Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Rich's Legacy: Sector leaders share thoughtful and humorous memories

 In honor of our executive director Rich Cowles' retirement on June 28, the Charities Review Council launched a “Make It A Rich Legacy” campaign. As part of this campaign, the Council will feature insights and reflections about Rich's tenure from key Council supporters.

In this post, three former Council staff and two current board members, share funny, thoughtful, and impacting memories about their time with Rich.

Kelly Rowan

When I began working at the Charities Review Council at the ripe old age of 25, I knew I was joining an organization with a mission I believed in, and I could tell from my first interactions with Rich, Amy, and Joan that I was coming into an organization that was intentional about its organizational culture, that 'lived its values,’ and that was highly regarded for its role in helping both donors and nonprofits to effectively improve our communities. The role that Rich occupied in ensuring those attributes became immediately evident to me. Not because he pursued those aspirations in a flashy way at all, but rather because of his grounded, thoughtful leadership and strong personal convictions. Rich was a humble and self-aware leader and boss, and I genuinely feel fortunate to have worked with him and learned from him.

While he was so careful to elevate the priorities and values that have been so core to the Council and to the legacy he leaves, Rich never took himself too seriously.
I loved that other staff and I cherished every opportunity to torment him with hummus or other exotic and spicy foods.
He was also always quick to share self-deprecating stories of his own missteps and blunders along the course of his professional life. Did you ever hear about the time, early in his career, when he unabashedly described a peer community leader as 'nefarious' - among other leaders - when he really wasn't at all sure of what that adjective meant?! He thought maybe it was a fancy-sounding compliment. He had the humility to share that story with me when I was feeling particularly mortified because of a ridiculously embarrassing gaff I had made one day.
To this day, I can't even remember what I was so mortified about, but I can absolutely remember laughing until I had tears streaming down my cheeks with Rich as he shared that story with me. That's the kind of sincere kindness and perspective Rich shared with all of us every day. We're going to make mistakes, we might as well make them with conviction, but also with the humility to revel in them and learn from them.
As a leader and supervisor, Rich never shied away from challenging me or others with the very toughest criticisms that we needed to hear. BUT - he always said them in such constructive ways, that rather than feeling defensive or put down in any way, I always felt like he expected nothing short of the best from me and others, and that we would undoubtedly get there together. That is one of the most valuable traits I have cherished and hope to have absorbed, even to some extent, from my time with him. Rich was the most conscientious leader; we always knew that he was looking out for the best interest of the organization first, while at the same time, we had the comfort of knowing that he would always be straightforward and authentic, and that he genuinely cared about each of the Council's staff, board, volunteers, constituents, and supporters.

Thank you, Rich, for all that you have shared with us, and for the differences, large and small, you have made in the lives of so many who've known you. I wish you the best as you begin this next phase of your life.
Describe your current job, volunteer activities, etc.
Managing Director at Excelsior Bay Group, providing strategic fundraising, governance, and management counsel to nonprofits. Board member at the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of the Twin Cities.

When did you work at the Council? What did you do? March 2005 to August 2011, started as Program and Administrative Associate, then Outreach and Resource Manager, then Development Manager.

Martin Wera

What impact did Rich have on your work (volunteer OR paid) in the nonprofit sector?
I am so very fortunate to I consider Rich a mentor. He was a great guide and teacher in helping me to grow professionally during my time at the Charities Review Council, always supportive of my career in general. My greatest memories are a combined vision of Rich, Jenna Salinas, and I driving around the state during our 2009 Standards revision process, gathering input from donors and nonprofits.

You can learn a lot about someone when they pick you up at 4 am and drive to Duluth in their Toyota Corrolla.

Any favorite “Rich-isms”?
Let’s “noodle” on that.

Describe your current job, volunteer activities, etc. Community Relations Manager at Ameriprise where I am responsible for grantmaking and employee engagement and volunteerism. I am also a volunteer for the Social Change Funding Committee of the Headwaters Foundation for Social Justice.

When did you work at the Council? What did you do?  

