This week I had the chance to sit down with the Executive Director of Ohio Wildlife Center, Dusty Lombardi, for a few questions. I was primarily interested in her personal take on nonprofit leadership as I’m reading the book that all of the Columbus Foundation Fellows were given on our first day called The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide. This book highlights the importance of solid leadership so that the passion driving a nonprofit is able to outlive the leader, a common issue in small nonprofit organizations. Ohio Wildlife Center was founded by Don Burton in 1984 and served as Executive Director until his passing in 2014. Dusty, then stepped into the Executive Director position, and has led the organization successfully ever since.
I asked Dusty about her personal keys to nonprofit leadership and the first thing she said to me is that it’s crucial to be diverse as a leader. This means when surrounding yourself with people, utilizing resources and even investing money, do not put all your eggs in one basket (snake, duck or chicken). Differing voices and opinions can work to strengthen the organization by bringing the best ideas to the top. She also emphasized the importance of being trustworthy and sound. In a nonprofit organization it is vital that your employees trust your competency and morals and perhaps even more importantly, so do your donors. We are asking people for their money so they must believe strongly in our mission and also in our ability to accomplish that mission.
I was also curious to ask Dusty about the threat of burnout and how to stay inspired. We’ve discussed this in our fellowship cohort meetings and it can be a very real issue, especially in the nonprofit sector covered in red tape and limited funds. She told me, “It’s easy to stay motivated because of what we do.” “What we do” is take broken animals, animals often caught in the destructive path of human beings, and we do our best to fix them. Sometimes this is not possible. But other times– wonderful times– it is. Those are the moments when you take mental pictures, stow them away in the back of your mind and pull them out when the going gets tough. She spoke of Torch, a red tail hawk brought into the hospital after being caught on fire due to power lines. Torch has since then made a miraculous recovery, sprouting feathers and there is, once again, light in his little dark eyes– he’ll be ready for release back into the wild soon. Stories like these are the positive reinforcement that we need to keep going.
My favorite part of my interview with Dusty was when I asked her what she may have learned in her time at Ohio Wildlife Center. She replied, “The dedication of the people in a small nonprofit is so different than any other environment. Nobody’s going to get rich, that’s not why they’re doing this. They’re doing it to be a part of something larger than all of us.” I think that’s what I’ve learned too. These are people who care with a capital C. It’s not an afterthought or an absent-minded donation toward a cause to alleviate some deep-rooted guilt. They live and breathe caring, not only about our organizational mission but also about each other. There are i-appreciate-you-just-because post-it notes, birthday cards, sorry-about-the-loss-of-your-guinea-pig cards, and occasional surprise Amazon gifts from Logan on their desks and littered about the office. They’re not just passionate about animals, they’re passionate about people too. That’s what makes leadership work.