FIA Director Nancy Paul Looks Back on Her 15 Years

Nancy Paul (L) folding donated clothing with a few of the great FIA volunteers

Faith in Action will be getting a new executive director this year.

Current Executive Director Nancy Paul announced to the Faith in Action (FIA) Board last fall her plans to retire in the spring of 2019. The Board has begun its search for a new Executive Director with plans to make the transition effective April 1.

FIA last searched for an executive director in 2003. Nancy initially had no intention on applying for the position. But with her experience in senior citizen services, as Director of the Dexter Senior Center, and working for the Washtenaw County Senior Nutrition Program, she had ample experience with the dynamics of nonprofits. Those who knew her felt she was just the right fit.

“I didn’t really think about the position until people close to me began giving me a nudge saying, ‘You should apply for that,’” recalls Nancy. “It took a few nudges to move me, but I finally applied.”

It was a great move. Nancy took the helm of Faith in Action on January 1, 2004.

I recently sat down to hear more from Nancy about her time at FIA and quickly learned it is really hard to get Nancy to talk about herself. As reticent as she is about herself, change the subject to Faith in Action’s work with economically insecure families and her passion flows free and fast. Whether it is helping folks over a hump or longer commitment, Nancy is moved to help people. She has many memories.

The Dexter Tornado

A momentous change came for FIA in March of 2012 when a tornado unleashing winds up to 140 mph ripped through Dexter damaging more than 100 homes. In a flash Faith in Action went from a community food pantry into the whirlwind of disaster relief. Up until then, the only emergencies FIA faced were the sometimes sudden shortfall in goods and services for vulnerable households.

“The tornado brought into super sharp focus what ‘emergency’ really means,” says Nancy. “All of a sudden you have a community where dozens of homes have just exploded in a natural disaster kind of crisis. It quickly jolted us into thinking, ‘what else can we be here?’”

Faith in Action, with the help of Chelsea State Bank and LaFontaine Chevrolet, created a community fund to help victims of the tornado. People donated to the tune of about $330,000. For those who needed it, the money was available to help with the sudden needs of their personal loss.

Ruin and debris on Noble St. after the tornado struck.

The catastrophe was a defining moment for Faith in Action.

“It was terrifically empowering,” recalls Nancy. “The Red Cross was there, but they were gone in less than a week. After they left, we were still there of course. This is our community. We managed the funds, but it was really the community helping their own. Faith in Action was the facilitator and avenue for the goodwill flowing from people to people.”

People had the sense that their community was helping them and there’s something psychologically powerful about that. People still tell me about it.”

For Nancy, the word “Faith” in the organization’s name refers to the miracle of receiving what is needed for who needs it right when they need it. She marvels over how well-timed Faith in Action actions are. For example, Faith in Action opened their Dexter location in 2008. The recession hit in 2009, and many Dexter residents were hit hard.

“We talk a lot around here how the ‘faith’ in Faith in Action is just sort of trusting that things happen when they’re supposed to,” says Nancy. “Who knew the Recession was going to hit in 2009? We had just expanded to Dexter. Almost instantaneously the demand for our services quadrupled. We opened at just the right time and were there for people.”

The Changing Dynamics of Charitable Support

There have been challenges along the way as any road more or less traveled will have. There are the daily tests of pairing needs with resources but also broader challenges like grant applications and funding that fall squarely on the executive director’s shoulders. One of the biggest learning curves Nancy has experienced is the changing fundamental dynamics for small charitable organizations.

“It has gone from simply doing good and helping people, because they just need help, to a model of service delivery in which the available funding is data driven,” explains Nancy.

Metrics help to keep the vision clear and the support equitable in what can sometimes be a highly emotional exchange.

“We help people if they need food. We help people if their utilities are getting shut off. To do that, there are improved checks and balances in place to help make support equitable for all. We now include certain metrics into our decisions: What are the risk factors? What kind of movement has there been across these metrics? What are the service goals and targets? I’m not a numbers and data person, but I’ve learned a lot.”

“That’s the way grants are now written,” continues Nancy. “You discuss your outcomes in terms of measurable data – how many hours of social work a particular project takes, metrics trend, etc. But at the end of the day, we are still going to be there when we’re needed.”

