Motherly @ Work features the stories and insights of modern women growing their careers—and their families.
Corinne Cannon is one of those mamas.
Once in a while you come across someone who inspires you in so many ways. In all the ways, really: to be a better mother, a better businessperson and a better human being. Corinne Cannon is one of those people.
As a mother of three, Corinne has a lot on her plate. And yet, she’s founded and grown a nonprofit organization called the DC Diaper Bank that helps mothers during a critical time in their lives by providing free diapers and other social services. Thirty percent of American mothers cannot afford to buy enough diapers for their babies—which not only impacts their children’s wellness, but also mama’s self-esteem as well. The DC Diaper bank, which has been featured on CNN and NBC, recently handed out their 4 millionth diaper to families in the Washington, DC, area.
That’s a lot of baby bums!
It all begs the question: what motivates someone to give of their time, energy and money to help others? And more than that, what is needed to create an organization that is sustainable, growing and meeting its core values?
Corinne recently took the time to answer a few questions about how it all happened, and what she credits with her success: the village she created from within.
How did you first get the idea to start DC Diaper Bank?
Corinne Cannon: I’ve had a few moments in my life that were complete turning points. The idea for DC Diaper Bank was one of them.
My first son was a difficult baby and I had many nights with him where he cried for what seemed like hours. When he was around four or five months old we were up at 3am and he was crying inconsolably—I had tried everything and nothing was working. I remember having an overwhelming urge to throw him against the wall—it was terrifying. I went and woke up my husband and tagged out.
As I lay in bed sobbing I thought, “Oh, this is how child abuse happens.”
Here I had all the support in the world—enough money, an incredible support system of family and friends, a planned pregnancy, a stable and loving relationship—and we were still struggling.
That night I started thinking about other mothers—mothers who did not have someone to go wake up, mothers who didn’t have enough money, mothers who might not have planned to have a baby—and I started wondering what was happening to those women emotionally. I did a lot of research before coming to diapers and I often say DC Diaper Bank has nothing to do with diapers, rather it’s about supporting families to ensure they have what they need to thrive with their children.
I often say DC Diaper Bank has nothing to do with diapers. Rather it’s about supporting families to ensure they have what they need to thrive with their children.
How does DC Diaper Bank help new parents?
Corinne Cannon: Raising new people is the hardest job in the world when everything is going well. It’s nearly impossible when you’re also worried about how your family will eat tomorrow and where they will sleep. We provide diapers and other hygiene essentials to families in the DC metro area—120,000 diapers to over 4,000 families a month.
We call diapers “gateway resources” because a mom who won’t reach for food or medical attention will reach out for diapers and in reaching out she gets connected to a social service agency that offers a range of other services and supports.
When did you know that you needed to hire outside help?
Corinne Cannon: I think I knew we needed outside help from day one! I started DC Diaper Bank when I was working full time and had a one-year-old. I called it my “8pm-midnight” job! I did that for the first 2.5 years and then my husband and I realized something had to give.
I quit my paying job and started doing DC Diaper Bank full time in 2013 and realized soon after that we needed more folks involved. From the get go I’ve had the support of literally hundreds of volunteers who have made a huge difference in our impact and work.
But we needed another person who was ‘on the clock’ and thinking about this work with me. In 2015 we started to pay me a small salary and we took a financial leap and hired a part-time Program Manager—the difference between just me and me plus one other person working 15 hours a week was mind boggling! We accomplished light years more than I ever could!
How do you determine who to hire?
Corinne Cannon: I had it easy—we’ve hired three people and all of them came to us as volunteers first! I think the biggest thing I look for when hiring is, does the person understand what we’re trying to accomplish. If you understand the mission and the culture we’re trying to create the rest can come.
During the hiring process, what would you say are the most important questions to ask?
Corinne Cannon: I think the biggest question to ask is: what does someone want to get out of the position? I ask a lot of our employees—I ask for time and passion, energy and ideas, mundane tasks and customer service—and I think that if you’re going to give all that you must get something equal in return. What energizes you? What do you want to learn that is not even remotely in your job description?
What are the most important personality attributes for a new employee to have?
Corinne Cannon: Openness. The ability to ask for help. Knowing what they know and knowing what they don’t know.
What are the challenges of delegating?
Corinne Cannon: I think the biggest challenge for me is the follow up—like the rest of the world I sometimes think that merely asking someone to do something means it’s accomplished!
What has bringing in help and “letting go” allowed you and your organization to achieve?
Corinne Cannon: Where to begin? So much of the organization lived in my head for so long—what we could become, what we should be doing—and as we added staff and those conversations moved out of my head and into the world they changed and got better.
For me it’s not ‘letting go’ it’s ‘letting collaboration work’.
It’s bouncing ideas off and then crafting something better together. We’re helping more families, raising more dollars, educating more people about this need and growing the amount of items we stock.
What does building a solid team provide?
Corinne Cannon: It provides beautiful peace of mind. If I’ve done anything right with this organization, I’ve hired exceptional people. I’ve been walking around so happy lately for a simple reason—if I were to die tomorrow I know that DC Diaper Bank would carry on and continue to do amazing work because we’ve built a solid team. Plus it’s fun to work with people you like and trust!
Personally, do you struggle with knowing you could do a task “better” or “faster”?
Corinne Cannon: I don’t anymore. I think I realized early on that while there are many things I could do faster, at least at first, I can’t do them all and I can’t do them all plus more. If you want to grow something you have to share the work freely. Doing this also allows me to focus on the areas I actually can do faster or better and the ones I can’t but need to learn.
How does being a mother affect the way you run your business?
Corinne Cannon: I think, and hope, that it’s made me a far better manager.
Having children re-prioritizes your life in a beautifully brutal way—what matters becomes crystal clear.
I love what I do, I love who I work with, and I love the community we’re helping to build—both for the families who receive our diapers and the families who volunteer with us. But it needn’t be the most important thing in my life or the others who work there—we can do this work and do it well without it taking over our lives.
Is there any one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring lady bosses?
Corinne Cannon: Determine what you want to accomplish—what change do you want to make—and then do the research to determine how to do it in the most effective and efficient way.
Often times the answer is simpler than we think but not always the answer we want.
I’ve had many women come to me who want to start nonprofits and my first question is always “What do you want to accomplish?” Once they answer, my second question is usually, “Have you spoken to nonprofit X who is doing the exact work you are hoping to do?”
What does “motherly” mean to you?
Corinne Cannon: In my mind, “motherly” has always meant stable and kind. And, as I get older, I also see those things as sexy! For me there is something incredibly attractive about those who are constant and caring—in a world that sometimes seems to have lost its center, we need more folks righting the ship and that takes consistency and kindness.