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Nonprofit Coffee Break: Susan Wally

Nonprofit Coffee Break: Susan Wally

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 Susan Wally, President & CEO of PREP-KC.

In one sentence, please describe who you are what you do.
Former educator, former philanthropy executive, current founder of a 15 year-old nonprofit focused on strategies that open doors for many more urban students into postsecondary education and KC's regional workforce.

How did you get started working in the nonprofit sector?
Early in my career, I left a principalship to accept a privately funded fellowship that gave me the opportunity to design professional development for principals and teams of their teachers. My team and I also had responsibility for creating and measuring results that gave funders confidence they were seeing the changes they expected from their investments...ROI.

On what day did you feel proudest of your work?
Over these past years, PREP-KC has had the honor to be recognized with awards and words of encouragement from corporate, civic, and educational leaders...often based on the impact we can show with our commitment to data collection and analysis. Basically this means that we can show strong growth in the number of urban students in our bi-state urban partner-schools who graduate from high school with "market value assets", meaning they have a head start on college and career opportunities.

However, I personally feel most touched when I hear from one of those students who has worked with the PREP-KC team through their high school years and takes the time to let us know the strong positive impact it had on their ability to attain their goals for themselves and their community.

What is the biggest challenge you face in your role?
Like many nonprofit leaders, on most days I'd say "fundraising". However, KC funders have been instrumental in helping to launch and grow PREP-KC, and are continuing to invest in the work we're doing. Funding is just a topic that nonprofit leaders must consistently keep in mind as they evolve their organizations.

And, not to just make it about money, funds are about the ability to attract and retain the talent needed to fully invest in our mission. At least at PREP-KC, it's really about having uniquely talented professionals who can be deployed to support urban educators and help them move past challenges and create more success for their students.

What is a trend you see in the nonprofit community that excites you, or worries you, and why?
I don't want to make this just about the challenges we're currently facing with the pandemic, but I believe it's impact will be with the nonprofit sector for quite some time. In the years that followed the 2008 recession, several aspects of raising funds changed due to the economic uncertainly that followed: some funders has fewer dollars to disburse to grantees, some became more cautious about making multi-year grants, and some redirected their funds to immediate needs vs longer-term solutions. It took several years of economic stability for the pendulum to swing back to the middle.

On the other hand, it has been gratifying to see how many of the region's funders have responded to these very challenging economic times by stepping up to increase support, reduce restriction on granted funds, and/or accelerate their payments. It's worth repeating that KC is one of the most generous cities in the country.

What is your advice for a new nonprofit professional?
Get a wide variety of experiences in the early years of your career! I wasn't as planful as this sounds, but my early years as a HS teacher and principal, a Fellowship that took me into the nonprofit world, then the opportunity to work in educational philanthropy at the Kaufman Foundation have all been experiences I continue to call on today. I also believe my graduate degrees that I completed while working in those roles gave the a unique understanding of both the practical and the theoretical aspects of the work I was doing.

What is your go-to drink after a board meeting?
What are you talking about? :-) Actually, this will sound a bit silly, but my husband, Chris, always knows when I have an upcoming PREP-KC board meeting because I become, as he would say, "tightly wound" while I prepare. A few times when I got home later in the day, I pulled into the driveway and raised the automatic garage door and he was standing in the garage holding a glass of wine for me.

What is your favorite Nonprofit Connect resource?
It's hard to focus in on just one resource. Nonprofit Connect is a carefully curated collection of resources for nonprofit professionals. I especially appreciate the numerous professional development opportunities for anyone working in the nonprofit sector. I usually browse those lists when they hit my inbox and make suggestions to team members for registering, attending, and bringing the key learnings back to all of us.

What is your call to action?
This is a really challenging time...and it's likely to be like this for a while. As I think about my career path so far, I have to say that some of the most difficult times were when I learned the most. Sometimes I lost a lot of sleep, but I also learned a lot :-) ,and those are the lessons that have taught me courage and persistence, and have deepened my commitment to the work I'm doing.

Connect with Susan
Nonprofit Coffee Break is presented by:
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