Doing Good Better Takes Passion

Use whatever metaphor you want: a car and a driver, a ship and a captain, a plane and pilot. A nonprofit organization needs a leader that will steer it in the right direction. Leaders shoulder enormous responsibilities and are tasked with having all the answers to every question. Nevertheless, before becoming a strong tree, every leader was once a sapling. In the case of three remarkable Northeast Ohio nonprofit leaders, Foundation Center was their step one in a journey to sound management.

Leadership on pointe

In a town that seems to live and die by sports scores, Ballet in the City has eked out a niche for one of the world’s most prestigious dance forms. Ballet in the City is a nonprofit presenting organization that presents today's best professional ballet dancers in cities around the nation for performances and programming and events. Its founder and executive director is Jessica Wallis. Under her leadership, Ballet in the City has brought marquee names Misty Copeland, Ashley Bouder, and Sascha Radetzky to the Cleveland area. One of her proudest moments was in October 2014 when Ballet in the City presented a world premiere of the Ashley Bouder Project at the Ohio Theatre. “Part of why I'm very proud of the success of the Ashley Bouder project is that in terms of the attendance and it being sold out, it was only the organization's second year of operations.”

Jessica knows dance, but nonprofits were a different story. She found herself headed to Foundation Center Midwest on a mission, “I was very in tune with the fact that I had a lot to learn, and I needed to be the one in charge of that, because I needed to do my due diligence if I wanted to achieve what I sought to achieve.” She was pleased with what she found, “I just really felt welcome right away and I would spend hours there.” She considers Foundation Center a “one stop shop for nonprofit education” where you can find one-of-kind nonprofit titles, networking opportunities, and workshops.

Jessica is constantly learning and thinking about what is next. For her, no amount of resources would change her focus on quality artistic performances. If she had unlimited resources, however, she would use it to support hardworking artists, and to open up access to the art of dance, “I would also use those resources to make the programming even more accessible for families because dance is a very, very expensive thing.

A righteous juggling act

Compared to season veterans of the social sector, Rita Aggarwal is fairly new to the nonprofit sector. Before she began working with multiple Akron-area organizations, she worked as an economist for the federal government in Washington for 15 years. The change from a large bureaucracy to grassroots nonprofit can be striking on some days. Currently, she serves as an independent consultant and as the STEM Director at Proyecto Raices. She also started her own nonprofit called Math Learning Community to meet the needs of gifted students interested in advanced mathematics. She serves on the board for Axess Pointe, an organization of community health centers. Her most recent endeavor Red Flags promotes mental health awareness in schools. For Rita, the Red Flags work has complemented her work at Proyecto Raices over the past year. Red Flag works to support these students Latino students who have been under special duress with threats of deportation looming over their families.

One would think Rita has been running organizations for years, but she got her start at Foundation Center. “Foundation Center meets my need for answers on just like basic questions about a nonprofit. Five years ago I would you know attend some of their introductory seminars to now having more sort of deeper questions and always being really happy that you know that someone there is able to answer them.” She considers Foundation Center, “One of the two or three institutions that I would recommend to anybody that's looking for advice on any aspect of being a nonprofit.”

Rita sees education as the key to eradicating barriers, “I'm looking at the middle schoolers that we work with and sort of wanting them to be able in five years to have many more opportunities academically than they do now.” With at least four organizations under her leadership, Rita is creating a network of solutions to complex social problems.

Striking all the right chords

Erik Mann found his way to Cleveland when he pursued his Master’s degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Initially his goal was teach guitar at the college level, but after some different turns, he learned: “I've found in the last few years a real passion for running this nonprofit.” His organization, Cleveland Classical Guitar, has humble beginnings as an all-volunteer operation. Now the organization boasts an annual concert series with more than 20 countries represented and a strong education program serving underserved students from urban districts. Partners include major school districts and nationally renowned universities. “We decided that we wanted to have sort of a more profound impact on the community and looked at what was happening in Cleveland in the schools. And we found that the state of music education in Cleveland was not so strong in that a lot of Cleveland city's schools have no instrumental music programs at all.”

At the time he became executive director in 2009, Erik was pretty green. This brought him to Foundation Center. “There are free courses which are just absolutely incredible. I learn best in a classroom situation. Where I can ask questions of someone one-on-one and see them face-to-face.” Through Foundation Center, Erik was able to start with the basics and then build on core concepts with networking, and special topics like collaboration.

Cleveland Classical Guitar has many reasons to celebrate. One of their partners, the Cleveland Institute of Music has a Minority Artist Fellowship program that is a pipeline initiative designed to increase the school’s student body diversity over time. Out of two students accepted, one is a Cleveland Classical Guitar student who had been playing for less than a year when he was accepted.  Erik sees life-changing possibilities in music. “In surveys that we've done we found that over 70 percent of the students in our courses find that they are more engaged in school because of our guitar classes.

Like Jessica, Erik wants to see his art accessible to as many people as possible. “I want to see every kid in Cleveland who wants to play guitar to have that opportunity and to have no barriers in terms of their economic status, or their ability to travel to take lessons. I want to see every school in Cleveland have an instrumental music program and if that means that you know the Guitar Society starts a guitar program in every school that doesn't have instrumental music that’s great. If someone else can fill that role with different instrumental program, you know that's equally great. But I really want to see that that every kid has really an opportunity to learn an instrument.

Like all good leaders, Jessica, Rita, and Erik were born with passion. Life brought them to the social sector, and Foundation Center helped them make their dreams into plans.

Inspired by its recent 40th anniversary celebration and theme of “Doing Good Better”, the Vision and Voices series is a collection of blog posts based on storytelling from Foundation Center Midwest leaders and stakeholders.