Continuing our series where we highlight various jobs within the nonprofit sector, this time around we’re going to focus on program directors. Specifically, Sheri Cognetti of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Y (New Jersey). here… I know Sheri personally—in addition to her work at the Y, she is also a pilates instructor. Sheri has been helping me understand pilates fundamentals and strengthen my core for the past four years! –Senior Editor, Susan McDermott
A program director is a management professional found within the nonprofit job sector. She oversees one or more programs that are administered by her organization, managing alland human resources aspects. The longevity of her role and the program she supervises are typically contingent upon the provision of public or private funds.
Tell us about yourself…
I grew up in State College PA and attended Penn State University. I married and moved to New Jersey after graduation. I am the mother of nine beautiful children, the last three being triplets. My children have truly taught me to live in the moment and not be overwhelmed by all of the many things that we all do every day of our life. I feel that I have been very blessed with my large family and will continue to learn from all of the children and all that is around me.
I fell in love with fitness after my 3rd child, quickly becoming an instructor of floor aerobics. It was a wonderful diversion for me amidst taking care of the kids and something that I was very adept at doing. After the triplets were 18 months, I returned to teaching and quickly took a fitness coordinator position at the Fanwood-Scotch Plains Y. Over the years as my children grew I advanced to a Director and now my current position as Senior Program Director.
I am a Senior Program Director of Health Enhancement at the Y overseeing aquatics, the wellness center, group exercise, and am the project manager for Activate America newly renamed “Health Innovations.” It was with the latter responsibility that I began reaching out into the community with health initiatives and consequentlywriting.
How does the Y reach out to the community to sponsor events & activities?
The Y has had an afterschool program for several years with our local school system and in an effort to bring awareness of physical activity to the community and build on an existing relationship, I reached out to the school system with a pedometer initiative during a Y USA initiative of “America On the Move.” I received a small to subsidize the program and began working within the community. Wearing a pedometer brings awareness of activity in everyday life. Working with the schools, it was my hope that children would motivate parents and parents motivate children. While the program is worthwhile, it is challenging to have the infrastructure to work with such a large, diverse group of individuals.
How do you approach the grantwriting process? What
After writing my first small and realizing the potential for grants with this work, Susan gave me a book on writing, How to Write a Grant Proposal. I read the book, took notes, and gained much information about how I could be better at writing grants. I subsequently received a much larger for Tween Triathlon training from the General Mills . Because we were building a growing adult triathlon program at the Y, bringing this training to a middle school population that nationwide was becoming increasingly inactive seemed to be much needed. It has been a success and the Y is now in its second year with that program.
In April 2011 the Y received a Livestrong Foundation and Y USA to offer a program for cancer survivors. While the focus of this initiative was to offer a free 12-week physical activity based program to cancer survivors in our community, Livestrong at the Y also gave the survivor a much needed support group as well as an educational component. It is truly a worthwhile program and has brought the work of the Y once again into the community.from the
What have you learned from the programs? What are the benefits/challenges?
The support of Y USA with the Activate America program, now “Member Innovation” has been so beneficial. The Y has offered so many trainings helping us prepare to develop community initiatives taking care of our members within our building and without. The support that they have and continue to provide us is awesome!! Their focus with this work however was that change would happen slowly and we were in for “the long haul.”
That “marathon” has been my challenge in working with individuals and also within the community. Change happens slowly and realization of an individual’s journey towards health and wellness as well as a community’s journey in that direction takes place in small steps. I always need to remind myself of that!! I see the benefits every day in my work but getting others to see it is the challenge, be it an individual or a group within the community.
What percentage of your time is spent on raising funds as opposed to developing/overseeing new programs? How do you balance the two?
There is an “ebb and flow “in my responsibilities to write. I am always looking for opportunities as I see needs within the Y and within the community, but I do need to balance that with carrying out the activities for which the grants are written. I try to delegate and train other staff to work within the specifics of the grants that are written carefully selecting those that have a passion for the work to be done. As Jim Collins states in his book Good to Great, “get the right people on the bus.” As the program develops, the staff takes on more responsibility and I usually take on a more supervisory role. I am challenged, however, to oversee all of the programming to some extent as that is my responsibility. Managing it all is as challenging as managing my large family. But both have been my passion and are so rewarding and such an important part of who I am.
Can you give an example or two of recent programs that were successful (in terms of participation, funds raised, etc.)?
We are constantly in a process of assessing and reassessing our programs. We learn from what we do, evaluate, reevaluate, and then remodel the program with improvements. Initially establishing a collaboration with the PTA’s in our community with the pedometer initiative, we have tweaked the program each year. Having seen the benefits and lack thereof with teacher involvement in working with the students, we are hopefully launching a pedometer initiative with the faculty in Fall 2012. We had wonderful success with faculty motivation and hope to build on that with working specifically with just the teachers. Building on the collaboration with the PTA, we are jointly hosting our first 5K in the community focusing on fundraising for Livestrong and a student scholarship and also focusing on developing more awareness of fun, family-healthy lifestyle activities.
Working in small more personal group settings feels so much more successful because you are able to give and receive more support. We are all in need of support. My hope is that those smaller endeavors will build with individuals and within our community and the journey toward health and well-being will be achieved. When working with larger groups, you need more passionate people to carry on the work within their own small community. Developing that is a very challenging aspect of community work. The collaboration of many is needed to successfully build healthier communities.
I was just hosted by the Livestrongin Austin TX. The Livestrong Assembly focused on bringing people together working with cancer survivors, learning and discussing with our peers, and leaving motivated to continue the very important work of working with this very needy population.
What kinds of resources (e.g., books, seminars, mentors, etc.) have helped you in your career as a program director?
I am always reading and learning from many wonderful resources to build on my work. From How to Write a Grant Proposal, which helped move me forward with a new aspect of writing in my life, to Jim Collins’ Good to Great to Lance Armstrong’s books on his life. Books to educate, motivate, and learn have always enhanced my work and will continue to do so in the future. Hearing the stories of others and what they have learned in their work only makes an initial program stronger from the onset. Doing the research to learn from others builds the programs that are then adapted to your situation time and time again.
Going to educational seminars where you have the opportunity to interact and ask questions of instructors and peers as I just did at the Livestrong Assembly builds knowledge and motivation. Y USA has provided me with many wonderful learning opportunities. And attending fitness conferences also helps me to build knowledge with my work. Mentors to learn from in the daily tasks of any job is a must to carry on the work. Again, that frequent interaction with peers helps to build the sustainability of the program. They all help to “kindle the fire” and give you renewed energy. The support of myat the Y has been the most valuable to my work and the work of the Y. The Y has supported all of this work first in their operating budget and then philosophically and spiritually.
Finally, what do you like best about your job? And what is your least favorite aspect?
The most favorite part of my work is developing programs that will build on the health of America. That is one of my passions. Starting with individuals, working with programs in our Y, and then taking them outside our Y… that is my motivation. My challenge is always reminding myself that it takes time and more time and more time. Lasting change takes time to build the support structure to make it endure. Establishing that support system—those collaborations—is the hard work that lays ahead in my work at the Fanwood-Scotch Plains YMCA.
Find out more about Sheri and what she and the Y are doing at:
How to Write a Proposal
Cheryl Carter New, James Aaron Quick
Seeker’s Budget Toolkit
James Aaron Quick, Cheryl Carter New
Winning Grants Step by Step, 3rd Edition
Mim Carlson, Tori O’Neal-McElrath, The Alliance for Nonprofit Management
Storytelling for Grantseekers: A Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising, 2nd Edition
Cheryl A. Clarke