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May 18, 2022
Ed Kelley – From Street Worker to Inclusive Nonprofit Leader
Edward P. Kelley
Ed Kelley: I know we have to stay strong.
While attending Suffolk University on a basketball scholarship, I took a part-time job in the teen center at the Cambridge Y. I didn’t have a particular interest in the world of child welfare, but I liked the work.

After I graduated, I got my first full-time job, in 1972, with Cambridge Community Schools. After a year and a half, the CEO of the Cambridge Youth Resource Bureau asked me to become an outreach worker. It was a fascinating job because you did a little of everything. One morning you’d be in court testifying on behalf of a kid, and the next night you’d be on a basketball court with the same kid. The community was your office.

In 1979 I became director. It was the first time I looked at a budget. We had about a dozen employees.

The thing that was most helpful to me was to realize that in the world of youth work and nonprofits, no one wants to talk about money, but, like in any other business, money must be in place to do the job. I was challenged to look at a payroll and check someone’s overtime. It was a positive experience, but it challenged my values. As a line worker, I’d want to do a program and if I was told the agency couldn’t afford it, I’d say, “What’s the matter with them?” But as a director, I became “them” and was responsible for a budget.

The following year the opportunity to join the Robert F. Kennedy Action Corps, as it was called then, came up. I interviewed and was delighted, and a little surprised, to be offered deputy executive director at the age of 31. It was a tremendous learning experience. I was supervising residential programs, as opposed to community based programs, and you never know what would come up.

My executive director, Don Carey, taught me to polish my skills. He’d offer constructive criticism on how to make presentations to boards of directors and state officials, down to what words to use and even about my posture. If he hadn’t done that for me back then, I don’t think I would have gotten to be executive director.

In 1985, Don decided to move to Florida and he encouraged me to apply to take over, although I didn’t believe I was ready to step up. After a national search, the board offered me the job. At that time, we had a budget of $5 million and 150 employees statewide.

When I took over the job, I joked that I spent the first three years hiding, because I was concerned that the board would realize who they had hired. I had a fear of letting people down. Over time, I gained experience and a certain level of confidence and comfort. As Bobby Kennedy frequently said, good judgment is the result of experience and experience is the result of bad decisions.

Everything was going well until 2001, which turned out to be a watershed year. For the first time ever we lost a program after bidding on it. Then, our board formulated a formal strategic plan that drew a line in the sand about expectations, benchmarks, and the criteria it would use to evaluate success. And, finally, I received a fellowship at Stanford University's business school that was looking to transfer executive leadership training from the for-profit to the nonprofit world.

At Stanford, I learned that I was telling my people that while they were capable of taking care of kids, they were not capable of speaking with me on the best way to deal with the state or how to supervise social workers. It was a huge wake-up call. I realized I needed my people to work with me to develop a new leadership style.

Things crystallized at a meeting when I was asked why it mattered that everybody focus on the future. I said, “Up until today it was perfectly OK for you to take care of the children. But as of today, you have to take care of the Action Corps, to make sure it is around for kids who haven’t been born yet.”

This led to the formation of a leadership institute, which today includes everyone in the agency who has the word “director” somewhere in their title, about 50 people. It provides an opportunity for people to develop positive leadership in the agency by being part of the discussions and development of policies.

We work in a very challenging atmosphere. There’s nothing we can do about difficult times, but I know we have to stay strong so that when things change, we can get back to a better place. I know we’re succeeding when I can feel that the people I’m working with are positive and energetic and want to come to work every day.

As told to Peter Lowy, December 2009.
Learn more about the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, based in Cambridge, by clicking here.
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