Nancy Zallek: Guiding a Foundation Toward Growth After Reimagining Her Future

The 10 Most Influential Businesswomen Making a Difference, 2021

Nancy Zallek, President and CEO of Mankato Area Foundation (MAF), likes to measure success by the impact of charitable giving in her region. When she joined the Foundation in 2009, they had a little over $2M in assets. And because of that, their annual granting to regional nonprofit organizations was approximately $80K to $100K. Flash forward to 2021, MAF now has assets of more than $28 million, and their annual granting exceeds $2 million. Nancy, however, does not measure success strictly in funds granted.

Under her leadership, MAF strives to elevate philanthropy as a resource for defining and advancing solutions to the community’s most pressing challenges and opportunities. “Our strategic goals are focused on building and sharing knowledge, strengthening nonprofit capacity, and creating impact that leads to a more vibrant, prosperous community for all – today, and into perpetuity,” Nancy says.

Transition from Volunteer-Run Organization to Executive-Run

Nancy joined the Foundation after the board made the commitment to start hiring their staff. It had been a volunteer organization for over 30 years. “When I started, I was hired for 25 hours a week and our accountant was contracted for 8 hours,” Nancy says. “Together, with our board, we focused on developing a clear strategic plan with an emphasis on creating the necessary infrastructure to support our vision as the trusted philanthropic resource for local donors and nonprofit organizations.”

Nancy points out that their commitment to following the plan and regularly updating their strategic objectives gave them a roadmap toward asset growth and the accompanying impact created by increased granting.  The growth of the Foundation means they now have a team of 6 who work on various aspects of charitable giving and community impact.  “I am incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by such talented and dedicated co-workers.  The Foundation has benefited significantly from their commitment to our work,” says Nancy. “They make it enjoyable to come to work every day.”

Core Values of Mankato Area Foundation

MAF strives to be a knowledgeable and innovative community foundation, promoting philanthropy and driving transformative action in order to strengthen the Mankato region and improve lives. It connects donors with causes that they care about while providing funding to address key community objectives.

Integrity is one of the core values of the Foundation. “An organization dedicated to facilitating philanthropy will not be successful without integrity,” Nancy says. “It is at the basis of all we do.”

Nancy also points out that it is necessary to listen to our constituents in order to better understand their challenges and opportunities.  Therefore, when one’s role is to engage with the community, it is critical that we act ethically in every relationship. “It is also critical that we lead and collaborate while behaving in a manner that advances equity and inclusion,” she adds.

She also acknowledges that charitable giving is highly personal. And they honor that responsibility by providing a deep understanding of the community while also recognizing and prioritizing the personal goals and passions of donors, Nancy adds.

Vision for the Organization  

MAF intends to continue to function as a community asset. And it wants to be uniquely positioned to convene key stakeholders, explore innovative collaborations, pool resources, and reimagine program and service delivery to serve the region in the best possible way. “MAF will be a trusted partner to regional nonprofits, a multifaceted resource for community stakeholders, and a facilitator of local philanthropy,” Nancy says, adding that they will continue to leverage relationships and resources to build a healthy and vibrant community.

Following in the Footsteps of Parents

Nancy has lived her entire life in the Mankato area. Her parents, who are true philanthropists, believe in generously giving their time, talent, and treasure. When they see a problem, they try to educate themselves by asking questions, listening, and ultimately working collaboratively to seek solutions. And even today, at 90 and 92, they are still engaged and committed to making a difference. “I had the incredibly good fortune to be raised by parents who led by example,” Nancy says. “I don’t believe one could have been raised in our household without a belief in giving back.”

Nancy is the fifth generation in her family to live and/or work in the Mankato community. Once, her family owned a century-old department store chain. When Nancy was in her early 30s, she and her brother decided it would not be able to continue. They could not withstand the significant challenges and onslaught from big box stores and online shopping. “We made the very difficult decision to close our family business after 124 years in existence – it made me incredibly sad,” Nancy says.

As Nancy had worked in retail her entire life, the decision to close the department store also required “quite a bit of soul searching.” “So, I chose to use the skills I acquired in the for-profit environment and transition to the nonprofit sector that was making a significant difference in a community I cared deeply about,” Nancy says.

Nancy’s first position outside retail was as the director of a regional ballet. In that role, she learned how to work with and for a board, how to manage volunteers, and how to create successful programming. After working for five years in that position, she moved to the United Way and sharpened her expertise as a fundraiser and nonprofit champion.

