Julia Burgess, executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS), is feeling very optimistic. Following an eight month vacancy just over a month ago the Island’s social services network hired Kathleen “KJ” Johnson to be its new new development director.
“We couldn’t have asked for somebody with a better background,” Ms. Burgess said of Ms. Johnson, who arrived with extensive experience in running capital campaigns, a desire to work in the social services sector and a love for small, tightly knit communities.
Ms. Johnson most recently worked in Louisville, Tennessee, as a capital campaign consultant where she was successful raising funds for a number of large charitable organizations. The Rhode Island native recently relocated to the New England area in order to be closer to her family and be available for her mother who recently underwent surgery.
“It was just fortuitous that this time in her life aligned with the needs we have today,” Ms. Burgess said.
MVCS selected Ms. Johnson from approximately 50 candidates for a position that had been vacant following the departure of the previous development director, Angela Wheeler, who moved back to the D.C. area after just over a year with MVCS.
Not only is Ms. Johnson happy to be back in New England, she is excited about reestablishing herself in the social service sector. “I really wanted to return to my roots of social services,” she said.
Prior to her move to Tennessee, Ms. Johnson was employed as the development director for a community food bank in Tuscon, Arizona. “Working with a food bank, I really got firsthand experience of what it was like to struggle paycheck to paycheck. You’re working, you’re doing all the right things, but you’re still having a tough time making ends meet. That’s really where I developed my love for social services.”
Ms. Johnson is looking forward to working closely with Ms. Burgess. “Julia’s background is very heavy social services,” she said. “I knew I could learn a lot from her and pull myself back into what I really love. I wasn’t really interested in the big hospitals or universities.
“When you do consulting work you’re really an outsider. You’re not part of the family. I really miss being part of a team involved in the actual delivery of program services.”
So far, after just one month on the job, Ms. Johnson is impressed with the work of Community Services, which last year celebrated its 50th year of providing vital social services to Vineyarders. “This is an organization that is very fluid, that identifies the gaps in services that people need right now,” she said. “Whether they make money or lose money on programs doesn’t matter. Redundancy is not in the cards.”
Over the past half century, MVCS has expanded, in response to the community’s needs, from an affordable counseling center to a five-pronged organization that includes — among an array of essential services — an early childhood program, disability services, a domestic violence program, and the latest additions, elderly outreach and an intensive outpatient program for those coping with alcohol and substance abuse. The organization plans to continue its 50th celebration into 2012,” Ms. Johnson said. “I almost see this as the official anniversary. Last year gave us a chance to reflect on how much the organization has changed over the 50 years.”
Ms. Johnson has spent her first month on the job interviewing staff, board members and community members to get the big picture of the organization’s role in the community. “I’ve followed the model I used when doing a feasibility study,” she said. “I’m looking at Community Services’ reputation and why people should support the agency so I can make plans going forward.”
It’s not an easy role that Ms. Johnson has stepped into. “One fifth of our budget has to come from private donations,” Ms. Burgess said. “Most social service organizations aren’t in that situation. The average is about two percent, but because of our location, our expenses are greater. Most of the services that we provide wouldn’t exist on the Island if we didn’t have them. The higher cost of living here, and the fact that we are surrounded by water, makes doing business here more expensive. Our development department is a key part of our team.”
Said Ms. Johnson, “My biggest priority after being here for only a month is sharing of information. I’ve always considered donors as partners, and I’ve always been cognizant of communicating with them. We have wonderful friends of this agency who are deeply passionate about getting the work done. I want to do a better job of communicating with them about what we’re doing.”
Ms. Johnson said that she already feels at home. “I love it. People made me feel so welcome immediately. As soon as I accepted the job, I got emails from coworkers offering rides and help moving or just ‘Welcome. We’re so happy you’re coming.’ I honestly felt I was home as soon as I got here.”
An avid hiker, Ms. Johnson is looking forward to checking out the Vineyard trails once she has some free time, and trying out some yoga classes. Although she says that she’ll miss the Smoky Mountains, she finds a lot of similarity between the Vineyard and the area in Tennessee from which she moved.
“In that northeast corner, it’s a lot like here,” Ms. Johnson said. “There’s a very diverse population. Three people at a stop sign was a traffic jam where I was. I could not handle Boston at this point in my life. I like that more community-centered approach to things.”