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Meet MNA’s New CEO - An Interview with Kelley Kuhn

TW Keeping Up With Kelley 1

By: Tammy Pitts, MNA’s Chief Communications Officer

We’re celebrating Women’s History Month this March to the fullest by honoring the women of Michigan Nonprofit Association including our president and CEO, Kelley Kuhn. She takes over the reins from former president and CEO, Donna Murray-Brown who stepped down last December to relocate to Kentucky with her family. Kelley is among the many women making a significant impact on Michigan’s nonprofit sector. While she has a new title, she isn’t a new face to MNA or the sector. In fact, as you’ll read here in the debut of her new series, “Keeping up with Kelley”, —she’s been passionate about nonprofits her entire life.

Who is Kelley J. Kuhn?

I am a mother and wife. I was born and raised in Flint, and I have a lot of pride for my hometown.  I am the mother of five kids- three that are biologically mine and two that are as close as you can get to being my own. My kids range in ages from 17 to 5 years old.  I am a graduate of both Western Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University.  Though I have degrees in health education and business, I have only worked in the nonprofit sector my entire career. More specifically at organizations that help all nonprofits, rather than narrowing in on a particular mission. The work of nonprofits and the impact they have in community is something I am very passionate about.  Through my own experiences of benefitting from nonprofit programs and services throughout my life as well as assisting nonprofit leaders to be successful in managing their nonprofits, I have grown even more in commitment for ensuring nonprofits are seen as important entities if not the most critical entities in communities.  Ensuring they are successful, no matter the mission is my mission, and I can’t think of a better place to be in my career than leading the Michigan Nonprofit Association. 

You’re not new to MNA—but this is your first time wearing the president and CEO hat. How is that going for you?

 Yes, I have been with the Michigan Nonprofit Association for 14 years and the transition is going well. Prior to and leading up to the transition, the team and I were hard at work, bringing some important programs, services, and partnerships to fruition and shortly after my ascension, we kicked-off some of these programs.  It has been helpful to have that continuity of leadership and in most instances, we have not missed a beat. Of course, there are also some new opportunities, people, and work in the sector that I am becoming more familiar with. This of course takes time and has been fun and interesting to navigate.  It is hard to believe that I am already more than two months into the new role.

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) are among MNA’s core values. What comes to mind when you hear people talking about DEI?

Diversity of thought and lived experiences. Equity in meeting people where they are at and ensuring the right supports align with their needs and…..inclusion- creating a place where all are welcomed and can bring their whole authentic selves.

It is interesting, when I think about this question, I am reminded that for a majority of time with MNA there has been a strong and intentional commitment to Diversity, Inclusion and Equity.  Not only for our organization directly, but also for Michigan’s nonprofit sector. At MNA, we are not perfect, nor do we claim to be experts, but I have benefitted from this commitment in my own journey of truth of understanding and in turn—I am a strong advocate for ensuring diversity, inclusion and equity is at the center of what we do.

As you know, diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice are core values for MNA.  We added justice to our values about three years ago before the killing of George Floyd ignited a racial reckoning.   It was through the process of some deep reflection as a whole staff and as well as individual leaders that we really came to understand the importance of the intersectionality of the work of many nonprofits of which we are champions for and our own commitment to serving marginalized communities. Little did we know at the time just how important it would be for us to solidify that value and make it part of carrying out our mission.  At MNA, we are committed to breaking down barriers for marginalized communities statewide and influencing change and as a white woman now leading MNA, I am committed to holding myself and our organization to these values.

MNA launched the Anti-Racism Accountability and Action Cohort back in January—can you explain more about this cohort?

Yes, this is one of the programs that the team at MNA had been working hard for months on. Like many, our MNA team was impacted by the death of George Floyd. While we put out  a joint statement signed by every team member calling for the end to racial discrimination, we wanted to act.  Additionally, many of us were also fielding requests from white nonprofit leaders who were wanting more resources and tools for themselves, their boards and their own teams.  So, our program innovation team, along with other leaders at MNA, got to work. It started out with Community Conversations- creating a virtual space for anyone to come together and have a safe space for reflection and facilitated conversation.  From there and with feedback from participants, blossomed the idea that offering two separate cohort programs could benefit our nonprofit leaders and from that came the Anti-Racism Accountability and Action Cohort and the Claiming our Space cohort   In addition to the feedback from participants, MNA had a group of white women, including myself, who were meeting informally to learn from a colleague who was a part of a class offered at Grand Valley State University. This team member was motivated individually to do something in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and found the class so beneficial that she wanted to share the resources.  The class was specifically designed for white women, aimed at helping them identify systems of oppression, examine personal biases and behaviors, and take an active role in working for racial equity.

