Nonstop Nonprofit

Turning nonprofit innovation into action

Episode Summary

Melissa Vine · Executive Director, Beacon of Life | Melissa Vine is an entrepreneur, licensed mental health counselor, JD candidate, and nonprofit ED at Beacon of Life—basically, a changemaker in every sector!

Episode Notes

Today, we're talking in paradoxes: The secret to transparency, why nonprofits are twice the businesses that for-profits are, and the reason nonprofits need to choose donors carefully—instead of the other way around.

And to help shed light on these opposite viewpoints, we've got Melissa Vine in the house! Melissa is an entrepreneur, licensed mental health counselor, JD candidate, and nonprofit ED at Beacon of Life—basically, a changemaker in every sector!

I've long evangelized for nonprofit innovation and transparency—if you've listened to this podcast or read my LinkedIn, I probably sound like a broken record! But this message bears repeating because it's central to the growth of our sector... which means that these topics are the key to infinite nonprofit impact.

Melissa shows that these principles aren't all talk—in her first year as ED of Beacon of Life, she overhauled policies and programming, reduced investment in low-ROI efforts, and nearly doubled donations. And then she put that money back into her team in the form of raised compensation, advanced training, and increased diversity. The result? Donors who know what their donations fund, a strategic, radically transparent team, and clients who've been impacted in significantly expanded ways.

Listen in as Melissa and I discuss method and mindset and turning ideas into action.

Episode Transcription

Hello, I'm Justin Wheeler, and welcome to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit!

Today, I'm talking in paradoxes: The secret to transparency, why nonprofits are twice the businesses that for-profits are, and the reason nonprofits need to choose donors carefully—instead of the other way around.And to help shed light on these opposite viewpoints, we've got Melissa Vine in the house! Melissa is an entrepreneur, licensed mental health counselor, JD candidate, and nonprofit ED at Beacon of Life—basically, a changemaker in every sector!

I've long evangelized for nonprofit innovation and transparency—if you've listened to this podcast or read my LinkedIn, I probably sound like a broken record! But this message bears repeating because it's central to the growth of our sector... which means that these topics are the key to infinite nonprofit impact.

Melissa shows that these principles aren't all talk—in her first year as ED of Beacon of Life, she overhauled policies and programming, reduced investment in low-ROI efforts, and nearly doubled donations. And then she put that money back into her team in the form of raised compensation, advanced training, and increased diversity. The result? Donors who know what their donations fund, a strategic, radically transparent team, and clients who've been impacted in significantly expanded ways.

Listen in as Melissa and I discuss method and mindset and turning ideas into action.


Justin Wheeler Melissa, thank you so much for joining the Nonstop Nonprofit podcast! Super excited to have you on to talk about transparency and the bold move you took recently to help eliminate sort of the pay inequity in the nonprofit space. And we're going to dove into that as sort of the main theme today. But before we do, you have quite an impressive background working in the nonprofit space. And so would love if you could just share with our listeners a little bit more about yourself and what you do in the space.

Melissa Vine Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me here. And so my backgrounds are a little bit on the personal side. And I grew up in a very insular environment and I got married very young and owned businesses with my ex-husband. We had four children. I was a stay-at-home mom and I was homeschooling those children in a very kind of fundamentalist religious environment. Right. And as I had a paradigm shift in life and I chose to get out of that relationship, there was domestic violence in there and I just, like my whole world, turned upside down. And I began going to therapy and I became so interested in it that I decided I want to become a therapist myself. And so I got a master's in mental health counseling. And I went overnight from being wealthy and well respected in my social circles to being at the bottom right. So I was in poverty. I lost most of my friends because I wasn't living in accordance with these rules anymore. And so that experience fundamentally changed me as a person, because prior to that, I thought I knew the rules to living and I thought I was following them well. And then all of a sudden I was at the bottom and experienced that. The trauma and the just the experience of not having people respect you in your circles and asking myself those hard questions, where does my value come from? What am I doing in life? And so began working as well as in grad school. I was a victim advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and then worked as a therapist for a few years after finishing that. But I'm learning about myself that I'm a systems thinker and then I needed to go further out on that social-psychological model. So I began the position of executive director at a nonprofit here in Des Moines, Iowa, just over a year ago. And in the meantime, during all this time, I did start two businesses and I sold both of them. And then I began working as a professional speaker and trainer as well on issues related to organizational health when it comes to specifically mental health. And so I've had a few different things going. And then here recently was offered a full-tuition scholarship to Drake Law School. So I'm a full-time nonprofit director and a full-time law school student because the systemic issues that I see. Some of them, I think I need JD to be at the table to make some changes there. So I have a lot of different things going in my life. I but I have a lot of great boundaries in place and that's kind of where I got how I got to here. 

