Words by Julie Zhou & Photos by J Olson
It’s a quiet morning in Hopkins as young professionals from across the Twin Cities trickle into the Reach For Resources parking lot, sunlight filtering through filmy clouds on the horizon. On any other weekday at 7:00am, Kate Bottiger would be at the pool, getting in a quick swim before heading into the office for the day; but today, she is manning the front desk, greeting every new arrival with a warm handshake (and much-needed directions to the coffee).
As attendees settle into the conference room, Bottiger makes sure everyone has had their chance to grab breakfast before she gives a brief introduction to Reach For Resources. A Minnetonka-based nonprofit serving the larger metro area, Reach’s mission is to support individuals with disabilities and mental illness to reach their full potential, by providing individualized services that maximize independence, promote community involvement, and improve physical and mental well-being.
From Doctor to Director
Bottiger’s journey to the nonprofit sector actually began in another field entirely: with the dream of a medical degree. During her senior year of college she contracted a serious illness: part of a lifetime battle with neutropenia, an immuno-compromising chronic disorder that damages white blood cells.
Her experiences inspired her to explore a career as a family physician, addressing chronic illnesses like her own. She decided to pursue a medical degree at the University of Minnesota part-time, while taking on a day job at Hammer Residences, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit serving adults and children with developmental disabilities.
That role changed the trajectory of her career. As her interest in medicine waned, her focus shifted to Hammer.
“After three years, I finally stopped taking classes. At Hammer, I became really passionate about working with disability communities, and committed to working my way up at the organization.
I started as a direct support professional and became a manager, a program director, then a department director.”
She hoped to someday lead the organization. And twenty years into her time with Hammer — the search for a new executive director was announced.
Leaving to Grow
Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. Though Bottiger had been a dedicated and passionate member of the organization for decades, she knew it was time to move on.
“I asked to speak with the headhunter in charge of the hiring process, who thankfully was very candid with me,” Bottiger acknowledged. “He told me that I would have to leave Hammer and get a broader range of experiences at other nonprofits if I ever wanted to be an executive director. I loved the work I did at Hammer, but I took that advice to heart.”
She was deeply disappointed; but now, she reflects on that moment as a turning point, one that helped her become the leader she is today.
“Sometimes, you have to leave somewhere to actually grow in the ways you want to,” she advised.
Bottiger left Hammer as the Director of Advocacy and Volunteer Services, a position that she credits with giving her a lifelong passion for volunteer management: honing into what individuals really wanted from their work, and helping volunteers find opportunities that suited their interests.
Volunteerism is still a hugely important part of Bottiger’s work, both as a leader and as a mentor. This year marks Bottiger’s fifth at Reach: ”My anniversary was just last week!” she shared with a laugh — and in that time, the organization’s volunteer team has more than quadrupled, and many volunteers have moved on to become Reach hires.
At Reach, she encourages her staff to pursue their passions outside of the office. She herself also acts as the part-time executive director of the National Neutropenia Network, and has served as a speaker and consultant for countless organizations across her career.
When asked about the one piece of advice she’d give to those interested in becoming an executive director, Bottiger stressed the importance of a diverse set of experiences, rather than allowing a single job or degree defining your work. She used her current role as an example, noting that she hadn’t even considered applying for the job at first because she didn’t have a Masters in Social Work. It was a friend citing the depth and breadth of her volunteer experiences in the nonprofit sector that pushed her to pursue the opportunity, which she now describes as her “dream job.”
“So if you’re looking to expand your horizons or you eventually want to be an executive director or a CEO,” she said, “my advice to you is to get involved outside of your organization — join a committee, an association, sit on a board. Those new perspectives will ultimately help you in your work.”
On work-life balance:
“My supervisor at Hammer taught me — and this is something that I carry over into my own leadership practice — that anything you do outside of work is far more important than what you do in work. So I try to emphasize for both my staff and myself that it’s not the end of the world if you leave that pile on your desk.”
On continuous learning:
“Don’t forget to keep finding opportunities to learn throughout your career. That is what I think volunteering can be great for — taking the opportunity to try something outside of your job or your career path.”