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"Top 10 Lessons I've Learned" Advice from Adoption Network Cleveland Founder and Executive Director of 35 Years

photo by Sarah Elizabeth Greer

In wrapping up the celebration of our 35th anniversary, we embarked on a reflective journey with Betsie Norris, founder and Executive Director of Adoption Network Cleveland. With a wealth of experience garnered over three and a half decades of leadership, Betsie generously shares her top ten lessons learned in steering the course of an organization dedicated to advocacy, education, and support for those impacted by adoption. Join us in exploring the invaluable wisdom gained from Betsie's journey, where every lesson serves as a beacon for future changemakers in the ever-evolving landscape of adoption support and reform. Photo by Sarah Elizabeth Greer.


   1. We are all in this together and it takes all of us to find solutions.

Many solutions come from greater understanding and sharing – secrecy has been powerful in adoption, leading to a lack of understanding and even fear. We can learn a lot from each other and create sustainable solutions. There is no need for isolation and polarization. 

   2. Listen 

In many ways, our first 35 years have been a listening project. In the early years, I answered the phone and heard, over and over, the unmet needs – those themes developed our programs. New and evolving themes help us grow and sustain our new and evolving programs.  

   3. Nurture new leaders  

They say, “it takes a village,” and I agree. When we first got started, I watched groups in the adoption support and reform realm. Some revolved around one person. It hampered their growth and effectiveness, and when that person burned out or moved on, the groups dissolved. My goal has always been to build an organization that will long outlive my tenure here. Shared leadership is essential in all stages of organizational development.  

   4. Nurture new activists 

I always say, “I set out to change the world – at least our little corner of it.” While one person can drive change, for it to be effective and sustainable takes a lot of people, a lot of voices. I love mentoring new leaders and activists, and one of the many rewarding parts of doing this work for so long is that I have seen countless people grow and blossom, going from student to changemaker, and from docile to outspoken.  

   5. Take calculated risks 

Taking risks and pushing past your comfort level are necessary if you want to be in it for the long haul. Find the sweet spot between flaming out and complacency – you don’t want to be at either end of that spectrum. Be strategic.   

   6. Lean into opportunities 

Over the years, so much of our growth has been leaning into opportunities when they arise. A prime example is Adoption Network Cleveland agreeing to be the lead organization for the Adopt Cuyahoga’s Kids Initiative in 2003. What started with being asked to join a large task force led to a group of Cleveland leaders requesting that Adoption Network Cleveland take on the leadership of a multi-million-dollar project. With an annual budget at the time of $220,000 and 3.5 staff positions, I worried the board might think I was crazy even to consider it, but as above, take calculated risks.  

   7. Change can take a long time 

Haha, we can say that again! Who knew that getting Ohio to change the law about an adoptee's ability to access their own original birth certificate would take over 25 years? I’ve seen lots of ideas come and go, and often, things are two steps forward and one step back, but things are moving in the right direction, even if it is not as quickly as we would like.  

   8. Be flexible! 

Things do not always work out the way you imagine, but the most unexpected things can bring with them opportunities. A prime example is the pandemic lockdown turning our world upside down. But it also forced the opportunity to offer virtual programming, which we had talked about for years but never accomplished. Now, we serve a national and international audience in many of our programs.  

   9. The future is filled with possibility 

I’m filled with optimism.  

   10. Speak into the microphone! 

Both literally and figuratively.