CFK in the News

Executive Director Colin Smith reflects on 8-year tenure at Change for Kids

You have been the Executive Director at Change for Kids since 2009. What was your first year like?

Tough, Colin-Smith_1 (1)but surprisingly fun. Raising money in 2009, during the heart of the Great Recession, was difficult to say the least. We were essentially building a donor base from scratch at a time when everyone was seeing their disposable income and wealth collapse – particularly in NYC. They were looking for ways to cut donations, the needs at our partner schools were getting even more challenging, and we had minimal infrastructure in place to address either challenge. Three things made it “surprisingly fun.” First, starting over allowed us to rethink every aspect of the organization. Second, we could envision a brighter future and I think people were really looking for that brightness in those pretty dark days. And third, the sheer extent of the challenge made the small group that signed on (for the Board, Junior Council, and staff) as tight as any team I’ve been a part of. The staff at the time were two folks, both of whom were some of my favorite co-workers: Mike Quinzio, a great friend from college; and my little sister, Caitlin (it doesn’t get much more grassroots than that). We had a blast together every day. It felt like we were all in this together, working toward a crazy, ambitious goal. I’m proud that those ethos have been maintained ever since.

What are you most proud of accomplishing as Executive Director?

That’s hard. I’m proud of all of the last 8 years – not only he good times, but how we’ve responded to a lot of times when we were on the ropes. But if I’m forced to pick one, it’s Super Chefs 2015. That year, we brought our annual gala to a new level. We were closing in on ten schools- it seemed as though the organization was light-years ahead if where it had been, even just the year before.  We hosted 600+ supporters and the night was capped off with a speech by an amazing student, Leonard, who sparked tears of joy from an inspired crowd as he talked eloquently about the impact we had made in his life. Then and there I saw just how far Change for Kids had come over the years. The picture of Leonard, his principal and I at the event still adorns my office as my single fondest CFK memory.

Kids say the darndest things. Tell us about one of your favorite moments with a student or group of students.

It’s hard to beat one of my first experiences with Change for Kids, almost ten years ago. I had just joined the Junior Council and volunteered to chaperone a field trip to the Central Park Zoo. When I hopped on the bus from the school to the Zoo, I noticed one student sitting by himself and staring off to the distance outside of his window. I sat next to him and struggled to chat with him on the ride down. It turns out he was in the special education program and had a particularly difficult time socially. When we arrived at the Zoo, my primary job was to keep up with that particular student for the entire trip. The task severely stretched my limited fitness. He darted around the Zoo, pointing out different animals and asking me 100 questions along every stop in our obstacle course. When the trip ended, I rode back with him and didn’t feel like either of us paused our conversation for a breath. The next week, I received a letter from the student’s teacher saying that she had never seen him more engaged in school (and happier) than in the days following that trip. I was hooked from that point on.

What advice would you give the incoming Executive Director?

Bring your A game because we have a staff, Board, principals and supporters who don’t miss a beat. We just held our April Board meeting, focused on next year’s strategic goals, and the depth of the engagement and conversation was inspiring. Our team wants to do big things, and it has the horsepower to achieve those goals. I feel the same when I speak with sponsors, pushing for their next volunteer activity; or schools, driving us to provide greater service. Our community is an impressive collection of talent and drive. Enjoy it because that’s a real, and unique, privilege.

What’s next for you after CFK?

First, I never want there to be an “after CFK.” I’m planning on taking a different leadership role here, but this place will always be a central passion in my life. I see us becoming a national organization, helping hundreds of thousands of students. And I want to do my part in the years ahead to help make that happen. But to directly answer the question… I want to make the largest impact I can. What that looks like next is TBD. I’m looking forward to exploring industries and opportunities where I feel like I can leverage my time and leadership to make a difference – whether that’s a for-profit, nonprofit or in public service. This is an exciting time for my wife and me as we look to our next chapter.