Nikki Stewart of The Old North Foundation: “Internal Culture”

Internal Culture: You need to foster an internal culture in which all staff members feel ownership and responsibility for the organization’s success. This sets the tone from day one. To build that culture, first and foremost, I trust in the skills and experience of my team members. I have a staff member who has been […]

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Internal Culture: You need to foster an internal culture in which all staff members feel ownership and responsibility for the organization’s success. This sets the tone from day one. To build that culture, first and foremost, I trust in the skills and experience of my team members. I have a staff member who has been with the organization for 18 years, and another who is 3 months in and was hired for his expertise. We all add value, and I want everyone to feel comfortable pitching ideas and asking questions.

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

Nikki Stewart is a creative and collaborative leader with more than a decade of strategic leadership, fundraising and nonprofit management experience. As the Executive Director of The Old North Foundation, Stewart oversees the management of tourism, operations, and preservation programs at Old North Church & Historic Site — an American icon and one of the most visited national landmarks in Boston, Massachusetts. For more information or to purchase tickets in advance, visit: www.oldnorth.com.


Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

I am a life-long history lover who has always connected with the stories of the past. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of reading the Little House on the Prairie books with my mother, talking with my grandfather about his experiences in WWII, or learning about my grandmother’s work to bring United Mine Workers to Central Pennsylvania. Through these experiences I learned about the values of empathy, sacrifice, courage, and leadership.

I graduated from Northeastern University School of Law in 2009 with hopes of becoming a prosecutor. However, hiring freezes from the 2008 recession led me to complete a year of service through the AmeriCorps VISTA program, a life-changing experience for me.

AmeriCorps took me to ZUMIX, a nonprofit that works to empower young people to build successful futures for themselves, transforming lives and community through music, technology, and creative employment, where I spent three years developing fundraising skills and learning the ins and outs of nonprofit operations. The next phase of my career took me to two other nonprofits, United South End Settlements and Ellis Early Learning, which allowed me to grow into senior leadership positions at a time when these organizations were experiencing significant transitions, including the launch of a capital campaign.

Fast forward to June 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when I took a leap to join The Old North Foundation as Executive Director. The Foundation manages tourism, operations, and preservation programs at Old North Church & Historic Site, made famous by the fateful “two if by sea” lantern signal from Paul Revere.

With more than 90 percent of the organization’s operating budget generated through ticket sales, tours, school trips and merchandise, the Foundation needed to drastically change its staffing and business model to survive 13 months of closure. I jumped into fundraising mode to ensure short-term viability, while

leading the development of a five-year strategic plan that will guide us through the 250th anniversary of the lantern signal in 2025 with an inclusive vision and strategies to inspire visitors to become courageous and compassionate leaders who work to deliver on the promises of liberty and justice for all.

Outside of my 9-to-5 job, I sometimes co-host the award-winning Hub History podcast that I co-founded with my husband in 2016, featuring more than 225 episodes on Boston history.

Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your non nonprofit?

As a long-time Bostonian and history lover, few opportunities could come close to the honor of stewarding the Old North Church into its 300th year in 2023 and crafting educational programming that inspires the next generation of active citizens to build more equitable communities. Of course, taking on this role in the midst of the pandemic was not an easy choice. While I did not know what the year would bring, I knew we were looking at financial losses that could be catastrophic. I feel incredibly fortunate to have previously worked closely with women in the Executive Director/CEO role at three organizations. Learning from their leadership in times of uncertainty gave me the confidence to step into this role.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

The Old North Church is the city’s oldest surviving church building and one of the most visited historical sites along the Freedom Trail, known for “one if by land, and two if by sea” and the midnight ride of Paul Revere. The Old North Foundation works to inspire active citizenship and courageous, compassionate leadership by interpreting and preserving the Old North Church & Historic Site.

The Old North Foundation’s role in bringing stories, struggles, and hopes to life from across our

shared American history and in building knowledge, access, and passion among its audiences is especially relevant today. Active citizenship is the thread that connects Old North’s past, present, and future, and solidifies our mission in 2021 and beyond. Most visitors know something of the story of Paul Revere’s ride and consider him an example of the individual hero who shapes history. Our position as a respected historic site grants us both authority and responsibility to engage audiences in reflection about the role of active citizenship in their own lives and communities.

As part of our journey to becoming an anti-racist organization, we are working to confront Old North Church & Historic Site’s history with slavery, developing programs and curricula that facilitate dialogue around the ongoing impact of slavery and racism in this country. As our own site’s history shows, denial of citizenship and denial of human rights is part of the story of this land from the colonial era onward.

We have engaged consultants to develop a site-wide interpretation plan that gives equal emphasis to and creates a cohesive narrative from the diverse stories and voices that make up Old North’s history. By rooting our interpretation in fact, we can help visitors see the threads that connect historical and contemporary experience of citizenship. We can also empower our visitors to see themselves as vital to the ongoing creation of a more equitable and just society. Additionally, we aim to inspire courageous, compassionate leadership by developing comprehensive curricula and enrichment materials that bring Old North’s legacy and relevance into the 21st century through the intersection of history, civics, and English language arts.

Through the end of this year, visitors can explore Old North Church & Historic Site at a reduced admission price of 5 dollars per person. Patrons can walk through box pews, admire the 17th century angels flanking the church’s 1759 organ, and engage with the staff Educators. Visitors can also take a guided tour of the crypt for an additional 5 dollars. For more information or to purchase tickets in advance, visit: www.oldnorth.com.

