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Women in Philanthropy Profile: Kim O’Brien

Kim O’Brien, Executive Director of Network for Good customer, Nonprofit Leadership Initiative, works with nonprofit leaders in the Fox Valley area of Wisconsin to provide opportunities ​for leadership development and learning to ​better achieve their missions. Like most executive directors, O’Brien has 100 balls in the air on any given day, meeting with new executive directors and board members about the tools and resources NPLI provides.

Building Stronger Nonprofits

“I do a lot of connecting the dots. My work is about connecting nonprofit leaders to the resources in the community that can help them with whatever they’re working on at the time.”

What does the NPLI do?

We provide different programs for the nonprofits in our community, including Leadership Forums, a Leadership Institute, Board Effectiveness, and a quarterly Join a Board event.

The centerpiece of our programs is our Leadership Institute, a year-long series of seminars equivalent to a master’s degree in nonprofit management. Each cohort consists of 14 people—a combination of executive directors and senior leaders such as development directors or program managers—who spend a full year together learning nonprofit leadership best practices. We start with a DiSC assessment to determine their individual leadership style. Throughout the year, an expert in the field is hired for each session, ranging from the role of nonprofit boards to finance to human resources and much more. The Institute creates a tight cohort among the 14 participants. When they leave the program, they have someone to call and talk to about similar programs or issues. There’s a lot of sharing in the class.

In addition to the Institute, our Leadership Forums offer executives and board members expert training on everything from aligning human resources with their mission to leadership skills to board roles and responsibilities. Our Board Effectiveness program consists of small, facilitated group discussions with board chairs and vice chairs about their role and responsibilities—what a board is supposed to look like, self-assessments, hands on training, etc. Finally, our Join a Board program brings the whole community together on a quarterly basis to learn about what it means to be on a nonprofit board or committee. Our corporate partners—large companies in the area—send their employees to us to learn about board service. Employees who are engaged in the community, stay in the community. Plus, board or committee service helps grow their leadership skills by helping expand critical thinking and communications skills and improving the ability to work collaboratively and within a team. It benefits everyone.

All of our trainings route leaders back to our Nonprofit Next platform. This is an information rich website offering tools, tips, templates, and local resources in one location. Nonprofit Next is hosted by the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits and available to the nonprofits in our service area.

For each program, our goal is to provide nonprofit leaders and board members a place to be in a room together, face to face, to build trust and relationships. They share their best practices and successes so other leaders can learn from them. It’s inspiring. Even though they’re competing for donor dollars, they’re sharing with each other quite a bit and building a trusting, collaborative relationship. Nothing builds up a community better than when the nonprofits take hold of this collaborative mindframe.

How did the NPLI start?

This work all came out of a group of funders in our local community who approached the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region to profess, “We are tired of funding failing nonprofits. What can you do to help?” United Way, the Community Foundation, Thrivent, and Community First Credit Union put together some money in the beginning to start us off. And now we’re coming up on three years in June. We’re an integral part of the community, helping to build stronger nonprofits and stronger leaders. Most of our nonprofits staff under 10 employees and they don’t put dollars aside for leadership or technology, so this helps them think a little differently about how they approach running their business.

How long have you been with the organization?

My background is in HR. I started in 2015 on a three-month part-time project, and a year later I was still a part-time employee. I wrote a job description in that first year for an executive director position. At the time I wasn’t interested in the job, but when they finally posted it I thought, “I have to apply for this. I really love this work.” And I got the job!

What attracts you to nonprofit work?

My mother started the Meals on Wheels program in my hometown and pulled us all in as kids to help. She instilled in me a belief in helping the community by helping the people who live and work in your neighborhood.  And according to my mother, everyone lives in our neighborhood. I volunteered for a nonprofit in college and then my first job was with a nonprofit, and it stuck. I’ve always worked for a nonprofit and can’t imagine myself in any other setting.

The people I work with in the nonprofit community are highly passionate. Every day, we help our community by helping these leaders who are improving everyone around us and building a stronger community for all. I cannot advocate for them enough. The nonprofit leaders that I work with drive my own passion for this work.

What advice do you have for other nonprofit leaders or aspiring leaders?

It takes a village to make this work. I get to be collaborative and have conversations and bring the work of these nonprofits forward in a lot of different ways. I never turn down a coffee or a lunch request because you never know where it’s going to lead. In this industry, you need to stay open to collaboration in whatever form you can find it. The Fox Valley is a special place as it allows for the collaborative work we do as a community every day. That way we all succeed in the long run. Thus, my advice to nonprofit leaders is, “Everyone leads, so build strong relationships around you with everyone and anyone you can.”

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.

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