Perhaps you’ve heard the statistic from the US surgeon general – loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. While the statistic may shock you, we here at Nonprofit Leadership Initiative (NPLI) recognized the significance of community building and networking long before it became a headline-worthy topic.

NPLI’s Three-Prong Approach

When NPLI was created in 2015, our approach to program delivery focused on three key pillars: networking and community building; leadership development; providing training and resources. These pillars were designed to empower nonprofit leaders and strengthen the organizations they lead.

The Beginning of Small Groups

When David Weiss, became NPLI’s executive director, he spent several months meeting with nonprofit leaders and listening to their needs. “I heard appreciation for the cohort-building aspects of our programs. Leaders told me they would call someone from their class when they felt they had nowhere else to turn, but I knew from personal experience that regular, structured interaction with a group of like-minded leaders would be even more beneficial.  It was time for NPLI to lean into community-building.”

Kimberly Stevens, Dyslexia Reading Connection executive director shared her perspective on the NPLI’s community-building efforts, “NPLI is invested in developing and connecting leaders because when we work together our community is stronger because our impact is larger. You never know when you will need to work in collaboration with another nonprofit or need to bounce ideas off a peer.”

Lori Jensen, Community Engagement Manager, Children’s Hospital shared her appreciation of time spent with her cohort, “I love getting together with my NPLI cohort. It is energizing to reconnect and find out what everyone is doing. When we meet, I always learn something new that is going on in the community or get ideas that I want to try at my organization. We have a lot of laughs and really enjoy being together. It is nice to have the support and know you are not alone as a leader!”  

Cohort 5 leaders pictured, Annette Look, NPLI;  Trina Doxtator; Kimberly Stevens, Dyslexia Reading Connection; Ashley Gustafson, SOAR Fox Cities; Brian Leone Tracy, Fox Valley Literacy. 

Small Group Experience

“As a Nonprofit Leadership Institute alum, I’ve always found it encouraging that I have people around me that are or have gone through the same things that I am as a nonprofit professional. The small groups that have been initiated by NPLI have built on this camaraderie that we have as alumni creating a safe space to share, encourage, grow, and evolve, together,  as nonprofit leaders. I look forward to our monthly lunches and know that each one of my small group members is just a phone call, text, or e-mail away. They are the best!” – Hope Schaefer, Girls on the Run Executive Director. 

In the last quarter of 2022, we launched our Small Group program. Drawing inspiration from a framework used by a number of leadership development organizations, these small groups create a space for nonprofit leaders to safely share, learn, and grow personally and professionally. Participants complete a preparation worksheet before each meeting setting the stage for meaningful discussions around both personal and professional activities.

Currently, eight small groups are meeting, in addition to the Leadership Institute cohorts which gather quarterly. We know that it can be lonely at the top and small groups provide a safe space for problem-solving, social connection, and most importantly, a sense of belonging and camaraderie.


Top picture: Leadership Institute alumni from cohorts 1 and 2 meet at The Building for Kids Children’s Museum. Back row: Kathy Fehl, Weyauwega Arts; David Weiss, NPLI; Oliver Aornow, Building for Kids Children’s Museum. Front row: Lisa Strandberg, Pillars; Kristopher Ulrich; Maren Peterson, NAMI Fox Valley; Rosangela Berbert, Samaritan; Alice Zarda, YouthGo.