Young professionals explore nonprofit work

Elizabeth “Biz” Collins started a bike advocacy group called Grand Valley Bikes when she discovered the difficulty bicyclists once had safely negotiating Grand Junction.

Stacey Colegas, head of the Tamarisk Coalition in Grand Junction, recounts a story of her experience in non-profit work Friday June 25, 2010. Colegas is photographed in a conference room at her office building off of Main Street.

Abby Landmeier of the GJ Housing Authority recounts one her worst stories in providing help for a local family. Landmeier is photographed in a conference room Friday June 25, 2010.

Jordan McGinnis, 28, former director at Homeward Bound, now works for Hilltop has been working in nonprofits since he was 20. His is photographed in his office at Hilltop June 25, 2010.

What idealistic teenager doesn’t dream of changing the world? But, give him or her a few years, and those ideas tend to fall by the wayside. Thoughts turn to college, families and making a buck just to get by.

But young adults increasingly are holding tight to their convictions, shunning careers in the private sector and seeking employment in the nonprofit sector as a way to more quickly and effectively correct what they see as social and environmental ills.

More young adults and longtime private-sector professionals are looking to the nonprofit realm for job satisfaction — for the feeling that work is making a difference in someone else’s life, not solely a means to earn a paycheck, said Renny Fagan, president and chief operating officer of the Colorado Nonprofit Association.

“People are attracted to nonprofits because of the impact they have on the community. There’s a wide variety of ways to give back, (from) helping the homeless to historic museums, sports and recreation leagues,” he said.

Colorado is cozy with nonprofit organizations, ranking 16th out of 50 states for having the most nonprofits per capita. Nearly 15,000 young adults are registered as members of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, an organization that offers education and networking for young nonprofit professionals and has chapters in Denver and other city centers.

Colleges such as Regis University and Metro State College in Denver offer master’s degrees in nonprofit management.

Just under 19,000 nonprofits were counted in the state in 2007, a dramatic increase from about 10,500 that existed in 1995, according to a study by the Colorado Nonprofit Association.

But the business of giving back is a moneymaker itself with the state’s nonprofit sector generating $13.1 billion in revenue and making up 5.6 percent of the state’s gross product.

About 123,000 paid employees fill nonprofit jobs in Colorado, and the sector makes up 4.9 percent of the work force in northwest Colorado.

An ailing economy last year forced nonprofits to cut staff and services, but that trend seems to be ending, Fagan said. A job bank on the group’s website this year is listing more job openings than last year, and the site’s popularity is growing with 28,000 hits per week.

“Many government programs are delivered through nonprofits,” he said. “For the community that’s a very good thing. A government works with tax dollars, and a nonprofit can raise money to really leverage those public dollars to make an impact.”

The Grand Valley has its share of young people who decided to go the nonprofit route to start their careers and make an impact. The Daily Sentinel talked to four of them, and what follows are snapshots looking at what they do and what drives them to do it:

Elizabeth “Biz” Collins

Age: 26

Work: Created Grand Valley Bikes, a nonprofit group aimed at increasing nonmotorized transportation in the Grand Valley by encouraging the creation of comprehensive bicycling routes and spreading bicycling education.

Thoughts: “I cringe when I see people biking on the sidewalk.”

Get involved:

Grand Junction seemed a lot bigger before Elizabeth Collins got her wheels.

When she moved to town eight years ago without a car to attend Mesa State College, getting around seemed to be a hassle.

Then, a friend planted a seed.

“Main Street to the college was like a world away until somebody gave me a bike,” Collins reminisced recently, surrounded by bikes in the backyard of her Riverside home.

But as Collins began biking around town, barriers emerged that she would have missed if she had been behind the wheel.

How could she bike safely down Patterson Road or North Avenue? What about connecting main routes? By law, bicyclists have the same rights to be on the roadways as motorists. Why were so few people bicycling on local roads when it seemed such a fun way to get around? Other cities of Grand Junction’s size have comprehensive bicycle routes. Why not here?

