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Mentor ‘made all the difference’

Updated: January 24, 2013 6:26AM



I always thought of “boot camp” as a military term for the training I never got because I chose to fight news battles instead of real ones.

But it now implies intensive preparation for whatever — not just grunts with guns — and I got “shipped off” to one for new managers in the summer of 2009, after I left my political reporting perch at ABC 7 and signed on to run the Better Government Association, an anti-corruption civic watchdog that works for government reform in Illinois.

The BGA is a venerable, 89-year-old nonprofit with a great history, but it’s had down cycles over the years, and I took over during the latest one. We had a dedicated board but a tiny staff with insufficient resources and limited impact.

I had an appetite for the challenge and a vision for the revitalization but no administrative or nonprofit experience, so the board’s first move was to enroll me in a local boot camp for new nonprofit CEOs.

And that, as Robert Frost famously wrote, “made all the difference,” because I was “adopted” by one of the session leaders, Jimmie Alford, an iconic nonprofit consulting guru with a big brain, a bigger heart and a fierce passion for public service.

Jimmie had recently sold his consulting company and was trying to slow down, but he still handled clients for the firm and juggled a dozen other commitments.

Thankfully he made room for one more.

Jimmie “knew” me from TV and valued the BGA mission, but he also understood that my energy wasn’t enough — I needed help.

So he signed on pro bono as a senior adviser and led a strategic planning process that brought in experts on organizational development, fund-raising and communications.

He mentored me almost daily as we reached out to donors, hired staff and built a full-service watchdog organization.

Jimmie had a preternatural ability to guide disparate groups facing complicated challenges away from crises and toward collaborative solutions. He was a kind, patient teacher with a generosity of spirit that said: Let’s get it done like mature adults. So we did.

His invaluable assistance helped the BGA re-establish prominence as a watchdog with scope and impact.

This was Jimmie’s 50th year in the nonprofit world — he started as a teenager — so we honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in front of a thousand guests at our annual October luncheon.

His wife and business partner Maree Bullock, who’s also an invaluable ally and a dear friend, says it was one of his proudest moments.

But our job wasn’t done. We recently started a strategic reassessment of our methods and priorities going forward — running a nonprofit is an endless challenge — but I knew we’d be fine with Jimmie at our side.

Now we’ll have to be fine without him there because Jimmie died Tuesday of an apparent heart attack following a workout. He was 69.

Maree called me with the news an hour later. I’m still in shock.

Jimmie’s life and impact will be celebrated by many of those he touched, but he left a hole that’s impossible to fill.

And my only comforting thought is that he’s already mentoring promising but inexperienced recruits at the boot camp outside the Pearly Gates.

A consultant for eternity.

Andy Shaw is President and CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at 312-386-9097 or ashaw@bettergov.org



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