Colleen Gross Ebinger
Majors: Political Science and Spanish
Year of Graduation: 2001
Current Job Title: Director of Public Innovators at Root Cause, Boston, MA
Please give a brief description of your current position.
I'm the Director of Public Innovators at Root Cause, a Boston-based nonprofit consulting firm and think tank on social innovation, where I lead a national initiative to help governments identify and support transformative solutions to social problems. We're currently advising the Louisiana Lt. Governor's office and have just published a policy recommendations paper with The Aspen Institute in DC. It's a really fun job.
What path did you follow to arrive at your current job?
I joined the Peace Corps right out of college and served as a municipal development volunteer in Honduras. I worked with the local government to modernize its tax and accounting departments and with community leaders to open a nonprofit, self-sustaining Internet center. During those two years, I grew increasingly frustrated by what I viewed as the wastefulness of many international aid organizations. Every so often we would be visited by a program manager from a central office and informed of a new project. Despite the large sums of money poured in, most of these initiatives failed because they had little or no input from the local community. The waste of resources drove me crazy.
From this experience grew a deep interest in community-based solutions and self-sustaining models that offer greater independence from often-unpredictable donors, along with a desire to learn more about the interaction between private and public efforts at social problem solving. Back in the U.S., I launched a statewide policy and advocacy program for Latino immigrants at Centro Legal and helped to pass a voting rights bill through the state legislature. Seeking additional skills and training, I attended Harvard's Kennedy School of Government where I earned a Master's in Public Policy, concentrating in nonprofit management, international political economy, and global migration.
What advice/suggestions would you have for students who might be interested in your career?Policy and nonprofit organizations highly value practical experience, so get involved in the issues you care about by volunteering, doing an internship, conducting field research, etc. International experience is always beneficial because it exposes us to so many different ways of thinking, which helps expand the realm of possibilities as we think about solving problems in any country. It's also become increasingly important to get exposure to all three sectors (business, nonprofit, government); each sector plays a role in addressing these problems so it's crucial to understand how they each think and function.
What skills are important in your field?
Communication is always important: clear and succinct writing, persuasive public speaking, and relationship-building individual conversations. It's also crucial to be able to take a step back to analyze and synthesize the larger picture - identify the opportunities that come with a challenge and connect the dots to identify where your own interests line up with the interests of others (corporations, government, individuals, etc) in order to build successful partnerships. An area that many people don't think about in nonprofit and policy work is the quantitative skill set. Having a basic grasp of economics helps you to better understand the social problem. Being comfortable with statistics will help you wade through all the studies to identify the good research from the bad, and build a strong case for the importance of your own work.
What activities/experiences were helpful at CSB/SJU (and elsewhere) in preparation for this career?
My college political science classes hugely impacted my chosen career path and helped me to better understand the policy issues I cared about, as well as the political structures that impact them. Competing in collegiate cross country and track taught me discipline and perseverance, no matter how tiring or difficult the terrain. (I still mentally put my chin down and get ready to grind through the pain when facing a particularly intense deadline!) Studying abroad helped me better understand international affairs and different cultures, and my involvement in campus ministry's social justice activities taught me project management skills and helped me to recognize the issues I was most passionate about.