Traverse City News and Events

More New Leadership Faces On The Way

By Craig Manning | March 4, 2021

Expect to see some new faces at several leading local nonprofits this year. Big leadership changes are underway at Rotary Charities, the City Opera House, and the International Affairs Forum (IAF) at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), with 2021 set as a significant “changing of the guard” for all three organizations.

Rotary Charities of Traverse City announced last month that Becky Ewing, the organization’s current CEO, would be stepping down in June. Ewing took the reins in 2018, assuming the CEO position after the organization’s previous leader of 25 years, Marsha Smith, retired. The search is underway to find Ewing’s replacement, with applications for the position officially closed as of February 28.

Ewing tells The Ticker she always intended for her tenure in the CEO role to be brief. She’s been working at Rotary Charities for 13 years, and says she actually considered retiring when Smith did.

“We looked out at what was going on in philanthropy across the country, to see where some of those emerging trends for bigger, better impact might lie,” Ewing explains. “We landed on systems change as a concept through which we might make more effective investments in nonprofits. [We] decided to shift our overarching focus from making individual organizations stronger, to a community impact. We were funding a lot of programs and capital projects, and the systems lens that we placed on things helped us understand that in order to increase impact on some of the most wicked problems, our region faces – whether it's early childhood care, whether it’s reducing poverty, whether it's creating better health outcomes – we knew we needed to get further upstream and look at some of the root causes.”

That epiphany led Rotary Charities away from its old model – what Ewing describes a “here's your check, go do your good work” approach – to a more hands-on, collaborative strategy. Rather than retiring along with Smith, Ewing took the helm in bringing that new era to fruition.

Now, with the systems-driven model firmly entrenched at Rotary Charities, Ewing is ready to take her deferred retirement. Her tenure as CEO will officially end on June 30.

At City Opera House, both Kristi Dockter, director of marketing and communications; and Thom Paulson, director of development, have tendered their resignations. Dockter officially ended her 11-year tenure with the organization Monday (March 1), while Paulson, who has been leading fundraising for the Opera House since 2016, will step down April 1. City Opera House will combine the two jobs into one, with applications open through March 5 for the director of development and marketing position.

Diane Baribeau, executive director for the City Opera House, says it’s not uncommon for small nonprofits to have a combined marketing and development role. By moving in that direction, the Opera House will be able to convert two part-time jobs into a single full-time position.

“[The board] decided that combining [the two jobs] seemed to be the most logical answer, given our budget and given the past year,” Baribeau says. “By combining them, we could invest more funds towards a salary. It also gives us some extra funds in our budget, for the time being.”

The City Opera House has been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, given that live events have been a no-go for the past year. The organization is planning its reopening, with some events tentatively on the calendar for this spring and summer – though Baribeau anticipates that fall 2021 may be more likely.

While the focus, for now, is on filling the open position, Baribeau also tells The Ticker the Opera House is beginning to think about succession planning for her own job. While she assures that her retirement is still “a few years off,” she hints that the right candidate for the marketing/development job might be someone with interest in eventually leading the organization.

“Once a person got comfortable [with the job], if they had a desire in learning my role – booking shows, venue management, stuff like that – then that might be an ideal candidate,” Baribeau says.

At the IAF, which hosts a monthly lecture series “featuring experts in foreign and domestic affairs, politics, and the media,” Jim Bensley will take on the role of interim director. Bensley – who serves as an IAF board member, NMC humanities professor, and the college’s director of international services and service learning – succeeds Leila Hilal, who, despite IAF’s 27-year history, became the organization’s first-ever director two years ago.

As interim leader, Bensley’s time at the wheel will only last through the end of 2021, with a search for a permanent director to begin this summer. Still, while Bensley says his job is mostly “to keep the ship sailing forward,” he notes that IAF is looking to expand the reach of its programming – something that will likely inform both his tenure and the search for a new director.

“We are beginning a strategic planning process with our board, because we want to be able to position ourselves for the future,” Bensley explains. “Right now, our audience is an older demographic. We want to encourage those that are in their 20s, their 30s, their 40s, to be engaged with what we do, because these people are the decision makers. Having worked at the college, I'm very aware that we're training future leaders. Whether it's climate, whether it's international relations, whether it's migration issues, we have to help build that catalog of knowledge so when they have the chance to be in positions where they can make a difference, they'll do the right thing.”

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