A Visionary for Affordable Housing

Sharon Apts in Chelsea were remodeled by Avalon with ongoing support services provided by FIA

Faith in Action continues to stretch itself into larger roles since its time as a simple food pantry. This past year, FIA accomplished something near and dear to Nancy’s heart – affordable housing support.

Avalon Housing of Ann Arbor purchased and refurbished the Sharon Apartments in Chelsea converting them into affordable housing units. While Avalon retains landlord responsibilities, FIA is engaged with ongoing support services for the residents. FIA has an active relationship with 16 of the 17 households in the Sharon Apartments.

More recently, Nancy and FIA have been involved in discussions between Avalon and the City of Dexter to build an affordable housing complex within the city limits.

The complex would include a Dexter location for FIA that will serve as food pantry and community room for activities and ongoing education. Critical to the talks was the commitment by FIA to carry Nancy’s torch into the future and provide ongoing support services.

Inspiration and Leadership

Getting others involved in the vision and mission of FIA is perhaps Nancy’s greatest accomplishment as Executive Director. It is how FIA has grown into offering more support in larger and more significant ways.

FIA Board President Lori Minnick says,

“It is incredible to see the number of volunteers who are engaged every day, the increased amount of services and programs that are offered to so many households in the Dexter and Chelsea Communities and the partnerships that have been established like Avalon Housing that is in large part due to Nancy’s vision and leadership.”

A friend of mine, Steve Lynch, volunteers at FIA and in conversation I brought up the Executive Director transition this year. Steve said,

“Even at the volunteer level the organization is well run. There are a lot of volunteers. There is a lot of support for what Faith in Action does. That kind of dynamic doesn’t ‘just happen.’ It’s the trickle down from great leadership. We are really going to miss Nancy.”

2019 Humanitarian of the Year

An hour before Nancy I had this conversation, the FIA Board told Nancy that she had been chosen as Faith in Action’s Humanitarian of the Year. Being on the Board myself, I can say there was a heightened sense of how it could appear awarding one of our own with our own award. But in looking at the criteria, there was strong and overwhelming support that Nancy should receive the 2019 Humanitarian of the Year Award. Her years of outward focus to people in need and growing FIA’s resources to meet ever-growing needs puts Nancy in a rare class of selfless individuals truly working to turn the direction of jeopardized lives.

The FIA Board announces to Nancy they’ve chosen her as the 2019 Humanitarian of the Year

I asked Nancy to give me her thoughts on being chosen for FIA’s Humanitarian of the Year Award by her own Board. It went as I expected.

“I really want this award to be kind of a look out into the community and shine light on stuff that’s already happening out there,” says Nancy reluctantly, awkwardly. “But I guess I understand.”

Minnick has more to say about giving the award to Nancy.

“The recipients of the services of FIA, the staff, the volunteers, the generous donors, the board members and the numerous partners have been very blessed to work with Nancy in ‘providing essential supports to alleviate the effects of hunger and poverty for those in the Dexter and Chelsea Communities’.”

Nancy deftly turned the conversation away from herself and towards another one of her favorite FIA moments.

“Ten years ago, there was a business group that wanted to give away cash at Christmas. This is not something we normally do. But we had identified a couple of families who could really use some cash and trusted them to put it to good use. Each gift was in the amount of $500. That’s quite a sum. This gal comes in and when we give her the money, she instantly responds, ‘Oh my God! I can buy my friend some new tires for his car because he’s been driving me around and the cords are coming through on his tires.’ This person who didn’t have two nickels to rub together was given money. Instantly, her first thought was that she wasn’t going to use it for herself.”

This goes back to the notion that is near and dear to Nancy’s heart – in many ways, Faith in Action acts as facilitator for the community spirit that is already there. Faith in Action is a conduit for the altruistic heart community members have for one another.

She says, “It’s shocking in an amazing kind of way. It is a rare privilege to take people’s generosity and find it a home.”

While Nancy is reluctant to talk about herself, her work, like that of any artist, is an expression of who she is and what she stands for in the scheme of things. As vital as FIA has become under her leadership, Nancy maintains that some of the biggest work has been within her own person. Cryptically referring to the transformative power of selflessness, she simply says,

“I sort of figured God put me here because He knew I needed to be here.”

On behalf of us all, thank you Nancy for being in the right place, at just the right time.

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