you need a lot of money or some sort of status or potentially even some sort of qualification to get started in something that you love but really all that you need to do is just get started. So for us, it’s just creating the most good with the resources that we have at hand right exactly where we are. I can tell you, three to four years ago we didn’t have any of this at our disposal, and when I say we I mean my partner Chris and I. We were not working in cat rescue, we did not have a partnership with Morris Animal Refuge, we had not adopted our two cats from there. I was not in business at the time and so you fast forward all these years later and someone listening to this podcast might say yeah Sarah, that’s great that you have all the stuff all set up, well it didn’t start that way, it didn’t start that way at all. It started with us adopting one cat and then deciding me like that rescue and then fostering a cat and then connecting to rescue and connecting to Morris and then hearing [00:16:00] about the Fox Board Fellow Program. So if you had asked me four years ago if I would have seen this now I would have said no because I couldn’t have envisioned how cool all of this could have turned out. But the key to all of that in the lesson is that you just have to get started, you have to start.
Host: That’s such a great piece of advice and I am sort of curious because it sort of sounds like some of this is just part of your journey, just you exploring things and trying things but what advice would you give to students or alum about combining their passions with their careers?
Sarah: Well I would say firstly that all the lives we’re told to pick a major, pick a focus, pick a niche, there’s even a crafty saying that the riches are in the niches and people love to like talking talk niching down and like picking your thing. Well, I’ve never identified with that all my life. All my life I’ve been a multi-passionate person who loves fitness and nutrition and the military and travel and cats and you know I love them and business—I love a million things [00:17:00] and I want to live a life that’s very wide and experienced and I don’t necessarily care about the depths of i. I don’t really care about being the foremost expert in one thing I want to have lots of different experiences in a lot of different areas and so I think, you know, when it really boils down to it, if you like a lot of different things, figure out a way to maybe major in one of them and minor in another and volunteer in another space and get a part-time job doing something else. In today’s world, we’re doing a lot more and we have a lot more interests and we have a lot more opportunities to explore things. I think you kind of just have to figure out what that thing is that you like and don’t worry about only being one thing because you can do a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. It doesn’t have to be your full-time job and the way you make your primary source of income for your life. It can be a job and a volunteer thing or it can be a side hustle [00:18:00] and like just a passion that you have on the side and I think you just have to not be afraid to—you can’t be afraid like you can’t be afraid that you’re not going to fit neatly enough in some box that has been created for you because I’m here to tell you the box just doesn’t exist.
Host: So I hear you have a pretty famous roommate. Two years ago you adopted the famed Mr. B, an adorable looking cat who went viral because he’s just so large, he was featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Huffington Post, and even broke the Morris website because so many people wanted to adopt him and you brought him home.
Sarah: We actually brought Mr.B home in a dog carrier. So I went to Morris Animal Rescue and I picked him up, the board executive director called while I was in class it was my first like my first week of my MBA and the board president called and he was sitting around the table with the whole staff and he said how would you like to be the proud new owner of a 26-pound catty cat so I ran my butt over to Morris Animal Refuge right after class and they were like oh no [00:19:00] what are you going to take him home in? All we have is like a very large dog crate and I’m like well I think that’s the only thing he’s going to be able to fit in so I think I’m going to have to take it. But he is a very large cat. He’s just as squishy as he seems and he is just such a joy. He brings a lot of happiness to our lives so we just love him to pieces.
Host: What drove you to want to adopt Mr.B?
Sarah: I think it’s the same thing all those three thousand people who adopted him thought when he was up for adoption. It’s the way that woman was holding him in the photo that went viral of him but she was holding him up and his face looked like a mixture of sad and I don’t know confused and just like someone loves me and so there were two different things it was that he was so adorable. It was also that it’s very unhealthy for cats to be at that weight and so there was the part you know I love him and part concerned for his well-being and so you know we put our name in the hats and we were the lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky people to be able to call him ours. [00:20:00]
Host: I do hope that you’ll send us pictures that we can share
Sarah: Oh absolutely just tell me where to send them and they’re on the way!
Host: We will do that. Well good, is there anything that you want to say in closing to Fox students who might sort of want to take a page from your book and kind of like build their own path?
Sarah: Yeah absolutely like I would say there’s no other way about it, you just have to get started and it seems like oh man you already said that you’re just repeating yourself but I feel like I have to really foot stomp that because that’s the barrier that so many of us don’t cross. You can do all the research and you can get a degree or a minor or you can take a course or you can like feel like you need some sort of certification but the thing is, if you just don’t get started in what you know whatever it is you’ll never know how far down that path you can get. If you get started you might figure out that it’s something that you don’t actually like and then you start off setting yourself free from that. But if it’s something that you’re passionate about and you really care about you may as well get started because the time is going to pass anyway and so if you just dive in, you’ll be able to look back like we can now four years later while I’m sitting here having this conversation with you on a podcast and say thank God we just got started because who knew that it was going to be this awesome.
Host: And it’s not just Mr.B at home, you foster several cats. So what’s it like living with your growing family of cats and how do you keep the peace?
Sarah: They are the biggest joy of our lives and my favorite part of my day with our cats is waking up in the morning every single one of them has the sweetest little sleepy face and they start off the morning bringing us so much joy, we laugh every morning when we’re with them and really they just they make us better people and so they’re my pride and joy, we love them so much and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Host: Sarah thank you for joining me and indulging me with stories about your kitties. With all of Sarah’s success in her career and nonprofit work, she offers simple advice on how to make positive changes in your community. The first step is just to get started. As Sarah mentioned, try to do the most good with the resources you have, where you are, whether you use a business education to help shape the future for cats, organize a neighborhood cleanup or anything else you have in mind, just dive in. You might look back and be surprised by all you have accomplished. For those wondering you can follow Mister be on Instagram as he lives his best life with Sarah at Chunkymrb. Get more information about the Fox Board Fellows program at Fox.Temple.edu/FBF and check out the upcoming issue of Fox Focus, our alumni magazine to read more about Sara’s story.
Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Visit us on the web at fox.temple.edu/catalyst. We are produced by Milk Street Marketing, Megan Alt, Anna Batt and Karen Naylor. I hope you’ll join us next time. Until then, I’m Tiffany Sumner and this is Catalyst.