The Challenge of Interfaith Leadership
Donna Bollinger Tapped to Lead Religions for Peace-USA
by Paul Chaffee
She was raised in a home on a dirt road in rural western North Carolina, without indoor plumbing or a telephone. The family lived off the land and had never sent a child to high school before. Asked if there was some seminal moment, a particular experience as a youngster that influenced her for the rest her life, Donna Bollinger says “Yes!”
When she was ten, attending a conservative rural church, she heard the pastor say that it was sinful for black and white children to be together, to play together. She didn’t say a word, but “every fiber in me shouted out ‘No, no, no!’”
Receiving a divinity degree at Wake Forest University and two degrees in family studies didn’t forecast the makings of a global activist interfaith ministry for the oppressed and under-privileged in more than 40 countries. Twenty years ago this began with staff responsibilities at the National Council of Churches, then the World Council of Churches. Along the way, working in a variety of faith-based, service-oriented nonprofits, she was able to raise millions of dollars to get the work done.
Fifteen years ago, as executive director of Faith Works in Roanoke Valley (Virginia), she built a faith coalition of 24 Hispanic community leaders and raised funds that doubled their organizational capacity. Ten years ago she was the founding president and CEO of Native Grace. Its fair trade resource center and retail outlet reached out to secure fair trade certified artisans from 45+ countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. It became a leading voice for fair trade international advocacy and was nominated for the 2010 Small Business of the Year in Virginia.
The list goes on, and she learned along the way. Her resume has a paragraph on areas of expertise: Advocacy – International, Multi-faith & Community Coalition Building – Artistic Endeavors – Public Speaking – Nonprofit Leadership – Grant Writing & Administration – Education & Training – Forecasting & Strategic Planning – Program Development & Coordination – Start-up Operations – Health & Wellness – Budget & Fiscal Management – Fair Trade. And what she most cares about includes peace, diversity, economic, healthcare, women’s, and children’s issues.
Why wouldn’t you hire her?! In fact, this past summer, Donna Gail Bollinger was selected to become the next executive director of Religions for Peace-USA. You might not hire her because she comes across with a quiet friendliness, more perceptive than assertive. Two decades into her career, she looks too young to achieve what she’s accomplished. She’s clearly a good listener, a community-loving person. So hiring her would depend on what you’re looking for. If you want a charismatic front man, probably not. If you want an accessible, imaginative, effective leader, absolutely.
After her election, Bollinger’s first letter to the RFP national community included these words:
… From the wooden pews of a small country church in rural western North Carolina to villages and communities from Asia to Africa and across the Middle East North Africa region where I lived with family in Morocco, my commitments have been shaped and influenced by the peoples and communities I encountered, broke bread with, and joined with, as we found common ground in living out our faith and working for justice and peace.
Two of Bollinger’s strongest gifts are fundraising and building collaborative relationships, both of which she’ll need in the coming months. Regional and national faith and interfaith organizations have lost much of their funding and clout to local programs and local budgets, which are tough to sustain in the first place. RFP needs to reinvent its fiscal infrastructure if it is to survive the slings and arrows of nonprofit life in America. It needs to reimagine and then implement better tools and resources for connecting its members across the vast, diverse reaches of the country. Yet never has the need for goodwill, collaboration, and peacemaking been greater for the human family. The challenge to RFP and the rest of us in the interfaith movement is staggering, and with leaders as qualified as Donna Bollinger taking the lead, there is cause for hope.
Religions for Peace-USA is a Supporting Partner of TIO, and each month you can find a link or two on TIO’s home page that connects you with the work RFP-USA is doing.
Header Photo: Julie Jablonski, C.c. 2.0 nc