The cohort which is for leaders- both men and women, who identify as white, is an opportunity to better understand their whiteness, to deconstruct it and work for racial equity. The course is not about shaming, guilt, or blame, but rather to have people actually feel they have agency and power to change oppression and racism.  The cohort is intentionally small and there are 17 leaders participating.  The classes held every two weeks, allowing for time to reflect, read, and build rapport. The curriculum has been reviewed by BIPOC advisory councils and we have even formed one for this cohort that includes three women of color who work at MNA.

We also launched our Claiming Our Space cohort- – it’s another online series and a brave space for BIPOC-identifying leaders to affirm each other and build solidarity. A safe space for BIPOC leaders to be in community with other leaders who understand what it’s like to be a nonprofit leader of color here in Michigan.  

What do you think will be your biggest challenge this year as CEO?

Talent in the nonprofit sector. Recruitment, retention, and burnout. Before the pandemic, nonprofit leaders and staff were already working in an environment where resources were scarce and the demands for services were on the rise.  Similar to our small business community, nonprofits have had to pivot. While this has had many positive outcomes, our sector leaders, and staff are tired and stressed out. Unlike other sectors, nonprofits bear the brunt of their own operational stress as well as that of the clients they serve. If you want to know how a community is faring in the pandemic, ask a nonprofit---they know the stories and needs best.

While it took a little longer, the great resignation is beginning to ripple through Michigan’s nonprofit sector. The stress is taking its toll as the pandemic carries on. People are no longer willing to put mission work ahead of a living wage. Not to mention that some are leaving their jobs in hope of more money and benefits someplace else. Nonprofits lost 1.6 million jobs in 2020 and ahead of this recent surge in Omicron, estimates were that it would take into the summer of 2022 for those numbers to come back to pre-pandemic levels. What happens when the needs of community stay the same or even grow and there are no longer nonprofits able to sustain their operations to serve?

The issues are even worse for our BIPOC nonprofit leaders. There are even greater barriers for these leaders- access to resources, funding, staffing-- in addition to bigger disparities in pay and other benefits.  We have to continue to understand and advocate for a nonprofit operating environment that provides the support that our BIPOC leaders need ---and it may not be or look like that way we have supported other leaders.  This will be a big challenge for all in the nonprofit ecosystem. 

What drives and inspires you?

What drives me is when a project or initiative is executed start to finish –or when a goal is achieved.   It could take days, weeks, months and even years, but when a plan comes together and in collaboration with others- it is magic. This is personally and professionally for me. I get energy from the actual process of collaborating. I love the brainstorming and dreaming of possibilities, and I really enjoy the execution.

For example—the MNA team, myself and the family of our former CEO, Donna Murray-Brown—had a vision for a farewell celebration for her.  We met, brainstormed ideas, divided up the tasks and executed the plan.  It came together perfectly and was a very meaningful way to send her off to her new home, new community, and new adventure.

 I am also driven by success. From the time I started my career, I have always loved what I do.  And it still holds true today. So, I am driven by realizing the choices and decisions I make are what have led to success and to some of the most amazing experiences I have had.  My kids, my family and my colleagues inspire me. I am inspired by women—and there are too many women to mention for this interview—but those that inspire have specific traits and characteristics that I admire such as:

  • Possessing a fighting spirit
  • Trailblazer
  • Team Builders
  • Lead with dignity, respect, and courage
  • Develop future leaders through mentoring and coaching
  • Balance work and life

What is one thing that people may not know about Kelley Kuhn?

When I was in college, I coached a golf and volleyball program that was part of the Special Olympics. It was an amazing opportunity. It was a pilot program where teams were a mix of individuals ranging from children to adults with special needs and disabilities and those who did not have any disabilities. Sports has always been a huge part of my life. I played three sports all through high school and even some intramural in college.  I was always the athlete and the one being coached. I was never actually the coach.  This experience gave me confidence to take my athletic skills to a new level and to actually coach others. It was so gratifying. I remember, vividly moments where athletes succeeded in doing something that we worked weeks on mastering. Whether it was making a great connection on the tee shot in golf, or sequencing a bump, set and spike in volleyball. I was hooked. Today, I can see where this same experience happens with my own children and even in colleagues I work with. But there was nothing better than the feel of it happening in the atmosphere of a sport.  So, I say all that to say that something most people don’t know about me is my secret desire to coach again. Now that my kids are in competitive sports, the itch to get involved increases every time I am on a sideline or sitting in the bleachers. Coaches have been so impactful in my life…that I hope one day to give that same experience back to someone else.