Paula's Passion: Job Satisfaction Worth the Wait for Easter Seals Oklahoma CEO

Article excerpt

One word that is often used to describe Paula Porter is passionate.

As the president and chief executive of Easter Seals Oklahoma since 2007, she has worked to revitalize and revamp the organization.

She excels at fundraising and marketing. When she was director of development at the American Red Cross of Central and Western Oklahoma, she raised more than $500,000 for Sumatra tsunami relief in 2004 and more than $1 million after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

To widen her reach of volunteers and supporters, Porter dove into the world of social media in 2008. When she needs to organize hundreds of volunteers in a few weeks, she turns to her Twitter and Facebook accounts to ask for help and to spread the word.

But when she came to Easter Seals five years ago, she had a lot to learn about being an executive, said Jack Sullivan, chairman of the Easter Seals Oklahoma board of directors. Initially, people management was not something at which she excelled, he said. She made some mistakes when hiring and firing people, Sullivan said. The executive board has helped to mentor her, providing leadership on how to get the right people in the right positions, and how to manage budgets.

"She was in marketing when we hired her," Sullivan said. "She morphed into a solid CEO."

But that transformation to executive included some mistakes. The organization embarked on a program to provide children on the autism spectrum intensive therapy, known as applied behavior analysis. Each of the 15 children enrolled had a therapist who specialized in applied behavior analysis. The program was ambitious, but the business plan wasn't there, Sullivan said. To make matters worse, they launched the program in 2009, when the global economy was faltering. Though there was more demand for the services than Easter Seals could provide, it was just too expensive. The organization has to have revenue-neutral programs, Sullivan said. The program lost $160,000 in 10 months. Easter Seals discontinued it after its first 10-month term.

Now Porter watches every program dollar and provides the board with monthly financial reports. She is frugal and uses her social networks to persuade people to donate services, whether it's office furniture or painting the interior of the building. She convinced someone to redesign the organization's website as a donation and learned how to manage the site. She keeps a copy of WordPress for Dummies in the office, and relies on friends and tutorial videos on YouTube when she has to fix something on the website.

"One of our continued frustrations is letting people know about Easter Seals," Sullivan said.

Locally, the not-for-profit organization has struggled with getting its message out to the community, Sullivan said. Its mission has changed in the decades since it was focused on curing polio. Each chapter nationwide has a different objective, so it's not a consistent, identifiable brand that works to cure cancer, heart disease or diabetes, Sullivan said.

The Oklahoma City chapter provides direct services for children with disabilities, and promotes intergenerational interaction. Elderly people in an adult day care center interact with children in the pre-kindergarten program. Sullivan said they are like the airport control tower to match services with families. And though Porter's focus for the last decade has been in the nonprofit world, it didn't start out that way.

Important steps

When Porter began her professional career, she intended to go to law school. Sally Ray, then development director for the Oklahoma City University School of Law, hired her in 1999 as a fundraising assistant. At the time, Porter couldn't type and didn't know how to send an email. Although Porter didn't have a lot of experience and hadn't worked in a while, said Ray, who is currently regional chief development officer at American Red Cross of Central & Western Oklahoma, she was funny and had a positive attitude. …