Executive directors share their advice and experiences

October 6 was the opening session of the fifth Executive Director Academy (EDA) at JVA Consulting. An expert panel of executive directors from a diverse selection of organizations was invited to discuss issues ranging from organizational growth, partnerships, collaboration, best practices and partnerships. The panelists included Jeff Lamontagne of Second Wind Fund, Susan Jenson of Downtown Aurora Visual Arts, Janine D’Anniballe of Mental Health Center of Boulder and Broomfield Counties, Nita Gonzales of Escuela Tlatelolco and Kay Ramachandran of Urban Peak. Here are some of the highlights.

When asked about the steady growth that the Second Wind Fund has experienced, Lamontagne said he partly attributes this to keeping it simple and avoiding drifts from the organization’s mission. He also commented that an executive director should get out from behind the desk and work to create opportunities that will promote the growth of the organization.

Jenson was asked about the successful partnerships with school districts and city government that Downtown Aurora Visual Arts has forged. She said that it was a very natural progression for the organization to partner with these groups due to location and common interests. Using afterschool time to get children more connected to their education was an important matter for school districts and local government. Downtown Aurora Visual Arts was able to respond to this need, so the partnerships made sense.

Urban Peak recently was part of one of the most high profile nonprofit mergers in the state. Ramachandran was asked to give advice to those who might be considering taking the same step. She responded by saying that it’s important not to make assumptions about the potential relationship that two organizations might share in a merger. Just because two organizations are in the nonprofit sector and dealing with similar issues does not necessarily mean they should partner. She also added that each organization should have a clear understanding of the other’s philosophy. This is all part of the due diligence that Ramachandran said is vital when considering a merger.

Gonzales and D’Anniballe were asked about walking the line between advocacy and direct service as executive directors. Gonzales said she sees schools as community centers where a dual responsibility exists. Children are not only educated in classrooms at Escuela Tlatelolco, they are also exposed to the civic participation of community. For Gonzales, “advocacy” is not a bad word—it’s a word that you need to embrace if you truly want to impact change as an executive director.

Following Gonzales’ response, D’Anniballe warned about the potential backlash that can come with advocacy. Due to the high profile issues that the Mental Health Center of Boulder and Broomfield Counties deals with, she has experienced significant backlash in recent years. The institutional support of her staff and board allow her to move beyond this kind of hostility while continuing to be an advocate for issues that are important to her organization.

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