Justin Wheeler Wow. Well, thank you. Yeah. Thank you for, for sharing all of that. It's usually common in the nonprofit space that individuals wear lots of hats and that is definitely the case for you. It sounds like you're doing some pretty amazing things. And actually, one of the things I came across that when as I was learning a little bit more about your background in your bio, you recently and this is the thing during the pandemic at the start of the pandemic, please correct me if I'm wrong there, but if you looked at sort of the organizational expenses and found items in the budget that didn't necessarily have a strong return, and instead you rerouted those funds to help pay your team a bit more, which I absolutely love. So could you talk a little bit about that sort of that exercise you went through and why you decided to do it at the timing that you chose to take place on that.

Melissa Vine Absolutely. So, as I said, my background is more in initially in the business world. And so when I came into the nonprofit space, I had a lot of questions. I'm like, why do we expect more of nonprofit workers and pay them less for it? There's this kind of nonprofit guilt that people who work in nonprofit, well you should just work really hard and not expect much more because you're doing good things right. I say let's turn that around the other way around. If you're doing more emotionally intense labor, let's compensate you better for that, right? So also, just from a strictly employee retention and employee satisfaction place, paying people well and allowing them to be who humans outside of just workers, is really great for the long term success of an organization and that works in the nonprofit space, just as it would in the business space. So we had some things on our financials that then yeah, the ROI just isn't wasn't there. We had a social enterprise, an upscale store and it had been losing money for a while and probably wasn't going to be rebounding, especially in light of a global pandemic. We also had some staff members that maybe weren't able to contribute to the mission of who we are as an organization. And doing some of that organizational strategic planning really helped us to narrow in on what our mission is and ensure that the expenses we're putting toward that mission directly impact it. So we were able to cut a significant amount of our expenses, just by asking some hard questions and having some hard conversations,

Justin Wheeler And so when you think about cutting expenses and thinking about building an organization and a team more aligned sort of towards its mission, what sort of role does overhead versus program play sort of in your strategic planning as a leader? It sounds like you mentioned that you have a for-profit background, which is great. And I'm sure you've experienced and have found that work in the nonprofit space with some of these sort of manmade financial ratios to operate an organization aren't obviously the most sustainable. So we'd love to hear a little bit about as you're as a leader in the space, a little bit more of what you think about overhead and as it relates to the ratios of overhead versus program.

Melissa Vine And if I'm being totally transparent, I don't spend a lot of time regularly looking at those specific calculations. I guess I ask broader questions about is each of the positions that we have in this program and the tasks that the person with that position is doing, does it contribute to the mission that we've decided is the mission of who we are as an organization? I mean, I think we always want to see the world in binary terms and we want to be able to say, is this a program expense or is this an overhead expense? And I just don't think it, I don't think you can really calculate it out as neatt and cleanly as we like to think that we do? And so I guess I look at a bigger picture of how are we accomplishing what we've set out to accomplish. Does the data reflect that our clients are experiencing success? and is the well-being of our staff qualitatively and quantitatively, how is that looking? You know, a nonprofit is essentially like two businesses. It's in the business world, the work that you do generates the income for the business. But in the nonprofit world, the work that you do does not, in general, generate income. So you're running almost like another business that has to generate income to pay for the work that the nonprofit is doing. And so that just makes it different when you're looking at what expenses really make sense and what ones don't.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, absolutely. And I love that, it's actually the first time I've heard someone kind of describe a nonprofit being two separate sort of business basically operations. Right from the fundraising and the programs and how those two don't necessarily know how at least programs doesn't drive revenue in the traditional sense. So that's super interesting and I really like that analogy there. As it relates to, and totally agree with, it's less about how much we're spending on X, Y and Z, and it's more about what are the results we're trying to drive has as an organization and are the things that we're doing the absolute best way to do it to get to that end state? So I love that way of thinking, thinking about impact, thinking about scale versus, you know, arbitrary financial positions. Recently I noticed that you did something pretty bold and it was around compensation, transparency on the team. And you posted about this experiment or this exercise you went through recently with your own organization. So would you mind sharing a little bit more about what exactly you did and what led you to actually do that thing?