Collins became a member of the Urban Trails Committee, a group that advocates connecting bicycle routes in traffic-congested areas. The experience of working with Grand Junction City Council members and fellow board members made her hungry for change. She had been bitten by the bicycling bug, and she yearned for results.

“To be a powerful entity and to make change, you need to be a nonprofit,” she determined. “As a nonprofit, you’re a company. We’re a voice for change.”

Collins’ idea for the nonprofit Grand Valley Bikes, a bicycling advocacy and education resource, was completed in about a nine-month process.

The group’s mission is to help create an extensive network of off-road and on-road bicycle routes. It also aims to educate about the health and community benefits of bicycling.

Collins hopes to one day make the work her full-time job. For now, a donor who wishes to remain anonymous donated enough seed money to pay the $450 fee to apply with the 1023 tax form that can create a tax-exempt entity, otherwise called a 501(c)(3).

A word of advice for others attempting to start a nonprofit: “Don’t try to reinvent the wheel,” she said.

Collins borrowed the wording of bylaws from national bicycle advocacy organizations. She accepted help when it was offered, such as when an attorney friend helped her establish the group’s bylaws and the agency’s articles of incorporation. She surrounded herself with knowledgeable board members.

“As a nonprofit, you’re a company, and you have to run it like a business,” she said.

Collins said she felt comfortable starting a nonprofit, having volunteered for various causes in her youth. Her parents showed her the importance of giving back to the community with donations of time and money, as her father did with his business.

“I saw how it really enriched their lives,” she said of her parents.

Collins is encouraged by a trend in California, where teenagers consider it “cool” to ride their bicycles. Learning that areas of traffic-snarled Los Angeles were able to create bicycle-friendly routes gives her hope the same principles can be applied locally.

Already, bicycle-friendly routes have been created in Grand Junction, such as the Riverside Parkway project and Colorado Riverfront trails. Improvements are needed to create cohesive north to south bicycle routes, she said.

Having boundless enthusiasm and a strong conviction is key to starting a nonprofit, Collins said.

“If you feel something is lacking, go ahead and make it happen,” she said.

Jordan McGinnis

Age: 28

Work: Directs youth programs at Hilltop; former program director of Homeward Bound homeless shelter.

Thoughts: “I’d love to be going on vacation in Mexico or Europe doing young people things. On the other hand, I have better stories than I might ever get from spring break in Cancun or skiing every winter up in Whistler. Lifestyles of the rich and famous may be fun, but it sounds empty.”

Curious about how people tick and wanting to work for social justice, Jordan McGinnis was in college considering a degree in psychology or becoming a minister when he realized he already was doing the work he was going to school to do.

At 20, McGinnis scored a job with Homeward Bound, a nonprofit organization created to offer shelter to the homeless during the winter’s bitterly cold months.

At that time, Mesa County was caught in the eye of a methamphetamine epidemic, and affordable housing was slim. Last December, though, was the worst. The mercury dipped below freezing for months, and more homeless families than ever were looking for a safe, warm place to spend the night.

Still, work at the shelter was far more rewarding than previous stints as a teenager working in a grocery store and selling clothes.

“I hoped that I was making the world a better place, rather than selling something or trying to push a credit application,” he said.

At Homeward Bound, McGinnis daily came face to face with the plight of the poor. Children said how nice it was to sleep in a warm bed for a night and to have breakfast to eat in the morning. He saw the relief in families not having to worry about shelter or food for at least a couple days. McGinnis witnessed the generosity of churches and individuals who provided some comfort to strangers with donations of food, blankets and supplies. He worked long shifts, sometimes until midnight, as the job demanded.

Something stirred inside.

“Working in a nonprofit, you really have to care about people. If you don’t have that glimmer of hope, it’s really going to wear you down,” McGinnis said.

