Cathryn Sanderson laughed when asked if she’s a runner.
“I love this question, because I often ask this of other people,” she said while perched on a bench at Elixr Coffee. “Obviously, when people hear ‘Back on My Feet,’ this is the one thing that comes up.”
Sanderson is the executive director of the Philadelphia branch of Back on My Feet (BoMF), a homelessness alleviation organization that uses the activity of running as a bridge to housing, employment and independence. The nonprofit serves populations in 11 U.S. cities.
Nowadays, she’s in charge. But six years ago, Sanderson was a lowly intern with the organization. Aspiring nonprofit leaders, pay attention: Here’s how to make a name for yourself.
Originally from Hamilton, N.J., Sanderson studied English education at Rider University before moving to Phoenix for a few years to work in an education-based group home for at-risk girls. That first experience in the nonprofit world prompted her to question how such organizations could be run better.
In 2009, she headed to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue a master’s in nonprofit leadership. The program placed her in an internship with BoMF, which at the time was only two years old and in just two cities, Philly and Baltimore.
“It was young, it was really fast-paced, really fun,” she said. “I ended up spending 14-hour days there because I loved it so much.”
BoMF operates like this: Individuals staying in homeless shelters are recruited to participate in group runs with community members three days per week. Those who complete 90 percent of the organized runs within one month can move on to the “Next Steps” program, which offers training in job readiness, financial literacy and more.
“Our end goals are to move barriers and get people further along toward self-sufficiency,” Sanderson said.
The organization’s focus on “human potential” drew her in, she said. Once she graduated from Penn, the local branch hired her to be its director of special events and communications. In the next five years, she would become the director of communications and corporate relations, then the senior director of marketing and development, doing everything from fundraising to planning galas to managing the website and social media to occasionally writing grants. She became the branch’s executive director in June 2015 after two months of interviews.
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By the way, she’s only 30 years old.
How did she rise the ranks? First of all, by taking on so many roles over those five years, she learned about the many facets of what it takes to run a nonprofit and proved her capability in each. But more importantly, perhaps, she followed the advice she now gives her own interns: Show up.
“I counted wristbands and I stayed late and I wanted to soak up everything around me,” she said. “That’s what ended up standing out — a kind of unrelenting curiosity to dig in deeper, to find little holes, to say, ‘Have we tried this?’”
Sanderson added that it’s also essential to realize that every contribution is important, and no one is above seemingly menial work like counting event t-shirts. Overall, though, “the main piece is to be really curious and to look at an organization from all angles,” she said. “Try it out being a volunteer, fundraising. Interview all staff, take them out for coffee.”
On that topic: Sanderson considers not only her former bosses to be mentors, but also her 10 fellow branch executive directors.
“Going into a leadership position, you have to identify really quickly, ‘Who are these people around you?’” she said. “Your world gets a little more isolated in that way of having trusted people to go to for support or to get feedback. You might not be able to do it with staff in the way you did before when you were their peer.”
To be successful in any mission-minded organization, it helps to have passion for the work. Sanderson’s stands out clearly when she talks about what inspired her to stick around after five years and commit to leading the organization into its next phase: the people it serves. Two years ago, BoMF saw its first female runner finish the Philadelphia Marathon after about seven hours. A team of supporters crossed the finish line with her. Sanderson’s eyes glistened as she recalled the scene.
“It is an incredible thing to watch somebody finish a marathon that never thought that they could do it, or has never done it before,” she said. “We were crying the tears with her. Moments like that are ingrained forever in my mind.”
For the record, she doesn’t currently consider herself a runner — she’s been into CrossFit for the past five years — though she did run regularly in high school and college.
However, she said, “I find myself at this stage wanting to get back into something that I used to love so much, and that I promote, but that I also need to find my personal journey back to.”
She’s likely on the right path; that personal journey doesn’t seem to have led her astray thus far. Sanderson has no plans or desire to move on from the organization she now leads: “One of my biggest fears is actually that I won’t find something else that I’m as passionate about as this.”-30-
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