The nonprofit sector does more than provide services and programs. It employs more than 1,500 people who earn almost $16.4 million annually in La Plata County.
Those people, showing up every day, make the programs work. The executive directors, in particular, carry the load of keeping organizations funded and making sure programs they offer are effective.
Many executive directors of nonprofits have a large hat collection – they wear a lot of different chapeaux in the course of a day or week.
“I would never think I could do your job or do a bank manager’s job,” said Susan Lander, former executive director of the Women’s Resource Center and Music in the Mountains, who now consults for nonprofits. “But everyone thinks they can do my job. They have no idea how many responsibilities an executive director has.”
Being nimble and adaptable are big parts of the challenge facing Sarada Leavenworth, executive director of Volunteers of America, which manages the Durango Community Shelter, the Southwest Safehouse and the Back Home and Transitional Housing programs for veterans.
“About 80 percent of my time is keeping our programs staffed, getting staff advanced training, ongoing development, fundraising, writing grants (almost 40 annually), keeping everything running, keeping all programs at a quality level,” she said. “I work with staff on crisis management a lot when they encounter a new or unusual situation, such as a survivor who needs to get out of state quickly but has outstanding custody issues.”
She practices “management by walking around.”
“I try to be at every one of our buildings at frequent and random intervals,” Leavenworth said. “Not to critique, just to get a sense of what’s going on and see how the staff are doing. The managers for each program are an incredible source of wisdom because they’re seeing things from day-to-day in a way I’m not.”
Adaptability is the rule of the day at Manna Soup Kitchen, too.
“It all depends on what’s going on the kitchen,” Executive Director Kathy Tonnessen said. “If there aren’t enough volunteers, they come get me.”
Tonnessen, who said she spends the bulk of her time on administration, grant writing and fundraising, manages a staff of four full-time and several part-time employees and as many as 700 volunteers, including many participants in Manna’s programs.
“When people help out, there’s such a glow,” she said. “It helps them, gives them a purpose.”
Sometimes, executive directors have to fire a volunteer, which is never easy.
“I had a very negative person,” Tonnessen said, “and our quality of service has to come first. She was just unable to connect with the program.”
Being the executive director of a nonprofit also means being the face of that organization in the community.
“When I’m out in the community, I always have to be on,” Tonnessen said. “I enjoy that. In a small community like this, I don’t see much difference between public and private. That smallness is an advantage for us.”
Many executive directors learn on the job, working their way up. That’s the case with both Leavenworth and Tonnessen, although Leavenworth said taking a Leadership La Plata course was invaluable for her.
For several years, Fort Lewis College has offered a nonprofit management certificate providing professional training to people in the sector or people who are thinking about going into nonprofit work. One goal is to prevent new directors from learning the job the hard way, by making big or costly mistakes. The program has graduated 15 people to date and currently has 125 people enrolled.
‘Are we doing any good?’
Working on some of society’s most difficult issues – hunger, homelessness and domestic violence – can take a toll.
“I have to be there for them, be 100 percent there,” Tonnessen said. “There are days when I ask, ‘Are we doing any good? You just have to have a heart for service.’”
Leavenworth feels the same pressures.
“And then I see what they’re getting is more than a meal or a roof over their head,” she said. “They’re getting this moment of care and compassion, which they may not have gotten in years, or they may not have gotten in their lifetime.”
Volunteers of America offers many tools to participants in its programs, including advocacy, case management, life and financial planning and job-hunting support.
“But when someone is thanking us for the help,” Leavenworth said, “the first thing, without exception, they tear up and say, ‘The staff is so nice, and they always treat me like a person.’”
They ask people who have stayed at the shelter, sometimes for as long as three months as they rebuild their lives, to come back and tell them how they’re doing.
“Yesterday was a very challenging day,” Leavenworth said recently. “Then a gentleman came in who’s now got a job and apartment, and he said, ‘I can’t believe how many chances you gave me to get my life back together. You go so above and beyond, you made me aspire to achieve.’”
When they give so much to others, how do they fill up their own well of energy?
“I’m at the (Durango Community) Rec Center every morning at 5:15 a.m.,” Tonnessen said. “My day starts at 7:30 a.m., and 80 percent of the time, I’m not out until 6 p.m. or later, so I really need that time.”
Exercise is also a boon to Leavenworth.
“I’m a Zumba groupie,” she said, “I have to do something that feeds me as a person, find something that gives me joy. And Zumba is just about joyfulness.”
But the key to success is keeping the passion for the work when days are full of stories about people’s tribulations and setbacks.
“One interaction with a kiddo can last me for a month,” Leavenworth said. “I remember, several years ago, a little 4-year-old came up and was so excited telling me that she didn’t think Santa would find her at the shelter, but he did. I guess you can say that one interaction has lasted me for years.”
That doesn’t mean letting go of other people’s pain is easy.
“The other day, I was feeling sad, and I mentioned it to my best friend,” she said. “He said it was good I felt sad because it meant my heart was still open.”