Melissa Vine Well, as long as I share a bit of my background and, you know, there is quite a bit of stuff in there. And I think through all of this journey, what I have learned is that authentic relationships are really what it's about. And in both personal and professional relationships, being real about who you are and what your goals are. And I think as an organization, when we have these hidden pieces of our relationships within an organization, it's damaging to the organization. And so that this move toward transparency, it was scary, like I'm not going to lie. It was awkward. I'm like, how am I going to do this? Even when I first started wrestling with it, with my staff and my board, I'm like, this feels really uncomfortable. But I mean, I've always been a huge promoter as a therapist and as a person that authenticity and transparency with boundaries is a good thing for everyone. And so when we had our semiannual reviews, I gave people a heads up. I'm going to be making a spreadsheet, I'm going to put everybody's pay on it. I'm going to stay where you were when I started a year ago and where you are now. And then what the industry averages in our location for this particular position. And I'm going to talk about where each person that and why, and then I'm going to give you a copy of it to take home with you. And you can look at it, you can ask me questions. And it was awkward. There's no way to sugarcoat that is just not something people typically talk about. But we did it and I think everyone seems grateful for it and this not this thing. Like we can talk about pay and people can advocate for themselves and and it's not, it doesn't have to be this hidden, secretive thing.

Justin Wheeler So you utilize sort of your annual or biannual reviews as an opportunity to bring more transparency around compensation to the team. And you mentioned, you know, it was a bit awkward. There's no sugarcoating it. You know, when someone sees what they're making and whether it's more or less than somebody else, and so initially, how did your team respond to this? Like did they did they appreciate the transparency? Was did they feel like it was overly transparent, whether some people who didn't want their pay to be publicized to the rest of the company would love to hear sort of just how you navigated the team through this process as well.

Melissa Vine Now, I didn't have anyone verbalized any resistance to it. What I experienced was a bit of relief and gratitude. Was at the end of every conversation about it, people express gratitude. Because we were able to have such a just such a healthy conversation around pay. And, you know, historically, we know that white people and men are more likely to be paid more than women and people of color. And so right here is an opportunity for if someone sees that I'm that there's some pay inequity happening, and I'm discriminating against someone, they can see it right there on the paper and lead a conversation about that. And so and that's really important to me, that as a leader that I can be held accountable for the choices that I make.

Justin Wheeler Absolutely. And do you see this as a bigger problem in the nonprofit industry? You think about nonprofits and what they're designed to do is they're designed to eliminate problems, not to that make problems worse. And so do you see this? Do you see the nonprofit space as being an opportunity where there's potentially this inequity could be challenged? And if so, is it an overwhelmingly big problem in nonprofits today?

Melissa Vine So, yes, I do think this is a huge problem in the nonprofit space, and it's a bit antithetical to have a mission that is about empowering people. For example, in our case, our mission is about empowering women in crisis, right? And so if we are helping our clients who have come from a background of incarceration, domestic violence and trauma, we're trying to help them get on their feet and come out of poverty, yet I'm paying my entry-level employees a poverty wage that's inconsistent. And I think that this happens a lot in the nonprofit world. And, you know, it's difficult to raise funds and it's difficult to get grants. And so when you're working on a budget that you had to work so hard to get, it's tempting to try to squeeze as much juice out of everything and every person that you can. But I would advocate for a smaller, more strategic staff that is paid, compensated better, and you ask less of them as far as hours worked and job duties, and you'll find that they'll work better and they'll stay longer. So in the end, it actually takes less work to do this, because I'm not constantly hiring new people and experiencing frustration among the staff because people aren't able to do their jobs.

