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Leaving It All on the Field: A Q&A with Co-Founder Mary Connor

After an intentional multi-year process, Co-Founder and former Executive Director Mary Connor is departing Soccer Without Borders, closing a 16 year chapter that saw incredible growth and evolution within the organization from its nascency. With this final interview as a staff member, we asked Mary to reflect on her time as an organizational leader, the growth and changes she experienced during her tenure, and what's on the horizon.


On her relationship to Soccer Without Borders Nicaragua...

In the first half of your career at SWB, you also served as the Director of SWB Nicaragua, establishing the girl-focused program there in 2008. How did that come about and what has your relationship with SWB Nicaragua meant to you?

I came to Soccer Without Borders via the formal and professional soccer world. So much about my last 16 years at Soccer Without Borders is an expression of the impact that soccer has had on my life, as a woman growing up in a post Title IX United States, and my desire to pay it forward for girls everywhere. Becoming a part of the Granada, Nicaragua community, learning Spanish, and unpacking the layers of power, machismo, poverty, privilege, and politics that create so many barriers for girls to exercise agency in their lives has truly been the most transformative experience of my life.

 

Mural overlooking SWB's playing space in Granada, Nicaragua (2012).

When we first started Soccer Without Borders in Nicaragua, there were no organized sport opportunities for girls at all, in a city of over 100,000 people. There was a single women’s team; a group of unicorns who managed to break stereotypes and piece together resources to buy uniforms and occasionally travel to games. I had just finished up four years of coaching at Lehigh University while pursuing my master’s degree, and was invited by the team to train with them and coach practices. We ended up recruiting a few of them to help us launch our first series of practices and activities for local girls. One of those women, Veronica Balladares, is now our SWB Nicaragua Director. We went school to school, community to community introducing hundreds of girls to soccer and recruiting them to join the program.


Over the next five years, we progressed from having activities one day per week, to two days per week, to six days per week almost every week of the year. At every step a new barrier arose: sport equipment, timing, lack of local women coaches, access to field space, clothing, dirt, home responsibilities, too much sun, boys leering at the field, men kicking us off the fields, a full on machete-wielding fight among men at the gate to the field, and of course funding. These barriers didn’t reveal themselves all at once, they came one, two, three at a time and every single one required days, weeks, months, or even years to resolve. 


"One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from this cross-cultural collaboration is that change happens only at the speed of trust."

One major barrier was a safe field space. In 2011, our local team lobbied the mayor for months for permission to bulldoze an overgrown lot to build a small-sided soccer field and invited the girls to design a mural to overlook it. Poverty and scarcity was always a massive barrier. The program – even though it was free- could not create a financial burden on the families. In 2014, we worked with parents and schools to create a school scholarship and education program which, thanks to the Tom Pope Memorial Fund and Girls Rights Project and many individual supporters, has now funded over 500 primary, secondary, and university scholarships. With this support, more than 90% of girls advance to the next grade every year, in a country where more than half of students don’t reach secondary school. Women like Natalia Vargas, who joined the program in 2008, are now graduated. Graduates like Michell Guadamuz and Reyna Roblero are now leading the program as members of the staff. 


One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from this cross-cultural collaboration is that change happens only at the speed of trust. To create not just a program, but a change in the way a community - and a generation - sees the role of women and girls on the field and off requires authentic collaboration among so many stakeholders. It requires trust and buy-in from the girls themselves, from caregivers, from communities, from leaders, and from institutions. There is no shortcut to build lasting trust, it comes from meaningful relationships that are equitable, valued, and persist over time.


In January, I'll end my time at SWB just as it began, attending the 17th annual TEAM Camp in Nicaragua. But unlike when we launched the camp in 2008, it is now coached by Michell, Mileydi, Mariangeles, Francisca, Reyna, Fatima, and their fellow alumnae and local women champions who are now the ones carrying the mission forward to the next generation in their community and beyond.


Mary (upper row, left) and Veronica (lower row, third from left) with Real Sultana, the women's team in Granada (2008).

On personal growth...

In your goodbye letter to the SWB team, you say that Soccer Without Borders “has always been much more than a job to me; it has shaped who I am in every possible way.” Would you share a little bit about how SWB has shaped you?

Very early on, I learned that much of what I had been taught about service and “helping” was wrong. Too often, a desire to help actually reinforces the very same systems that created the inequality in the first place. Becoming immersed in the Soccer Without Borders mission really changed my understanding. I found myself drawn to and guided by this quote from Lila Watson:


"If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time. If you’ve come because your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together.”


