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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

On beginnings and endings: Looking back at the legacy of the American Express Leadership Academy

AmEx Class 14 at graduation

For the last 14 years, the ASU Lodestar Center has provided a Leadership Academy that has trained over 400 nonprofit professionals coming from over 250 organizations. In 2022, we are developing a new iteration of the Leadership Academy that will continue our tremendous impact on organizational effectiveness and sustainability, prepare nonprofit professionals to excel at senior leadership levels and help solve the challenges nonprofits face today.

At our Class 14 graduation celebration earlier this month, longtime program specialist Cassidy Campana reflected on the incredible legacy of our Leadership Academy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings and endings over the past few weeks.

This month's graduation of Class 14 is an ending – we mark the end of the program year for 33 incredible leaders who have spent 14 program days together – and most poignantly, the ending of our American Express Leadership Academy at ASU. I'd like to take a few moments to honor the legacy of the American Express Foundation and the Leadership Academy’s 14-year history with the ASU Lodestar Center.

I was thinking about where we all started together. What it feels like to interview and meet a new Class. It’s a beginning – and it’s exciting and a little scary. We learn all about each other’s brains using Emergenetics, a thinking preference tool we have used since the beginning of the program. We’ve been on a lot of crazy red and yellow vacations together, and thanked god for the blue and greens who will get us there safely.

And fast-forward nine months, and most of our graduates have made lifelong friends in the class. It’s an ending – and the beginning of a new chapter.

Nearly 15 years ago, Dr. Robert Ashcraft, Jill Watts and Laura Capello created something really special and new for the Arizona market. They built a Leadership Academy uniquely focused on our nonprofit sector. Modeled on the year-long experience of other local leadership programs, the Generation Next Leadership Academy took a different approach from other American Express Foundation programs around the country. The extended program, building relationships within the class and with expert program instructors, truly created a network of leaders for the future. When I look at the roster of nonprofit executives from those earliest days, I see leaders who have carved out a legacy in their work and impact here.

Group picture

The inaugural class of the ASU Lodestar Center's Leadership Academy, pictured at graduation in summer 2009.

If you think about the last 14 years – we have been through it all. A global recession – a recovery and expansion of the economy – and most recently a pandemic.

Thinking back to those early years, we operated during the 2008-2010 recession where program days were filled with anxiety about the housing market and the economic crisis. Our safe space was a touchstone for class members during those two years to talk about how to navigate economic uncertainty and find other nonprofit career opportunities. I’ve been looking at those class rosters, and many of those leaders hold significant leadership roles today.

Then we think about the past three years, and all these cohorts have shared living through a pandemic. I will never forget that day in March 2020 at the Flinn Foundation as we learned that schools were closing and our class members, leaders in their organizations, were asked to step away and make the first of many important decisions about how to navigate a global pandemic that reshaped the way we live. To date, I think our longest happy hour!

Our program pivoted, like all of our participants did, to ensure safety and the integrity of the program. The AMEX class became its own safety net of relationships where they could share fears and solutions and sometimes just step away from the harsh realities of working from home and virtually.

Each program year, our ASU Lodestar Center team would re-imagine the program to tap into leading issues in the sector and create a meaningful program for the selected class. We relied on partners like APS, SRP, Valley of the Sun United Way, Wells Fargo, Blue Cross Blue Shield, CopperPoint Insurance and so many more to support our programming. The Nonprofit Lifecycles Institute, Southwest Human Development, Clear Comm’s Cary Pfeffer, and many others worked with us to provide important trainings that they could carry back to the office.

I spent hours looking through the images from the classes that I led – and we had some amazing adventures. There were light rail and downtown Mesa scavenger hunts that ended with Santa! We explored the Heard Museum, and the dressing rooms of Ballet Arizona, and got lost in the Desert Botanical Garden. Our program day at the Children’s Museum turned into a day of play when we couldn’t get all of the tech to work, and we will never forget the afternoon of Emergenetics on the set of Late Night Catechism at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Each class year was a unique experience designed just for them – happy hours and all.

I can’t list all of the names of our presenters over the years, but I can share that we were honored to have some of the Valley’s most impactful leaders join us for presentations, team projects and training.

About eight years ago now, the Foundation came back to Dr. Ashcraft and asked him to add enhancements to our Leadership Academy. That included creating an executive coaching program. We worked to find top talent who would be willing to help us deliver this coaching, and I want to thank each of these team members. Starting with Wally Graham and Lynne Brown, who really helped me map out how this element of the program would work. They were instrumental in the planning of coaching in our program and they have been coaches with us for many years. Those first few years, we were honored to have Katherine Halpin, Jeanine L’Ecuyer and Andrea Beaulieu join us. We had Paula Shoup, Georgianna Marie, Kevin Patterson and Christine Whitney Sanchez contribute so much to their program years. And of course, our current cohort of coaches: John Phelps, Dr. Kim Madrigal, Jennie Kale, Col. John Boggs, Wally Graham, Brian Wood and Karyn Grant. Each of them has had a significant impact on their teams and on our program. I appreciate each and every one of you and cherish our friendships!

As a class, we were able to share some of the journey of executive coaching this year, and your impact has already changed so many lives in this room.

The Foundation also provided extraordinary opportunities for continued professional development. Our alums took leadership roles on alumni committees, traveled to New York City and the Aspen Institute for trainings, and even earned grants to start a podcast! There were more beginnings even as their classes ended.

Celebrating the end of this program year, I am hopeful that our graduates will share the alumni experience of those before them. Together as new friends, they will celebrate beginnings – we have at least one wedding coming up – and endings. It’s the start of many years together as friends and future colleagues. I can share that not a week has passed in seven years when I don’t talk with at least one alum. It’s a network, and you are part of it! More than 400 leaders have graduated from our program, representing more than 250 organizations around the state – it’s quite a legacy!

Closing this chapter with this community – so many alumni and friends of the program – and beginning to think about what the next chapter will look like – I hope you all will stay close to ASU and the Lodestar Center. Being a small part of these alums' professional – and often times personal journey – to take on the role of leader has been my honor.

I want to thank Dr. Robert Ashcraft and Jill Watts for giving me this opportunity to be a part of this program that I believe in. It’s a gift to be able to change the lives of so many each year and help develop a pipeline of extraordinary talent for the future.

While we plan our next chapter for our Leadership Academy, please complete our interest form to receive updates on the program. Additionally, consider the many certificate programs in our Nonprofit Management Institute, including the Executive Leadership Certificate that more than a few Academy alumni later completed.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog