Meet Fusion Board Member Claudia Dengler!
- How did you find yourself in the Twin Cities?
Claudia, born in Chicago and raised in Massachusetts, found herself in the Twin Cities when she was recruited to work at the Wilder Foundation. Before Wilder, she was involved with a few large juvenile justice reform movements while working at the YMCA of Greater Boston and Massachusetts Half-Way Houses (MHHI). Thus began Claudia’s interest in the nonprofit sector, specifically with serving young people, which later helped her find her interest in training and consulting work.
Claudia originally planned to help the Wilder Foundation start their nonprofit consulting group for two years. “Well, it lasted 30 years!” Claudia career at the Wilder Foundation culminated with her role as the Vice President of Programs where she led over 80 programs ranking from elder care services to children’s mental health and affordable housing. “Every few years, something new was added to my area of responsibility and I just loved it.”
- Tell us more about your work in strategic planning and business development. What’s something you’re most proud of in your career?
“I think the thing that really attracts me to strategic planning is the same thing that attracts me to being an operator of a business, and that is you have to see the intersection between understanding what the organization is all about… their history, their strengths and limitations, and culture… and [aligning] that with community needs… “finding that sweet spot is literally thrilling to me”. ‘What can this organization uniquely contribute to the community, and what does the community really need now and in the next few years’… it’s like a treasure hunt. I love helping organizations find that sweet spot; that intersection of capacity and opportunity.”
“What I’ve learned is how to do that in a way that builds capacity in the process. ‘Strategic planning’ is what we call it, but, really, it’s just finding a way to use that curious question of what is our unique place in the community, and what is our unique opportunity to make a contribution.”
Claudia is most happy about accomplishing capacity-building at the Wilder Foundation. “I had the time and responsibility to institutionalize some of these ideas.” Claudia decided to interview staff at all levels of the organization in order to understand their joys, impacts, and frustrations at work. In the end, she discovered that most employees wanted to improve their work but weren’t sure how. Claudia dove into the literature of best practices, researched by social scientists, and after realizing how few ‘best practices’ were being implemented in Minnesota, she asked each major division at Wilder to identify one best practice to install. A common thread among best practices was the identification and harnessing of individual, family, and community strengths to meet current problems and challenges. Claudia made this agenda the cornerstone of her leadership at Wilder.
- As someone with a background in business consulting, what made you want to help lead Fusion Learning Partners?
“Fundamentally, I believe that the public and private nonprofit sectors are an essential part of the nation and the community’s ability to meet the needs of people that are not met by the normal market forces.” In fact, the nonprofit sector emerged from the government’s difficulty in innovation.
“Building capacity in those sectors through education, training and cross sector conversation, is what FLP is all about. I’m for that.”
- From your current role and past experiences, what do you hope to bring to the ‘Fusion’ table? What experiences have inspired you to give back?
“I think, because I’ve had such a long career as an operator of very large programs… I have a deep understanding of the intersection of strategy, human resources, and money, and I am very data driven which allows me to understand organizations in a very holistic way. That’s what I try to do at FLP, is bring that holistic view to the organization.”
Claudia explained how her management of budgets, employees, payment systems, and human resources issues lends an important perspective to Fusion. “To me, it’s tending to those fundamentals that makes or breaks an organization.”
- Part of the mission statement of Fusion is to inspire innovation for the greater good… what does this mean to you, or why do you believe in this?
“It means using the individual, family and community strengths to help make the world a better place.”
“I believe that we have to have a really healthy and vibrant nonprofit and public sector, and part of the way you keep people engaged and energized is through dialogue and new data, and new ways of thinking and being. Bringing people together and allowing them to share practices and experiences and learn from experts is a necessary part of organization development and the community development process. Professional development is just so important.”
- There are many critical issues our communities are facing right now, but if you had to pick one, which issue needs the most innovative thinking and why?
Claudia discussed the issue of polarization and threats to democracy we are currently facing.
“The threat to democracy and the polarization is so troubling… and seems to get worse day by day, despite the fact that nearly everybody acknowledges that it is not healthy. It continues to deepen and widen. I do feel that the institutional players – employees of government – have saved us more than once in the last six years, by being non-partisan and doing their jobs: staying focused on what they need to do and trying to do their best work.”
Claudia explained how her parents experienced Germany during the rise of Hitler, and when her parents came to the U.S. they did not take democracy for granted, they were democracy zealots and insisted that we were all engaged in community and civic life. “Their experience taught them how fragile democracy can be.”
- As a next career, you became a professional sailor – can you tell us more about that – what specifically does that entail and how did you get into that?
“I’ve been sailing since I was 16. When I graduated from college, I bought my first sailboat and lived on it. My father said ‘Don’t you think you should get an apartment and a car?’
“I used to row my dinghy to shore and walk up to the train station in Beverly, Massachusetts, take the train into Boston, and I thought it was perfectly lovely. I’ve always been a really enthusiastic recreational sailor.” When Claudia moved to Minnesota, her career and family took precedence, sailing taking a back seat. “Eventually I bought a big sailboat on Lake Superior and again started sailing more seriously.”
Later, Claudia had the difficult decision to continue working or to retire. “I was right at that juncture where I either would become the next CEO of the organization… and I thought about how I wanted to spend the next 10 years. I felt that in my 25+ years at Wilder I had made a big contribution so I decided to retire early so that I could take the time to evaluate my future. I did a lot more sailing and a lot more consulting work. I found the change very invigorating.” Claudia took a year to secure her Captain’s License and another 2 years to get her teaching credentials in order. With some doubt, she applied for her first professional sailing delivery job to her delight and astonishment, she was hired on the first job she applied for. This began her path to coaching sailors and doing transatlantic crossings (8 total) delivering French built catamarans for American buyers many of whom had very little sailing experience. Claudia received the boats, performed inspections on new boats, conducting tests sails, commissioning the boats and sailing the owners and their boats from the south of France to the Caribbean Islands or Florida.
“I just loved working with new owners, helping them get comfortable and confident on their boat. I spent 5 years prepping and sailing boats from France to the Caribbean, two each year, and spent most of my year at sea or at work in some way.”
- In the last few years, you moved to a home on an island off the coast of Maine – what drew you there, what’s that like, and what makes you most happy there?
“We were looking for 3 things: water, wilderness and community. We looked in a lot of places in Minnesota and even Europe. Then, in 2018, I visited friends here and I just immediately felt this was the place for us! The water, wilderness, and civic community are what keep us here. We have chickens and ducks and a very outdoorsy life. We spend a lot of time outside, either working outside or walking, splitting and hauling wood, and we spend a lot of time on the water. We have kayaks and a little motor boat to get around. I just love the environment, and being able to look at the ocean every night…”
- Fun Facts!
In her free time, Claudia enjoys taking care of their chickens and ducks, going for hikes, knitting, painting, cooking, and having dinner with friends. Her most recent binge T.V. show is White Lotus. If she could meet anyone dead or alive, it would be Frederick Douglas to simply talk with him about America. She would also meet Alexander Hamilton so she could talk him out of that duel with Aaron Burr.