We continue our ongoing Women’s History Month series celebrating the women working in nonprofits with a profile on Abigail Erickson-Torres, CEO at Bryan’s House, a Network for Good customer in Dallas, Texas.
An Evolving Nonprofit
For 30 years, Bryan’s House has served children with medical or developmental needs and their families by providing specialized child care, respite care, and social services. Originally created to assist mothers and children dying of HIV and AIDS when there was no treatment, Bryan’s House provided 24-hour respite care for mothers and children at a time when no one else would help due to the stigma. As technology and medicine improved, Bryan’s House found they were uniquely suited to help at-risk children who had special medical, physical, social, or emotional challenges.
“That’s why you set up a nonprofit. To address the need and then hopefully move forward if the needs of those being served changes.”
While they still work with children and families living with HIV and AIDS, Bryan’s House has grown into a unique service that couples medically fragile at-risk children (onsite ages 0-5), award-winning education with therapy and assessments, case management (0-21), and family support services for families to thrive for the long term.
At-risk children onsite attend therapy and return to class, just like any other activity in the middle of the school day. In addition, Bryan’s House provides camps during spring, summer, and winter breaks, so the children can retain what they’ve learned and continue their therapies when school isn’t in session. The team at Bryan’s House also provides case management for individuals and families to prevent homelessness. Along with 200 community partners, Bryan’s House serves approximately 1,000 people in north Texas.
“Our goal is to teach the family to fish for life, instead of just giving them a fish.”
A New Era
Erickson-Torres took over the position of CEO in 2016 aware she had a big job ahead of her—to bring the agency into a new era. In three short years, she has redefined Bryan’s House as an organization who works with families and children with special needs who have been hidden in the city. All while shaping a financially responsible nonprofit where the clients receive the help they need.
With a staff of 29 (18 teachers, four case managers, a critical manager, therapy manager, and a part-time CFO), Bryan’s House dedicates its resources to its programs. Without a large, dedicated fundraising team, however, most of that responsibility lies with Erickson-Torres.
“I spend 60 percent of my day fundraising and friendraising; making connections in the community. The rest of the time, I work with my team to oversee operations and work with the board. We’re at the point where the operation is running well. It’s been such a joy to see the evolution in progress.”
Erickson-Torres also dedicates a large portion of her energy to mentoring the women who work with her and providing a full life/work balance through flexible work hours and opportunities to discuss mental health. Dignity and respect are paramount in staff relations.
“Burnout in our industry is huge. The “churn and burn” average is two years in most nonprofits. Every CEO or executive director needs to understand the pressures put on development staff. Retaining staff and how you treat them is so important. I can’t stress that enough.”
But Erickson-Torres wasn’t always a passionate nonprofit leader. After a company she was working for in the early ‘90s lost its funding in the technology crash, her mother gave her some advice that changed her path forever.
“She told me to find something with a good mission that served people in need,” Erickson-Torres recalled.
So, she took a salary cut and started over as a development coordinator. When the person who hired her didn’t return from maternity leave, Erickson-Torres became Interim Development Director at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and worked in advancement for four years, raising over $4.3 million in that role.
During those years, she also had two children. Her family moved to Dallas when she was hired to work for the Friends of the Katy Trail—raising $11.3 million with their board and ‘friends’. Since entering fundraising, she’s worked in social services arenas, and then for the Nexus Recovery Center; developing her operational and management skills along the way. One day, a friend suggested she’d be a great CEO. Shortly after that conversation, she was invited to interview for, and became, CEO at Bryan’s House.
A New Role
After 20 years of fundraising, Erickson-Torres has incorporated her gift for making authentic connections in her new role as CEO. With each connection, she looks for people who have a passion for the mission and then matches the project with their interest and support. Her approach is to find common ground to talk about and engage people in an authentic way. And her passion for Bryan’s House is infectious.
“When I see a need, I want to do something about it. I’m always working towards bettering the lives of other people, especially women and children, or people who are homeless, disparaged, or underserved. I wake up every day thinking about how I can make the world a better place. I like the challenge of being an advocate. I’ll always have a good life because I get back what I give out through my role. It’s not just a job for me. I’m very passionate about nonprofits and those we serve.”
Always the mentor, Erickson-Torres ended our call with some advice for fundraisers who are just starting out.
“The knowledge of what to say, who to say it to, and how to convey the need comes with time. Let the person you’re meeting with talk and then just listen. Sometimes you get the signal that it’s not a right fit and that’s fine. You can’t take it personally. Everybody has their own causes. Be smart about it. Do your research. Find out about the person you’re talking to. Match your mission to the person and their personality. Do it in a fun way—and be authentic!
We couldn’t say it any better. Happy fundraising!
Women in Philanthropy is an ongoing blog series in celebration of Women’s History Month, featuring some of the incredible women Network for Good has the pleasure to work with.