“In 2009, the Mankato Area Foundation was searching for its first executive director, and I saw the Foundation as an amazing opportunity to use my newly honed skills for an organization that could positively affect our region in unprecedented ways,” Nancy says.

For Nancy, the Foundation was not an unfamiliar place. She was aware of the organization, as her mother had served on the founding board in the ‘70s. “After talking with their board and learning about their goals for the future, I believed in their vision to grow the impact of the Mankato Area Foundation,” Nancy says.

Wears Many Hats

As President and CEO of a nonprofit, Nancy wears many hats. Her primary role is to lead the Foundation in a manner that guides the organization toward successfully accomplishing its strategic goals and objectives. She works closely with her board of directors, provides leadership for her staff, and be an accessible and creative community partner. All these responsibilities are at the core of a successful community foundation, Nancy says.

However, “the role I am most passionate about is the opportunity to engage every day with individuals and families wanting to make a difference through charitable giving.” Nancy says. I often say, “when you’ve met one donor, you’ve met one donor.” She points out that each individual/family is incredibly unique in the ways in which they want to give back.

“So, if I can identify what gets them excited about philanthropy, I know the community will benefit,” Nancy adds, “If we can leverage that knowledge, our relationships, and resources, we can improve the lives of our neighbors and address our area’s most pressing needs.”

Proud of Center for Nonprofit

Over the years, Nancy has won many rewards and accolades. But she is most proud of her initiative “Shared Spaces – a Center for Nonprofit Collaboration.” Shared Spaces was an initiative led by MAF, created in 2015, as a home for the sector and hub for nonprofit activity.

With a full roster of nonprofit tenants, the goal of this facility was to increase the capacity and effectiveness of the region’s nonprofit sector in order to better support our area, Nancy says.

There are No Regular Days

Nancy does not always have fixed working hours or regular days. On any day, she can be collaborating with a regional nonprofit, working closely with a donor regarding their charitable footprint, strategizing with the board, or talking with a class at the local university. “It is the variety, the significance of the discussions, and the Foundation’s ability to help meet needs that get me excited to come to work,” Nancy says.

“Do I do a good job of turning it off at night? Probably not,” she adds “But after 12 years, I wouldn’t change it.”

Genuine Compassion during Pandemic

Nancy noted that if someone has to experience a pandemic, it was incredibly enlightening from the perspective of a community foundation. “Although we were quite aware of the extraordinary challenges faced by our sector, we also witnessed amazing commitment and creativity as our local nonprofits pivoted to meet the ever-changing situation and the constant need to address their delivery of services.”

Additionally, as the top executive at the Foundation, Nancy was also in the unique position to see the good in people. “As the challenges of the pandemic became more evident, my phone rang off the hook with people wanting to understand how they could support the work of our local organizations,” she says. “The genuine compassion I saw every day warmed our hearts and certainly kept us motivated.”

During the pandemic, the Foundation collaborated with the local United Way to create a Community Response Fund. It was intended to be a “one-stop-shop” for the nonprofit community and MAF’s donors. And it was a goal to remain as knowledgeable and responsive as possible. “It meant that my team adapted to new roles, shifted our priorities, and adjusted to a new norm of working remotely,” Nancy says. “Were they exhausted, frustrated, and numb – absolutely! But they were also motivated, challenged, and grateful.”

Personal Goals for Foundation

Nancy wants to continue to strengthen all aspects of MAF. In the last 12 years, it has significantly changed, but Nancy believes that this change is just the tip of the iceberg. She feels that there will always be a need to be responsive, creative, and visionary.

And her personal goal for the Foundation is to make sure that when she retires someday, she leaves it in a place from which it can continue to grow and evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of the region.

Remain Open to Possibilities

Nancy’s advice to aspiring businesswomen is to remain open to possibilities. “Understand that it is your experiences and your mindset that defines what you can become,” she says. Giving the example of her career, Nancy says that she thought that she would be working in retail for her entire career. But, in her early 30s, she was forced to reimagine her future. “It was a challenging time, but the end result was so amazingly worth it,” Nancy adds.

She also suggests that other aspiring women leaders to enhance their professional life through volunteerism. “The skills I garnered while planning events, working with volunteers, and raising money only added to my self-awareness and my ability to convince others that I was worthy of working for a nonprofit,” she tells aspiring businesswomen.