Moving On is a series of Q&As with social impact leaders who are leaving their organizations for new opportunities. Here, they will share what they learned and where they’re headed.
Sometimes, the best thing a founding executive director can do for her organization — and for herself — is leave.
Heather McDanel has overseen Students Run Philly Style, the mentorship-focused nonprofit that trains Philadelphia students age 12 to 18 for races such as the Broad Street Run and the Philadelphia Marathon, since its inception 12 years ago. Back then, it served only 50 kids; this year, it’s serving 1,300.
The running aficionado and mother of a SRPS student still loves the work — and that’s exactly why it’s time for her to go, she said. Generocity Editor Julie Zeglen spoke with her about the importance of growing slowly, why kids thrive on mentorship and why leaders shouldn’t stick around just because they’ve always been there. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
G: Since you became the founding executive director, the organization has grown hugely. How did that growth happen?
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HM: The growth was slow, and that’s a real advantage. In the beginning, we had like, 50 students that we were serving, but [also] at that time we were building a presence in the communities we were serving and building the strength at the ground level so that when we grew, the organization wouldn’t be dependent on any one particular person. And that takes time, so we have long-term partnerships with churches like Enon Tabernacle, long-term partnerships with the school district.
It was also being very intentional about what we were bringing to youth and I think the truth of our great expansion we’re seeing now is we built something really valuable that young people really want to be a part of. We don’t do any recruitment anymore — well, that’s Andy’s [Kucer, the new ED] decision moving forward — but at some points, we certainly had more kids than we anticipated we would have.
G: How important is the mentorship to the kids in the program, and what makes kids want to be a part of it?
HM: The mentorship is huge. That is the key relationship as to why it’s so meaningful for them, but I also think there’s elements of keeping the expectations really high, expecting greatness. I think that when young people are given the right tools to realize their greatness, to unlock their own inner strength, that it’s just a really powerful thing that happens. You start to believe in yourself and realize, boy, anything is possible.
That is done through, yes, a mentor that’s really strong, and [is there for] the young person day in and day out, and also through doing something which is really, really difficult, which is running a marathon.
G: So, why are you leaving? Are there other opportunities that came up for you?
HM: I’m leaving because I’m someone who really thrives on the early stages of an organization and the grittiness that it takes to start something up. I love that, thinking through what it would take to really build momentum. After 10, 11 years, [I was able to be successful at] that part of this story. I also felt that this was the right time because I absolutely so love what I do every day.
Standing at the Philadelphia Marathon at the finish line will never get old, [nor will] watching young people realize their dreams. I think that you hear a lot of different things about founders. Sometimes founders leave too early. Sometimes founders stay around too long. I hope that I am passing off this organization at the very right time. It’s in a really good financial place, it’s programmatically very strong, it’s well-respected, loved by the kids — the most important part — and that’s the love. I feel like I have to leave on a high.
G: Are you leaving to go to another organization?
HM: I don’t have another organization named as of yet. I’m exploring a lot of options. It’s an exciting time.
G: Are you planning on sticking around in any kind of other capacity?
HM: I talked to Andy quite a bit about being an advisor as he sees fit. I think it’s very important that that [role] is determined by him. But then, my own daughter’s in the program, so I’ll be [there] cheering on my daughter.
G: What are your feelings about leaving now? Is it bittersweet because you’ve been there since the beginning?
HM: That’s probably a very appropriate word. I think that Andy is the perfect match at this particular time. I realize that I am not the person to take [the organization] to the next spot. It goes back to what I thrive on — the early, gritty end. But yeah, my life has been largely defined for the last 12 years by being the executive director of Students Run Philly Style, especially because I literally do love it and feel very strongly and convicted about what it does for young people. And to say, yeah, I believe that that’s true and still deciding to move on from it? Sure, that’s stinks. And of course, the people. I love all the people. That’s going to be hard, not interacting with the community.
G: What have you learned about being a leader during your time at Students Run Philly Style?
HM: Start with inspiration, proceed with intention and end with appreciation.
G: What were some of your or the organization’s biggest milestones or accomplishments in past 12 years?
HM: There have been milestones along the way, but I will say that the thing that I am most proud of is that there is a strong group of young people that have changed the way the general public views teenagers. My hope is when [people see these] groups of teenagers, they think, Wow, those are marathon runners. Those are groups of amazing young people who get up at 5 o’clock in the morning.
A lot of people still think it’s a little bit out there to run a marathon in general and for young people to run a marathon, but I’m really really thankful that the city — everyone from city government to the corporate community to the school district to the philanthropic community — has embraced the idea over time and helps celebrate this and, in doing so, celebrate all the youths and their future.-30-
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