SWB has been shaped in this spirit from the very beginning. When we work in service of this mission we are not here just to help an individual young person or family with something that they need today or tomorrow. We are working to proactively shape our communities, and our world by extension, to be one in which we all want to live. One where we are all valued for our individual and shared humanity. To me, this has meant not only doing my role to the best of my ability, but questioning my own assumptions about how I’m participating in an inequitable status quo or challenging it. This kind of mutual transformation requires being surrounded by others who are open to this sometimes-messy process of learning and evolving, and the SWB team has been just that.

 

There aren’t enough models in our world for how to genuinely welcome, include, and create a sense of belonging among individuals with vastly diverse experiences and cultures. SWB is a shining example of this and I know it will continue leading the way.


On organizational growth...

In your tenure, SWB has grown from an all-volunteer organization with a <$25,000 budget to a global organization serving thousands of youth weekly with over 90 full and part time staff and a $5 million+ annual budget. As an organizational leader throughout this evolution, how have you navigated that amount of growth and change? 

The short answer is with a whole lot of humility to ask for help! I remember getting the advice early on to “hire for things that you don’t want to do and the things you aren’t good at.” I would always laugh because at the time we didn’t have any money to hire people to do those things. So I’d amend that advice to say that you need to find a way to embrace doing the things you don’t want to do, and learn to do the things you aren’t good at. A growth mindset is absolutely essential to building an organization

 

In my early days as Executive Director there were far more things that I was not good at and had no clue about than there were things that I felt confident in. So I sought out leaders who I admired and asked them to let me pick their brain for a half hour, hour, whatever they were willing to give. And I kept my notes from these meetings in a folder labeled “smart people”, which I still have to this day. I spent weekends at bookstores with Nonprofit Management books trying to understand boards and financial accounts and 501c3 compliance, and I spent evenings trying to teach myself Spanish.


"The organization is like a living, evolving being, and you have to learn to understand its personality, its resilience, its needs, and its motivations."

 

Malcolm Gladwell makes the bold claim that you achieve a level of expertise in a thing after about 10,000 hours of practice, and my experiences as a student and an athlete really resonated with that. There was a kind of formula for success: understand what you are trying to do, break it down into steps, put in the work, master the skill, get the A, win the game. This was the system of achievement I had known before SWB, and I worked really hard to succeed by these societal measures.

 

But when you are building an organization that is so steeped in human behavior and connection and aims to disrupt the status quo, there isn’t a technique that you can master that will definitely “succeed.” The organization is like a living, evolving being, and you have to learn to understand its personality, its resilience, its needs, and its motivations. At the same time, the conditions around the organization are always changing. Since I first joined SWB, the way we communicate, the instant availability of information, the pace of decision-making, and the expectations of the workforce have evolved dramatically. So, if anything, I’d say that the way I’ve navigated this growth and change is to invest over 10,000 hours in learning, listening, empathizing, making mistakes, and truly opening myself up to try to understand the dynamics between people with diverse worldviews and experiences. And Excel. I definitely have 10,000 hours of Excel spreadsheets.



Training for SWB coaches (2016).

On milestones...

On the “Our Story” page of the SWB website you and Ben Gucciardi laid out the history of SWB in a series of phases and milestones. Take us through a few of the milestones that stand out to you as really critical to SWB’s story.

First of all, we had a blast reminiscing about those milestones and many others that didn’t make it onto the website! What a gift it has been to navigate these moments alongside Founder Ben Gucciardi and others like Veronica Balladares, Skye Delano, Jeremiah Lukeka, Jules Mayele, Helen Ramirez, Lucas Richardson, Mike Sack, Kat Sipes, Ye-Htet Soe, and Lindsey Whitford, who have each devoted more than a decade to SWB.


When I think of SWB milestones, it’s the people milestones that come to me first. Creating the International Team Leader program in 2009. Assembling our first active Board in 2010. Hosting our first Program Leaders retreat in 2012. Making all Program Director positions full-time in 2015. Awarding our first university scholarship to Hasly Perez in Nicaragua in 2017. Undertaking our first compensation benchmarking in 2019. Welcoming alumnus Warshan Hussin to our finance team in 2020. Coming together as a global team during the pandemic. Formalizing the Executive Leadership Team in 2022. Hiring Jennifer Tepper as our new Executive Director in 2023. 


"I often hear this misperception that nonprofits are inherently less financially savvy or are not interested in 'running a business.' My experience has been the total opposite of that perception."

