Erika Schwichtenberg is a Renaissance woman. From starting her first business at age 12, to earning a master’s degree in theology, she is a decorated Veteran of the U. S. Army Reserve, and brings an incredible breadth and depth of experience to the Fox Advancement team. As she takes on a new role as the firm’s Chief Operating Officer, she shares her perspective on how deep relationships drive transformational change.
Since joining Fox Advancement in 2016, you’ve worked with organizations from arts to human services to housing, and many in between. How did you initially come to work in the non-profit space?
My journey with non-profits began early in my life. As a young person, I saw people around me making our community a better place by volunteering their time and talents with local non-profits, and they were having fun!
I first dipped my toe into volunteer opportunities with non-profits as a 4H youth, in Girl Scouts, and the Junior Rotarian program. My family’s spirit of service was foundational, and I’ve always found the best way to be in community is by raising one’s hand and saying yes to service. I truly caught the bug for non-profit work at university when I took an intern position with Sterns County History Museum, where I collected and transcribed oral histories from Vietnamese community leaders and elders who had made their home in St. Cloud. That work taught me the importance of historical context in non-profit engagement. Every nonprofit I’ve had the honor of working with started in either a church basement, a community center, or at a kitchen table. There’s an important origin story to every organization we work with.
You’re known in the office as a fundraising problem solver, which has made you an expert in public sector funding, including bonding, tax credit programs, government grants and program related investments. For most people, those aren’t exactly the most exciting topics. What do you find energizes you the most about this work?
Relationships are the foundation to the work our team delivers to our clients. I love bringing people with expertise together, whether they are teams of my colleagues at Fox Advancement, our clients’ staff and donors, or teams of industry specialists with experience and knowledge to tackle a challenge or brand-new opportunity.
I find incredible value in being able to invest in relationships that bear fruit for our clients, and there’s an additional benefit in most cases. . . friendship. When I started at Fox Advancement, I came from a background in development, and the consulting I had done previously comprised of limited engagements between 6-9 months. Here, our client work typically spans over 3 years. I love that we get to take a deep dive with our clients and truly get to know them and those they serve; their programs have tangible public benefits.
I also thrive in the space of transformation, at tipping points and in taking calculated risks. I see great opportunities when an organization has community investment, volunteer support and a strategic vision that is in alignment with the work they do. This means that they are poised to scale their services, invest deeper or augment programs to enhance their mission. I love working with organizations that are open to new strategies, opportunities and methods that we can bring to the table – That mix is a game changer for both clients and our firm.
As you move into your new role as COO, what are you excited about moving forward? What will keep you vitalized in your new role?
I see a COO as one who empowers a team to solve problems. The intangibles in my new role are especially exciting: are we running efficiently with purpose and courage, and with respect for all concerned? Are we creating healthy spaces at the cross-sections of our consultants and clients? Are we maximizing innovation built upon the bedrock of our firm’s talented team? My new role supports a work culture that is beneficial to both employees and those we serve. We work hard, and everything worth doing is worth evaluating. I am a process driver by nature, and I’m invigorated by learning, refining and taking time to see what works best. Lastly, I see a COO as someone who likes to pull back the curtain to see all the gears turning, and when this is done on a regular basis, it’s easy to spot something that needs attention.
On a personal level, I’m really enjoying this stage of my life. I have a young person at home, my son, who is blossoming into an incredible young adult. He and I share passions and volunteer together, and I enjoy sharing my work with him. I also have the most supportive partner in the world, and he understands how much our clients and their work mean to me. It’s easy to come home to someone who wants to hear about the good work that’s going on in our community!