“Moving On” is a series of Q&As with social impact leaders who are leaving their organizations for new opportunities. Here, they share what they learned and where they’re headed.
“I think I have the best job in Philadelphia.”
Joan Mazzotti really seems to mean it, too. The perpetually cheerful executive director is leaving the college access and success nonprofit she’s led for 16 years, Philadelphia Futures, to take a well-deserved break.
And as other news outlets have noted, she has plenty of positive stories of impact from her time there — impact on her own life as well as on the nearly 600 high school students the org serves each year. Under her watch, the organization has continued its streak of students’ 100-percent acceptance to college while becoming more data-driven to better track students’ progress.
Mazzotti is sticking around until the start of the new year or until a new director is appointed. In her “Moving On” interview with Generocity Editor Julie Zeglen, Mazzotti discusses why she’s only ever had two jobs, why she thinks her nonprofit’s 2011 merger with White-Williams Scholars was picture-perfect and why she wants to be like Derek Jeter. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Generocity: Why are you leaving?
Joan Mazzotti: It’s time. I have said that I really think good leaders need to know when stepping down is in the best interest of the organization, and I think that time is now for Philadelphia Futures. We are in our fifth year of a five-year strategic plan, so I would say, in the next 12 to 18 months we’re going to need to embark on a new strategic planning process for the organization. I think that the person who is charged with implementing the plan should be the person who leads the strategic planning process.
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And then, I’m a huge baseball fan, so I have said two things. I said, one, I wanted my last at-bat to be a walk-off, like Derek Jeter, and I wanted to leave when my batting average was over 300. It’s just time all the way around.
G: You mentioned something that I’ve heard from a lot of other outgoing executive directors, which is that sometimes it is “just time” — either leaders have been at their organizations for a long time and they recognize that it is time for new leadership, or they want to leave on a high note.
G: And there’s a long transition period before you leave. Can you talk about how you’re going to be involved in the search for the next executive director and why you decided to give a couple months’ notice?
JM: I wanted to, certainly, give the board sufficient time to do a search. I also told them that if in the exact timeline I would prefer, it doesn’t work, then I will stay, because I don’t want there to be any break in leadership. I thought this was a good amount of time.
For me here, it’s pretty much business as usual. We have so many exciting things happening this fall that I am just thrilled to be working on. The search process is being handled by the board.
G: When somebody is identified, will you be mentoring them as they come on?
JM: Absolutely, I hope that we have a good period of overlap. There’s a heck of a lot in my brain that I need to share with somebody.
G: Let’s go back 16 years. How did you get involved in Philadelphia Futures and what were you doing before then?
JM: I’ve only had two jobs in 40 years, which is not common. I was associate general counsel for Aramark Corporation. I had been there for 23 years and I received a call from a search firm about this position. So, I went on my first interview in 23 years.
What drew me to it was, while I had a really fabulous career at Aramark, this was just the right moment in my life where I wanted to go someplace where I was living out my values everyday.
G: What were some of those values specifically?
JM: I have a very strong sense of what is fair, and the educational system not only in our city, but in our country, is not fair, and I have been very fortunate to have this opportunity to work with students to try to level the playing field.
G: Looking over the course of your career, when you feel you’ve made the most impact, organizationally and individually?
JM: What has made this job so personally rewarding to me is that there are so many moments. Philadelphia Futures works with students on a very individualized basis, so there are hundreds of different stories.
Of the organizational things that we have accomplished in the past 16 years that have had great impact on the students, one is our college partnerships. We have partnerships with nine colleges in Pennsylvania. These partnerships have provided over $31 million dollars in institutional aid to our students. We have a potential graduation rate of, I believe it’s 82 percent in those schools. And we have 102 graduates and 126 students currently enrolled in just these partner colleges.
These partnerships, when we started the first one with Gettysburg College in 2001, were really groundbreaking. They’re more common now, but we’ve been doing them for over 15 years, and you can see in the numbers the huge impact these have had on Philadelphia students. These students have graduated from these colleges either debt-free or with very minimal debt.
G: That’s great.
JM: That’s huge. Also, I’m very proud of the merger of Philadelphia Futures and White-Williams Scholars in 2011. It was a textbook merger, and [because of] the increase in the capacity to the organization, I like to say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We now have increased capacity and we are reaching more students through more programs and initiatives. I’m very proud of how that merger happened. The visions [for] the merger were realized.
G: I get the sense that mergers can be messy.
JM: They can be very messy! [Most] don’t even close. And ours not only moved as quickly as it could possibly go, but then everything that the two organizations talked about as being in the best interest of the two organizations, happened. And that’s really exciting.
And then, some of the individual relationships my family has had with students have just enriched my family tremendously.
My son is now 25 and he was 9 when I came here, so he has totally grown up with Philadelphia Futures. In fact, he was an honorary member of the Sponsor-A-Scholars class of 2009, which was a very moving moment for me. We also have a student who happens to be Andrew’s age who my husband was mentoring, and over the years Ralph has become really a part of our family. Ralph and Andrew pretty much consider themselves brothers. And we have several other students who I hope we’ll be in their lives forever.
Another thing is the creation of our Young Men’s Initiative, and that is not a separate program, it is a focus on the young men in our program. We’ve been doing that for 10 years. When I looked at some of the data, I noticed that the college graduation rate for the young men in our program was about half of the college graduation rate for the young women. I had never [dis]aggregated the data by gender because the population itself has so many challenges, but then when I did that, it was, “OK, we need to do something here.”
We [now] do extra activities with them, we do extra academic enrichment, but it’s also just a mindset within the organization that we’re going to do everything we can to improve the boys’ chances of academic and personal success. And over the past 10 years, their graduation rate has been raised approximately 18 [percentage points].
G: That’s great.
JM: Their college graduation is now equal to the girls. The other thing is the rise in our college graduation rates, because that ultimately is what matters. Our mission is to get students “to and through college.” If you count from the beginning of time, we have raised our graduation rates nine [percentage points]. But if you look at the last decade, our college graduation rate is now, for any class, between 65 and 75 percent. These numbers are probably my greatest legacy.
G: The five-year strategic plans you mentioned, one is ending soon and the other will be started next year. How are they developed?
JM: We closed the merger in 2011 and then embarked on the strategic planning process almost immediately. And it didn’t just cover programming, it covered everything. It covered infrastructure, it covered our board, it covered development. I joked we were Noah’s Ark — we had two of everything. We had to go through this plan, but it was also a good time to go through the programs of both organizations. You look at what the needs are in the community, what our real skill is.
I can honestly say that that plan never found its way to my bookshelf, that it is on my desk, and it has guided everything we have done over the last five years. I did a review with the board at the last board meeting to show them that almost everything we said we were going to do as an organization, we did. Plans have to be living documents that really guide what an organization wants to do.
G: What do you hope for the future of Philadelphia Futures? What’s next for you?
JM: I guess my greatest hope is that eventually, we can go out of business, and that there wouldn’t be a need for the organization. But in the shorter-term, I just hope we continue to grow.
Now, for me, this will be the first time in my life I have not worked full-time. I’ve been working every day since I got out of law school, even when my son was born. So, it’s going to be an exciting time. My husband and I would like to continue our philanthropy — both in terms of our resources and our time — to aid organizations that work with populations living in poverty and that work to provide access, be it access to the arts, employment, healthcare, education. That’s really where our hearts are.
And I guess it won’t be the worst thing to for me to sit down and read a book.