Note: This story appears in the Thursday, Feb. 1 newspaper on Page A3.
THE PLAINS — Rural Action leaders have begun looking for a new chief executive officer to replace current CEO Michelle Decker, who will be leaving the nonprofit organization next month.
Decker has been the CEO of Rural Action since 2008 and has worked for the organization for 17 years in total. She will be leaving the organization in March to take on her new role as president and CEO of The Community Foundation, an organization based in Riverside, California. Decker told The Messenger she has family near that area.
During her time as Rural Action’s CEO, a news release states, Decker has tripled the organization’s budget, expanding its earned revenue from 6 percent to 24 percent over a period of six years; invested in social enterprise development, which included buying the Chesterhill Produce Auction; and has led Rural Action’s participation in regional partnerships with the Central Appalachian Network, WealthWorks National Hub and the Appalachian Funders Network.
“Michelle has been a transformation leader for Rural Action,” said Randy Leite, chair of Rural Action’s Board of Directors, in the news release. “Her legacy will live on long after she leaves in all the incredible programs that have begun under her leadership.”
Though she won’t have any say in selecting her successor, Decker can offer the board of directors information regarding what issues the CEO will likely handle as well as potential projects or developments for the new leader to tackle.
“We have an incredibly strong leadership team and staff, so we want to take time to hear from our members and partners about what they want to see in our next leader,” Leite said.
During her time with Rural Action, Decker said she has learned how crucial community-driven development can be for regions like Southeast Ohio.
“Everything has reinforced that this is really important work in a time of really dramatic change in our world,” she said.
Decker’s work with The Community Foundation will have similar goals as an organization like Rural Action in that it focuses on addressing global issues in communities through solutions created by local residents. Decker noted she was attracted to the organization because “‘community’ is in the name.”
“How do we connect local solutions to big global questions like zero waste, education and water quality — those are global issues that need local solutions,” she said.
Decker said she would be doing similar work but using a “different toolkit.” Instead of writing grants, she will be trying to figure out how to stretch the foundation’s dollars and work with donors to help invest in community-driven solutions.
“Rural Action is considered the nonprofit doer, and it works with foundations like the Athens Foundation to invest in projects and programs that make a difference,” she said. “This will be moving to the other side of the coin and looking at problems in that part of the world and understanding what philanthropy can do to support nonprofits and invest in solutions.”
Decker said the new CEO will have a “horizon” of possible opportunities, including expanding what Rural Action does in the regions it covers. She noted there is a lot of potential to bring more programming that is available in and around Athens County to places like Tuscarawas County, where Rural Action manages a watershed partnership group.
Rural Action’s watershed work has grown over the last several years to address different water quality issues including coal reclamation, Decker said, wastewater treatment, high quality streams monitoring and addressing silt and other sediment pollution.
Decker is optimistic about the future of Rural Action. Though she is moving across the country, she plans on staying connected to the organization.
“My hope is to still be connected and still be able to support people doing good work in the region,” she said.
Decker will be attending foundation meetings throughout the nation as part of her new role, which could present opportunities for her to find ways to send funding back to Rural Action.
Beyond Rural Action, Decker also wants to stay connected to this region. She noted she will be keeping some property here.
“I love this place,” she said. “I’ve already bought my plane ticket to come back for the Nelsonville Music Festival.”