Allison Knight Morrissey, Class of 1998 - Passionate Development Director for an Afterschool Youth Program

Allison Knight Morrissey, Class of 1998, attended Glendora High School and graduated from UC Irvine with a double major in dance and drama. After working at Clairbourn for three years in the finance office, she moved to New York to pursue musical theater and arts administration. Subsequently, she and her husband moved to San Diego, where she currently works for A Step Beyond, an afterschool youth development program as the Development Director. She is passionate about providing services for families in need and having humility in leadership and the nonprofit sector. Read her inspiring interview here.

Tell us a bit about your job doing development work for a nonprofit.

I am the Development Director for A Step Beyond, an afterschool creative youth development program. We offer a holistic program of dance classes, academic tutoring/enrichment, and wraparound services.  All of the families we serve live at or below the poverty line, so all of our services are completely free to them. To make this possible, we depend heavily on donations and grants. This makes the fundraising element all the more vital, but it’s a great chance to help our students and ultimately our families to succeed. Our goal is to get our students college and career ready which will ultimately empower them to break the cycle of poverty for them and their families.

What inspired you to pursue this kind of work?

I was inspired to pursue work in the nonprofit world during my senior year of high school.  I was applying to colleges and doing a lot of performing, and then September 11th happened.  I remember hearing about the terrorist attacks on the news, and then not long after, seeing the far-reaching effects that everyone’s collective fear had on the economy and the nonprofit sector.  At a time when the arts and education and other services in the nonprofit sector were so desperately needed, budgets were being cut because of the economy and thus businesses like theaters closed.  It made me wonder, how could I make a difference in the world?  How can I take my skills to contribute to the arts sector specifically?  So, I thought well, I wanted to pursue dance and acting, but I’m also good with numbers and business administration. I knew I could bring my skillset into arts administration.  

Many years later, after a couple of internships for arts organizations in LA and Washington DC, college, and working for nonprofits like Clairbourn and the San Diego Symphony, I earned my Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership and Management from the University of San Diego. It’s always good to keep learning and improving one’s skillset and understanding of best practices.

What is your latest project and what are some challenges you have faced?

Right now, the biggest project for me at A Step Beyond is simply pivoting during COVID. We are fundraising to meet our own goals, but we are also raising additional funds to help our families with extra services for those who need assistance.

When our students got sent home for remote learning, we realized that most of our families cannot afford Broadband internet connections or the devices that our students need for school. So, during the pandemic we’ve taken on lending out our Chromebooks and tablets to our students for school. Also, many of our students depend on their schools for meals during the week, so we’ve also taken on providing some food and even rental assistance to help our families through this time. The challenge for us is to stay aligned with our mission, but also expand our services and offerings to meet the needs of our families. 

The services we provide give our students the best chance to succeed in life. We have our students from Grade 3 through high school, so we get to know them and their families really well, and consequently care deeply about their success and survival.

What are some rewarding or positive experiences that you have encountered?

For me, it’s knowing that I’m serving others, meeting our organizational goals, and seeing our students succeed that make my work so rewarding.  COVID has really brought to light that the services we provide—educational support, family resources, and a creative outlet for our students—are vital for bridging the achievement gap for lower income students who may not otherwise reach their full potential or even think of going to college. 

I love that I’m part of a team that makes dance accessible to students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to training and performance opportunities. Each time I watch our students perform, I’m in awe of their courage and tenacity. I love seeing how participating in our program changes students’ lives for the better, giving them a home away from home and a whole community of peers and mentors who believe in them. Our first cohort of students will graduate from high school in 2 ½ short years and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for them. 

What advice would you give to our students who want to pursue the nonprofit sector?

  • Know your “Why.” Know why you’re in this work (ex: because I love the arts, because I care about students, because everyone deserves a chance at a brighter future, etc.) because it gets you through your tough days.

  • Put those you seek to serve above yourself. Give them a seat at the decision-making table and elevate their voices. It’s so important to trust that the people you’re serving are the experts in the field—in our case students and families are the ones experiencing poverty. One of my favorite ideas is, "No decisions about me without me," meaning if you’re making decisions about your students or any other population, get their feedback. Our oldest students are in 10th grade and will all be first generation college students, but they are the experts in knowing what they need to get to college. They can tell us what the gaps are and what we’re not thinking of when we write up curriculum and develop programming for them. They may not ultimately make the decisions, but it’s critical to seek out their opinions. We have to ask first and foremost, what are the barriers you see. We don’t know what they’re truly up against. In a position of leadership, I think it’s crucial to bring all the voices to the table.  Doing so requires humility.

  • Have humility and also enthusiasm for the work. In the nonprofit sector, we are taking on some of society’s biggest challenges that the corporate world, society, and government can’t handle on their own and we’re having an impact. We are literally changing lives everyday across this sector, from people working in education, to scientific research, to arts, to animal rights, to homeless services, and even youth development, the nonprofit sector is making a difference and it’s inspiring to see.

  • Finally, I think being open to constructive criticism is important. It’s so good to depersonalize it and think about how the feedback of others can be used to improve my work and our collective work.

What were the biggest advantages of attending Clairbourn that help you now in your career?
The biggest advantages of attending Clairbourn were the character education and ethics.  All of my teachers taught us to think about others, to give back to our communities, and to be civically minded.  All of these life lessons have served me well in my nonprofit career. 
I believe the worldview that Clairbourn helped foster in me—one of making the world a better place, caring about others, and striving to live ethically and compassionately—is likely the reason I felt called to this work, have had success, and have found the work infinitely rewarding. Clairbourn truly cares about the character of their students, not only their academic success (which is also important).  This focus on the whole child is truly life-changing because it creates students who then know how to care about others the same way that our teachers and Clairbourn community cared about us. It throws more goodness, love, and compassion out into the world. To sum it up, I am still inspired and guided by part of a song we would sing quite often at Clairbourn's Morning Assembly, "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me." 
Private School Education for Preschool, Kindergarten, Elementary School, & Middle School Grades - Serving Families in the Pasadena Area and Surrounding Cities
Clairbourn is a 501(c)3 charitable organization. (K-12 Private Schools)