A Tough Pandemic Year Shaped Nikki Stewart’s Ideas about Leadership
Nikki Stewart: As we look to rebuild, I am finding freedom in unmooring ourselves from past practices.
Fresh out of law school when the Great Recession hit, Nikki Stewart joined AmeriCorps and then gained fundraising and administrative experience at two nonprofits before being tapped to run The Old North Foundation, a Boston nonprofit that operates the Old North Church & Historic site.
This is her story.
I am a life-long lover of history and my childhood was spent reading as much historical fiction as I could get my hands on, and grilling my grandparents about their experiences through The Great Depression, World War II, and stories of our family lore.
I can see today how these interests shaped my values and led me to the nonprofit sector. I believe that studying the past often nurtures reflection and a desire to do better in the present.
Early on, I decided that the best strategy would be to become a lawyer (often the heroes in stories like Inherit the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird). I was fortunate to attend Northeastern University School of Law, at the time ranked as the top public interest law program in the country, and unfortunate to graduate in the midst of the 2008 recession.
I had aspirations of working in legal services or as an assistant district attorney. However, with hiring freezes in place across the legal field, I decided to complete a year of service through the AmeriCorps VISTA program.
AmeriCorps took me to ZUMIX, an East Boston nonprofit whose mission is to empower young people to build successful futures for themselves, transforming lives and community through music, technology, and creative employment.
Grant writing was a natural fit for my legal and communications training, and I quickly found that I genuinely enjoyed the work and pace of fundraising in a small shop. ZUMIX also gave me the fulfillment that comes from being in the right job, with the right people, in the right organization, at the right time – a rare experience that gave me high expectations moving forward.
My journey next took me to me to two other nonprofits, both in Boston, United South End Settlements (USES) and Ellis Early Learning, which allowed me to expend my horizons and serve on senior leadership teams at organizations experiencing significant transitions.
At USES, I advanced from development manager to VP of development and led the organization’s fundraising and communications efforts through an ambitious growth phase that included the launch of a capital campaign. Leading though rapid and significant change at USES gave me the discipline, optimism, and fearlessness needed to step into the role of executive director at The Old North Foundation in the midst of the pandemic.
Throughout my career, I have had opportunities to work closely with executive directors/CEOs at three organizations. Partnering with three women who have diverse backgrounds and leadership styles provided invaluable training that equipped me to step into the role myself. With the challenges of my first year—which included a round of layoffs, a dwindling bank account, and fundraising for the humanities amidst crises of public health and racial and economic justice—I have learned a lot about who I am and the type of leader that I want to be.
First and foremost, I have an even deeper appreciation for the value of trust and partnership with my colleagues. I have had the privilege of joining a team whose tenures with the organization range from four to 18 years. As we worked through a strategic planning process over the last six months, I have recognized that my role is to focus on the horizon and empower my colleagues to leverage their expertise and institutional knowledge to get us there.
Additionally, I’ve learned to find silver linings in uncertainty. Our organization reduced from 35 staff to five and suspended on-site tourism and programming for over a year during the pandemic.
As we look to rebuild, I am finding freedom in unmooring ourselves from past practices. Oftentimes, strong strategic plans are developed only to be hindered by the difficulties of changing course. I am excited to spend the next chapter trying new things, accepting some missteps, and giving our team the freedom to work creatively.
In many ways, as I complete my first year at The Old North Foundation, it feels like my work is just beginning. We have reopened to visitors, I am starting to meet donors and partners in person, and my team is equipped with a strategic plan and vision that we are all excited to pursue.
Looking ahead, I recognize that one of the greatest challenges will be to stay grounded and humble. I treasure, more than ever, my friendships with other leaders who are willing to tell me when I’ve missed the mark.
Our new mission at the foundation is to inspire active citizenship and courageous, compassionate leadership by interpreting and preserving the Old North Church & Historic Site. I am excited to see how this mission shapes my own leadership in the process.