I worked at the Charities Review Council from 2009 -2011 as program manager and program director—managing our services to nonprofits, initiating services to grantmakers and presenting workshops about our Standards.

Sara Leiste

I worked at the Charities Review Council four times. I was an intern twice under the previous executive director and then a part time staff member. Rich hired me to be a full time staff person, mostly doing reviews. My favorite Rich-ism is "get on the bus."

I currently work in higher education, at Capella University. I am now on the side of having to meet external standards, which is a very different place to be.

I'm glad I had the experience at the Council to show me that the standard keepers are on the side of good, and are working to make things better.
I have a few stories to share:
Even though Rich hired me twice, I never interviewed with him. When I got out of grad school, I talked to Rose, and she convinced Rich to hire me part time until I found a full time position. When another staff person left, I assumed I would apply for the job, but not that it was guaranteed. Rich apparently got the staff together and asked if they would be OK with offering me the job. They were and he did! His faith in me (and the staff's judgment) gave me a lot of confidence. Now that I think of it, maybe you shouldn't let the HR people on the board hear this story!

The second story is that Rich rescued me from being trapped under a pile of boxes.

First, you have to know that when the offices were in downtown St. Paul, they were smaller and we had a lot of extra files, many in bankers boxes stacked in the narrow hallway by the supply room. It was early one morning, and Rich and I were the only ones in the office. I needed a file, and it was in the middle of a stack of boxes. When I started moving boxes, I set them on a table that was also in the hall. I didn't know the table was unstable. It fell over, and trapped me against the wall. Rich heard the commotion, followed by me yelling for help. He had to get off the phone quickly to move boxes, right the table, and check that I was okay. It was all fine in the end and both of us learned a lesson about that table!

I worked at the Council when the September 11, 2001 attacks happened. I don't have a specific story, exactly. I just want to say how grateful I was. Like a lot of people, I thought about what was meaningful in my life and work. Part of that was being glad to work in a place where I knew and trusted my co-workers. There were only four staff people, so we knew each other well. The culture was very supportive and collaborative. Rich gets a lot of credit for that.

Cindy Kleven

3M Community Affairs
As I complete my 6th year on the Charities Review Council board, I am sad to see Rich leave. He has been a thoughtful leader and a change-maker for the organization. His guidance helped the organization move out of a watchdog role into guide-dog role, and that has been very beneficial to the Council and, even more so, to nonprofits.
Rich has been outstanding at relationship building with the board and the people engaged in the organization. He knows that people bring their whole selves to the workplace and shows great care and concern about what is happening personally as well as professionally.
I've appreciated his quick laugh and ability to inject appropriate humor into board and committee meetings.

Rich also stepped forward to take a leadership role around cultural competence—making it a priority at the executive director level. His steady guidance has helped move cultural competence from a task force to a committee with the intent to integrate it into all of the Council's work.

Rich will be greatly missed, but he is so deserving of this next exciting chapter in his life. I look forward to seeing him around town and at alumni events in the future!
Photo Credit: Greater Twin Cities United Way

Sarah Bjelland

Wells Fargo
Describe your current job, volunteer activities, etc.Plan and write Corporate HR communications for Wells Fargo's 270,000 team members. Volunteer on the Wells Fargo Community Funding Council and with the Charities Review Council.

What was your role at the Council?Have volunteered on the program committee since 2009; marketing committee 2010, board member since 2011. Named the Council's volunteer of the year in 2010.

Please tell us about your favorite memory (or funny story!) working with Rich as a board member:

The first time I met Rich and was introduced to the Council's work was when staff members hosted an educational forum for Community Capital Alliance after work hours in the office.
The conference room was packed with young professionals who all worked in the private sector and were eager to learn about accountability to better evaluate nonprofits and learn how the Council supports the nonprofit sector.
Rich was welcoming and encouraged us to ask questions and asked about how we combined our interests in the nonprofit sector when we worked in the private sector. We could not have fit one more person in the conference room and we all stayed listening and learning and Rich led a great session and I stayed connected to the council from that session and on.

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