Leslie McGinn, executive director, American Heart Association

Leslie McGinn couldn’t have known it at the time, but her sales jobs were the perfect preparation for her move into the nonprofit world.

Before arriving in Colorado Springs in 1989, McGinn was a buyer for Macy’s in California, worked at a car dealership in Alaska and worked sales jobs in San Francisco and Seattle.

“I was tired of doing strictly sales,” she said.

So she sat down with some friends, talked over her strengths and weaknesses and asked for advice about what to do next. Her friends surprised her by suggesting she look for a job in the nonprofit sector, and then she found out about the opening for executive director at the local American Heart Association affiliate.

McGinn landed the job, and after almost three years leading the organization, she’s thankful for her sales experience. Most people don’t realize how important sales skills are for the leader of a nonprofit. Leaders have to sell the organization to the big donors and foundations in the area; they have to sell to the local businesses that provide support for events and projects; you even have to sell volunteers on the idea of giving time to the organization.

“A big challenge with nonprofits is deciding how big a piece of our job is in fundraising,” McGinn said.

- Advertisement -

Sales professionals, she added, have the advantage of understanding how to deal with customers, how to follow-up on prospects and how to set strategic goals. McGinn needed all her skills to guide the organization through a difficult economic period. She’s optimistic about the future, however. The local heart association affiliate was able to maintain its financial footing during uncertain economic times. With the economy improving and the recession officially over, she has her sights set on growth.

The American Heart Association is a strong, well-respected organization that deals with health issues that will directly affect at least half of all Americans, she said. “My family has been touched by heart disease,” McGinn added.

One thing the association does is help people deal with an overwhelming amount of health-related information, she said. People have access to a plethora of health information websites. The problem, McGinn said, is that most of us don’t really know how to evaluate the information. The American Heart Association has taken that information and put it in an easy-to-understand format, she said.

Because Colorado is a healthy state, it’s easy for its residents to become complacent, McGinn said. For example, Colorado is frequently ranked as the least obese state in the nation. That’s good news, she said, but focusing on just the ranking obscures the fact that obesity rates are rising in Colorado.

That’s why McGinn is leading the association’s efforts to help create walking trails that make it easy for people to get more exercise and is partnering with the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs on a research project targeting the area’s senior population.

“It’s all about having a conversation with people and finding out what they are passionate about,” she said.

That and some experienced sales savvy.

By Dan Cook