Stacy Johnson of La Paz Chattanooga: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization
A nonprofit is run very similarly to a business in that you have budgets and staff to manage as well as a product or service to market. However, the pressure to innovatively solve social, economic, civic, and environmental issues is always looming, and the success of an organization is not reflected in results such as financial return on investment and profit margins.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”,, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stacy Johnson.
Stacy Johnson serves as the Executive Director of La Paz Chattanooga, an organization that supports efforts to make Chattanooga, Tenn., a more inclusive city. Stacy joined the La Paz team in 2004, serving as a board member prior to joining the staff as the Executive Director in 2008. After extensive travel and volunteer work in Latin America, Stacy developed a passion for working with Latino communities. Her work at La Paz encompasses all areas of the organization including operations, growth, and fundraising efforts.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
My degree is in communications and I had three jobs in design the first year and a half after I graduated. The field is very competitive and two of the three businesses I worked for went out of business during my stint there. After the third position, I thought I should make a shift. I had been utilizing my communications skills to volunteer at the local transitional homeless shelter, taking photos for the moms and getting to know the families. I didn’t really know anything about nonprofit, but after my short time there, I thought it may be worth exploring. I sent resumes to every nonprofit in the area and landed at the Homeless Coalition. I worked there for three years, doing everything from event planning to technical assistance and training on their homeless management information system. I learned a lot about the nonprofit sector and met a lot of wonderful people committed to making our community a better place.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your non-nonprofit?
My passion has always been people, and when I was young I was always having debates with my father over instances where I saw injustice happening. But my love for Latino culture and its people began the first time I visited Latin America. I was 19 at the time and studying anthropology in college. As I immersed myself in Latin American culture through travel, volunteer work, Spanish immersion school, and even living in Mexico for a year, I found myself on the receiving end of so much acceptance and generosity. The values of Latino culture resonated with me so much that any time I was able to be around it, I felt like I was home.
This is where my story started to lead me to La Paz. After spending a month in Costa Rica in Spanish immersion during my time at the Homeless Coalition, I returned determined to continue my learning of the Spanish language and culture. A few months later, I sold all of my stuff, moved out of my apartment, and moved to Mexico. I spent almost a full year there teaching English in a local school. I worked at a coffee shop and learned Spanish in my free time. I fell head over heels in love with all of it.
When I returned home to Chattanooga, Tenn., to my life and my friends and my boyfriend (now husband), I was lost. Culture shock is real, and I had a bad case of it. After a few months of searching, my time at the Homeless Coalition paid off and I was connected to the president of First Tennessee Bank. He saw the value in the Latino community and wanted to start something new. I was hired to be the director of a new Hispanic Banking program, and that same contact also asked me to be on the board of a nonprofit that was just starting, La Paz de Dios. It was like all the stars aligned and I had finally found my place, and I served on the board for several years while working at First Tennessee. I was hired by the board in 2008 as the first Executive Director. In those early days, I was only paid for five hours of work per week (and worked much more than that!), but it was a start.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
Our vision is of a thriving Latino community within an inclusive Chattanooga. To us, that’s a community that has financial stability and economic opportunity — one that can retain and safely express their values, their culture, and their identity. We just completed a strategic planning process after the worst of the pandemic. It became evident to us during the COVID-19 crisis that we must use our voice to advocate for our community more assertively than we have in the past. We’ve built strong relationships with individuals and corporate and nonprofit entities, as well as our funding partners, and we collaborated during the pandemic in ways we’ve never done before.
Marginalized and underserved communities are at a pivotal point in their self-advocacy. No longer can we continue to provide short-term solutions to systemic issues. Working to hand the power over to our community so that they can continue the work themselves and reap the benefits of real systemic change is what should be at the forefront of every nonprofit’s mission.
At La Paz we work to stabilize Latino individuals and families through culturally and linguistically tailored case management, systems navigation and information, and referral. We empower our Latino neighbors through educational opportunities and community building. We also advocate for the inclusion of the Latino population within our region.
In the next three years, La Paz will focus on three areas of impact we believe continue to represent obstacles to a thriving Latino community:
1. Equitable Access to Resources
2. Wealth Building and Economic Stabilization
3. Educational Opportunity for All
Our strategies include Advocacy and Placemaking, Community Building and Education, and Family Stabilization.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
There are so many stories of success that inspire all of us to continue our important work. It’s challenging to pick just one story because there have been, and continue to be, so many. But the one that really comes to mind right now is the first-time homebuyers.
