Laura Donnelly, former executive director of Latinitas, regularly tackles misconceptions of nonprofit work.

By Laura Donnelly, Photos by Lucero Valle

Born in New York City and raised in New Jersey, I’m genetically loud. It has served me well in book publicity for many years pushing lesser known authors onto best-seller lists or morning television, but also promoting icons like the poignant Maya Angelou, pioneer sex positive writer Erica Jong, the father of Black independent cinema Melvin Van Peebles and even getting fixed up on a date with his other publicist by Catch-22 writer Joseph Heller. My jobs have tended to reflect my love of reading and writing.

Prior to publishing, I was a beat reporter for my local newspaper in Sussex County, New Jersey, where, hands-down, small-town news out-weirds major city coverage from their shady town managers to family militias living in the woods. I interned at the {Geraldo Rivera Show}, a prototype for what is now ubiquitous reality television. I’ll pause here and let anyone under age 35 Google Geraldo. He is one of a small handful of Latino national broadcast journalists and maybe the most well-known.

The spirit of Latino media representation stayed with me, and in 2002 in a class as a masters student at UT Austin, I co-founded Latinitas, still one of the only magazines made for and by young Latinas. I was 29 and my co-founder, 23—old in “girl” years. So, to collect authentic, reflective content we launched clubs, camps and conferences where girls and teens did the writing, photography, filmmaking, podcasting but also “techier” storytelling using graphic and web design, coding, augmented and virtual realities. The programs have served 42,000 young girls and women in 25-plus U.S. cities and countries like Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Nigeria and the Philippines.

I got “mentored up” at Latinitas all the time by tweens and teens. The aftermath of difficult breakups or financial woes would melt away when I walked into Martin or Dobie Middle Schools to teach club. There, 15 11-year-olds and I threw conformity to the wind, making websites that blinked and sparkled, illegible with white backgrounds and yellow text. We choreographed music videos to Ciara’s “1, 2 Step,” but where I got my biggest lessons in resilience were from Latinitas who were the English translators for their parents, caregivers to their siblings and, for some, constantly feared deportation.

I left Latinitas this year after two decades. It was a difficult transition as there are a lot of misconceptions about nonprofit work, even by board members. For one, it’s not just one job. I have been CEO, CFO, human resources and communications director, all at once. I designed programs and pushed the vision, but also led resource development. Taking out the garbage or changing the toilet paper rolls made me the custodian at times.


Nonprofit doesn’t mean “no profit.” It took an enormous amount of ingenuity to yield funding before equity was trending. For almost 20 years, funders asked, “Why focus on Latinas?” Nonprofits are also one of the few industries where the budget resets annually to zero. As recently as a year ago, someone asked me, “Do you get a salary?” This was a smart, professional person. We do charitable work, but we are not charity cases.

My salvation now and then has been my fellow Austin women. Behind every amazing thing happening in Austin are a group of women doing the grunt work taking it from an idea to fruition. My fellow executive directors show up in the most significant ways: via partnerships, unsolicited but welcomed advice and sometimes crisis averting calls. They are Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas’s Lupe Morin; National Hispanic Institute’s Gloria DeLeon; New Philanthropists’ Monica Maldonado Williams; State Representative Sheryl Cole; former board chairs and “multipreneurs” Becky Arreaga and Ana Ruelas; the late Bibi Lobo, founder of National Latino Children’s Institute; and many more.

I feel like I’ve grown up with a “class” of fellow E.D. changemakers too—remembering backyard barbecues in my 20s at Cine Las Americas Co-founder Celeste Quesada and Black Pumas’ Adrian Quesada’s house, bonding over funding orientations with Big Medium Founders Shea Little and Jana Swec and shared community space with Worker’s Defense former executive director Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, once-candidate for U.S. Senate. Now we are bumping into each other at high school orientations for our kids.

The relationship building that an executive director does in even a few years is tantamount to the networks of major public figures and celebrities. I’m proud of my legacy and am tapping that network and realizing Austin is still as fecund with new ventures as ever—media startups to a film industry about to re-explode, potentially our own WNBA team. Enterprise abounds.



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