A word from the wise

The Nonprofiteer received this note from the soon-to-be-ex-Executive Director of the Guild Complex, a Chicago nonprofit focused on highlighting and diversifying contemporary writing. It’s the strongest possible statement about what one dedicated and capable person can accomplish in nonprofit management–and about when and how it’s time to let go. Thanks to Ellen Placey Wadey for her kind permission to edit and reprint it.

September 10, 2009

I think that we can agree that birthdays are moments of reflection. Mine is tomorrow. . . .

When your birthday is September 11, you can’t help but pause a bit. I turned 40 on that fateful day of the Twin Towers attacks . . . . I realized then that aging is a privilege that not everyone gets. I’ve come to embrace that realization in the time since to mean that every year should count. After wonderful years of success and accomplishment, even after very difficult years–we’ve all had them–a birthday gives you the chance to turn the corner and look to the next bright moment.

So, it felt right for me to announce today–on the eve of my birthday, on the eve of the possibility for the next bright moment–that I will conclude my tenure at the Guild Complex on December 31, 2009 (yet another date for reflection and also my 15th wedding anniversary.)

My transition from the Guild Complex has been in the works for the past year. Personally, I don’t believe an executive director should be in place for more than a decade–particularly for very small organizations. You run the danger of creating too much dependency on one person. A healthy organization, like a healthy person, should not only endure but embrace change. For a small non-profit, the healthiest scenario is that any one person can step away–a director, a key board member–and the organization moves forward with strength because the mission is greater than any one person.

When I look back at what I set out to do at the Guild Complex in comparison to what has been accomplished over these eight years, I’m content that much of the ‘to-do’ list has happened or is in process. Some times it’s hard to see it from the outside–nobody revels in your neatly organized closet but you–but we’ve done a lot at the Guild Complex. We updated our mission, our logo and our website. We made the transition into electronic marketing and audio archiving. We established on-going performance venues that serve important neighborhoods such as Pilsen and Humboldt Park. And we accomplished the two most important things for me on the list. We rethought our programs and launched fresh efforts that not only continue our legacy but are leading edge in the promotion of under-represented poets and writers. I’m particularly proud that Palabra Pura and the Poetry Performance Incubator were inaugurated during my tenure. And, we’ve brought on six amazingly talented, charismatic, smart and energetic new board members. The Guild Complex has always been supported by a close-knit group of people, but I wanted to make sure that we made room at the table for new voices and new ideas and that we continued to make that a priority. With the recruitment and robust involvement of these new board members, we have turned that corner too.

Though I will no longer be executive director, I will always be the Guild Complex’s biggest fan. I was a part of the organization years before my time on staff, and I expect to be a part of it for many years to come. But, my role from 2010 forward will be to cheer from the bleachers and offer my assistance to the new managing director the best that I can–but only when asked. (No new coach likes the old coach looking over their shoulder.)

As for me . . . . I’d like to work with non-profits on a project basis. I’ve developed a breadth of knowledge in my 15+ years working at grassroots, heart-and-moxie-driven organizations, and I would like to continue to contribute to this important sector, especially in the face of upcoming challenges to the arts.

. . . . There are not enough words of appreciation to extend to all those who have supported the Guild Complex and me over these last eight years. Artists have plenty of fire and passion, and they are also a generous bunch through and through. I thank each of you so very much.

. . . . So, here we stand–the Guild Complex and me–leaning over the birthday cake. I feel very honored to have worked at a place that I love so much. These next steps will be exciting, and a little scary, but I trust in the next bright moment.

With all gratitude and affection,
Ellen

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