Extraordinary Executive Director

Awarded to the chief executive officer of a nonprofit whose work transforms his/her organization and the larger community.

February 3, 2014

 Andrew Proctor of Literary Arts

When Andrew Proctor joined Literary Arts in 2009, the Canadian-born publishing vet jolted Portland’s flagship writing nonprofit with a dose of extroverted moxie. Over the last five years, the organization has doubled its budget and broadened its reach with initiatives intimate (seminars at its new downtown headquarters) and grand (a raucous high school slam-poetry competition). “We’re unique nationally,” the 41-year-old says, “in the array of programs we run and the multigenerational audiences they serve.”

This fall, Literary Arts marked its 30th anniversary in style, with a $2 million endowment campaign to expand its fellowships, and by announcing that the organization would take over the high-profile Wordstock literary festival. “I take great pride in being an administrator,” Proctor says. “I studied music, but always ended up being the band manager.” We explore this born leader’s reading rainbow.


Portland Arts & Lectures: Literary Arts packs the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall for some of the literary world’s biggest names (this season: Michael Chabon, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Katherine Boo). Snazzy venue aside, Proctor touts PAL’s accessibility: “There’s always a $15 ticket—always.”

Wordstock: Proctor plans to amp the city’s best-known lit fest into a one-day extravaganza showcasing the nation’s best authors and the local writing scene’s grassroots energy.

Verselandia: High school poets from across Portland battle to determine the city’s champion rhyme-slingers. “I challenge anyone who goes to keep a dry eye,” Proctor says. “Who knew that you could get hundreds of kids screaming for poetry?”

Oregon Book Awards: The annual awards enthrone the best long works written by Oregonians—fiction, nonfiction, poetry collections, literature for children and young adults, and drama. 

Writers in the Schools: Writing workshops matching established local scribes to high school classrooms reach well over 3,000 students a year, complete with print anthologies and digital chapbooks.

Fellowships: Proctor hopes the new $2 million stockpile will turn the organization’s existing grants to writers and publishers into a national draw. “Beyond $2 million,” he says, “you can attract more significant donations and bequests. Long term, we want to lure writers to Oregon.”

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BARB ATTRIDGE’S pinstriped slacks subtly match her blue-and-white-striped cardigan. The yellow of her tiered necklace echoes the gold of her dangly earrings. She is, in a phrase, put together—and that hardly comes as a surprise. As the executive director of Dress for Success Oregon, a nonprofit that provides professional attire and other career support to low-income women, Attridge knows as well as anyone the value of the right outfit. “I see women come in in sweats and a sweatshirt, and their head is sort of hanging,” Attridge says. “An hour later, I see them standing in front of a three-way mirror in a suit, and I swear they’re standing 10 feet tall.” Of course, dressing well alone doesn’t assure success. That’s why, under Attridge’s leadership, the local chapter has expanded its programs to include a networking group, career-development workshops, a job retention program, and a mentor service. Fifteen years ago, the then-CPA cofounded the Oregon chapter of Dress for Success in a cramped Northwest Portland space with a fundraising-savvy friend. In year one, the organization outfitted nearly 400 women. By 2009, they served 2,500, and the 12-employee nonprofit was helping hundreds of its clients land jobs. The Oregon satellite serves about three times as many new women as the average chapter. Attridge is equally astute at navigating the fundraising world. In 2012, the organization netted more than $200,000 at its annual gala and scored a $200,000 grant from Bank of America, expanding its annual budget to $666,000. Attridge is “incredibly persuasive,” says the nonprofit’s board president, JoDee Keegan, but she’s more than a pitchwoman. She sees how the parts of the organization go together. “An executive director who understands the organization as a whole as well as she does is unbelievably rare,” Keegan says. “Barb is a complete package.”


If growth is the merit badge of an effective nonprofit executive director, consider Dennis Morrow an Eagle Scout. In Morrow’s 34 years at the helm of Janus Youth Programs, the nonprofit has grown from a school and five safe houses for troubled, addicted, and runaway youth to a network of more than 40 programs in Oregon and Southwest Washington. Janus does everything from creating community vegetable gardens in public housing complexes to running homeless youth shelters and, most recently, helping young women entrapped by sex traffickers. Its budget has grown, too—from $500,000 in 1980 to more than $9 million. But what makes Morrow not just effective, but truly extraordinary, is his compassion, empathy, and advocacy for both the tough cases his agency serves—drug-addicted youth, juvenile sex offenders, teen mothers, runaways—and for his 250-some staff members. More than 30 percent of his employees, who could be making more money elsewhere, have been with Janus for more than five years. “I want to create a place where people feel valued, supported, and cared about,” says Morrow, who also refuses to let his staff label any young person as “resistant” or “unmotivated.” (“If they were motivated or compliant, they wouldn’t need us,” he notes.) That environment isn’t going away anytime soon, either: Morrow, who is 65, has no plans to retire in the immediate future, in part because he has eight children, ages 15 to 47—six of them adopted from extremely challenging situations. That means he’s been a consumer of many social services himself and has experienced firsthand how many agencies can exclude the toughest kids from help, a reality that has fueled his own determination. “It’s our job to keep them alive and keep them connected to our services,” he says.

