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“Develop a Thick Skin”: Nonprofit Advice from Teresa Coons


El Pomar Fellow Stephanie South recently conducted a site visit to the Western Colorado Math and Science Center in Grand Junction, Colorado. While she was there, Stephanie asked Executive Director Teresa Coons to share some thoughts about her job and the nonprofit sector as a whole. Teresa sat down for a few minutes to answer Stephanie's questions about what it is like to be a nonprofit executive director in these challenging economic times.

Note: The Western Colorado Math and Science Center has previously received a matching regional grant from the Northwest Regional Council.

What is the biggest strength or contribution an executive director can bring or make to an organization?

I know that most people would say fundraising capability, and that’s very important, of course, to sustain the organization and move it forward.  However, I think that providing a very public “face” for the organization and serving as the internal and external cheerleader are equally important.

Throughout your career in nonprofits, what is the biggest lesson you have learned?

Although I have always worked in a nonprofit arena as an academic medical researcher supported by grant funding, this position is my first as an employee of a 501(c)3 organization.  As a community leader, I have served as a member of numerous boards of directors.  This is, however, my first experience as an employee of a board of directors.  What I have learned (slowly, but surely) in my current position is that these previous roles taught me to act boldly and sometimes to act first and ask permission later.  As a new executive director, I quickly learned that I sometimes got ahead of my board with both ideas and implementation, and had to learn to communicate more thoroughly with board members before taking action.

What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing the nonprofit sector?

Of course (and always) funding – competing for a limited amount of dollars in a very crowded, nonprofit sector and an often over-tapped donor pool.  The other big challenge I see, however, is being able to maintain an identity and a recognizable community presence in communities that have many nonprofit agencies that serve similar populations or audiences.

What changes have you noticed within the sector since the economic downturn?

Greater-than-ever need for low-cost or no-cost services, and fewer donor dollars and businesses able to provide support.

How important is it for nonprofit organizations to try to effectively utilize the internet and social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter?

I would say that it is very important, especially if your audience is under 40 – however, I will admit (being definitely OVER 40, myself) that I struggle to make myself use these modes of communication.  They require much more investment in terms of time, but I know that I just need to program that time into my consciousness…or better yet, identify a younger colleague who is more comfortable communicating with the world through social networking tools.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your career right now?

Being able to use my community connections to raise awareness and support for the mission of the Math & Science Center, and to use my position as executive director to mentor and support a future generation of science and engineering teachers, researchers and leaders.

What advice do you have for young professionals, men and women like the El Pomar Fellows, who are considering a career in the nonprofit sector?

Be sure that you have a passion for the mission of the organization you join because the rewards you reap will not come from salary or benefits – they must come from a sense of fulfilling a noble purpose.  Develop a thick skin (not everyone will share your belief in your mission), and enjoy the work that you do every day.

About Teresa

Teresa Coons is currently the Executive Director for the Western Colorado Math and Science Center of Western Colorado where she works with volunteers, staff and students to “create enthusiasm and excitement for math and science.” Before moving to the position of executive director for the Western Colorado Math and Science Center of Western Colorado in January 2009, Teresa Coons was the Senior Scientist for the Saccomanno Research Institute at St. Mary’s Hospital and Medical Center in Grand Junction, where she directed a number of research programs, primarily in the area of respiratory disease. She also directed a medical screening program for former uranium industry workers. Her research career has spanned the disciplines of basic and clinical research, scientific writing and editing, biotechnology business development, and occupational and environmental epidemiology. Teresa has an undergraduate degree in physical sciences from Colorado State University and a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of New Mexico. She is an Adjunct member of the Mesa State College Faculty, where she teaches in the Biology and Environmental Sciences Departments, and a member of the Industry Advisory Council for the new Mechanical Engineering Program at Mesa State.

Teresa is a fourth-generation Coloradoan, born and raised in the Denver area. She and her husband Frank (a local veterinarian) have two adult daughters. Teresa is serving her second term as an elected member of the Grand Junction City Council and her first term as Mayor. Teresa also serves as an appointed member of the Mesa County Board of Health, the Grand Junction Housing Authority, the Mesa County Methamphetamine Task Force Executive Committee and Club 20’s healthcare subcommittee. In May 2007 she was appointed by Governor Ritter to the state’s Air Quality Control Commission. In the fall of 2008, she was also appointed to the Dean’s Council for the College of Natural Sciences at Colorado State University and to the Nursing Advisory Council at Mesa State College.  Most recently, Teresa has become a Trustee for the Women’s Foundation of Colorado and has been appointed to a two-year term on the Local Government Advisory Board for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.