Lisa Cunningham: “Good leadership is based on pretty strong values”

I would say that working for a nonprofit is how real change is sustained in our society. It takes all different kinds of people working on all different kinds of issues to make the world a better place. Even if they go into the for-profit world, I would like them to know that they can […]

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I would say that working for a nonprofit is how real change is sustained in our society. It takes all different kinds of people working on all different kinds of issues to make the world a better place. Even if they go into the for-profit world, I would like them to know that they can still be supportive of the nonprofits by serving on boards and/or dedicating resources to nonprofits.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Cunningham.

Lisa Cunningham is proud to serve as the Executive Director of the San Antonio Education Partnership (SAEP). After completing her undergraduate work in business and education at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at San Antonio, Cunningham began her career in education as a teacher, curriculum developer, and trainer. After pivoting into the for-profit business world for some time, Cunningham accepted a position with the Bexar County Criminal District Attorney’s office as the Executive Director of the Bexar County Family Justice Center. Most recently, she was appointed Interim Executive Director with the San Antonio Education Partnership in January 2019 and was ultimately named permanent Executive Director in the summer of 2019. In this new role, her passion for education and strong ties to the community will guide her as she serves the citizens of her hometown in this new capacity. Lisa adamantly believes in the enormous power education holds as the ultimate societal equalizer.

Lisa is a member of several local civic organizations and serves as a mentor for area high school students. She holds multiple certifications in Nonprofit Leadership, Fundraising, and Organizational Management and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She lives in San Antonio with her two daughters, Madison and Haley, and their tiny rescue dog Charlie.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in San Antonio with two parents, 3 sisters; I was truly blessed with an idealistic childhood family. Every year, we would go to Colorado and spend the entire summer there. (Everyone in) my entire family are geniuses, except for me. Oddly, I always felt special because of that. My mother was a piano teacher and my father was a chemistry teacher, and as our family grew he left teaching to go into business. I learned a lot from him about the potential fluidity of a career and how you are not confined to one thing your whole life. I think it’s given me more of a sense of freedom to try different careers.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Ironically, The Pigman, I read it in 8th grade, the same year my uncle — who had down syndrome and was my best friend — died. It taught me a lot about the importance of cultivating relationships in one’s life and the profound impact that loss could have on a person. More recently, I read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now at least once a year. It’s profoundly empowering.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Do the next right thing you don’t always have to see the end or how it will turn out. Just keep doing the next right thing-that will always propel you forward towards the right.

OK, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

I believe that education is the ultimate equalizer. We are trying to address some of the disparities in education access, opportunities, and success. We do that by helping kids, whether that be financial, being there to listen to them, or helping them to establish a pathway for what’s next, especially in uncertain times. We want to accomplish helping people reach their goals through the lens of equity in ensuring equal access for everyone.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Ah-Ha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I worked in a very for-profit world before running my first nonprofit. I decided at the end of the day, I wanted to go home and feel like I accomplished more beyond the simplistic and tedious pieces of a given position. There wasn’t really an “ah-ha” moment for me. When this opportunity presented itself, it just felt right. I knew it was for me.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Yes, there was someone who recently shared his story as a scholarship recipient and it really stuck with me. His name was Claude. He was born in a refugee camp in Rwanda, eating dry corn and beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. During the Rwandan Genocide, he lost his one-year-old brother and his father survived but had brain damage from a bullet. He moved to the United States at 12 years old. “To be lucky enough, my family was sent to the United States, a country that is compared to heaven with milk and food,” said Claude. He was the oldest child of six. His responsibilities were to make sure bills were paid and to ensure that they had enough food in the house while his mom worked all day until 10 p.m. from Sunday to Sunday. Since nobody spoke English in his house, he forced himself to learn. He received a scholarship from SAEP. “I would like to thank everyone for supporting me to be the right person in this beautiful country that cares for its citizens. Being a student in this country is a huge dream. I look forward to participating and being useful to our country. Thanks to the SAEP scholarship for helping me worry less about paying for my education.”

Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?

They all involve giving. Giving time, giving energy, giving us the gift of ambassadorship. A lot of kids and adults don’t know about our services. Like many nonprofits, we rely heavily on word of mouth.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Good leadership is based on pretty strong values — not in words but in actions. A good leader is willing to work really hard on all areas pertaining to the needs of their staff and organization. They can inspire their team to work beyond the parameters of their job description, and be more motivated to succeed for their organization and for themselves. A good leader leads from the heart with every action.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. To always be on-site on Fridays. I didn’t fully understand the importance of that when I first started, but that’s when all the advisors are there physically in the building. It improves collaboration and general staff morale. It helps me feel connected to them and their work.
  2. Follow my gut faster. By now, I have made most of the changes I thought I should, and for each, I wish I had done it sooner.
  3. Lean on and collaborate with other CEOs and ED’s in the nonprofit sector. I wish I had done that sooner, it’s been my lifeline during the pandemic.
  4. Not worry about anything really. This pandemic has shown me that we are very solvent and resilient.
  5. I wish someone would have told me to move forward with virtual advising! This has been an incredible and lasting piece of evolution that was born out of necessity during COVID-19.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would say that working for a nonprofit is how real change is sustained in our society. It takes all different kinds of people working on all different kinds of issues to make the world a better place. Even if they go into the for-profit world, I would like them to know that they can still be supportive of the nonprofits by serving on boards and/or dedicating resources to nonprofits.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Michelle and Barack Obama because of their extensive work in equity and inclusion for young kids, especially minorities, through education.

How can our readers follow you online?

We have a blog each week on our website (, Facebook, and Instagram.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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