Alumni Spotlight: Diana Ortiz, Doorways
Diana Ortiz is the President and CEO of Doorways, a community-based nonprofit providing pathways out of homelessness, and domestic and sexual violence. Doorways envisions a community where all people live free of violence and have safe and stable housing regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, age, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, abilities, language, or national origin. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Diana about her experience leading the nonprofit and her time in the Center’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program.
CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast, with many important causes to champion; what led you to pursue a career in your particular field?
Ortiz: Nowadays, the nonprofit sector and mission-driven organizations are so needed. I started in the nonprofit sector many years ago, more specifically in Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), crisis response, and trauma-informed care, and through it, I found a community of people connected to a mission of advocacy and service. That is what keeps me going. While the idea of supporting my community started at an early age at home, what keeps me going is being surrounded by people who care about a mission and want to impact our present and future in our community.
CPNL: Doorways uses many community-based support systems to help survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, youth, and families experiencing homelessness break out of systemic cycles of abuse and poverty. As you reflect over the last two years, what are some critical milestone goals that your team accomplished in assisting the Arlington community when it needed it the most, and what do you intend to focus on achieving in the near future?
Ortiz:Yes, so many important and valuable lessons in the past two years; being that Doorways is the sole provider of the domestic and sexual violence response in Arlington County, our hands have always been busy, even pre-pandemic. During the pandemic, there was this opportunity to reimagine and do things differently. There was never a question of whether we needed to keep our doors open. We just did it. In fact, we managed to open even more doors in different ways. We continued our 24/7 services and reinvented others. None of these could have been done without the endurance and dedication of our frontline workers, the staff that never went home at a time when everyone else shut down. We kept our doors and services open, continued working and supporting our community, and continued trying to create new avenues. So, whenever a survivor needed help, we were available.
An example of a milestone we proudly accomplished was our quick transition to telehealth services. As other partners, it never really occurred to us that we could do telehealth, and that opened up a new opportunity for survivors to start their healing journey but didn’t have to worry about the time to transport for two hours to come to our office, sit down for an hour, then get the next bus and go home. Instead, they could log in to these telehealth services during their work break, lunch break, or, after hours, where they felt safe. So that is something we’re not taking away and are adding to the menu as options and ways our clients can engage with our services.
What we’re looking at now is, what are some of the things we learned that we want to keep? What are some of those things that we want to do differently? Our organization is currently completing our strategic planning for the next few years, and we’re having those hard conversations about what the new version of safe housing and emergency shelters for survivors means. What does it look like? How do we get ahead of the situation and prepare for the next crisis? How do we invest more in primary prevention tools, so our community and our new generations have other options?
CPNL: It has been almost a year and a half since you transitioned into your current role as president and CEO at Doorways. What has been the biggest challenge you faced in this leadership transition, and what advice would you give others facing a similar transition?
Ortiz: I am grateful for this opportunity, and I feel the weight of the responsibility of leading an organization. I’m also humble that people trust me to take it on. In this role, I get to bring others along with me and learn and lead with a group of really smart people, much smarter than me. It’s a privilege to elevate and amplify the voices of our client’s and staff.
One of the challenges I am aware of is that, as a person of color and an immigrant woman, it is a challenge to take on this leadership position and want to do a good job and not let down an entire community I represent. It was even more challenging, as at the time I took this leadership role, we were in the middle of COVID-19. Our team’s energy and capacity had already been exhausted after a year into this chaotic situation. It is the reality of a caring and dedicated workforce that were giving their very best, and were dealing with their own losses and fears, and now they had a new leader. For anyone embarking on a new role, understand that there is a learning curve that comes with this type of transition. Everyone is adjusting, not just you, so be very open to learning from others and patient to others learning and adjusting as well. That’s a crucial lesson. Take things humbly and learn from what the universe, your colleagues, your peers, and everyone around you is doing and trying to say to you.
CPNL: What is one significant challenge you have faced as a leader in the nonprofit sector?
Ortiz: I am very aware of my identity, but it took me time to get there. I was born and raised in Colombia in South America, and I came to this country as an immigrant young adult. It took me some time to realize that once I landed here, my identity, how others perceived me, how I spoke, and my name had a very different meaning from who I was in my home country. I aspire to be someone who can feel proud and comfortable of who I am and bring others along with me in this journey of acceptance and commitment. While our work in our community has made a lot of strides, there is so much more to learn in terms of being open to different worldviews and different ways to do things. At Doorways, I have the privilege of doing this work with exceptional and courageous colleagues that make our organization rich and diverse, and we are intentional about making our spaces and environment welcoming to all, where all feel we belong. It is not perfect, and it is an ongoing commitment. It takes intention and determination to bring along, to embrace each other’s lenses and worldviews, to accept a problem that can be tackled in different ways and truly listen to each other. Reminding us that genuine success is a team effort; it does not have to one person, voice, or name at the center.
CPNL: How has the certificate program helped you in your career?
Ortiz: Oh, I was talking to a person with whom I did the cohort together, and we discussed how life-changing the program was for us, truly! I began the Certificate Program the first week of my current role at Doorways. This happens thanks to the support of the Crimson Bridge, LeaderBridge program and Doorways. Going through the program gave me that confidence that I knew I was lacking and needed to start this tenure strong. The Certificate allowed me to be in a space with brilliant and committed people, where I could ask questions and was able to learn and bring it back to my current role, right away. Every single class that we had was incredibly relevant for someone new in the field, for someone new in this role, and for someone who’s been doing this for 20 years. We all found something that was relevant and practical and new. I’ve said it once, and I’ll repeat it, the Certificate Program is and was a life-changing opportunity for me.
CPNL: What advice would you give to professionals who are considering participating in the certificate program?
Ortiz: Do it! Do not wait until the timing is right. Don’t let your hesitations stop you from a great opportunity. So much of the content learned throughout the Certificate Program can be applied to any large or small nonprofit, foundation, or business. Looking back at it, the time commitment is so minimal to what you will get in return. If you are not sure, as an alumni I recommend attending an open house session. So do it!