Dr. Amanda Kelly of Firefly Autism: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit…

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Dr Amanda Kelly of Firefly Autism: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization

Clarity — Clarity around the mission, vision, and goals of what you want your nonprofit to accomplish. Make sure to do your research and have a plan/strategy for the short-term and the long-term that are symbiotic, while staying open to change as you learn, grow and mature.

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

Dr. Amanda Kelly, PhD, BCBA-B, was recently named the Executive Director & CEO of Firefly Autism, a nonprofit organization that’s purpose is to enhance the lives of children and adults with autism by partnering with families and creating life-long relationships through thoughtful, innovative, empirical learning treatment programs. Born and educated in Ireland, Dr. Kelly decided to take her expertise in Behavior Analysis, Relational Frame Theory, Staff Management, Organizational Behavior Management, Interpersonal Skills and Training Delivery to Denver, Colorado. She has been with Firefly Autism for over 9 extraordinary years, actively aiding individuals on the spectrum, from toddlers to adults. Dr. Kelly’s selfless work earned her current position, leading Firefly Autism as it continues to expand its services beyond Colorado.

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”?

Of course! I am from a small village in the middle of Ireland, Co. Westmeath, and moved to Dublin in 2009 to complete a masters and doctorate in Behavior Analysis and Therapy, while working at a school for children on the autism spectrum. Once my doctorate was completed, I had a huge desire to come to the U.S. to continue to work with autistic populations, their families and communities as a whole. I had presented my doctoral research at some Irish and UK conferences but always wanted to present at some of the huge conferences the U.S. had to offer. I was on Indeed and found this awesome place called Firefly Autism. I applied, got a job with Firefly, and moved to Colorado in December 2012. I started working as a Behavior Analyst in the Home-Based Program at Firefly, shortly after was promoted to the Director of the Program and in 2020 was promoted to Director of Clinical Services. In late 2021 we had a change in leadership, and I decided to apply for the role of CEO. Firefly’s Board of Directors were incredibly thoughtful and meticulous in the selection process. I’m delighted to say I was appointed CEO on December 1st, 2021.

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

In my mind it was fate. I had read about non-profit organizations and loved what they stood for. With Firefly specifically, from the moment I started speaking with the Outreach Director at the time, an amazing woman I’m lucky to still be in contact with, it felt like everyone was so dedicated to the cause, the work, and the people. The whole organization and I worked in partnership to make my life change possible, and I’m forever grateful to those people and this organization.

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

In 2021, one in 54 individuals were diagnosed on the spectrum of autism every day in the U.S. By comparison, this number was one in 15,000 in 2006. That means every one of us, known or unknown, is impacted by diagnoses of individuals on the spectrum, from young children to adults. As a wildly misunderstood, but incredibly prevalent behavioral and mental health diagnosis, this presents a unique social challenge that Firefly is on a mission to change. We do this by helping individuals get the diagnosis and services they deserve to reach their highest potential — from early intervention to adult programs, center-based learning to home-based learning — building strong, supportive relationships with families; and creating positive outcomes through empirical learning and proven behavioral structures.

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

There are so many!! I think two people immediately come to mind. One little boy was 2 and a half years old when I started working with him, had little to no functional language, and had a severe aversion to bath time which really had a significant impact on daily family life. The parents were (and still are!) some of the most dedicated people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. We all worked hard together on the development of his communication, and in no time his language started to increase exponentially. Within a couple of years his speech was at appropriate age level! We also worked on a behavior plan to address bath time, which took time but was ultimately a huge success and a huge relief to his family! The second is a very different story but came from a vision we had to create groups for low support autistic adults. We have thriving adult groups now, led by an incredible woman who pours her heart and soul into those groups. Recently one of our group members, a 73-year-old female, wrote that because of the group and this group leader, she is learning how to be in the world, learning to understand herself and how and why she is so different. She is learning that what she does is normal for her and learning tools and skills that she can immediately use. She also mentioned that she is now learning from her group that they have some of the same feeling and challenges. Imagine waiting 73 years to find a place that helps you feel a sense of belonging — That’s what Firefly does.

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

Continued awareness, education and training around autism is crucial. Autism is a spectrum, and each person is so unique, every individual struggle or success is unique, and I think sometimes I think that is missed in mainstream media. On a policy level, education for autistic children and family’s needs serious attention; schools don’t have enough funding, programs don’t have enough funding and the resources needed to make a meaningful difference are often lacking. Early intervention is critical when a child needs targeted attention for things like communication and social emotional deficits, so much more could be done at a policy level to fund early intervention programs and training for therapists, teachers, daycare providers and parents. Adult and transitional/vocational programs are also extremely limited, meaning when an autistic person turns 21, they have little to no options which does not define an equitable society. Furthermore, it is very difficult for parents, guardians, and families to obtain additional support for the family unit as a whole vs the individual level.

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

Leadership for me has always meant listening. If you don’t listen to those around you, you can’t meet people where they are at, guide, develop and grow talent. It is essential to be open to new ideas and perspectives. I feel that the ability to take perspective is undersold in its importance in leadership roles. It is also the idea that you model what you want to see. I would never ask someone to do something that I either have not, or would not do myself, and I expect the same from everyone under my guidance. I also believe that integrity and honesty are crucial. Nobody has all the answers, nobody knows everything, and everyone makes mistakes. The ability to admit you were wrong, you don’t know, or you need help is a quality that I believe helps leaders grow.

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

  1. Mission & Vision — A strong, purpose-drive nonprofit starts with the mission and vision that serve as the heartbeat/the why.
  2. Clarity — Clarity around the mission, vision, and goals of what you want your nonprofit to accomplish. Make sure to do your research and have a plan/strategy for the short-term and the long-term that are symbiotic, while staying open to change as you learn, grow and mature.
  3. Inspiration — Talk about what you’re doing, visibility increases inspiration and engagement, build a culture of storytelling,
  4. Courage — Have the courage to start, embrace creativity, practice saying both yes and no, and always make the ask.
  5. Authenticity — Authenticity is the key to building long-lasting, loyal relationships.

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. 🙂

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

Someone I met recently as I embarked on my new CEO role said, “Change is inevitable, transformation is intentional”. A blend of different quotes, I loved it so much I wrote it on my whiteboard where I can see it every day. It feels so relevant for where we are at in our journey and I’m excited to see what other changes come our way and transformations we can make possible.

How can our readers follow you online?

While I limit my personal online activity, I encourage you to follow Firefly Autism on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn!

Website: http://fireflyautism.org

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/fireflyautism/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/firefly_autism/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/fireflyautism

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/firefly-autism/

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

Dr. Amanda Kelly of Firefly Autism: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.