Rolf Thompson “really started out as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters. Then when I was at the University of Minnesota, I thought I would parlay my interest into being a naturalist and educator. I studied natural history, including ornithology, which ties into my current position some 35 years later.”
After working for wilderness programs at the two YMCA camps in northern Minnesota, Thompson was asked to take on management responsibilities. “I ended up as executive director of YMCA wilderness programs.”
Along the way, Thompson got an MBA degree “because I discovered that being an executive director was more like running a small business than leading canoe trips, even though my knowledge of the program and the outdoors was really beneficial.”
Thompson was invited to become the Director of Development at the Wilder Foundation. “I spent 10 years with a great organization, working very closely with the president there, developing a fundraising program. We ran a capital campaign to build the building at University and Lexington,” he said.
When a new president took over at Wilder, she wanted to bring in her own team. “I stepped aside and used that as an opportunity to assess my career.” Working with career coach George Dow “helped me realize how fulfilling those executive director roles with the YMCA camps had been.” Soon after, a former board member from one of the YMCA camps, now on the board at the National Eagle Center, approached him about the position.
“I think that reflection process helped me really clarify what I wanted to do at this point, so when it presented itself, it was really obvious,” Thompson said. “People keep telling me, ‘Oh, Rolf, this is such a good fit for you.’ It’s true.”
What does an Executive Director do?
In a nonprofit it’s about leading the organization to greater impact and greater fulfillment of its mission. It’s about expanding the organization’s capacity, which can be financial — that’s the first thing that comes to mind — but also capacity to deliver its programs, deliver on its promise to its constituents, whether that be the direct customers or donors and supporters
What kept you focused during your transition?
One thing is that I’ve had a great support network — family and friends and professional colleagues. I do have a fairly extensive network. It already existed. That’s just been the nature of my role. Maybe this is too mundane, but we had a rainy-day fund. That really allowed some flexibility to make an intentional transition. I don’t feel like I had to reinvent myself by any means. I think where I am now is a natural extension of what I‘ve been about all along. □