In working towards our mission to provide Latinos with equitable access to resources and opportunities, we are not only filling several service gaps that have existed in our community for a long time, but will also help to create the ecosystem to cultivate Latino generational wealth. It is our goal to maximize our 18 years of investment and trust built with our local Latino population to catalyze the economic growth of the Latino communities.
We’ve already started this work. Most recently, we hosted a homeowners workshop for over 35 families. From that workshop, 15 of those families started working on their credit with a licensed credit counselor. One just qualified for a $200,000 home loan and another just purchased their first home. This is a huge success, because greater wealth could provide Latinos the pathway and power to make choices that many of us take for granted.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
There are so many challenges our local and national Latino population faces. Immigration status is a huge obstacle for many, and policy does affect the lives of our neighbors. Comprehensive immigration reform would address many of the root causes, but there are also small things community members can do every day:
- Get out of your comfort zone. To see our vision of a thriving Latino community within an inclusive Chattanooga become reality, each person can contribute. How? Welcome a neighbor, share a meal or conversation with someone different than yourself. Empathize with others that may have much bigger obstacles and challenges than you.
- Readjust your mindset when it comes to nonprofit work. The greatest hurdle for nonprofits is that we are historically underfunded, overworked, and lack many of the resources that could be the difference between short-term solutions and lasting impact. Nonprofits are no better equipped than any for-profit to do more with less. If you see value in the work a nonprofit close to your heart is doing, consider giving — whether that’s of your time or financial resources.
- Be willing to collaborate. Community needs are forever evolving; the way in which we address them, or more importantly, anticipate them, is the challenge. How do we continue to meet immediate needs, but also advocate for real change that leads to true sustainability? How can we combine efforts with other nonprofits to do this important work? During the COVID-19 crisis, Chattanooga nonprofits came together like never before to meet dire needs. What kind of impact could we make if that was the norm? What could we achieve if we stopped working in silos?
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is a journey. It has taken me a long time to consider myself a leader, but it is easy to recognize the amazing leadership that surrounds me, and I am inspired by both my team and community every day. I strive to model my leadership around values that are important to me and that I believe create a real, lasting impact for our community and push us toward equity and sustainability. Collaboration is vital because without it, there is no real equity. Everyone brings value and insight, no matter what their role. Vulnerability is essential to addressing real issues; we are not trying to provide optical solutions or ones that don’t address the root cause of a challenge. And empathy when building relationships is what builds trust that creates an environment where we all feel like we’re on the same team.
And sometimes, leadership is just showing up when it’s hard. I show up so that every person that steps foot into La Paz feels they belong. I strive to use my privilege, experience, and skill set to help others find their strength, power, and voice.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non-profit”. Please share a story or example for each.
- A nonprofit is run very similarly to a business in that you have budgets and staff to manage as well as a product or service to market. However, the pressure to innovatively solve social, economic, civic, and environmental issues is always looming, and the success of an organization is not reflected in results such as financial return on investment and profit margins.
- We as nonprofit organizations who position ourselves to make our communities safer and more equitable are constantly pushed to try and meet every need of our constituency, regardless of our mission and without the guarantee of compensation. This can be frustrating at times, but keeping your eye on the needs of the community you’re serving can be a powerful motivator.
- There is no product sale projection, but simply a scale of projected need, which we then in turn have to convincingly communicate in order to secure funding. This can create a level of unpredictability that may be difficult to navigate at times, especially if you’re moving from a more corporate environment into the nonprofit space.
- We have many stakeholders to consider: board of directors, donors, volunteers, and community partners. It’s important to consider and involve each audience in what you’re doing as much as you can, but remember that the client/customer receiving services is top priority.
- Even when you gain supporters, you may find that those supporters don’t quite understand why they love you. In other words, they may not have a comprehensive understanding of your services or the problems you’re seeking to solve. Stay in front of those people, and make sure you are still communicating about what’s happening, what’s changed or changing, and where you’re going — even to your most loyal advocates. This will help them continue supporting you for years to come.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
My mind always goes to the amazing female leaders in the world, and I want to surround myself with all of them! Sonia Sotomayor, Brene Brown, Michele Obama… The list goes on. I recently read a book by Julissa Natzely Arce Raya. She is a bestselling author and social-change maker. She is using her voice, her life experiences, and her background to advocate for change. I think she would really like what we are doing at La Paz Chattanooga. I would love to share our work with her and get her guidance and feedback AND introduce her to Chattanooga. Our next Latino Leadership Awards speaker, maybe?
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
I have so many, but this is ringing true in my life right now and I think it speaks to my journey with La Paz and community.
Brené Brown says “Belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to BE who we are.”
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.
Stacy Johnson of La Paz Chattanooga: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.