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

Old North Church holds a special place in the hearts of Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life. Our site embodies the power to change the course of history that arises when communities come together to demand a brighter future. Generations of children have been inspired by visits to Old North, including philanthropist, entrepreneur, and former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg. We are humbled and honored by his reflection: “Growing up in Medford and celebrating Patriots Day, I was always inspired by ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ — and the tribute it pays to democracy and those with the courage to defend it. Today, I believe our great country still sees that famous light in the Old North Church tower. It’s the light of freedom and liberty, of equality and opportunity for so many.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

A strong education in civics is necessary in order to understand the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and the function of this nation that the early Patriots, like the lantern bearers and midnight riders, fought so hard to create. A 2021 The Boston Foundation report entitled “Building a Better Democracy through Civic Engagement” noted, “We spend 54 dollars per enrolled student nationwide every year on STEM and 5¢ on civics.” That is a devastating underinvestment which will continue to have profound effects on our communities and our country far into the future. The Old North Foundation recognizes a responsibility and an opportunity, due to the erosion of civics education over the last 25 years, to support classroom teachers across the country. We encourage everyone to:

  • Talk to your elected officials about the importance of investing in civics education. And if you have children, encourage your school district to invest in civics curricula.
  • Seek out age-appropriate books and resources for the children and young people in your life that encourage them to get involved with issues they care about. (And, model that behavior!) Our gift shop is a great place to get started.
  • Adopt the mindset of a life-long learner. Embrace the notion that we all have so much more to learn, and view evolving opinions as a sign of growth.

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

Leadership is the art of inspiring others to rally, with passion and dedication, in pursuit of a common vision. In a professional setting, such as leading an organization, strong leadership sparks pride in the vision to be achieved, joy in the teamwork, and excellence in the work product. The guiding light of our new strategic plan is an ambitious vision: The Old North Foundation envisions a future in which everyone will see their stories, struggles, and hopes reflected in places of prominence and our shared American history. I remind myself often that leadership is about motivating people, and management is about tasks and deliverables. As a leader, my role is to assemble an incredibly talented team (done!), and then give them the support and flexibility they need to put their skills and experiences to work.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a nonprofit”. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Internal Culture: You need to foster an internal culture in which all staff members feel ownership and responsibility for the organization’s success. This sets the tone from day one. To build that culture, first and foremost, I trust in the skills and experience of my team members. I have a staff member who has been with the organization for 18 years, and another who is 3 months in and was hired for his expertise. We all add value, and I want everyone to feel comfortable pitching ideas and asking questions.
  2. Board Partnership: You need to understand and clarify the board’s role and your role, empowering and leveraging the group to support the organization. Over the last 18 months, with both an executive transition and a pandemic, The Old North Foundation’s Board stepped up to support management and operations. Our new strategic plan includes the goal of transitioning the Board role to strategic leadership, with accompanying action items. Alignment on their role versus my role is essential for a successful working relationship.
  3. Fundraising: Get comfortable with the knowledge that you will get at least as many No’s as Yes’s. “No” is not failure. Philanthropy gives others the opportunity to contribute to your mission and align their values to meaningful work. Do not hesitate to give them that opportunity.
  4. Balance: You need to know when to say things like “that can wait until next month,” “that’s a great opportunity but not a priority,” and “I don’t need to be involved in this.” The job will eat you alive if you let it, and leadership requires that you model a healthy work/life balance for your team. For example, during the pandemic we shrank from a staff of over 35 to 5, with 3 of those 5 reducing to part-time. We had to delay important work, such as research into the identities of our early Black congregants. We had a great opportunity to develop a visitor app, but not enough staff time to put into development. We recognized that feeling overwhelmed, or stretched too thin, would be the biggest blow to our morale. Personally, going at the pace that allows me to do my work with excellence and be proud of my deliverables is critical for my professional happiness.
  5. Decisiveness: Leading a nonprofit requires the ability to make quick and hard decisions when situations call for action. I started my role several months into the pandemic and I needed to lay off several staff members and suspend on-site programming within a month of my arrival. While this decision was painful, being decisive was key to the organization’s survival. Making the right decision did not feel good in the moment, but I have no doubt that it was necessary.

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 or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Stacey Abrams, your work embodies the hope, tenacity, and community that I see reflected in Old North’s steeple and the history it evokes. You are a Paul Revere for 2021. Will you make a cameo in one of our curricula videos???

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

The best advice hits you just when you need to hear it. Not too long ago, a wise friend reminded me that personal achievement is just as meaningful as professional achievement: training for a half marathon, being a good partner to my spouse, or finally learning how to cook my grandmother’s bean soup are valuable pursuits that should contribute to my sense of self-worth just as much as “work stuff.” I think about this often as I am just over one year into a new job that I am so excited about and where work doesn’t feel like work. And yet, I really need to find time and appreciation for the rest of life. Thanks, Chrissy.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on LinkedIn (Nikki Stewart). You can also follow Old North Church on social media: Facebook (@oldnorth1723); Twitter (@OldNorth1723); Instagram (@oldnorth1723); and YouTube (Old North Church & Historic Site). For more information, visit: www.oldnorth.com.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.

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