Twenty one years ago, a then recent college graduate who was working as a marketing analyst for First Union Bank decided to take a big risk and take her part-time volunteer job at a non-profit to full time — with no pay.
That nonprofit is Hands On Charlotte and that college grad is now outgoing Executive Director Lisa Quisenberry.
Its humble beginnings
Quisenberry, along with two friends and then 15 board members, founded Hands On Charlotte after seeing a need in the community.
“Merrit Hazzard was a friend who had moved to Charlotte from Atlanta and talked about how she loved volunteering for this new organization called Hands On Atlanta. She met Pendle Gray who had moved from New York where she volunteered for New York Cares,” Quisenberry recalls.
Because of Charlotte’s growth, it began attracting a lot of young professionals to the area.
“We felt that there needed to be a way to engage them in a service that provided flexibility. A group of 15 founding board members was assembled who felt the same way,” Quisenberry said.
The first board meeting took place at the Wachovia in Uptown in February 1991.
And after six months of working for no pay, the organization was able to raise enough money to pay Quisenberry.
From the first project, Quisenberry was hooked.
“The best day was the first project: helping Charlotte Emergency Housing move to their new facility on The Plaza. The next week, we took kids from CEH to the St. Patrick’s parade, and a partnership was born that endures to this day,” she said.
But partnerships with nonprofit agencies and businesses aren’t the only ones Hands On Charlotte spurs.
On Hands On Charlotte Day in February 1994, Quisenberry met someone who stayed loyal to Hands On Charlotte from then on — her husband.
“Jack became a volunteer leader and donor to HOC,” she said. “He has been my and HOC’s greatest supporter over the years.”
And as they say, the rest is history.
But like every new nonprofit, Hands On Charlotte faced initial funding challenges.
“It was very hard to gain traction with funders in the early days, since we were a brand new organization,” Quisenberry said. “HOC had to prove that it was filling an important need in the community. There is almost nothing easy about starting a new nonprofit. It’s very hard.”
However, for Quisenberry, the need was obvious.
“Traditional volunteer opportunities required a commitment that could be daunting to people whose schedules were unpredictable. HOC provides a way for busy people to engage in the community, while still providing a steady stream of volunteers to our partner organizations. It revolutionized volunteering and made engaging in the community accessible to anyone,” she said.
HOC has continued to grow since, expanding its programs and offerings. With a staff committed to its mission, the organization saw 14,000 volunteers last year alone, implemented a new state-of-the-art volunteer management software system and developed a plethora of partnerships and business groups.
But also like every organization sees at one point or another, HOC faced a period when its leaders weren’t sure if it could continue to keep its doors open.
A period of turmoil, a dedicated staff
Quisenberry left Hands On Charlotte in 2000 after the birth of her son, Hart. She said the executive director position was demanding and it became difficult to balance the needs of her family with the needs of the organization, so she then went to work with her husband in his business and joined the Board of Directors for Habitat for Humanity, eventually becoming their board president.
When Quisenberry left, the Hands On Charlotte Board of Directors hired a new executive director to take on her role.
But the challenges at Hands On Charlotte began to plummet – financially and structurally.
In the summer of 2002, the executive director left her position. So, now Director of Programs Doug Macomb, who Quisenberry had hired in 1998, served as a volunteer interim executive director for four months.
Board members then asked Quisenberry back to the board to help hire another executive director and give her input and experience for the organization.
After a couple of months without an executive director, the Hands On Charlotte Board of Directors hired someone to take the position.
In Sept. 2003, the newly hired executive director laid off Macomb.
“Lisa was on the board. She did not agree with the decision and did not like how I was treated, and she resigned from the board,” Macomb recalls. “I talked to Lisa that summer and explained some of the issues I was having with the new executive director, and Lisa was always very honest with me.”
Macomb said he remembers Quisenberry telling him how the Board of Directors had spent a lot of time hiring this new director, and were therefore, in full support of her.
