December 12, 2023 — Since the beginning, Monica Martinez always found her passion in learning.
As a born-and-raised Arizonan, she spent much of her career cultivating a love for her community. After graduating from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College in Tempe, she found herself at the Peoria Unified School District — the same district she attended as a child. Here, Martinez would work as an educator for 10 years, rising from classroom teacher to governing board president, before ultimately transitioning to a finance position at Vanguard.
On the side, Martinez volunteered with the Arizona Council on Economic Education, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching financial literacy to Arizona students.
“I really found my passion for financial literacy and closing the equity gap through finance,” Martinez said. “I leveraged that platform to communicate to my community — my teachers and fellow parents — that that was how we were going to help our students.”
Martinez says she never imagined herself working in the nonprofit sector, but volunteering taught her the value of nonprofits in responding to systemic inequity.
“I started volunteering, and I started to build my camaraderie – my collaboration with board members, getting to know them and their scope of work in finance, or even what a nonprofit was,” she said.
When asked to step up as director of operations for the organization in 2021, she leaped at the chance to serve her community in a manner unique to her passions and skillset. To ease her transition between the corporate and nonprofit sectors, she turned to the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Certificate, an ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation certificate program offering networking and learning opportunities for nonprofit leaders.
“Towards the end of my first year, my president and CEO said, ‘How can I help you improve your vernacular in nonprofits?’” Martinez said. “Mentors referred me to ASU Lodestar.”
Martinez’s participation in the certificate program was more than an individual effort. She received support, not only from the ASU Lodestar Center’s scholarship offerings, but also from the Arizona Council on Economic Education itself.
President and CEO Elena Zee was instrumental in the decision. “I had participated in an ASU Lodestar Center leadership program when I was a new nonprofit leader many years ago,” she said by email. “The experience was invaluable. I wanted Monica to benefit from it as well.”
The Council provided financial support for Martinez’s participation, understanding that “supporting staff with their development is an investment which will pay long-term dividends to our organization and our mission,” according to Zee.
Despite her prior experience from work in government and private finance, Martinez needed a deeper understanding of nonprofit leadership. In her interest area of finance, the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Certificate allowed Martinez to connect with others looking for the same expertise and more.
“My number one idea was, ‘Okay, I’m going to spend and deep dive into finance,’” Martinez said. “A positive surprise: so many of the other nonprofit leaders in Arizona are passionate about their scope of work, and wanted to learn all scopes of the nonprofit — that there’s much more than just volunteering and people just donating.”
As she gained new knowledge, an important facet of the program for Martinez was involving her organization. Even as a newcomer to leadership at the council, she says she felt empowered to use her voice in leading the organization to greater impact using what she learned.
This often took the form of honest conversations with her fellow leaders and peers at the council. For example, in evaluating the cultural archetype of her organization using the certificate’s teachings, Martinez sought her team’s input. The conversation led to a larger one led by Martinez herself.
Having already involved her team, Martinez says “They were comfortable with the conversation of a safe space.” Together they discussed their goals for the organization’s development, aligning perspectives that had previously been “all over the board,” according to Martinez.
This trend continued throughout her certification, even contributing to a new title as her role developed over time: Director of Operations and Community Relations. For her cohort’s capstone project, Martinez was tasked with leading a presentation to a board or executive committee.
“I took all my learnings, made a recommendation for a policy change,” Martinez said. Her idea is on the Arizona Council of Economic Education’s docket for board review this year.
Despite graduating recently, Martinez already looks back to her experience in the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Certificate as a symbol of Arizona’s vast nonprofit landscape. As a newcomer to the sector, she says she found inspiration in seeing the scope of charitable acts happening right in her home state.
“I think that was the biggest win,” Martinez said. “I did not expect to see how much great is going on in the state of Arizona, and I still maintain those relationships. I know what my strengths are, and I know where my opportunities are to grow. And so I’m looking for the next growth, learning experience to encompass that.”
Story by Lillian Finley, ASU Lodestar Center.
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