This summer, I received the opportunity to intern at Austin Smiles after discovering them at a career fair. It was a perfect fit for me, as I was seeking to gain experience on both a practical and personal level in the nonprofit industry, an area that I would like to work in after graduating. Austin Smiles is a unique nonprofit in that it currently has a total full-time staff of two, both of whom run everything from administration to fundraising to volunteer management. Despite its small staff, Austin Smiles manages to monumentally impact the lives of children worldwide through their volunteer surgical work annually. I’m thankful for the opportunity I’ve had this summer to learn more about my field of interest and receive generous support from my supervisors throughout the internship process. Since Austin Smiles is the first place I’ve ever interned at, I’ve had to overcome a steep learning curve in building work ethic, time management, and other important job skills, all of which were particularly relevant to me while working remotely during a pandemic. Therefore I feel lucky that the Austin Smiles staff took their internship program seriously as an educational experience for interns and were eager to provide guidance, encouragement, and help whenever I asked.
As part of my coursework for my internship class at UT Austin, I was required to interview a person at my internship that I identified as a leader in the organization. For this assignment, I chose to interview my supervisor and executive director of Austin Smiles, Renee Hanson-Malone. Interviewing Renee was one of the best learning opportunities I had at Austin Smiles, as it turns out that Renee has had a wide range of experience in the nonprofit industry. Her leadership journey was filled with valuable career lessons, which she passed on to me during our interview.
Although I knew that as an executive director Renee had to oversee several different areas within a nonprofit, I hadn’t realized just how many roles she juggled on a daily basis until I interviewed her. Within the broad umbrella of directing Austin Smiles’ business operations, Renee oversees administration, project management both internationally and locally, finance and budgeting, fundraising efforts, governance with the Board of Directors, community engagement, and general public relations. Renee also informed me that much of her most applicable career skills, such as fundraising, were learned through field experience rather than schooling. Seeing just how many tasks Renee oversees regularly, it became clear to me while working at Austin Smiles that working at a nonprofit requires serious drive and ability to multitask. I also discovered that Renee’s recent previous job position was Chief Development Officer at Boys and Girls Club of America, where she planned five major events annually and worked 60-80 hours per week alongside 200 employees. Although working at Austin Smiles was a step down in size for Renee, I saw how prioritizing a healthy balance between her personal and professional life was one of her values, which was inspiring to see from a hardworking philanthropic leader. What inspired me more was learning about her personal values that guided her career path. Before working at Boys and Girls Club, Renee told me that she worked at Austin Child Guidance Center helping at-risk and traumatized kids, which aligns with her current work serving children in need. Renee’s work with multicultural children in the nonprofit industry is guided by her desire to work at places with purpose, meaning, and value. Learning about Renee’s personal career values convicted me to assess my own set of values that will hopefully guide my career choices in the future.
In addition to her impressive career history, Renee’s advice on ethical leadership was a testament to her own excellent leadership skills. The general trend I saw from her advice (such as “great leaders are team players”, “lead from behind”, “give your employees creative agency”, and “seek out different opinions and points of view”) was the philosophy of servant leadership. Before working at Austin Smiles, I believed that this leadership style was a given at all nonprofits, but over the course of my college career, I’ve learned that this is not always the case. As the news frequently shows, many nonprofits and philanthropic organizations that claim to prioritize serving their constituents above their own self interest end up being some of the most corrupt businesses in the professional world. My time at Austin Smiles has been encouraging in that I was able to experience firsthand how an ethical nonprofit can make a positive impact on people’s lives without compromising moral code. To me, Austin Smiles’ success as a nonprofit is a testament to the ethical leaders that run the organization. I myself can testify to the difference that a great manager can have on an intern’s career. The staff at Austin Smiles always lived out their organization’s core values by giving constructive feedback to us interns, transparently communicating their expectations, and thanking us for our work.
My favorite part of this interview was hearing Renee’s answer to my question about the wisdom she would give to her former self as an intern. Although she gave good practical advice to me to take along to my next internship, such as “take quick initiative to accomplish tasks” and “make personal connections with your grant funders”, the most impactful advice was this: “For any job you do, do something you love; don’t do it for the money. If you love it, then you’ll be good at it.” Most of my worries I’ve had during my college career were about how I’ll make money in my future career and where I should work to attain it. After interning at Austin Smiles however, I’ve realized the truth of Renee’s advice myself. The Austin Smiles’ mission to Create Smiles and Improve Lives motivates employees to work diligently and passionately to achieve a common goal that is greater than themselves. I’m personally inspired to seek organizations in the future that serve noble causes just like Austin Smiles does.