“I knew what that meant for me,” Macomb said. “I wasn’t shocked when I was let go. It meant a lot to me that Lisa was willing to step away from the agency she created to stand up for me.”
But that hire didn’t seem to work out either, so the Board of Directors took matters into its own hands and laid off the entire Hands On Charlotte staff at the time – including the executive director.
In late July 2004, Bob Young, then a board member, took a risk similar to young Quisenberry’s many years earlier and volunteered to work full-time to get the organization back on its feet – except this time for a whole year.
“We almost had to shut down the doors, and we didn’t thanks to Bob Young and his dedication to the organization,” Board Chair Sara Collins said.
Young left his marketing job and focused solely on Hands On Charlotte.
“Sound familiar? Bob’s hard work and sacrifice allowed HOC to continue the important programming that our volunteers and partners had come to depend on,” Quisenberry said.
Young took on the role and duties of the executive director, and in 2005, the board approved to start paying him. He continued this role until 2008.
So, the board turned to Quisenberry and asked her to serve as interim executive director until the organization could continue to overcome some of its challenges and until a new director who was equipped to handle the position could be hired.
Young opted to continue working with Hands On Charlotte in the capacity of associate director and manager of corporate partnerships.
That interim period ended up lasting about four years, but HOC has seen great growth and success since.
Macomb said during Quisenberry’s last term as HOC’s executive director, she brought stability.
“We had our best financial year ever in 2011. Lisa has helped develop lots of great partnerships and received lots of grants to help the agency grow and expand our impact,” he said.
Quisenberry thinks big and isn’t afraid to aim high, Macomb said, while helping push the organization to grow and not settle.
Collins agreed with that notion.
“Lisa has a great strategic long range mind and she can see good opportunities before other people, and in some instances, when other people can’t, and she knows how to build the organization for success,” she said.
One of Quisenberry’s best leadership qualities, Macomb said, is she does what she thinks is right and stands up for it.
“I’ve always admired Lisa’s integrity and passion for helping others and her dedication to our mission,” he said.
Quisenberry said the past three years have resulted in exciting growth for Hands On Charlotte.
“The number and scope of our volunteer programs have increased exponentially. We have a great staff team — made up of professional volunteer managers and AmeriCorps/VISTA members. Our volunteer board of directors is highly engaged in the success of HOC and making great investments in our future success,” she said.
But without the volunteers, she said HOC would just be a good idea.
“Twenty years ago, HOC had 15 projects each month; we now have 150. The economic challenges of the past few years have made our services so much more in demand as a our nonprofit agency partners are serving so many more clients,” Quisenberry said. “They depend even more than ever on volunteers and look to HOC to fill those needs.”
Quisenberry said one of her best experiences at HOC was the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 last September. The signature event was the building of a park with Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation for the Lincoln Heights neighborhood. HOC raised more than $100,000 and hundreds of volunteers came together for the build.
“The best day was on Sunday, 9/11, when we held the park dedication with volunteers, sponsors, neighbors, the local firemen and community leaders, including Sen. Kay Hagan. While the speeches were inspirational, the best part of the day was the sound of dozens of children enjoying the playground behind all the speakers under a huge American flag,” she said. “It was one of those days that I will never forget and was very proud of HOC’s leadership.”
But for Quisenberry, the best part of her day-to-day in the office is the staff.
“Spending time with them inspires me. Their dedication, commitment and care of Hands On Charlotte always amazes me,” she said.
April 30 may have been Quisenberry’s last official day as HOC’s executive director but not the last of her impact. Her successor, Eric Law, starts today.
“It’s an exciting time for the organization, but I’m sad to see her go,” Collins said. “She was a friend as well as a colleague, and I can’t wait to see what her next adventure will be and to support her in that.”
And on that note, we all wish Quisenberry the best in her next endeavors and are thankful for her dedication, commitment and love of Hands On Charlotte. We know this isn’t the last we’ll be seeing her or hearing about her.
– Saja Hindi
Former Hands On Charlotte AmeriCorps VISTA