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Serving the nonprofit that serves nonprofits

Tera Qualls, founder of YNPN and project manager at the Johnson Center, talks about her passion for building and improving the nonprofit sector.
Tera Qualls, Project Manager at the Johnson Center's Community Research Institute.

Tera Qualls, Project Manager at the Johnson Center's Community Research Institute. /Michael Walton

Tera Qualls - Johnson Center

Tera Qualls works as a Project Manager at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy. The Johnson Center provides nonprofit organizations and philanthropic foundations with resources to operate effectively.

Johnson Center for Philanthropy

201 Front Ave SW

Suite 200

The truth is that it’s not easy to run a nonprofit. There are many administrative difficulties that the outside observer might not realize. Tera Qualls, project manager at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, works to alleviate these difficulties so that charitable organizations run smoothly.

Qualls enrolled in Kendall College with the intention of going into interior design or illustration. She volunteered a lot throughout high school and college, but the idea that she could turn her nonprofit volunteer work into a career hadn't occurred to her. It cliqued for Qualls when she participated in a program called SuperKidz, which makes dolls for hospital bound children.

She switched paths and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree in public administration from Grand Valley’s respected School of Public, Nonprofit and Health Administration. Her first position was an internship at Heart of West Michigan United Way.

Qualls says that she fell in love with nonprofit organizations and the work they do in the community. She says she wasn’t drawn into the sector by any one cause or organization, but by a desire to help nonprofits work well internally.

“A lot of people enter the nonprofit sector because they are passionate about a specific cause, but I wasn’t, necessarily,” Qualls says. “I became passionate about helping the sector be better as a whole.”

Qualls’ unique passion made it difficult to find a place for herself in the nonprofit sector. She says that the sector is very “passion-driven” in regards to causes, so she didn’t quite know where she fit. At the Johnson Center, Qualls says she found like-minded individuals who were passionate about nonprofit capacity building.

The Johnson Center for Philanthropy is a nationally recognized academic center dedicated to providing the nonprofit sector with the resources it needs.  This includes research, data collection, program evaluation, professional advice, philanthropist archives, administrative training and grantmaking training.

“We’re infrastructure support for organizations,” says Qualls. “We’re not doing direct service. We’re not giving away money, but we’re in the center [of the nonprofit sector] helping all these organizations do things more effectively.”

Qualls says there are only three organizations in the nation that come close to the Johnson Center in size and the scope of their nonprofit resources. New nonprofit academic centers in schools like Harvard and University of Michigan have come to Grand Valley’s Johnson Center for help and advice.

Qualls joined the Johnson Center for Philanthropy in 2007 as a program assistant. Qualls describes this as a sort of “incubator” position to train professionals for a more significant role in the Center. Still, during her first year she was given the opportunity to plan the Nonprofit 2020 Conference, which looked at young leadership in nonprofits and encouraged professionals to remain in the sector. Qualls says that this conference is one of the reasons she felt driven to start the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Greater Grand Rapids (YNPN).

YNPN began as a group of young people Qualls brought together at Wolfgang’s Restaurant to talk about what they would need and what they could offer the nonprofit sector. At the time, Qualls was unaware of the national YNPN movement. She just knew it was important for young nonprofit leaders in Grand Rapids to start a discussion and share resources. The organization soon evolved into much more than that, Qualls says

Qualls chaired YNPN for four years before stepping down. She says she wanted to be a responsible founder and let the organization “take on its own path.” She still attends as a member, but today she focuses her energy on teaching and her work at the Johnson Center. Qualls now works as a Project Manager at the Community Research Institute, one of the Center’s branches. Her work involves working with nonprofit leaders and stakeholders to plan and evaluate the success of nonprofit programs.

One of Qualls’ recent projects was evaluating the Community Family Partnership, a project of Network 180. This program provides services for kids with severe emotional disorders. Qualls’ work is a collaborative evaluation effort with a national grant and local teams in order to create a better system of care for the kids.

At the same time, Qualls is working to foster the skills and passion of a new generation of nonprofit professionals. She teaches at Grand Valley’s School of Public, Nonprofit and Health Administration (SPNHA). Qualls says the experience is remarkably similar to some of the professional training she’s done at various nonprofits.

“I did professional development training before for lots of young professionals,” Qualls says. “So now it’s just transferring that to those who are pre-professionals.”

Qualls also says it’s interesting to see her students going through the same revelations she went through when she was in college. She had students in her volunteerism class stand up and present what they learned at the end of the year. For many of them it was the realization that they could make a career in nonprofit, the same realization Qualls experienced years prior.

Qualls says she’s very optimistic about the future of nonprofits, despite economic obstacles that the sector has suffered.

“What I’ve really come to love about the sector is the resilience of people, but I’m very hopeful about looking for different ways that the nonprofit sector works,” she says.

Check out some of the ways Qualls and her colleagues are helping nonprofits work at the Johnson Center’s website.

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