Justin Wheeler Well, absolutely. And I I love that, that approach and that focus. I think so many workers in the nonprofit space experience burn out faster because there's obviously a lot of passion in the nonprofit space. I spent 12 years working, starting and running nonprofit organizations and people come very passionate and excited for a cause. But as they get overworked and underpaid, these things start to compound and really start to chip away and are what I've seen at least, are catalysts to burnout in the nonprofit space. So focusing on retention and taking care of your employees, I think it's for whatever reason, seems somewhat of a taboo conversation in the nonprofit space, because we have because we like to focus on sort of the impact and the problems that we're solving as an organization and feel like the rest isn't as important. But I love that what you're doing is you have an important mission and you're committed to that mission and you want to do it to the best of your ability, but not at the expense of not taking care of your team. And I think that that's really important. And so that kind of leads me to my next question here. As a licensed mental health counselor, what relationship, if any, exists between an individual's compensation and their own mental health? Do these two things, is there any sort of correlation between these two things? Would love any sort of thoughts you have around that?

Melissa Vine Yeah, I think there are in a couple of ways. I mean, first of all, when you're in poverty or when you're being underpaid, I've experienced that firsthand, not only do you have the increase in emotional energy that it requires to figure out how you're going to pay your bills, how you're going to meet the needs of you and your family, but also that when you need to take those self-care, like, let's say maybe you need to take a little weekend vacation or you can really use just ordering pizza on a Friday night, but you don't have the funds to do that or you feel guilty about spending money on those things. It can directly impact your mental health because you feel undervalued as a worker, but it can also indirectly impact your mental health because of the extra pressure and stress that it puts on your personal financial situation. And as someone who experienced poverty now, I can't relate with those who experienced generational poverty, that's a whole nother level. But the poverty I experience for that period of time in my life, I learned a lot about the impact of I can't do some of the things I'm used to doing. But there's also how that feels about your value as a person and your sense of self-worth when you're the person who's standing in line to get the scholarship so that your kids go to the pool over the summer or something like that, like it has an impact on how you feel about yourself as a person. And one of the other challenges from a mental health perspective in the nonprofit world is, in an ideal nonprofit, you are trying to work yourself out of a job. My end goal is that there are no longer women in trauma that are needing a transitional home to live in and needing support services to get back on their feet. That is very different from a business that wants to grow, grow, grow. So we want to grow as a nonprofit up to the point when we are no longer need. And because I think there's sometimes an unhealthy relationship in the nonprofit world with needing to be needed, right? Like the world needs me because I'm providing the service. Sometimes we forget that we're actually supposed to be working ourselves out of a job. And I think sometimes that will cause us to make choices that require the community to keep needing our services as opposed to making decisions that would make us eventually obsolete.

Justin Wheeler Totally. Yeah, I think that that sort of authenticity in terms of accomplishing the mission and moving on and, you know, not just sticking around to have a job, I think that's super interesting and it's unique, as you mentioned. Because it feels like it conflicts with growth and scale. But at the same time, growth and scale can help you accomplish your mission faster and help more people faster. And so how do you know when you've accomplished your mission? Because it's you're working on a big issue. You're working on something that's been around for a long time. And so how do you know when you have accomplished it and when it's time to move on.

Melissa Vine I think we have a little ways to go yet. But one of the challenges is that in this space, I feel like I've got a bucket and my staff has a bucket and we're trying to empty water out of a boat that sinking. And we're working really hard and we're keeping the boat from sinking, but yet we're not getting all the water out either. And then all of a sudden, I realize one day, you know, there's holes in the boat right? And so until we get to fix the holes, we're probably going to keep struggling with this, which is why I decided to go back to school and get my law degree, because I'm like, there's some things that a systemic level and that probably need to change before we can truly fix this issue of people growing up with systemic oppression have negatively impacted their lives. So, I mean, I'm an optimistic person. I want to believe that someday they'll be equity in the world and there won't be these issues. And I and I do work toward that end, but also the realistic perspective that there's a lot of work yet to be done. But I'm here for it.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, well, no, I mean, you're not only here for it, but you're also in many ways, I mean, that's just how I came across the work that you're doing was through just the awareness that you're bringing to this particular issue. And so I'd love to look at, for organizations that are guilty of pay inequity and thinking, wow, this sort of transparency would help really bridge the gap and make us more accountable. But at the same time, they're like, well, we know there's pay inequity here. So if we publish this, what sort of trouble are we going to get in our how is it going to impact any thoughts around helping leaders who want to take a step, who want to be more transparent? But maybe by doing so, the optics of it might actually reflect pretty negatively, which maybe that's good because it will kick them in the ass to do something different. So, you know, the question here is at what stage in an organization's journey would you recommend this type of transparency around pay so that pushes the industry forward together? What's just your general thoughts around that?

