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Kate Hix On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization


Never stop listening and learning. I called my first month with NAMI Central Texas my “listening tour.” I want everyone who works for my organization to feel they have a voice. Our legacy is a collective one, and our mission is about gathering as many voices as possible together to change the conversation about mental health. Listening and learning are my primary goals daily as I lead NAMI Central Texas.


For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kate Hix.

Kate Hix is the Executive Director of NAMI Central Texas, an Austin, Texas, based branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She has previously served as the Executive Director of Zilker Theatre Productions, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization located in Austin. Hix also served as the Director of Operations for Austin Voices for Education and Youth. Hix, who earned her law degree from the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, came to NAMI Central Texas most recently as the Director of Human Resources and Operations at Zinda Law Group in Austin.


Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

I’m a nonprofit leader today because of the Freshman Urban Program at Northwestern University. The Freshman Urban Program “dedicates itself to expanding the social consciousness of incoming freshmen through a service-based learning experience in the Chicagoland area.” The week before first-year orientation, I arrived on campus, not knowing a single person in the program. We stayed in dorms on the downtown Chicago campus. Each day, we spent time in a different neighborhood in Chicago, learning about everything from community organizing to the needs being addressed by local nonprofit organizations. The local leaders we met inspired me. I found it almost impossible to pick a neighborhood to spend the year working beside once we arrived on campus. I had never been asked questions about my own privilege and the potential problems with the traditional “volunteer” model. The Freshman Urban Program taught me about Asset-Based Community Development, and I still think about that model to this day. I questioned the fundamental ways I saw the world once I spent time with neighborhood leaders in Chicago. I started college as a theater major; because of the Freshman Urban Program, I changed my major to Social Policy. I went to law school because I saw the amazing battles that lawyers were fighting in some nonprofit organizations. It was a truly transformational experience.

After college, I moved to New York City, where I was an Urban Fellow with the City of New York. I was placed with the Department of Homeless Services in the Adult Shelters division. I spent a great deal of time in the actual shelters themselves, meeting shelter stayers and staff. I learned a great deal about how mental health conditions and substance abuse intersect with homelessness. I worked on a project to help place long-term shelter stayers dealing with mental health conditions in long-term housing. I got to visit long-term housing, and seeing people’s lives so dramatically changed by housing with wrap-around services made me want to work in the mental health field. While my career took a winding road, I’ve finally arrived at an organization that works tirelessly to provide education and advocacy for people dealing with mental health conditions, and I couldn’t be more excited.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.

  1. Communication. As early as my college career, I was never afraid to speak up and share my position or concerns. I think, in many ways, it was good to be fearless about sharing what I believed was right. But I think one of the most important things experience has taught me is that LISTENING is critical in communicating when you’re a strong leader. It is crucial to speak up and advocate, but learning to listen to all the diverse voices in the room, especially the quieter ones, has shaped me into a strong communicator.
  2. Resilience. There are so many things that set us back everyday that are out of our control. In my second week of work as an Urban Fellow in New York City, my colleagues and I watched the attack on the World Trade Center from blocks away. It was harrowing and traumatic. But not one of us left the program, and the trauma of that day shaped many people’s choices for where to work in the City of New York to help rebuild. For me, it meant working with some of the most vulnerable populations in the Department of Homeless Services. I’ve lived through a recession that many thought would put a lot of nonprofits out of commission, and yet we survived. There are minor daily setbacks that get me down, of course, but I make sure to wake up the following day and start fresh. That sense of resilience is crucial for a nonprofit leader.
  3. Empathy. As someone with lived experience with a mental health condition, I find myself accessing empathy daily when I hear stories of those who are struggling. Empathy is crucial to strong leadership. Empathy allows me to create an environment of open communication and more effective feedback. It will enable us to understand and explore problems employees and community members face and help them resolve them.

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?

Since beginning my tenure as the Executive Director of NAMI Central Texas, the most interesting discovery I’ve made is how deeply mental health conditions touch so many people and how these conditions don’t discriminate based on income, race, religion or any other external factor. Mental health is health, and just like any other health condition, a mental health condition can affect anyone. The people who benefit from NAMI Central Texas’ support groups, educational programs, and advocacy efforts come from every background. Our many passionate community members and volunteers tell us that our programs help them develop empathy, feel more empowered, and take more personal responsibility. We help people see that they are more than their mental health condition.

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?

NAMI Central Texas envisions a community that addresses mental illness as a health issue and provides all people systems, resources, and education to achieve recovery. There is so much work to make this vision a reality. Texas is the lowest-ranked state for providing mental health resources. We have to change that, one person at a time. NAMI Central Texas’ staff and volunteers work every day to reach people who need support. We are working hard to expand our reach geographically and reach new people in our existing geographical areas. We have begun programming in Spanish, and we are hoping to print our materials and offer our website in Spanish very soon. We offer programs like In Our Own Voice, presentations that change attitudes, assumptions, and stereotypes by describing the reality of living with mental health conditions from people with lived experience. By sharing the truth that mental health is health, we hope to end the stigma that many face in our communities. That stigma prevents people from getting the help they so desperately need. Our work is community-driven; we want to respond to the specific needs of our community to make the most significant impact on people’s lives.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

I have struggled with depression on and off since college. I am so fortunate that I come from a family where my parents found me a therapist when I was 18-years-old, and they also offered to pay for it. In my job interview with NAMI Central Texas, the staff members asked me about my mental health story, and while I was scared to open up, it felt liberating to share my history and struggle. I wanted to work in the mental health space because I know the battle first-hand. There are so many crucial causes to fight for, but working to change the conversation about mental health spoke to my life experience. I knew I could advocate authentically and passionately about the need for change. I’ve lost people in my life to suicide. I have friends who struggle to wake up every morning because anxiety and depression are crushing. The stories I hear from our volunteers about what they or their children have been through dealing with severe mental health conditions are so moving. I know I’m in the right place, and I know our work has so much meaning.

Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?

One of our volunteers searched for a therapist to help with a particular psycho-medical condition. She scoured the internet for someone who could help her and found no success. Finally, she called NAMI Central Texas, and our Program Director shared resources with her. From that lead, she found a therapist.

Before therapy, she couldn’t leave the house. Through her recovery, she can go out and about and has become a NAMI Central Texas volunteer. She shares her story of hope and healing with people dealing with mental health conditions. She thanks NAMI Central Texas for providing her the support and encouragement she didn’t find anywhere else.

We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?

  1. People can talk about mental health with everyone they know. I was always terrified to address mental health in the workplace because it felt like people may judge me. Now, I think we need to proactively discuss mental health and help make sure everyone in our workplaces has access to the resources they need. Talk about mental health with friends, family, religious leaders; always advocate that mental health is health.
  2. Share your own experience. I have found that sharing that I have lived experience with depression has been liberating and helped me feel seen. If people, especially young people, see leaders in their communities speaking up about their mental health, they will feel more comfortable coming forward with their concerns. We can’t end the stigma without people speaking up about their lived experiences.
  3. Educate yourself about the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions. There are so many mental health myths circulating the internet, it is crucial to learn the facts. Without basic education about mental health conditions, you can’t be a good advocate for your mental health or anyone else’s.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Build a strong foundation. Infrastructure doesn’t always sound like the most exciting word, but a nonprofit is a business, and it needs to be run like a business. Without a strong foundation of systems in place, the entire organization can start to crack. I believe in taking the time to write standard operating procedures and internal controls so that everyone is on the same page about how the organization is run. Infrastructure also means investing in systems- whether that’s technology or people. All systems need a strong foundation.
  2. Stay true to your mission and vision. “Mission Creep” can be a real problem in the nonprofit space. “Mission Creep” is when your nonprofit organization expands its mission beyond the original goals. This can lead to resources being stretched too thin, projects being started that never reach fruition, and key stakeholders being ignored. As long as all decisions are strategic and authentic to the mission and vision, I can sleep well at night and know we will leave a great legacy.
  3. Collaboration is key. NAMI Central Texas is fortunate to have a vast network of other organizations in the nonprofit space as collaborators. There are endless opportunities to collaborate and get great ideas from other local NAMI affiliates to state-wide branches like NAMI Texas, and even on the national level with NAMI National. There are also so many incredible organizations in Central Texas that work in the mental health space. One of my first significant initiatives for my first six months is to have virtual coffees with the leaders of these organizations to make sure we keep up our strong collaborations, and so I can learn as much as I can from the work they are doing.
  4. Let data be a guiding star. All decisions should be data-driven. Period. Even in a small nonprofit organization where it is challenging to gather data, it must be done, or we can’t measure our impact. How do we know our legacy if we can’t measure it?
  5. Never stop listening and learning. I called my first month with NAMI Central Texas my “listening tour.” I want everyone who works for my organization to feel they have a voice. Our legacy is a collective one, and our mission is about gathering as many voices as possible together to change the conversation about mental health. Listening and learning are my primary goals daily as I lead NAMI Central Texas.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

The pandemic has taught me the importance of resilience and the great potential in the pivot. My depression reared its ugly head during the middle of the pandemic while I was a stay-at-home mom. I realized that it was time to go back to work because I needed to feel like I could bounce back from the challenges of the pandemic and thrive. Success for me was reentering the workforce and showing my kids that while it can be difficult in these trying times, we need to continue living full lives. Sometimes, those full lives may involve a lot more video calls than we would like, but at least we’ve all found a way to keep going! That’s the importance of pivoting. Change the path when you can’t achieve your goals the usual way. My definition of success has now changed to “is everyone safe, and does everyone feel valued and heard in these uncertain times?”

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

After a setback, I reached out to my support network for a pep talk. I’m very close to my parents, and my father is one of my first calls when I need to share a story about something that did not go as planned. As the leader of an organization, it is crucial to have people on the outside who can give you perspective and a fresh pair of eyes on a situation. My family and friends help me see that the problem probably isn’t as bad as it feels when it first occurs and that I can get up, dust myself off, and start a new day. It is easy to get inspired when I’m surrounded by such amazing people working so hard for our mission — the staff, the volunteers, the interns, our program participants — they all inspire me to keep going.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Reaching for the stars, I’d love to connect with Michelle Obama on mental health. She was such a champion for promoting healthy eating and habits for our children — I would love to discuss how mental health is just as important a piece of the puzzle for our nation’s youth. She’s also a lawyer who pivoted to another career, so we have a lot in common!

You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?

Go to namicentraltx.org, follow NAMI Central Texas on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.