Kathryn Thompson has always been generous with her time. For decades, she served as a dedicated volunteer with organizations such as the Arthritis Foundation, for which she was a board member for 18 years.
But when the current Chief Operating Officer for Girls on the Run International took on her role in January 2013, she was actually exiting from a work history that occurred well outside of the nonprofit world.
After graduating from McIntire, Thompson began her career in retail with two years as an Assistant Buyer for The May Department Stores Company (now Macy’s), before returning to Charlottesville to earn an M.B.A. from Darden. She then embarked on more than 20 years in the consumer products industry, holding a variety of senior-level positions in marketing, strategy, and finance, including time with home textile company Springs Industries, followed by Carolina Pad, a company specializing in office products for women and girls.
“In 2008, Carolina Pad partnered with Girls on the Run for a cause marketing campaign and thus began my deeper exposure to the organization as I became a corporate partner and an individual donor,” says Thompson. “Fast-forward—in December 2012, I was at our local Girls on the Run 5K and heard about an open position. The rest is history!”
First established in 1996, Girls on the Run International has grown from partnering with one school in Charlotte, NC, to becoming a 501(c)(3) in 2000, and now serves more than 200,000 girls across the United States each year. Its hallmark Girls on the Run 5K series has had incredible success promoting girls to be joyful, healthy, and confident, with an experience-based curriculum that integrates running in a creative way.
As COO, Thompson applies her strategic expertise to strengthening programs that benefit girls and by working directly with Girls on the Run councils to build sustainable organizations that nurture and empower girls to reach their potential.
We spoke to Thompson about how she switched industries, the nature of her nonprofit, serving as its COO, and how McIntire prepared her for the second act of her professional life.
You had years of experience in other industries. How and why did you pivot to get involved with Girls on the Run?
I’ve been involved in nonprofits throughout my life in a volunteer capacity. I enjoy giving back and always thought that I would pivot at some point “after I did the corporate thing.” I was in between jobs when I heard about an open position at Girls on the Run. I had already been very involved and knew that I loved the organization, the people, and the mission, so I accelerated my timeline to make the change to nonprofits. The stars had aligned: It was the right job, right nonprofit at the right time.
How has Girls on the Run empowered those it serves? What kind of lessons and running games have helped to teach them life skills?
Girls on the Run teaches the Lerner’s 5 Cs of youth development—confidence, competence, character, caring, connection—plus contribution through a community service project that is part of the curriculum. We offer girls three different programs: GOTR (for third through fifth graders), Heart & Sole (a middle school program for sixth through eighth graders), and Camp GOTR (which is also for elementary age girls but different than our traditional after-school program). But we hear all the time that the lessons are not just for the girls!
Our volunteer coaches, the families, and the school communities all benefit from Girls on the Run. Many lessons are ones we can use in our adult lives. “Stop and take a breather” is a technique that teaches girls to stand up to peer pressure by reminding girls to stop, breathe, think, respond, and review. We also encourage them to become aware of and practice positive self-talk versus negative self-talk and to stand up for themselves by using statements such as “I feel _____,” “When you _____,” and “Because_____.”
What have been the most challenging aspects of acting as COO of Girls on the Run?
Our goal at the national office is to help build strong and thriving councils and to ensure the program is inclusive, relevant, and engaging and that Girls on the Run is known and respected in the field of positive youth development.
I think some of the challenges are also what make GOTR interesting. It is a fast-paced, entrepreneurial environment. We work with a diverse group of stakeholders across the United States to bring the program to life and create a movement that serves girls in urban, suburban, and rural areas. We have over 200 chapters in 50 states, some of which are just a few years old, while our oldest are almost 20 years old. Our organization is a federated model, similar to a franchise model in the corporate world, and that also creates a degree of complexity. But this is what also makes it interesting, and this diversity gives us strength. In the end, we are all focused on the same thing: serving girls in our communities.
Let’s switch gears. How did what you learned at McIntire inform the start of your career?
McIntire gave me a strong foundation that provided great career opportunities for someone at a young age with limited experience—I had three offers before I graduated. The interaction with professors and students was terrific! I was so prepared for the real world when I left the Commerce School.
What stays with you from your time at McIntire?
I was a research assistant for Professor Sandy Schmidt. Back in the day, I used to watch commercials recorded on VHS tape and code the role of men in the commercials for research she was doing on how men were portrayed in advertising. Wow, have things changed since then!
What advice would you give to current Commerce School students interested in applying their skills to nonprofit work?
There are definitely different ways to go about it. You can work in nonprofits right out of school, or you can work in the corporate world first and transition over, like I did. The skills that will help you to excel in one are also applicable to the other. Data analysis, selling, and building relationships are three skills that will get you far in life, no matter what your role is.