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Advice From An Executive Director | Learn How Your Community Works

Different colored crumpled pieces of a paper. In the middle is a light bulb.

The story of how Mark Rembert became the executive director of the Wilmington-Clinton County Chamber of Commerce in Wilmington, Ohio is an interesting one. He and a friend, Taylor Stuckert, founded Energize Clinton County (ECC) five years ago to develop community-based solutions to growing local businesses, food economies, and energy systems during the recession.

One of their projects was a Buy Local Campaign that caught the eye of the local Chamber of Commerce. Then, two years ago, when the Wilmington-Clinton Chamber of Commerce was looking to bring on a new executive director, it turned to the ECC team, bringing on Mark as executive director.

Why did you decide to start Energize Clinton County and subsequently pursue the executive director position at the Wilmington-Clinton County Chamber of Commerce?

Wilmington, Ohio, where I work, is my hometown. After I graduated from high school, I left with no intention of coming back. I went to college in Philadelphia and was working there after I finished school. My background was in economics, so I eventually decided I wanted to do the Peace Corps. I enrolled, received my placement, and was all set to go off to Ecuador. And as I was waiting to leave, an announcement came out that the largest employer in my hometown was leaving, which set off a huge economic crisis. It was hard to justify going off to work in Ecuador on economic development when our own community needed it so much.

I eventually found myself living at home, along with one of my best friends, who had been unexpectedly evacuated from his Peace Corps stint in Bolivia, as our own hometown’s economy was collapsing. We decided to jump in and help, but we didn’t really know what we were doing. We wanted to be involved in helping the community, so we just started a nonprofit.

What was the most challenging part about getting started?

Starting a nonprofit, especially when you’re doing it with no resources, without a plan, and when you’re responding to a crisis situation, means we spent two years without getting paid. We built the organization on the little savings we had and survived because of a lot of generosity from friends, family, and people in the community. It took us two years to put together a revenue stream and business model that allowed us to reach organizational sustainability, and that is challenging. We had to make a lot of sacrifices to get through some of those times. That’s a challenge for a lot of startups, whether it’s a for-profit or nonprofit startup.

What do you wish you had known before you took on this role?

I feel like, sometimes, if I knew, I may not have done it. We were blessed with naivety. If we had known what it was going to take, we may have been more hesitant to jump in at the front end.

We’ve learned a lot of lessons just about about communities work: the culture of a community, the way decisions are made, the way power and influence work. Having a better sense of the way things work in our community—and every community is different—would have been helpful. Especially if you’re doing community development, those are all things you have to be aware of. We had to learn a lot of that as we went. Now when we do work, we’re much better at it, because we know that stuff.

What are the biggest challenges facing executive directors today?

Maintaining revenue, especially as a nonprofit, is always a challenge. For the Chamber of Commerce, which is an established institution in the community, our challenge is to be more focused on stability.

For Energize Clinton County, a challenge is how to handle innovation. ECC was an organization built on innovation, but we’ve now reached a point where we’ve built a set of programs that are very successful, we’re able to fund them, and that we run them well. But in some ways, that is not what our mission was originally. Our mission was originally to be innovative. And now we’re not innovating anymore, we’re just running our programs really well.

We’re going through this process of trying to figure out how to move forward and bring that innovative energy back to the work, without giving up the resources and revenue streams that you have in place. As a lot of organizations see, there is a moment of inflection when you go from a startup to an established organization, and we’re going through that now and thinking and figuring out.

What advice do you have for people interested in becoming an executive director?

In this day in age, being an executive director requires being a jack of all trades, especially if you are a small organization like we are. I need to have a skill set that’s very broad and I need to have enough confidence to feel like I can touch all aspects of the organization. Even at large organizations, that is becoming more important just to stay competitive.

As an executive director, you need to understand how every aspect of the organization works. Organizations are cutting back staff and administration because they can’t afford it. In the past, maybe you had a set of managers that would take care of aspects of the organization so the executive director didn’t have to necessarily think about those things. Now, there’s just more pressure to take on some of those responsibilities or be more involved because you don’t have as much managerial resources as you had in the past.

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