If I had to pick one year that really stands out, I’d have to say that 2016 was an incredibly pivotal year on so many levels. It was the year of our 10 year anniversary and release of Playing for Change, the year we launched our first real strategic plan, and a year of challenging presidential elections in all three of our countries of operation and subsequent policy changes that significantly affected our work and communities. It was also the year that we won the $250,000 Lipman Family Prize from the Wharton School of Business, a prize that at the time represented more than a quarter of our operating budget. These things didn’t all come out of nowhere; we had really worked hard to build our programming and operational systems in the preceding years to be ready for growth in our second decade. What we didn’t know was how quickly that would happen and how many new skills we’d need to learn in order to navigate it.



NYC Release party for "Playing for Change" (2016)

In times of growth like that, you absolutely need to have quality programming and a committed, talented core team, but if I had to name one thing that really made all of that growth and risk and change possible, I’d say it was our commitment to really detailed financial forecasting and budgeting. I often hear this misperception that nonprofits are inherently less financially savvy or are not interested in “running a business.” My experience has been the total opposite of that perception. In order to grow, we had to put forward an operating budget that was resilient to uncertain public budget allocations, last-minute changes in grantmaker priorities, and increasing competition for philanthropic donations, while managing a range of timelines and reporting structures from over 60 different major funding sources across multiple states and countries, each with different levels of certainty and control. On top of all of that, every new budget year begins with our required annual independent audit, meaning that we always have to keep a scrutinous eye on the past, the present, and the future at the same time. 


I am incredibly proud that we grew through those years with a strong, deficit-free financial position. It was because of this strong position and robust financial forecasting system that when the Covid-19 pandemic shut everything down and created so much uncertainty, we were able to focus our energy on adapting our programming and responding quickly to youth and family needs. I really want to appreciate the staff and board members who I got to work alongside to build these financial systems, especially Drew Jackson, Tammy Reder, Charlie Bustin, and Francisco Queiró. 


On future growth...

With the launch of SWB Assist, SWB now has several new mission delivery vehicles aimed at expanding our global reach. As we enter this new phase of evolution, what do you hope will change, and what do you hope will stay the same?

The very first core value that we defined back in 2009 was a “focus on the whole person.” The sport-based youth development sector was nascent at the time and it felt important to distinguish that the goal of Soccer Without Borders isn’t to develop great soccer players. But as we gained more and more experience working with young people who have experienced traumatic loss, displacement, discrimination, and conflict, I think this core value took on an even deeper meaning. It isn’t enough to have a holistic balance of on and off-field activities. Focusing on the whole person means that we must create spaces where everyone can bring their whole self and feel welcomed, included, and a sense of belonging. Where young people can make mistakes. Where everyone’s name is known and their identity embraced. Where no one is reduced to a statistic. Where connection and relationships matter more than wins and awards. Our core values, in combination with our mantras, do a tremendous job of codifying this culture that has made SWB programs so impactful in supporting young people to heal, grow, and thrive, and where staff are retained year after year.


"I hope that SWB plays a leading role in designing new ways of collaborating that fairly values all contributions, elevates the voices of those affected by these challenges, and centers the global game as the most powerful changemaking force on Earth."

My hope in this next phase of SWB’s evolution is that we remain anchored in these core values, mantras, and our direct service through SWB Hubs. Too many global initiatives focused on training and capacity-building for community organizations have actually never done the difficult work of building community-based programs. SWB continues to learn from and iterate on its direct service work every day across multiple contexts and countries. To now have an avenue to share those lessons through SWB Assist is a tremendous opportunity to scale holistic, field-tested approaches where young people are seen, named, valued, and welcomed for who they are and supported to reach their full potential.  


There has never been a more exciting time to be a part of the sport-for-development movement. Sport entities, athletes, and organizations are shining an important spotlight on major global issues, from gender equity to racism to peace-building to mental health and more. What I hope will change for SWB in this next phase - and I believe SWB Assist under the leadership of Nora Dooley and Steve Davis is well-suited for this - is that we build stronger bridges between the conversations happening at the highest altitudes of global governance and the realities of community leaders on the ground. I hope that SWB plays a leading role in designing new ways of collaborating that fairly values all contributions, elevates the voices of those affected by these challenges, and centers the global game as the most powerful changemaking force on Earth. 



On stepping down...

What made you decide that this was the right time to step down, and what do you think you’ll miss the most? 

