Always More Room at the Table: Kim O'Brien
Kim O’Brien delights in cooking feasts for her family. She happily ties on her apron — gifted from her four children — that’s emblazoned with the phrase “Home is where mom is” and whips up multiple courses with a strong emphasis on Italian cuisine. Yes, she enjoys the art of cooking ... but her true aim is to tantalize her brood with rich pastas and slowly simmered, from-scratch sauces for a lingering meal where all six of them can hash out their day.
“The preparation leading to a family dinner brings joy in anticipation of us being together to just sit still, laugh and sometimes cry,” O’Brien said. “I grew up with this being a pivotal part of the day, with lots of rich food and hours at the dinner table when my Grandma Veronico (her grandparents
were first-generation Italian immigrants) was cooking.”
When O’Brien is in work mode as the executive director of the Nonprofit Leadership Initiative (NPLI), it’s the same goal: Bring everyone to the table.
At the NPLI, though, the menu is less about food and more about serving up leadership opportunities and community-building collaborations fornonprofit organizers in the Fox Valley. A program within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley
Region, the NPLI graduated its third class of students in its yearlong intensive leadership program in April. Thanks to funding from local and national donors, it provides opportunities for leadership development for area nonprofits, who are often working with budgets that don’t allow for staff development.
A FOCUS ON LEADERSHIP
O’Brien has worked with a wide swath of nonprofit leaders — from heads of community gardens to directors of Valley-wide organizations. But the agency that has perhaps left the biggest impact on her is LEAVEN. Prior to her work at the NPLI, she worked for six years as the development coordinator at LEAVEN, a group based in Menasha that provides financial assistance and case management for people in financial crisis. It was in that role that O’Brien solidified her career path.
“Each nonprofit I have worked for and with has taught me valuable lessons on how to do this work,” O’Brien said. “I would say LEAVEN taught
me the most — first and foremost the pain of a small nonprofit not having access to training, resources and basic infrastructure that the for-profit businesses take for granted.”
To her, the secret to a successful nonprofit starts with a well-trained leadership. The NPLI offers the Leadership Institute, which culminates
with a Nonprofit Management Certificate after a year of what O’Brien describes as Masters Degree-level coursework as well as various opportunities to train leaders and instigate networks and collaborations between like-minded nonprofits.
A typical day for O’Brien is a little like a juggling act: She hits the road all over the Fox Valley for committee meetings and presentations about
programs for board members, she may meet up with individuals who are thinking of starting a nonprofit, or to meet a potential future trainer. And, always, she attends scheduled training sessions as a way to welcome attendees and encourage them to utilize the agency’s online training portal.
“I’ve always been drawn to work that allow me to “fix” things and find solutions. I tell people my next title is going to be “director of solutions,”
yet what I really mean is “I’ll help you find YOUR right solution,” as that’s really the key to success,” O’Brien said. Service and work in the nonprofit realm has always been important to O’Brien. She grew up one of five children. Her husband Dave O’Brien has 15 siblings. So
large families and an emphasis on working together is an ingrained trait for her. Her mother launched the Meals on Wheels program in Burlington, where O’Brien grew up.
“All the positive qualities I see
in myself today I can trace back to how she raised us: to be strong advocates for ourselves, to be kind even when we don’t want to be, to be selfless in helping others and to build strong relationships with family and friends,” O’Brien said. “For my mother, everyone is family. We never knew who was going to show up at the dinner table because literally everyone was welcome. It’s the same in my husband’s family. You can’t run 750 maple taps without a bunch of people working together. We all need to help each other. Who has the skills to do what?”
Dave’s extended family makes maple syrup as a hobby at what they call O’Brien Maple Groves in Manawa. They run the taps, cook down the sap and bottle the finished syrup. This year they canned 578 quarts (it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one quart of syrup, which means the team tapped upwards of 23,000 gallons of maple sap). Kim and Dave met while attending the University of Wisconsin Madison and celebrate 30 years of marriage in May. Their union isn’t the only lifelong relationship O’Brien gained from her time in college. She still gets together with her college roommates a couple of times a year — the group of six will spend a long weekend at the O’Brien cottage in Iron River, Michigan, or rotate to one of the others’ home bases. And every five years the crew takes a big trip together to some far-flung locale in
the United States.
“My college roommates are still my best friends and I can’t put into words the value of the support we continue to provide each other through all the things we have been through,” O’Brien said.
A CHANGING DYNAMIC
O’Brien is happy to have the support as she and Dave enter a new chapter in their lives: The youngest of their children is gearing up
to graduate from high school this year, ushering in an empty nest after 27 years of parenthood.
“I look forward to the changing dynamics of our family as our children grow and build their personal relationships with each other and
with us as young adults,” O’Brien said. “We spend a lot of time in the summers at our cottage in Iron River making family memories.
We hope to spend more time there in the fall and winter now that we won’t have our children’s sports to contend with for the first time in
more than 20 years.”
She stayed home with her children when they were little, worked for the Catholic school system when they were school-aged and finally returned to the nonprofit workforce as they grew older. And while service roles come naturally to her, she found a lot of inspiration
through her children.
“I’m inspired by the kindness I see in the way my children live their lives. People continue to complain about ‘those Millennials’ and I’m not seeing it in my children or the friends they choose to surround themselves with,” O’Brien said. “The bad behavior that’s talked about comes with every age — it’s not a millennial thing. As my 22-year-old says, ‘We didn’t raise ourselves.’ It always comes down to accountability. I
believe that just like in parenting, effective work environments all come down to accountability and empathy.”
Just like the inspiration found in her children, O’Brien is equally encouraged by the nonprofit staffers she works with daily. “I am inspired every day by the people who do this amazing nonprofit work effectively for little pay, usually no benefits, less recognition, and yet are driven
by big hearts,” she said. “This includes staff, volunteer and those board members who work hard to give their time, talent and treasure to the missions that feed their soul. It’s all a labor of love.”
There’s a lot of inspiration, for O’Brien, to be found in books, too. She admits to being a little obsessed with what her husband calls “self-help” books. Her love of reading is so important that she keeps an up-to-date catalog of books she’s read in the last year-and-a-half as her email signature line.
“There is so much to learn, yet the common theme seems to always come down to kindness and caring,” she said. w