Princeton AlumniCorps Board Chair Kenly Webster ’55 and President Bill Leahy ’66 were interviewed for Shared Effort by Jim Lynn ’55. Plans are underway for Kenly’s replacement as Chair after his three year tenure expires this June.
Q: Kenly, you’re finishing up your second hitch as Chair. How did the problems you had to deal with change between the first hitch and the second?
KW: Roughly three years ago we [then Princeton Project 55] adopted a new mission statement that was the product of a Board no longer dominated by Class of ’55 members, with the assistance of a PP55 President from another class. Transition was a major new challenge. With transition came a strengthening of the responsibility of the Executive Director and much more centralized control, which took patience to accomplish.
Q: What was your biggest challenge as chairman?
KW: The biggest challenge clearly was to implement, without contention, the transition. Smooth transition was critical.
BL: I think that as President in this transition, my role was to assist in expanding the board, looking for individuals from the younger classes.
Q: Was there ever a time when you worried that this really might not work out well?
KW: The doubt came about nine years ago when we were experimenting with other forms of succession that did not materialize. Mainly, we sought to identify another class to pick up the management of PP55, and that turned out to be a concept that other classes were not willing to undertake as a class.
Q: What’s the next big challenge facing the organization?
BL: All of us were affected profoundly by the economic downturn. Regardless of how the transition was going, the reality was that finances were going to potentially affect what we could do to sustain and expand the program. This was all beyond our control, and it’s been heartening to shore up last year – a year that could have been a profound deficit – by establishing the [20th anniversary] gala, which made it a profitable year instead. This financial challenge, of course, will continue into the future.
The other challenge which we have worked with over the last couple years has been integrating individual classes with Princeton AlumniCorps. It has been difficult because this organization began with a camaraderie of a group within a class. This is the kind of spirit the University kind of instills in each class, and when you bring institutions together and try to merge them and their interests, sometimes you end up not being able to do it because of individual spirits – “we should be in charge” or “it has to be a class number.” The name change allowed for other generations to feel engaged with our organization.
We’ve initiated two new programs: the Community Volunteers program, which I think is going to be another way of engaging people who have had no true relationship with the original organization, and secondly the Emerging Leaders program, which should allow us to sustain many of our PIP alumni into the nonprofit world – which I hope in turn will bring them back for Board positions with our organization.
Q: Is there any danger now that Princeton AlumniCorps might be spreading itself too thin with two new programs at once along with a very well-seasoned and successful Princeton Project 55 Fellowship Program (formerly the PIP)?
KW: I do not think so. Financially, we have, for 20 years, raised the money to do what we wanted to do. There are many supporters of the organization to draw upon. From the standpoint of staffing there are ways to ensure that projects have less demand on staff and that staff has efficient participation in the projects. In sum, you have two safety belts: one is strong staff organization (and hiring outside people to help), and the other is a wide network to attract funding.
Q: Now’s your chance to answer any questions we should have asked but didn’t.
BL: Any organization goes through its adolescence and into its early adulthood, and this organization was doing that as they approached their 20th year. What happened was the development of discipline within the Board – some very individual subcommittees, with designated rules and procedures, which are going to be very important as we go forward, because an organization really can’t survive when it meets on an ad-hoc basis and without any kind of internal discipline. This is very important for the issue of perpetuity.
KW: How is transition going to ensure perpetuity? I think we have put in place a very strong organization comprised of the Board, board committees and staff. Although we have the transition in place, we’re going to have to fight each year to keep it permanent. To do this we have targeted programs that are designed to attract leadership and financial contributions from alumni classes from all decades after the ’50s.
A second force in perpetuity may well be attracting leaders from graduates of the PIP program. Almost all of the current leadership comes from graduates of Princeton, who as such have a common bond. But there is a second common bond among the PIP graduates who have all vastly benefited from the program. Therefore there is an additional fertile leadership source from these program graduates. But I would not expect a president of the organization to come from the PIP alumni for yet a number of years.