Skip to content
All posts

How Smart Nonprofit Leaders Create Lasting Impact

Jennifer Brady, CEO of Development Without Limits, recently sat down with our CEO, Carlos Santini, for a conversation about nonprofit leadership. This entry was originally posted on Development Without Limits; we encourage you to visit their blog for more insightful and resourceful posts!


While many nonprofit leaders are leaving the field and those who have stayed are truly running on empty, I went looking for leaders who have figured something out—people who are doing something differently. The good news is: I found them! This series, How Smart Nonprofit Leaders Create Lasting Impact, shares the insights of amazing people who continue to navigate the ups and downs of nonprofit leadership to create lasting impact.

This series is one of the many ways we help clients of Development Without Limits connect and learn from peers so they can deepen their leadership, improve their programming and reach more clients.

I had a lovely conversation with Carlos Santini, an energetic colleague in the afterschool and youth development field. In his leadership, Carlos draws upon lessons from his mentor and is now embracing his role as a way to share his own experiences with the field. Carlos is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Mizzen Education, an all-in-one tool for K-12 learning resources. At no charge, Mizzen provides high-quality resources and experiences for youth-serving professionals that spark curiosity, joy and a love of learning for children and youth.

Q: What are you most proud of in your own personal leadership journey? 

I read an article about leaders who surround themselves with people who think differently and who are able to express opinions without fear of retaliation. And I think over the years, I’ve really prided myself on just working that way– creating an environment where you can completely disagree with me candidly, and you don't have to prepare your response, you speak from the heart, express your opinion, candidly, respectfully, of course. I think that's the part of my leadership that I feel good about. I feel good that folks are comfortable disagreeing. And I've grown because of that.  I've picked up new skills and new ways of thinking largely because of that attitude.  

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you've grown as a leader?   

For me, leadership has always been something that I've run away from. In my life I've not seen myself as a leader. If you were to look at a compendium of images of events and history of the organization, you won't see a lot of images of me because I always wanted to be in the background, behind the scenes. I thrust the attention on either the staff or the students or other stakeholders. And, to an extent, that's been kind of cool, because ultimately, the work we do is about amplifying the work, it's not about us.  

But I know that as a leader, it's important that my voice is actually heard, and that I actually get to share my experiences. With me doing this work for 20 years and not sharing my own experience, I would be robbing people. So I think an area that I've grown is being comfortable with talking about myself and my experience.  

I think that's the part of my leadership that I've grown in pretty tremendously–being comfortable with stepping up in front of a camera or microphone and sharing about who I am, how to do this work, what I've learned, how I do it, my ups and downs.  

Q: What’s an obstacle or challenge that you're still working on as a leader?  

I see this more operational leadership, meaning that I have to make sure that I build a culture of goal setting, accountability, and then tracking against that growth and progress. I think that's an area of my leadership that I need to do better with and grow.  How do I hold folks accountable? How do I ensure that there are measurable gains against a mission or a vision? It's not just about inspired leadership, but it's also about informed leadership, which means that you're tracking, you're monitoring, you have data that you can reference, data in how you talk about the work. So I think for me, that's an area where there's a lot of room for growth. 

Q: What is the best advice you've received on leadership that has influenced you? 

There's been lots. I think there's one quote that I always think about, and it's from one of my first mentors in this work. Gary Moody was the second executive director for the Afterschool All Star, Los Angeles chapter. And he was also a very prominent figure, in California around afterschool education during the early period of the ASES grant. So around 2003, 2004, he came down to Fresno and Central Valley. And he was like a Sensei. He was the kind of leader that would just kind of put you out there. He wouldn't tell you a lot. He wouldn't prep you a lot. And he would put you in front of high stakes environments. Because he wanted us to just embrace the unknown and be comfortable with that type of situation. And he always used to say,  

“Everything changes, everything is connected. Pay attention.”  

The reason why that sticks with me is that we are, in especially the last three years, we're in a constant state of change.  Whenever big funding comes through the door, systems go through a lot of change. And that could be a change in priority and change in infrastructure systems. So, “Everything changes, everything is connected.” Things affect change, things affect other things, nothing is independent. I would say all ecosystems, especially in our work, are connected.  

When there is a shortfall of staff, when there's the wrong focus, when there are very few partnerships, or great partnerships to school day– all those things are connected. And so we have to make sure that we're paying attention to any little movement in our work because that ripple effect will have a significant impact. And if you're paying attention, you'll catch it early. And you'll be able to be a thought leader, you'll be able to address issues ahead of time, and be a little more prepared. And so I think that quote, “Everything changes, everything is connected. Pay attention,” is something that I always can go back to. 

Q: What does your next level of leadership success look like? What do you envision for yourself as you're moving forward? 

I think the next vision of leadership success is to affect adults that are in my orbit and also to affect and impact youth.  I want them to say, “Oh, I remember Mr. Carlos. And he said, and he modeled, and he worked, and he did.” My next level of success is to be able to pass on my lessons learned, maybe model some good leadership habits for youth, and for them to emulate those, develop those, do better than I did, and then impact the next generation.