STEPping Up to the Plate
Ronda Connaway was born in the eastern plains of Colorado, not far from the Kansas border. In her early childhood, her family farm suffered through the swath of challenges brought on by the 1930s – not only the Great Depression, but also the added crises of drought, agricultural depression, grasshopper plagues and day-to-day challenges within the Dust Bowl. But her family, along with some others in the eastern plains of Colorado, were the beneficiaries of then President Franklin Roosevelt’s Resettlement Program – a part of the New Deal – which allowed them to move out of the Dust Bowl and over to Delta, Colorado.
Ronda attributes much to the impact that this program had on her family and others she knew on the eastern plains. After moving to and growing up in Delta, she went on to obtain multiple degrees and find lasting success as a social worker and educator – dedicating herself to supporting the development of people in communities across the country. After she retired from her career and moved back to the Gunnison Valley, she continued her commitment to community members here by becoming a STEP advisor with the Community Foundation of the Gunnison Valley (CFGV).
STEP is a CFGV program that for over ten years has offered professional guidance and curated resources in order to help local nonprofit organizations become more Sustainable, Tough, Efficient, and Purposeful. Community members, such as Ronda, offer their services as advisors, pro bono, to organizations in the Valley for up to twelve hours annually.
Nonprofits contact CFGV with an identified need, and CFGV staff connects them with an advisor whose skillset and “style” seem to be a good fit. “STEPs” can take many forms, from a stand-alone presentation to a board, to longer-term as-needed mentoring, to a quick look-see to make sure the organization has the right accounting system for its needs, to facilitating a retreat. There are about 40 people on the roster who have skills in planning, accounting, leadership, social media, board development, insurance, cultural communication – you name it!
CFGV Director of Community Impact, Maryo Ewell, was instrumental in the creation and evolution of STEP, and is proud of what has been accomplished thus far. “STEP is invaluable for nonprofits who are able to tap into the amazing expertise of accomplished people who live here. And the advisors themselves reap their own benefits – they are giving back to their community, yes, but it is also professional development for them, as many people learn by teaching. We’ve even had a STEP where an advisor grew so interested in an organization that she asked to join the board!”
While CFGV offers a variety of programs to nonprofits, the STEP Program is particularly impactful in individualizing support and meeting organizations and their people where they are. Ronda has been especially adept at this for some time, as during her career she organized the first off-campus Masters Program at the University of Kentucky in the Appalachian Mountains – knowing that geography can be a substantial barrier to growth and development, she met the people where they were. And throughout her experiences with STEP, she’s been doing the same thing.
Ronda recalled working on a STEP with one group many years ago – before there was an established department within the City of Gunnison to support one of the historically underserved populations in the community. She met with several stakeholders to brainstorm issues they were having in organizing programs and expanding their reach. Navigating limited resources and a unique structure necessitated creative thinking and a willingness to move forward amid some uncertainty, but Ronda assisted in mobilizing community support and developing strategies that would result in greater impact. Together, they eventually launched the inception of a program that is still thriving for this community today.
More recently, Ronda was matched with a local group who was concerned about a pressing community issue. They sought to establish an organization that could address unmet needs and provide more access and resources for community members here. Again she met with various stakeholders, this time over many months, to help with the initial lift. She strategized with board members, as well as the organization’s eventual Executive Director, on a variety of topics inherent to their success and sustainability as an organization. These included things like developing by-laws, agreeing on how to choose board members, instituting systems and growing infrastructure, and creating a strategic plan to serve as the roadmap for their future. And, as is the case in many organizations, all this was coupled with navigating interpersonal disagreements from those with diverging opinions when it came to philosophy or best practice. Ultimately, the organization was launched on a solid footing and continues to be a fantastic source of support and resources for people in the Gunnison Valley today.
“If you stop and think about the money saved by nonprofits in the community, it is really something…just the hourly rates alone for the STEP advisors they are working with – many organizations likely wouldn’t be able to afford it,” Ronda shared. As a STEP advisor, she has been able to impart to local organizations some of the skills that she developed over decades spent working to better the communities in which she has lived. She’s one of dozens of folks in the Gunnison Valley committed to the vision of Sustainable, Tough, Efficient, and Purposeful organizations, and the way that they can improve the lives of everyone around us.
Learn more about CFGV’s STEP Program by visiting cfgv.org/nonprofits/step-program. The STEP roster is updated annually, and we are always looking for recommendations for new STEP advisors and skillsets.