2011: Keith Thomajan, Camp Fire Columbia

When Keith Thomajan talks about things like “brand dilution” and “fiscal management,” he sounds more like the CEO of a Fortune 500 company than of a nonprofit. And based on his track record at Camp Fire Columbia, an affiliate of a 104-year-old national organization that operates coed outdoor camps, after-school programs for kids, and service-based road trips for teens, he could have easily spent his career garnering profits for corporate shareholders. When he took over as Camp Fire Columbia’s president and CEO in 2001, the organization had faced a decade of six-digit deficits. Thomajan promptly reshaped Camp Fire’s disjointed menu of programs (everything from preventing gang involvement to summer camps for developmentally disabled youth) to focus on high-quality after-school programs designed to help close the achievement gap for low-income youth. His vision quickly garnered a three-year grant from the Gates Foundation, which led to similar grants from other funders. He also instituted new fees for service—allowing more affluent members to subsidize programs for lower-income families—that have put Camp Fire Columbia in the black since 2004. Thomajan’s head might be in numbers, but his heart has always been with people. Soon after college, he taught high school in South Central LA and East Oakland before becoming an Outward Bound instructor. While kids have shaped his sense of purpose, his coworkers keep him excited about his job. “People who are dreamers and want to make a difference, and have a profound toolbox to do so, make me love coming in to work,” he says. “I get amped by their energy.”

2010: ELAINE WELLS, Ride Connection

Over two decades ago, while working with community aid organizations like Peoplebank and Community Action, Elaine Wells recognized a basic human need beyond food and shelter: mobility. “If you want to stay independent,” she says, “you must be able to get where you need to go.” So Wells began to nag the executive director of Ride Connection—a 29-year-old nonprofit that provides free transportation for older adults, people with disabilities, rural residents, and low-income job seekers in the Portland metro area—about standardizing training programs for drivers. Instead of just taking the suggestion, the director hired Wells to implement the program. Five years later, Wells found herself in the nonprofit’s top position. During her 20-year tenure, Ride Connection has grown from two employees who coordinated 11,700 rides to a staff of 37 who provided more than 390,000 rides. But ask Wells about her greatest accomplishment and she’ll answer without missing a beat: “Hiring fabulous, dedicated staff who are always figuring out creative ways to do more with less.” That can-do attitude is a credit to Wells’ own leadership skills, says the organization’s development manager, James Uyeda. “Knowing she has our back, everyone at Ride Connection can strive for excellence.”

2009: Monica Beemer of Sisters of the Road

“There goes the busy one.” Monica Beemer recalls hearing one café patron say those words, a few months into her job as co-director of Sisters of the Road. It was 2001, and the troubled organization—an advocacy group for the homeless that runs a café serving low-cost nutritional meals—was losing $100,000 each year. To save Sisters, Beemer spent hours in her office fundraising, rarely talking to café patrons—until she heard the remark. Then she started saying hello, while still firmly pressing the fundraising pedal. By 2005, when she became the executive director of Sisters, Beemer had helped double revenue and had tripled the number of donors. But the accomplishment that means the most to her is also her most recent: Sisters’ board of directors gave her the highest grade possible in building a relationship with customers. “I’m really proud of that one,” she says, “because relationships are primary, here and everywhere.”

2008: Gil Muñoz of Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center

As Gil Muñoz navigates the halls of Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center on the ground floor of Pacific University’s Health Professions Campus in Hillsboro, he is greeted with “hola” at nearly every turn. “We have a particular niche in terms of reaching out to people with language and cultural barriers to health care access,” he says of the 39-year-old organization he has directed for over a decade. Given the center’s four locations, 31 full-time health providers, on-site dental clinics and pharmacies, and mental health program, it’s hard to believe that this organization once occupied a three-car garage in Cornelius. Under Muñoz’s directorship, Virginia Garcia has grown exponentially; it provides comprehensive primary care to more than 30,000 low-income patients (90 percent of whom live below the federal poverty level) across Washington and Yamhill Counties. This public health clinic is at the forefront of medical innovation, having created an early model of a primary care home in which a physician, nurse, case manager, and behavioral health expert work in tandem to address not just patients’ symptoms, but also their overall health. The idea is to help them avoid getting sick in the first place. Despite the center’s growth, Virginia Garcia’s employees haven’t lost sight of their mission. In 2007, Muñoz bought a mobile health clinic to care for the thousands of seasonal farmworkers who come to rural Oregon for the harvest every year.

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