After eight years at the shelter, McGinnis left at the end of last year to try a different route. He started at Hilltop this year and runs programs for troubled youth.

McGinnis has come to terms with the fact nonprofit work will not make him rich. “Having things are just things,” he reasoned.

He remembers how good it felt at Christmas one year while growing up when his family “adopted” another family for the holiday. They purchased substantial gifts for strangers and placed more modest presents under their own family tree.

“If you do what you love doing, the other things will fall into place,” he said. “I haven’t lost my house yet. I still put food in my fridge.”

Stacey Kolegas

Age: 28

Work: Executive director of the Tamarisk Coalition.

Thoughts: “I love nonprofits. I love being able to get in there, roll your sleeves up and get stuff done.”

Stacey Kolegas likes to see results.

In her work with the environmental and education, Kolegas has found the best results often occur when nonprofits and local governments work together.

However, that realization didn’t sink in until after college, when she joined the work force.

Kolegas started down the nonprofit route as a board member and then the director of Yampitika, a Steamboat Springs-based environmental stewardship organization.

She moved from working with four other people to 14,000 people working in environmental education for the city of Phoenix. It was there she saw how some city workers just pulled a paycheck while others were deeply committed to their work.

She now runs the Tamarisk Coalition, an agency of 14 people, including seven full time, who work with other organizations to repair riparian zones and educate people about environmental issues.

“We’re at a point now where we have flexibility and stable staff, and we’re looking even further ahead,” she said of the group.

The Tamarisk Coalition is working with city governments and other volunteers to clear invasive tamarisk from areas such as Kings View Open Space in Fruita, Watson Island in Grand Junction and the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. Much of their work is in places so far off the beaten path that the general public may never see the work.

Still, working in the nonprofit realm offers Kolegas more immediate satisfaction, because there are fewer barriers to getting work done.

“I think you definitely have to have passion for the vision,” she said. “If not, you probably shouldn’t be working in nonprofits. You’re going to get eaten alive if you don’t have passion.”

Abby Landmeier

Age: 24

Work: Housing advocate at the Grand Junction Housing Authority.

Thoughts: “I’m accused of being an idealist. I’m more a realist. I’m more fact-based. I want to know about a problem before I take action.”

Without ever having been a parent, Abby Landmeier found herself telling parents what to do. Armed with a laptop, it was her job to take notes during court-ordered supervised home visits, documenting family interactions and dispensing parenting advice.

She was 18.

“I can’t imagine how that must have felt,” Landmeier said, thinking back about the families she visited.

When she was 19, Landmeier was called to testify in court about one of her cases. She left the witness stand deflated after her testimony was chewed apart by a defense attorney. How could she continue this work? A co-worker persuaded her to keep her chin up, shining light on the good she was doing.

Landmeier was baptized into the nonprofit realm after working for four years at Ariel Clinical Services, an agency that places foster children in homes and serves adults with disabilities.

Skills she learned there helped her transition to the Grand Junction Housing Authority, where she manages a caseload of clients who are struggling to find affordable housing and other services to keep from being homeless.

She finds it odd when friends don’t realize that working for a nonprofit is a real job.

“They say, ‘You get paid for that?’ Yes, I have insurance. I do get paid,” she said.

Landmeier keeps a blog about her experiences, “Confessions of a young nonprofit professional,” on a Facebook page. Her mission is to blog each day for a year about her work. Recent entries include comments about the high level of stress generated in her office from an internal audit. She talks about her desire to help others, by listening to their stories. She posts a photo of her palm on which she has written in black ink: “I believe in social innovation.”

Landmeier embraces the power in younger people getting involved in nonprofits. She admires that members of this generation speak their minds and embrace social media to make change.

“A lot of our generation wants to change the world,” she said. “How can we use the social network and have it spread virally? It’s a different world. We had Betty White on Facebook. You can text and send $10 to Haiti. Nonprofits will be moving in ways you would never believe.”


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