When we announced our Executive Director search last year, I was able to share some of my thoughts and reasons for choosing this moment to step down from this leadership role. The headline is that I believe it’s a gift to be able to approach a leadership transition from a place of readiness and strength. I am so grateful to everyone on the SWB team and Board who dedicated a significant amount of extra time to navigating this transition, in particular Erin Cook, Tammy Reder, Skye Delano, and Emily Sherman for leading the transition and search committees.


"This is what I’ll miss the most: being a part of this evolving community of incredible people who care deeply about what they do and the impact they aim to make. I’ll miss seeing people grow up; from participants graduating, to alumni becoming coaches, to young staff coming into their full potential as leaders."

 

I first began taking meaningful steps towards this transition in 2018 without an actual transition date in mind. I worked with our then-Board President Ryan Hawke and program leaders to start to distribute responsibilities differently, explore new leadership structures, and identify what positions we would need to create in the coming years to ensure stability amidst significant growth. Changing the way I approached my position created more space for other leaders across the organization to take ownership of new areas, and we started to create a much more robust shared leadership structure than ever before. Fully stepping down from the Executive Director role was a natural next step in this process. Although when we began this process we thought that a temporary new role within SWB was likely, we have made faster and more lasting progress toward our future-focused structure than I ever could have imagined. There is vision, stability, and ownership held by veterans who are stepping up their leadership, and there is innovation coming from new voices in new roles. As I just mentioned, I’ve devoted my 10,000 hours to understanding this dynamic organization, and it became clear that for the team and for me, it’s time to close this chapter.  I have never been prouder of our team or our work. 


This is what I’ll miss the most: being a part of this evolving community of incredible people who care deeply about what they do and the impact they aim to make. I’ll miss seeing people grow up; from participants graduating, to alumni becoming coaches, to young staff coming into their full potential as leaders. I will most definitely be watching from the sidelines in this next phase with love and appreciation for all that is Soccer Without Borders.


Ribbon Cutting ceremony celebrating the opening of SWB's headquarters in Baltimore.

On Founder transitions...

What advice would you give to other Founders and long-time Executive Directors considering a transition like this one?

Ever since we first announced our public search for a new Executive Director, I have been surprised by the number of folks who have reached out because they are struggling with how to go about their own leadership transition process. Unfortunately, I don’t think there are enough resources out there that really address the emotionality of a transition like this, not only for the outgoing Founder or Executive Director, but for the Board, the staff, and the incoming leader. I am still processing all that I’ve learned over the last couple of years, and I hope to share a more detailed reflection in the future, but for right now I’ll share two things that I think could be helpful to others:


  1. Founder or long-time Executive transitions are an opportunity for larger structural changes. There are certain ways of being that get ingrained into the organization when a leader has been around since the early stages. Some of those ways of being can be a good thing; they might be the foundation for the organization’s success and identity. But often there are things that served the organization before that no longer do, and they are too hard to change incrementally. The staffing structure is a good example of this. A major transition in leadership can be an opportunity to restructure and reshuffle several surrounding roles to align to a future state of being that is more efficient, more equitable, and more aligned with where the organization is going, rather than where it has been. Don’t look at a leadership transition as a 1-to-1 hiring process. Step back and look holistically at where the organization is trying to go and what strengths need to remain at the core, and then make a transition plan that includes everyone who is most affected and who will be leading the organization through the change and into the future.

  2. Make sure you have a strong support system outside of the organization. No matter how well-intentioned and aligned everyone is within the organization, you’ll need an outlet where you can digest and feel the full range of emotions without it affecting the staff, board, or transition process. It can be hard to find the right people for this who know enough to be helpful, but who are removed enough to be unattached. If you have the resources to do so, try to find a coach who is not involved in the search or the organization, who can focus on helping you to bring your best self to the transition process. 


On her next steps...

What will you do next?

I have spent the last 8 months focusing on closing this SWB chapter in the most thorough and positive way possible, and processing the magnitude of leaving something I’ve dedicated most of my adult life to building, so I have not had much headspace to look to the future. But while I don’t have a specific plan just yet, SWB’s mission and work has so many adjacencies – education, youth development, mental health, gender equity, refugee resettlement, nonprofit management, philanthropy, public service, sport - where I believe my experience in direct service, social impact, and in building and leading a nonprofit organization could add value. The SWB community has been so incredibly supportive over the years; I hope to keep connected not only to the organization but to as many partners, supporters, and community members as possible, so please don’t hesitate to stay connected!



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