Melissa Vine Now, that's a great question. I think that I first did some work to ensure that the pay that people were getting, that I felt good. I could feel good about that as a leader. From when I started in this nonprofit until one year later when we did these reviews with the pay transparency, there was an average pay increase of forty-three percent of my entry and mid-level employees compared to a national average of three to five percent. So we're talking some major changes in the actual pay of the employees. I wanted to make sure that no one was making less than a living wage. So, you know, that our full-time employees were at minimum fifteen dollars an hour and that our salaried staff were making at or above the industry standard. So I did some work on the back end first to, and in over this year to write preparing to be able to provide those increases in pay so that when I presented this sheet to our staff, I can feel good about, hey, this is good and this is right. And then I feel comfortable sharing this with the staff. And so that was kind of that first step and I will say to all that sheet, I listed the average pay for that job, but there were some jobs that the average pay was less than a living wage. And so I said, here's why these people are getting more than the average pay. It's because I don't think anyone should work here for less than a living wage. So then there was some explanation around that as well. But in regard to the other positions, it was pretty clear that they were at or right above that industry average. And so I think a leader needs to do some of that work, some research on what is equitable, maybe when even you have a consultant, if you need some support on that. But there's some really great websites out there like and some others that helped her to understand what that pay could look like. If you work with other nonprofits in your area and you want to just ask them, see if they'd be willing to have a conversation about that. I think that's a good first step. But yeah, do your own research and back work before you present things to the staff. They'll be in a rush to do it and have it be sloppy or cause more stress or problems. And then if you would have done some work on it first.

Justin Wheeler No, that's great advice and great feedback around preparing and getting to a point where it makes sense to kind of have those conversations. I imagine your staff is a lot happier today than they were six, eight months ago. I mean, have you seen this contribute to their own happiness, know their own work ethic as it relates to sort of these things that you've you've changed within the organization?

Melissa Vine Yeah, I mean, I think out both the qualitative and quantitative level, just asking them how they're feeling and the feedback I'm getting qualitatively is indicating that there's a higher level of satisfaction, but also quantitatively. We can measure what our turnover is. Our turnover has been significantly down this year compared to the year prior, and that makes a huge difference in the stability of our organization when I don't have to keep hiring and interviewing and training and talking to the accountant to get new people with HR and onboard. All of the things that you have to do when you have staff turnover. It does. It allows us to focus more on our mission because we're not down in the weeds, kind of put the team together constantly.

Justin Wheeler Totally.  There's a huge hidden cost in high turnover amongstt employees that, you know, to an extent where significant raises, increases just help offset sort of that unnecessary, hidden, hidden cost. A lot of organizations when they think about sort of their operating expenses, specifically salaries and making those public, the question that could come up is, well, if our donors see this, they think someone's getting paid too high. Is it going to discourage them from donating to our organization? Have you seen this impact sort of your own donor community? Any feedback that you'd provide around that aspect of it?

Melissa Vine Well, I'm pretty transparent about our mission and how we go about that mission, right, Trauma-informed care, equity-centered, evidence-based practice. And so our donors tend to be more in line with that kind of work, just kind of that cutting-edge, evidence-based practice. And so those folks tend to also be supportive of healthy work environments and adequately compensated staff. And if they're not, this might not be the right place for them to donate anyway, because they probably are going to like the other things I'm doing either so, there's this move toward pay transparency is consistent with the other types of leadership decisions and the way that I run this organization in general. And so we don't need to have everybody be a donor, just the ones that are in line with the way that the mission that we have and the way that we go about accomplishing it.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, I love that. I mean, I actually just wrote about this recently, talking about not every donor is your donor. And what I mean by that is, like you as the executive director, understand more than anybody, better than anybody what is needed to succeed at your mission right? And of course, the board and other people come along and support that and provide help where it's needed. But the vision really comes from the executive level, in my experience, and sort of the belief and knowledge of what it takes. And so donors aligned to that versus you aligning to donors, I just love, I think that approach is so important and more nonprofits leaders and fundraisers really need to heed to that because it's what builds, helps build an amazing organization with a strong impact. As we kind of wrap up here, one final question. And it's around mental health. And so a little bit of a departure from pay equity. But as I would be remiss to not ask you this question, as a licensed mental therapist, I would love your thoughts on this past 18 months, especially for those working in the nonprofit industry, has been a grueling 18 months. So any advice that you have for executive directors, nonprofit leaders who are thinking about we really need to ensure and focus on the mental health of our team. This is becoming a more important topic today than ever before. We're seeing more conversation around this, and so I'd love to see if there's any advice you'd have to offer executive directors as they think about taking care of their own team during this unprecedented time that we've we've all been living in.

