What excites you about taking over at Northstar?
I don’t see myself as taking over Northstar as much as to help guide the board and staff to build upon the good work it’s engaged since its inception. I’m excited by the challenge of learning about a new organization (to me) and how I can apply my skills and talents to enhance Northstar’s mission and impact throughout Minnesota. I’m impressed by the fact that, from its beginnings, Northstar has included a variety of stakeholders who ordinarily wouldn’t be sitting at the same table, such as recovering gamblers with gaming executives. Northstar acts as a bridge seeking to understand the complexities of problem gambling with all those involved through its advocacy, public awareness, research and outreach to providers and those seeking treatment. I’m looking forward to building new relationships and being accepted into this community, which clearly wants to help problem gamblers. Knowing that Northstar partners with those who seek to ameliorate the impacts of problem gambling is exciting and humbling for me to be part of.
Tell us about your background, including your previous experience with nonprofit organizations.
I’m originally from Brooklyn, NY, and I have a BA from NYU in English Literature and Political Science. I have a master’s degree from Hunter College, CUNY in Urban Planning. I’m a person who thrives on process and planning, though the lesson I keep learning is that even the best plan needs to be open to the unforeseen variables that life undoubtedly presents. Which is the very reason my husband and I moved to Minnesota 26 years ago due to the untimely death of my husband’s business partner. Shaken to the core, we took stock of our situation and decided to take a major leap. Jobless and childless, we ventured here from the East Coast to set down new roots. Happily, with no regrets.
I’m an advocate by nature. From a very early age, I learned to use my voice to express my support/rejection over issues of import. Except for a short stint working on Wall Street (to pay for college), I have sought work where I could make a difference in the broader context of quality of life issues. I left Wall Street as my interest in affordable housing grew. With no experience, I joined a planning firm where I worked on affordable housing projects, master plans and eminent domain projects. I lovingly consider Exit 9A of the New Jersey Turnpike my exit, as I oversaw the residential relocation work and negotiated the land purchases. It wasn’t long after that I realized I wanted to pursue my master’s, where I could focus on the social policy issues that impact our community, while continuing to work on the physical formations of communities.
Once I had my master’s, I sought out positions where I could tap into and continue to hone my executive and advocacy skills. I’ve had leadership roles in research/advocacy and membership organizations and have consulted on a wide variety of nonprofit projects—creating a tapestry woven with the threads of best practices, advocacy, education and community building.
At this stage of my career, I bring a deep interest in nonprofit management and the ability to help boards be more effective and focused on the organization’s mission. The role of the executive director is to nurture the passion of the board and staff and ensure that all involved are working in the organization’s best interest while intentionally planning to fulfill its mission in a fiscally responsible manner. This can be achieved with good strategic planning, diversifying revenue streams, expanding the stakeholder circle and, of course, providing excellent service and/or work products—all along with a good dose of humility and humor.
How do you think your past experience will help you in this position?
Each position I’ve had along the way, whether it was in a professional or volunteer capacity, has been a stepping stone to the next landing place. While the organizations’ missions have varied, the skills and learning are all transferable. As a city planner, I learned the value of and how to manage multiple projects. I learned to deal with constituents that weren’t necessarily in agreement with our proposals. My listening skills are continually improving. My sense of empathy has grown tremendously over my career as I have confronted very difficult situations, particularly around inequities. While I have had limited exposure to gambling problems, I know first hand how addictions can inflict dysfunction within a family. I’ve served as president on a counseling center board and have tackled the challenges of offering services on a sliding scale while working toward fiscal sustainability. I have had the opportunity to testify before the Connecticut and Minnesota legislatures on housing, environment, voting rights and gun control issues. I’m expecting Minnesota legislators to introduce sport betting bill(s) and will make sure that Northstar is advocating for legislation that includes responsible gambling provisions and funding for continued public awareness and treatment for those in need. I have worked for boards and have been a board member. I’ve managed staff. I have been involved with fundraising campaigns as an executive director and a board member. I’m also proud of the relationships I have established with my boards. I believe in empowering a board to fully understand and adopt its fiduciary responsibilities while maintaining a strong commitment and enthusiasm to the organization’s mission. With a relatively small staff, Northstar’s board can be its best champions.
Are there particular challenges you hope to address?
As I understand things at this early juncture, I see several challenges. We need to reinvigorate our relationship with the Department of Human Services (DHS), members of the state advisory committee, and treatment providers. Communication is the key factor in any relationship, and Northstar, as a true alliance, is built on these relationships. One of my first tasks will be to spend some time with DHS, understand its grant process and fund distribution timelines, and determine how we can work more collaboratively to ensure that each agency is able to accomplish its goals efficiently and effectively.
I think another challenge will be to diversify the revenue stream. Currently, most of Northstar’s funding is received through a legislative mandate. It was a wise move for the state to adopt a provision to support education and treatment for gambling problems through the revenue collected from legalized gambling, enabling this agency to exist. Yet, things can change. It’s best if an organization plans proactively to secure its sustainability as well as inviting stakeholders to support the work.
As you’ve gotten to understand a little more about Northstar, do you see specific areas of potential or opportunity?
The gift that comes with starting a new position is that it presents lots of opportunities. As I considered whether to pursue this position, I was excited to learn that the board has great interest in expanding its outreach. As I dive into the literature, it’s clear that there is a public disconnect between acknowledging gambling as an addiction, yet also believing it is a moral failing. Strengthening the understanding that gambling is a real addiction is an opportunity. Expanding the number of chemical dependency providers who include screening for gambling addiction is another. We should encourage bi/tri-lingual counselors to pursue gambling addiction certification and help create public awareness campaigns that speak directly to Minnesota’s growing cultural diversity. I’d also like Northstar to begin establishing relationships with the casinos and offering training to its employees and to work with them to establish responsible gaming policies. I would like to increase our research capacity to tell the full story of gambling throughout the state, including specifics on individual communities affected, state-centric demographic profiles of gamblers, and measuring the effectiveness of our education/outreach programs.
Ultimately, I want us to be known throughout the state as the conduit that provides the latest information about new research on the effects of addiction on the brain and other problem gambling research.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next year? Do you have any specific goals?
As a relative newcomer to this community, my first year will be about building relationships with board members, staff, providers, department of human services and other stakeholders. It will be a time of listening to the needs and hopes of each to discern where our resources can best be directed to enable awareness and prevention to grow. I would like to tee up a new strategic plan whereby we reach out to a broad base of our stakeholders to help determine our long-term goals. I’d also like to explore expanding our ability to support further research on problem gambling. I’m particularly interested in devising a path where we can provide public awareness to diverse communities that reflect their cultural practices and language, similar to the Lao survey that we’re undertaking. Internally, there are some best practices that I want to further instill and ensure that the organization’s infrastructure is solid.
You assumed the executive director position on Aug. 1. Do you have any early impressions of the organization?
The desire to provide comprehensive and relevant awareness to Minnesotans regarding problem gambling is sincere. The past efforts of Cathie Perrault, her staff and the board have provided me a strong foundation to continue building Northstar’s presence and impact in Minnesota and for the benefit of those who are affected by problem gambling.
Susan and her husband live in Edina. Their two adult daughters are exploring their passions: storytelling through film, teaching English in Spain and producing podcasts.