Meet Leslie Starsoneck, the Johnson Center’s New Director of Learning Services
TM: Leslie, welcome to the Johnson Center! Tell us a bit about yourself.
LS: Thanks, Tory. I’m so happy to be here, albeit virtually!
I started my career working in nonprofit organizations, first in direct service management before moving into public policy roles. After that, I spent five years in state government as the director of a governor’s commission on domestic violence and then as division director. I started consulting with nonprofits, government organizations, and foundations in 2004. In addition, I was the program director for the Nonprofit Management graduate program at Adler University’s online campus.
I grew up in Central New York, and have lived in Pittsburgh, Boston, and Raleigh. My husband and I have been permanent residents of beautiful Old Mission Peninsula in Traverse City for the past three years.
You’ve been on the job since April 6 — which means you’ve had to start your new job in an extraordinary time — working remotely, meeting coworkers for the first time over Skype and Zoom… How is that going?
I’m more comfortable than most meeting people virtually and working remotely because of my time leading an online masters program and serving consulting clients remotely. What makes this experience unique is meeting people for the first time in the middle of a pandemic and not knowing how they are being impacted personally. It’s an ongoing crisis without a clear end date, which brings a tremendous amount of uncertainty to all parts of people’s lives. That said, Midwesterners, and Michiganders in particular, are so welcoming and authentic. I’m confident we will all find our groove and create some normal during this ongoing crisis.
Can you tell us about how your vision and plans for the Johnson Center’s professional development offerings are evolving?
My plan is to expand the offerings and the audience while maintaining quality, enhancing accessibility, and embracing diversity of place, experience, and perspective. I’m still immersing myself in our current offerings and as I do that; I’m looking for ways to assure that the offerings are relevant in the short- and long-term and that, as we move some offerings to the virtual space, we maintain the center’s history of excellence.
Philanthropy is a complex, multi-layered sector with a lot of room for innovation and, right now, an additional urgency to adapt and pivot, manage risk, and build as much stability and sustainability as possible. As I dig in, I’ll be looking for ways to partner within the center and across the university.
What do you see as some of the philanthropic sector’s most pressing learning needs? How might those be changing in light of the COVID-19 crisis?
Quarantining has resulted in some positives. “I don’t have time to think” is a common refrain I hear from nonprofit leaders. What often gets pushed to the bottom of the list are really important things like planning, innovation, changing directions when it’s indicated, and doing the ongoing work of collecting and analyzing data and talking with the community. There are boards of directors who have been faced with very difficult decisions over the past month or so and some who will or have lost their leaders. Foundations have had to reflect on their priorities in light of what their grantees and communities need right now.
Some learning opportunities that rise to the top for me are: managing financial risk and a more conscious examination of human capital. The importance of succession planning will be highlighted during this crisis as well as having high functioning boards of directors that are prepared to provide leadership on strategy.
We also can’t lose sight during this pandemic of the pressing need to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into our work. Too often, DEI is treated as one item on a list of priorities. As the Johnson Center enters the online learning space in an intentional, well-paced, and thoughtful way, we will keep DEI front and center. Take the impact of the current pandemic — the experience in New Orleans is much different from Seattle or rural Maine.
Tell us about a trend in philanthropy that you find intriguing or inspiring. How about trends across higher education or adult learning?
The relationship between the corporate sector and the nonprofit sector is one that I think continues to hold a lot of potential for philanthropic models. I also anticipate a continued influx of people moving from corporate careers into the nonprofit sector who need to know how to succeed.
In terms of adult learning and higher ed, we need more models for true integration of DEI principles followed by training on how to deliver them.
How does your position fit in with Grand Valley State University and how might it serve students?
I’m looking forward to partnering with different departments within the university, including those that offer academic degrees in support of the nonprofit sector. Students are our emerging leaders. Their fearlessness to question and bring unique perspectives mean they are our critical partners as we assess and develop our offerings.
On a personal level, what nonprofits or social causes are closest to your heart?
Certain nonprofits are close to my heart because of the way they are run — staying true to their mission, being excellent stewards of funds, leveraging the right partnerships in the community, and using some of their capacity to demonstrate their impact.
Then there are, as you say, social causes that are close to my heart. Children can have incredible resilience in the face of adversity, but trauma — whether it’s chronic poverty or racism, physical or sexual abuse or neglect that goes unidentified and untreated — has deep and long-lasting consequences. Organizations working to address that issue, whether on a policy level or directly with families, are my heroes.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
If it’s a Saturday morning, you can find me at a farmer’s market. As weather permits, I’ll be on a long walk, hike, or riding my bike. And connecting regularly with a close circle of friends, and my sister, feeds my soul, especially now.