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Nonprofit Coffee Break: Melanie Miller

Nonprofit Coffee Break: Melanie Miller

In the Nonprofit Coffee Break video series, Nonprofit Connect CEO Luann Feehan sits down with a different nonprofit leader each month to chat about leadership, learning, and life over a cup of coffee. Tune in to each episode to learn from these leaders' experiences and challenges and help us highlight our sector as an important and vibrant part of our city.

Nonprofit Coffee Break is presented by FROST Media Group.

This month, we sit down with Melanie Miller, CEO of Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey.

In one sentence, please describe who you are what you do.
I am the CEO for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey and responsible for the overall success and management of our 36 year old organization.

How did you get started working in the nonprofit sector?
Serving and working in my community has always been a part of my life. I grew up in a home where my parents taught my sister and I the importance of helping others, and they modeled that behavior. Though my professional life has been spent primarily in a corporate environment, outside of work, I enjoyed volunteering for many organizations including my church, sorority, and other non-profit organizations as a board member, particularly those focused on children, women, diversity, and the arts.

I've been a 'friend' of Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey (KCFAA) since our inception in 1984. I was in college at the time and volunteered to help fundraise for the organization. Over the years, I've supported KCFAA events and programs. In late 2018, I was honored and humbled to be offered this leadership opportunity at KCFAA where I am able to merge my professional leadership experience with my desire to serve and my passion for education, diversity, and the arts.

On what day did you feel proudest of your work?
I am proud of the work KCFAA does everyday, but my pride reached an emotional high on June 26, the last day of our 2020 Virtual AileyCamp.

AileyCamp is KCFAA's signature youth education program that we created in 1989. This award-winning summer camp was the vision of our founder Alvin Ailey and is now replicated in 10 different cities. Each summer for the last 31 years, KCFAA has worked with up to 200 students from Kansas and Missouri to provide a meaningful curriculum that includes dance, creative writing, art, music, and personal development.

When the pandemic hit in March, we were in the process of interviewing AileyCamp applicants. We finished the interview process virtually and were hopeful that we would still be able to have a live camp starting on June 3. By late April, we recognized that this would likely not happen. We had to make the choice to cancel the camp or go virtual. We chose to continue our 30+ year legacy virtually, though we had no idea how to create an effective and fun 4-week virtual camp for 80+ middle school students. We immediately delved into the world of Zoom and Google docs, and converted our camp curriculum to a distance learning format. It was hard! We learned something new every single day and dealt with unanticipated technical and individual camper challenges. But we persisted. I think we were all amazed every morning at 8:00 AM when the young campers' faces began popping up on the Zoom screen to begin their day at AileyCamp.

On the final day of camp, when our campers performed their learned dances, recited the poetry they had written, and shared the artwork they created, I noted that their sense of pride and accomplishment for the 4 weeks of virtual camp felt very similar to the reaction of campers who completed our live camps. But, when I listened in on a session where the campers could share their thoughts, I heard one camper say, "this was the best thing ever", and another camper say, "I didn't want to be here, now I don't want to leave" , I choked up. I realized that we had accomplished our goal. We made the positive impact on these young students that we hope will last a lifetime.

Our successful execution of AileyCamp confirmed the resilience and strength of KCFAA, our staff and community, and gave us the confidence to keep moving forward, in spite of the pandemic.

What is the biggest challenge you face in your role?
Currently, it is managing effectively during COVID. In addition to the obvious financial and operational challenges, I've found that it is equally challenging to keep our staff connected, motivated and feeling appreciated. But, it is extremely important to ensure the physical and emotional wellness of the team, so we continue to find new ways to do this while primarily working virtually, outside the office.

What is a trend you see in the nonprofit community that excites you, or worries you, and why?
I'm encouraged to see that the boards for many non-profit and for-profit organizations are seeking to become more diverse and inclusive. They are recognizing the value and importance of bringing different perspectives and experiences to the table. While boards have been trending in this direction, the urgency and call to action to create a leadership structure that understands systemic racism and puts measures in place to combat it, was certainly prompted by the tragic killing of George Floyd. I hope more organizations will continue to move in this direction to strengthen and unite our community.

KCFAA was created by a diverse group of Kansas City leaders in 1984. Our mission statement includes our intentional efforts to "model interracial and multi-cultural partnerships". We encourage diversity of people and ideas through our organizational structure, which includes a racially balanced Board of Directors, committee leadership teams, and audiences. KCFAA's long commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity, is what sets us apart from other arts organizations. We strive to continue this commitment everyday.

What is your advice for a new nonprofit professional?
One thing that has been helpful for me is getting to know other non-profit organizations and leaders through volunteering, networking, and or attending their programs and events. We can learn a lot from each other and help each other to problem solve on similar challenges.

I'd also encourage new non-profit professionals to reach out to their personal networks and share the story and mission for their organizations with them. It's rewarding when the people you care about understand and appreciate what you do on a daily basis and why you do it. Sometimes, they may choose to also support you and your organization by volunteering, attending events, making a donation, or providing other resources and networking opportunities.

What is your go-to drink after a board meeting?
I love going to happy hour on the patio at McCormick & Schmick's. It has a great view, a fun vibe, is COVID friendly, and they serve the best Lemon Drop Martinis in the city!

What is your favorite Nonprofit Connect resource?
There are so many! Nonprofit Connect provides us with great resources and opportunities to connect with other non-profit organizations. I have participated in many of the workshops, utilized the Job Board (fantastic!!), and love that GrantStation is offered to members at no additional cost.

What is your call to action?
2020 has been a challenge in so many ways! Non-profit organizations need your assistance now more than ever, whether it be your time, treasures, or talents. Take the time to reach out to an organization(s) whose mission is important to you and ask them how you can help. You can and will make a difference!

Connect with Melanie
Nonprofit Coffee Break is presented by:
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