Melissa Vine Yeah, that's a great question. So our tendency when we experience stress or when we're afraid, maybe about our freedom, about our organization success or our future as an organization or how we look to the community. Our tendency is to want to control. And so that's where the pay inequity often begins. And that's where some of our other organizational struggles begin, is that the leadership is desiring to control the staff and control the clients as opposed to connect with them. And so I think when I feel in myself that desire to control a staff member or a client or control how the board perceives us, I have to step back a bit and ask myself, what am I afraid of? And that's a hard question to ask and to sit in the answer with that can be pretty psychologically uncomfortable, but I think that's a really important place for us to go is a lot of our nonprofits are led through fear and control. And I just don't think that's a healthy environment. So, for example, one of the things we do here is we have unlimited paid time off. So I don't keep track of how or when or how many hours a staff works or exactly what hours or when they're taking time. I mean, they let me know when they're going to be taking time off and kind of what their general schedule is. But I'm just asking the question, are they getting the tasks done that are assigned to them? Are they experiencing success in that role and in accomplishing those things? And how can I support them? And are you doing well? How are you doing? Or are you feeling good or are you feeling healthy? What do you need? How can I support you? That's my focus, not did you get your 40 hours in? How much PTO time do you have left? And I'm more likely to ask in on my staff's case if they're not taking time off than if they are taking too much time off. So just some of those things is a way I'm letting go of control and letting them be humans and tell me what they need and allow me to support them.

Justin Wheeler That's super helpful and makes a lot of sense. I mean, no one likes to be controlled. And in fact, when we feel like we're being controlled, I do think it brings a sense of insecurity about your future, about whatever it might be, in whatever context we're dealing with. And so by giving people more control over their life, their time, their resources inevitably makes for a better, happier life. And so I can see that the different things that you've mentioned, whether it's in PTO and things like that, how that helps people kind of recenter them being in charge of their life, their time, right? Because at the end of the day, that's what you want. So that's awesome. And I think too, one of the things I think about, as I thought about our company, we went full remote as a result of the pandemic. And it made me actually think about work-life balance in a very different way. Work-life balance was always like there's a set time for work and there's a set time for family and life. What I love about being at home is it's kind of all blended. And for me it feels a lot healthier. Meaning if I want to go have lunch with my kids, I can easily do that and not be worried about missing an hour of work, right? So I also see kind of like the work-life balance shifting away from like a set time in the day of when you work and when you don't, versus it just being more blended, more of a hybrid sort of experience. But yeah, that's something I've noticed has been helpful.

Melissa Vine I think that to can depend on the person, right? So for me, I have to really keep them separate or else I don't feel healthy, like I don't have my work email on my phone. And so I don't do work when I'm at home and when I'm at work, I'm trying to avoid personal things. So for me, I have to have that separation. And then, like for someone like you, you feel healthier when you have that blending. And again, it goes back to this piece where I'm not going to try to control what feels healthy, what I think should be a healthy work environment. If you worked for me, you'd get to come to me and say, hey, actually this is what helps me to be my best self. And I'd be like, that's awesome. I support that.

Justin Wheeler Awesome. Well, it sounds like to be an employee on your team would be a great experience. And so thank you, Melissa, so much for sharing just your wisdom and what you've been going through here on the Nonstop Nonprofit podcast. I know it's going to be extremely helpful and we're excited to get this out and to share it, because I think more leaders need to definitely take this advice and really apply it to their organization. So thank you for spending time with us today.

Melissa Vine Well, thank you so much for having me. It's been great to talk with you.

Justin Wheeler Absolutely. Have a great day.

Melissa Vine You too.


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