Inside the tight-knit, collaborative world of the city's charitable leadership

When Margie Pizzuti joined Goodwill Columbus as its CEO in 2006, she was also invited into the ranks of a somewhat mysterious set of high-level humanitarians. In the words of one member, they are “a group of like-minded people who put community first and their organizational interest second.”

That’s how Michelle Heritage, executive director of the Community Shelter Board, explains the Hedgehogs, a fellowship of Central Ohio’s large nonprofit leaders. “When you lead an organization you have to look out for that organization, but a higher level of leadership is where you’re always considering the health of the community first,” Heritage says.

As for the odd name, that came about sometime after the group started meeting 15 years ago. Someone brought up the philosophical concept that the world is made up of two kinds of people: foxes, who are cunning and know many things, and hedgehogs, who know one thing—how to roll up in a ball so predators (like foxes) can’t attack them.

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“We bantered it around for a while and decided that Hedgehogs was the name for us because we’re highly focused on one kind of thing,” Heritage says, also noting that they liked its quirkiness.

Today, the Hedgehogs are a who’s who of nonprofit movers and shakers. There’s E.J. Thomas of Habitat for Humanity MidOhio, Matt Habash of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, Denise Robinson of Alvis, King Stumpp of Netcare Access, Mary Lynn Foster of the region’s American Red Cross chapter, Steve Votaw of the Furniture Bank of Central Ohio, Christie Angel of the YWCA Columbus, the Rev. Larry Crowell of Lutheran Social Services and Chuck Gehring of LifeCare Alliance.

They meet monthly to chat about the problems that keep them up at night: housing, hunger, homelessness and all the issues that crop up around those basic needs.

“It’s a place where I can openly discuss my strategies and concerns with my trusted colleagues,” Heritage says. They all follow the Vegas rule: What’s said in meetings stays in meetings. They exchange tips about vendors, health care, public policy, innovations and advocacy, and they find out how their work intersects so that partnerships can be formed.

Pizzuti says the Hedgehogs were especially helpful when she became the leader of Goodwill. “To have colleagues who can relate to what you’re doing is important.”

While the group is generally informal, it has hosted a few official efforts. One was a mentorship initiative for up-and-coming heads of nonprofits—a three-year program that emerged because so many leaders are approaching retirement, Heritage says. “We wondered: Who will take these organizations over? How do we have a rich pool of local individuals who are ready to continue this work?”

Hedgehogs served as mentors for six months at a time, sharing their years of nonprofit wisdom. There were also quarterly learning exchanges where mentees could listen to experts talk about topics such as fundraising and finances.

“This isn’t like the for-profit world where leaders have access to so much professional development and leadership training,” Heritage says.

“It’s not easy to run a nonprofit,” Pizzuti adds, “and we all need to give each other a helping hand.”

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