With an all-consuming position like Executive Director of a non-profit it’s important to remember that your spouse/significant other/kids don’t always want to hear about your work. You have to — even if you think it’s impossible — “give it a break” at home. Be careful of the work problems you choose to share with the loved ones. Too much information shared and you run the risk that you will totally lose their interest in what you do.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Aimee Boden, President of the Randall’s Island Park Alliance (RIPA) and NYC Park Administrator for Randall’s Island Park. In this role, she administers the management, programming and restoration of nearly 400 acres of City parkland for active sports, entertainment and recreational use. Working with the Board of Trustees to plan for Randall’s Island Park’s future, Aimee manages the City’s capital funds for the Island as well as the Alliance’s operating budget, which supports over 100 full-time and seasonal employees. During her tenure, Aimee has facilitated the Park’s transformation, securing and managing nearly $270M in capital reconstruction, and has strengthened the public-private partnership between the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation (NYC Parks) and RIPA.
First — Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I began my work in non-profits nearly 30 years ago by canvassing door-to-door and calling people on the telephone, seeking contributions and signatures on environmental and consumer protection issues. It turned out that I was pretty successful at both and was invited by the founders of a start-up non-profit organization to manage and staff a new office in West Palm Beach, Florida. Within 2 years the start-up really took off and we expanded our operations. I opened a second office in SW Miami for the same organization and managed both Florida locations.
After my experience in Florida, in the mid 1980s I returned to New York and held various non-profit positions. One was for New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) where I supervised door-to-door canvassing, talking to people mostly about toxic waste, consumer issues, social justices and basic environmental concerns. I eventually landed a job at NYC Parks working for their First Deputy Commissioner doing operations analysis. I spent several years there and then was approached by a headhunter to work in Boston under Mayor Ray Flynn, as an Assistant Commissioner in their parks system.
It was during my time in Boston that I started to hear rumblings about New York City getting serious about cleaning up Randall’s Island. In 1990, Karen Cohen (the founder of Randall’s Island Park Alliance) was at the time looking for someone to serve as Executive Director of the new organization, which was akin to the Central Park Conservancy.
And so, the non-profit known today as the Randall’s Island Park Alliance was born in 1992, with the main objective of working with a nascent Board of Trustees to address issues on the Island. The first priority was to set goals and build an organization around these goals, helping to raise awareness while Karen was focused on fundraising. And the rest as they say is history — we just celebrated 25 years.
Every position I held truly provided a learning experience for me as I grew personally and professionally, realizing my own commitment and passion to public service and advocacy. These positions were the building blocks for what has been a very successful and fulfilling life-long career in public sector and non-profit management.
Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
Every project I work on is interesting and uniquely different. As an organization, we have matured and going into our 26th year as the stewards of this amazing ~400-acre park we have accomplished a great deal on many fronts. We are fine tuning our projects, making adjustments and looking to secure and anticipate challenges in the future. We are looking at everything — public programs, visitor amenities, communications, donor base support, facility upgrades and improvements, etc. Currently, we are focusing on access to and from the Park with a special task force of our Board of Trustees, a Depreciation Analysis that focuses on anticipated replacement cost of our numerous athletic fields, facilities and other fixed assets and assessing our communications and presence on social media.
We’ve transformed a unique piece of land in NYC for future generations and seeing that evolve for millions of visitors is exciting for me every single day.
So how exactly does your organization help people?
We help people in so many ways and on so many different fronts. We have over 3 million visitors to the park every year and as varied as New Yorkers are from one another so are our programs. We offer something for (almost) everyone: open space to relax; athletic fields for sports and leagues; natural areas for birders and community scientists; miles of waterfront pathways for joggers, strollers and bicyclists; major outdoor concerts and festivals for music fans; beautiful gardens to admire; a track for runners; a tennis center; a golf driving range; an annual Vegan food festival and a major international art fair. The Alliance also hosts over 200 free public events per year, which are widely attended by our neighbors in East Harlem and the South Bronx as well as from those from the Upper East Side, Queens and beyond. We have outdoor movie nights in the summer and an Urban Farm that is open all year. We have weekly yoga, historical bridge tours, bike tours, pop-up Picnic & Play nights and signature events such as the Harvest Festival, Treasure Hunt, and Cherry Blossom Festival. Through all of this we maintain and sustain this large outdoor space for City residents and their families to enjoy 365 days a year.
