A Journey That Doesn’t End:
The Piper Fellowship Program at 12 Years
They all looked so tired. It was 2001, and nonprofit leaders were meeting with Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust. The recently established foundation was assessing community needs in Maricopa County.
But another need leaped out of the discussions: These people were ready for a break. “These were extremely talented leaders who were exhausted,” said Judy Mohraz, Piper Trust president and CEO. “They were under relentless pressure to provide services with limited resources and growing demand.”
Out of those tired faces came the idea for the Piper Fellowship. The sabbatical program, roughly based on the academic model, offers the opportunity for renewal and professional development for senior executives at nonprofits serving Maricopa County.
Over the past 12 years, there have been 51 Piper Fellows. Their organizations serve Maricopa County residents in a wide range of areas, from medicine and education to social services and the arts. Their sabbaticals have been the catalyst for changes both big and small, including new buildings, more effective management, better fundraising, and expanded services.
“I call the Fellowship the gift that keeps on giving,” said Elaine McGinn, director of planning and exhibits at the Desert Botanical Garden and a 2009 Piper Fellow.
History of the Fellowship Program
The concept of offering sabbaticals to nonprofit leaders was relatively new in 2001. The Durfee Foundation in Los Angeles had started a program in 1997, centered on personal rejuvenation. Piper Trust chose a wider lens, focusing on professional education and development, as well as personal renewal.
These were extremely talented leaders who were exhausted. They were under relentless pressure to provide services with limited resources and growing demand.
With Arizona’s relatively isolated location, Mohraz said, the best way to reenergize nonprofit executives was to create the opportunity to explore best practices in other places and attend top-notch professional programs.
Fellows receive up to $30,000 for travel and study, taking off one to two months from their organization. To broaden the impact, the Trust awards another $10,000 for staff and professional development.
After the program launched, it became clear that Fellows needed the resources to put new ideas into practice. So Fellows now can apply for a grant up to $50,000 for a Piper Fellows Organizational Enhancement Award.
I wouldn’t have been able to afford to have taken the additional leadership development that really inspired me.
Tamara Woodbury, executive director of the Girl Scouts-Arizona Cactus-Pine Council was in the first class of Piper Fellows, chosen in 2001.
The sabbatical let her explore a different style of management: working collaboratively in a “learning organization” that continually adapts and improves.
She started at the source: a three-day course run by scientist and strategist Peter Senge, who developed the concept. At the end of her travel and study, the Fellowship gave Woodbury the breathing space to spend time in her cabin in Flagstaff, reflecting on how to use what she’d learned.
Then she helped lead the Cactus-Pine Council away from a hierarchical structure to cooperative self-managed teams, “leadership from the inside out,” as Woodbury puts it. “We want to inspire every girl to be a leader,” she said.
Arizona became a model, shaping the organization of the national Girl Scout movement, which even adopted the council’s new mission statement: “Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.”
Without the Fellowship, it would never have happened. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford to have taken the additional leadership development that really inspired me,” Woodbury said.
David Noble is part of the latest class, the 2012 Fellows. He’s the development director for Sun Sounds of Arizona, which provides audio access to information to people in the Southwest who cannot read print because they have a disability.
The focus of his Fellowship is how to make radios and home electronics accessible. He has a dual goal: improving the lives of those with limited or no vision and raising money to support the nonprofit.
“At the end of my Fellowship,” Noble said, “I intend to have a business plan for Sun Sounds of Arizona to become a consultant for pay to major manufacturers of products that they would like to have accessible.”
As corporate and federal funding for nonprofits continues to shrink, the Piper Fellowship can be a crash course in becoming more self-sufficient and entrepreneurial.
That was a major draw for Darlene Newsom, chief executive officer of UMOM New Day Centers, who became a 2011 Piper Fellow. The nonprofit is the largest homeless shelter for families in Arizona, providing services designed to lead to stable, permanent housing.
Through conferences and site visits, Newsom studied the opportunities in social enterprise—businesses that generate income while also advancing a nonprofit’s mission. She wanted to build on UMOM’s food-service training program, which provides job skills to break the cycle of homelessness.
The Fellowship paid for travel and training that were far beyond her nonprofit’s budget. “To me,” she said, “this is like gold.”
Now UMOM is expanding its training program and adding a barista component. It has already picked up two more contracts to supply meals to other institutions, raising extra revenue. It’s adopting catering software to track business and looking at a “chef’s night” fundraiser.
Thanks to a $50,000 Piper Trust Organizational Enhancement Award, UMOM is hiring a social-enterprise director to ramp up its business side.
This opportunity for follow-up grants has magnified the power of the Fellowships.
With a staff development grant, the Desert Botanical Garden was able to send 25 people to a design symposium. That gave them a common vocabulary and vision, said planning and exhibits director McGinn.
The Garden received a Piper Trust Organizational Enhancement Award to design a new core trail master plan—and almost immediately picked up a $1 million donation to build a key part of it, the Desert Portal.
The Piper Fellowship is a personal as well as a professional journey. For many ambitious nonprofit executives, taking care of themselves is the last priority, said Avein Saaty-Tafoya, chief executive officer of Adelante Healthcare.
As a 2010 Fellow, she gained insights about customer service and environmental sustainability, which are now being applied in the not-for-profit’s seven sites in the greater Phoenix area. She also got insight into herself.
For the first time in years, Saaty-Tafoya focused on her own welfare. She did a week-long silent meditative retreat at the Esalen Institute in California. “I had never been silent in my entire life,” she said. She reconnected with her passion for painting.
Saaty-Tafoya became so convinced of the value of self-care that most Adelante facilities now have a wellness room, where people can relax, exercise, or meditate.
An unexpected side effect of the Fellowship program is how it strengthens nonprofit management, said Chris Tompkins, a 2002 Fellow. He was executive director of the Foundation for Blind Children at the time and is now the Piper Fellows program coordinator.
The sabbatical forces organizations to plan for the director or another key executive to be gone for an extended time. They become more resilient and better prepared for later transitions in leadership.
Sometimes, as in Tompkins’ case, delegating the work leads to a permanent reorganization and reassignment of duties. “It allowed me to be a much truer CEO,” he said, “and allowed the senior team to assume more day-to-day responsibilities.”
Another surprise bonus was how the Fellows took charge.
“One of the most important things about this program is that the Piper Fellows have owned it themselves,” Mohraz said. “They have shaped it themselves.”
One of the most important things about this program is that the Piper Fellows have owned it themselves.
So past Fellows continue to meet regularly, along with the current group. The program includes annual retreats, monthly breakfasts, and monthly learning circles, where Fellows share ideas and collaborate in problem solving.
Developing this network of leaders has multiplied the impact of Piper Fellowships.
“It’s opened up so many opportunities and relationships,” said Paul Mittman, president of Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine & Health Sciences and a 2009 Fellow.
For instance, a former Piper Fellow joined the college’s board of trustees and almost immediately brought in a major donation, catalyzing a campus expansion. Another Fellow gave the keynote address at a recent graduation.
The Fellowship program reflects the kind of concern that philanthropist Virginia G. Piper showed during her lifetime for the people on the front lines of serving the community.
“She probably wouldn’t understand the current vocabulary of nonprofits, like ‘capacity building,’ Mohraz said. “But she understood a basic principle: Nonprofits are run by humans, leaders matter, and they need the resources to do their jobs.”