Leadership positions in nonprofit organizations can take many shapes. It’s not uncommon for heads of third-sector organizations to also be employed full-time elsewhere. In fact, many students enrolled in master’s or MBA degree programs are also career professionals and nonprofit leaders, gaining real-world experience of the field and the know-how to guide their organization to success.
Michelle Dickens, president of the Junior League of Athens, located in Athens, Georgia, shares how she balances a career and runs a thriving nonprofit — and discusses the changes, challenges, and rewards of leadership.
What is your background (education, previous and current employment)?
“My background is in psychology and I have a master’s degree in psychology. I am an adjunct psychology instructor, and, for the past 10 years, I have worked as a social worker — more specifically as a victim advocate in the district attorney’s office working with victims of crime. Before that, I was working in the Department of Juvenile Justice, working a general caseload.”
How did you decide to get involved with the Junior League of Athens?
“I was pretty new to Athens and I was working in town, but I wanted to get to know new people. I wanted to make connections in the community, and someone that I knew proposed me for membership. At that time, our focus was women, children, and poverty, which obviously overlapped with what I was already doing in my professional employment because I was working on crimes against women and children.”
Could you provide a brief background about Junior League and more specifically about the Junior League of Athens?
“The first Junior League Chapter was started in New York in 1901 by Mary Harriman after she and many of her friends began doing civic work within their community, specifically the Hell’s Kitchen area. Their work did not go unnoticed, and before long women in other areas began starting their own chapters, eventually spreading throughout the United States and even to other countries. It eventually became Association of Junior Leagues International. The Junior League of Athens falls under the umbrella of the AJLI.
“In regards to Athens, we are celebrating our 80th year in the community, and we officially joined the Association of Junior Leagues International in 1980. Until then, we had been operating in Athens under the name The Athens Junior Assembly. The Athens Junior Assembly’s primary mission related to identifying the need for health care. The Assembly started with 21 women in 1935, and they started the first “charity bed” at Athens General Hospital, now Athens Regional Hospital, in 1939 and continued the bed for 20 years. They started a Well-Baby clinic, heart clinic, and a nursing visitation clinic, amongst other health care–related initiatives.
“Most of the women in the organization during that era did not work outside of their homes and so much of their time was focused towards these projects. As the organization transitioned into the ’60s and ’70s, more women were working outside of their homes and our focuses began to broaden. The Koffee Clinic was established to serve coffee and other refreshments, and proceeds went to restoring the organization’s headquarters, The Taylor-Grady House. Additionally, we currently focus on areas such as childhood nutrition, local schools, and, currently, our focus is on literacy. We have only been focusing on literacy for the past three years, but we touch on all aspects of improving literacy [adult, children] and we currently run a number of reading programs.”
How has your background and education prepared you to take on your leadership role within the organization?
“Being able to handle a classroom full of students isn’t that much different from coordinating volunteers. I’ve always been very interested in preparing events and other projects, and so those activities have never been very difficult for me; I’ve always been well-prepared in these areas. I think the biggest thing, though, with my background in psychology, is I have a good understanding of how people communicate, and I think that the success of an organization really depends on how well workers are able to communicate with each other and with the community.”
What are some of your major tasks in your position and how do you balance them with your work and family responsibilities?
“I meet with my staff weekly — three professional staff members, not including the more than 110 volunteers — and I meet with my three vice presidents on a monthly basis. Each vice president oversees a different committee, and our leadership model relies heavily on delegating tasks, which makes it much easier for me than if I had to manage all areas personally.
“Having good time-management skills is essential, and I’ve learned to never schedule things too tightly! Thankfully, I am doing something that I really enjoy and am never overwhelmed or feeling like I am doing things that I don’t really like doing. My profession is very community-oriented, so many of the interests [work and volunteer] overlap. I also have a very supportive husband and family, which really helps. It is a decision that we made together, though, and it is important that the entire family is willing to endeavor all aspects of the position.”
What are some challenges that your organization faces?
“This year, the three biggest things that we have focused on in terms of opportunity for growth are membership engagement and recruitment, diversity and inclusion, and community impact. Membership engagement and recruitment, as well as diversity and inclusion initiatives, are important as we try to be more representative, or to ‘look’ like, the community that we serve. In regards to community impact, we are focused on linking more of the ‘why?’ to our programs as opposed to simply putting on events without more deeply considering their impact in relation to our organizational goals. Additionally, we are constantly assessing ourselves as we try to remain relevant in our communities and to make sure that we don’t lose traction, that we are involved, and that we are ‘invited to the table.’ ”
What are some of the current trends in the third sector that you have witnessed within your role, as well as from your own observations?
“AJLI is moving from a ‘requirement model’ to more of a ‘tailored-fit deployment-of-talent model.’ Many organizations that are similar to ours employ the support of a number of volunteers. We ask them, ‘Why do you come?’, ‘How do we measure how much you are putting ‘in’?’, and a lot of this measurement and assessment is based on requirements. We have a certain number of hours that we must devote to organization activities, a certain financial requirement that we have to meet, and dues that we have to pay in addition to those. However, we try to let our people decide what kinds of experiences that they would like to have and to tailor opportunities around these desires. We respect the more traditional models, but we also want to adapt to the priorities of modern generations of volunteers and other workers.”
What is your future outlook, both for your organization, as well as for third-sector organizations, collectively?
“We will be starting our new strategic plan in 2016 and our vision is to be a very diverse league with growing membership that is making an impact in the community. I think we will continue to focus on the programs that the women that came before us worked so hard on in the past.
“With so many nonprofit organizations, specifically in Athens, it will be interesting as the area becomes increasingly saturated with more and more capable volunteers, many of whom are coming directly out of college. I was recently at an awards show where different organizations and individuals were being recognized for the impact that they had been having on the community, and between the work of college students, as well as those who have been involved for a number of years, the bar is set very high! I think we will definitely continue to see greater and greater levels of impact being made throughout the sector.”
Do you have any final thoughts regarding your organization or the general state of nonprofits?
“With regards to the Junior League, as much as we are interested in making an impact in the community, we also are interested in making an impact on and for our members. We are very good at training, and I know so many women who did not have any employment experience before coming to volunteer with Junior League who are now directors in different capacities for big organizations in Athens or have gone on to do great things in other areas. We really are a catalyst for change, not just for the community, but also for the individuals who work with us. In my position, I have been sent to some of the best nonprofit leadership training in the country with some of the best consultants. I have been [to trainings] in St. Louis, Scottsdale, Orlando, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and I will be attending a conference in Atlanta in the spring. I am well-trained to lead the organization, and I am sure that the training that I have received here will serve me long after I leave this position.”