Can you tell me a story about a person that you helped?
The Park and/or program experience touches so many individuals every day in its own way. For example, the young children who attend our summer camp program just love the experience of running on the track, learning a new sport such as tennis, golf or soccer. Manykids write to tell us how much they enjoyed their school’s visit to the Urban Farm (our chickens are always a big hit!). Local residents will write or Instagram us with their “unbridled delight” and “enjoyment” of the Water’s Edge Garden Pathway, just across the East River. They will tell us how they have stolen a moment to stroll or bike along this path, enjoying the proximity to the water and the beautiful garden planted with Lavender, Russian Sage, Eastern Foam Flower and Catmint. We have a lot of Island friends and fans from the Audubon Society who visit the Island’s Salt Marsh and Freshwater Wetlands who share with us their sightings of Egrets, Killdeer, and Red-tailed Hawks and Cormorants. We have also heard from young music fans that are excited to see their favorite artist perform underthe stars — Shawn Mendes, Travis Scott, Eminem, Jack White just to name a few of our headliners!
This obviously is not easy work. What drives you?
No, it’s not easy work and I am often challenged by multiple “mine-fields” of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. What motivates me through these difficulties is the support and dedication of my Board leadership and working side-by-side with the incredibly talented and committed team of managers that we have developed over the many years at Randall’s Island Park. They are truly a talented team and really do care about the Park.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
We are a somewhat different non-profit in that we offer a public space that one can experience. We always ask for Park visitors to “do their part” and help us to maintain a clean and litter free environment. We ask and encourage park users to help support our care of the Island with donations and organizing volunteer events.
We preserve open space and provide access to a valuable public amenity. Our visitors crave fresh air and green pastures and we encourage them to take full advantage of this amazing recreational resource, but also to take care of the Park when they are visiting with us. We wish to foster an understanding that the environment needs maintenance on a daily basis and caregivers that are passionate and dedicated.
Our local Community Board, local Elected Officials and NYC Parks are amazingly supportive of who we are and what we do. We are in a wonderful 25-year relationship with our local community and government officials and we look forward to working with them to continue our efforts to better Randall’s Island Park for all New Yorkers.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
Over 25-years there have been so many people I’ve relied on for counsel and guidance. There are so many individuals that have supported me and continue to do so — very hard to name just one. I have many friends and professional colleagues who never shied away from picking up my call at 10pm on a weeknight to help me work through a challenge. I also have a very broad and accomplished network of woman professionals in the parks and in the non-profit world. In fact, several of us make a point of meeting regularly to share and learn from our challenges and, as importantly, to celebrate our successes.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
a) As a non-profit leader expect to take your work home with you in the evenings, while on vacations and over the weekends. Most non-profits are lightly staffed and the Executive Director or President is always “on call.” The most difficult challenges of my work come in the summer, our busiest time of year. There are no such things as “Summer Fridays” where we close the office early or take a summer vacation with my kids!
b) Build and tend to your professional friends network early. Time flies by and it is critical to make time within your schedule to see and meet with these “work friends.” Understand that they will need your help and counsel and you will without a doubt need theirs.
c) Personnel issues are the single most taxing challenges your will face. With staff and staff changes — these issues (promotions, firing, in-staff disagreements) are draining but a very necessary issue that requires your full attention. You can’t duck and you can’t hide from these issues.
d) With an all-consuming position like Executive Director of a non-profit it’s important to remember that your spouse/significant other/kids don’t always want to hear about your work. You have to — even if you think it’s impossible — “give it a break” at home. Be careful of the work problems you choose to share with the loved ones. Too much information shared and you run the risk that you will totally lose their interest in what you do.
e) Always communicate with your Board of Trustees/Directors and donors.Be kind to the hand that feeds you!
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see just see this. :-)
This is an incredibly hard choice to make given I admire so many inspirational leaders such as Barack Obama and Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, but I would love to meet fellow Brooklynite Charles Blow of the New York Times.