Maralee Gutierrez has more than 20 years of experience working in the nonprofit sector. Most of her work has centered on increasing the visibility of marginalized and vulnerable communities. In January of 2018, Maralee realized a dream by founding and launching Comunidad in northern Virginia, an organization that equips and engages locally-rooted leaders to transform their communities.
Prior to launching Comunidad, Maralee looked for ways to strengthen her skills as a leader to position herself and the organizations she led for success, “For several years, I had been looking for a professional development opportunity. I did not have the time or the bandwidth to complete a master’s or Ph.D. program, but I wanted something at my level of experience that would go deeper into some of the key issues found in the nonprofit sector.” An online search led her to the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL) Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate and Crimsonbridge Foundation’s LeaderBridge program. CPNL designed the Certificate program to help individuals, working in or with nonprofit organizations, strengthen their leadership and management capacity. Committed to equity and inclusion, CPNL partnered with the Crimsonbridge Foundation in 2016 to expand its outreach strategies and increase tuition assistance for nonprofit leaders of diverse backgrounds. The Foundation’s LeaderBridge program aims to support nonprofit leaders' professional development interests, increase their visibility, and support their networking interests, to promote a vibrant and diverse nonprofit sector in the Greater Washington region. Maralee was accepted and completed the Certificate program as a LeaderBridge leader in the summer of 2016. “I enjoyed the diversity of the program, not only ethnically and racially, but the diversity of perspectives in the nonprofit sector,” Maralee stated. “Having the opportunity to engage with others and delve into issues that have defined us as who we are and built us and put us on our path is very encouraging.” In particular, she found the opportunity to learn from people who work in similar career fields and hear their stories to be a key benefit. Upon hearing about the foundation’s interest in sharing this story, she added, “Truth is, I was quite tentative about my ability to lead an organization prior to the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate program. But after completing the program, I had no hesitations. I knew I could do it! Completing the program gave me an incredible confidence boost.” In 2018, CPNL gathered LeaderBridge alumni to brainstorm ways to reach locally-based and locally-serving leaders who might not know about this opportunity. Maralee participated in this session and began searching through her network for potential candidates. “I believe we all have the capacity and ability to be a part of helping our communities thrive. The better I am, the better we all are,” Maralee stated. “We need more people of color engaging in these conversations. When we neglect or do not provide opportunities to hear the stories of people of color, we do not have the whole narrative. We only have a partial story.” Determined to see more individuals from under-represented communities thrive as leaders, she reached out to a friend, Lynn Thomas, about the CPNL Certificate program and LeaderBridge. At the time, Lynn was Executive Director of Community Lodgings, a nonprofit in Alexandria, VA, dedicated to helping under-resourced families and those experiencing homelessness by providing a variety of affordable and transitional housing options, youth education programs, and community outreach. “It was obvious to me that (Lynn) was a strong leader. She was driven and succeeded at making a difference, and I knew she needed to be a part of this program,” Maralee recalled. Lynn Thomas completed the Certificate program and joined the LeaderBridge network in the spring of 2019. Ever since, she has been sharing her experience and reaching out to individuals interested in the program, encouraging them to apply. This outreach is her way of paying the opportunity forward. “I am very grateful to Maralee for sharing this resource, something she didn’t have to do. I am confident that the knowledge we both gained from the program will make a difference in the lives of those we touch, and while we are competitors, there is no competition.” Maralee and Lynn are now part of a growing group of nearly 100 alumni who have access to additional LeaderBridge professional development opportunities and developing network activities. They are also valuable connectors for Crimsonbridge as it works to connect new nonprofit leaders of color to their programs. “We rely on alumni to reach out to peers and believe they are the best ambassadors for LeaderBridge,” said Crimsonbridge Foundation President and CEO Danielle M. Reyes. “As trusted and respected leaders who know the communities that they live and work in better than anyone, their networks are invaluable.” *Content from this interview first appeared in “Growing Networks and Diversity: CPNL and Crimsonbridge Foundation Partnership,” a Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership News Story. At the time the original article was published, LeaderBridge was called the Crimsonbridge Leadership Fund.