Reflections from a Semifinalist: Groundswell

Groundswell is one of ten organizations selected as a semifinalist for the 2015 New York Community Trust Nonprofit Excellence Awards.


By Sharon Polli, Deputy Executive Director, Groundswell

This summer, Groundswell made two important public announcements.

In the first, Groundswell announced that Founder and Executive Director Amy Sananman will join the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice as the Executive Director of the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety.

Sananman, who launched Groundswell 19 years ago with a vision to use art as a tool for social change, will now take the collective impact lessons we have demonstrated at Groundswell and leverage them to address neighborhood safety at NYCHA developments across the city.

In the second announcement, Groundswell shared that we had been chosen as one of ten semifinalists for the 2015 New York Community Trust Nonprofit Excellence Awards, from a pool of 56 applicants.

These two announcements were deeply connected.

Throughout her tenure, Sananman was an engaged and thorough manager who put into place the wide array of policies and practices that ultimately resulted in our being shortlisted.

The Nonprofit Excellence Awards application process proved an important tool in her tool kit to achieve this.

The application process inspired Groundswell to manage with a focus on results, a strategy articulated in our innovative Scaffold Up! TM model.

The application process reminded Groundswell to adapt and share culturally competent best practices from our peers like Sadie Nash Leadership Project and Red Hook Initiative.

The application process spurred Groundswell to strengthen our governance.

When Sananman was presented with the opportunity to take a new position, however, it became clear that the organization had not thought deeply about what Groundswell would look like if she were gone.

This proved an opportunity, spurred by the twin deadlines of the NEA application and Sananman’s departure, for the board and staff to quickly research, discuss, and pass a succession plan that was immediately put to use.

This succession plan will now be put to the test, as Groundswell embarks on a critical transition from a founder-led organization to one with a board selected leader.

There is no better moment for Groundswell to embrace this pivotal step as a transformative, productive, and generative opportunity.

And there is no better moment for Groundswell to continue to learn from the excellent and replicable management practices identified and promoted through the intensive Nonprofit Excellence Awards process.

Sharon Polli is Deputy Executive Director of Groundswell, New York City’s leading community public art organization, where she oversees day-to-day operations to ensure the successful engagement of 800 youth and 65 community-based partners in the creation of 60 public artworks annually.


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