When trying to meet with Kevin Howley, the current director of the Quaker-founded Friends School of Detroit, he says his schedule is very open because he cut down his own paid hours. This attitude is not usually found in someone in a top leadership position, but then again, Howley isn’t a typical leader.
He calls himself a “gun for hire” – there to fill in top seat at a non-profit during the transition from one permanent leader to another. But Howley’s hardly a space-holder, either.
So what is Kevin Howley, then? A Harvard Business School graduate, for one. A past vice president of U.S. marketing of one of the largest media publishing companies in North America. Fluent in Spanish. A happily partnered man and father to two adopted children. A Detroit native and world traveler.
In the world of non-profits, he’s known mostly as a savior, swooping in – sans cape and spandex – to save organizations as they scramble to fill a vacancy in their largest seat. He gives them time to think about what they want in a new leader, what direction their non-profit is headed and whether or not their finances, staff and board are in order.
Howley “retired” from the business world in 2003 to spend more time with his family, and decided to use his business skills to “create change in the non-profit world,” he says.
Not by running an organization, but by helping to restructure and financially stabilize at least eight of them, including Philadelphia Hispanic center Centro Nuevo Creacion, the needle-exchange program Prevention Point Philadelphia and Detroit’s own Ruth Ellis Center for LGBT at-risk youth.
Each position was a good fit, both with Howley’s ideals of helping youth, the HIV community and sexual and racial minorities, and with what he could offer: short-term help with a long-term effect.
“A lot of times, you lose an executive director or head of school or whatever and you just want to jump into hiring the next person,” Howley explains. “Well, that’s not always the best decision. So what I give an organization a chance to do is say, No. 1, who are we? What’s our business model? What really works? And then you can take the time to search for the right person.”
The right person, he adds, is never him – a fact he makes clear going into each position. The benefit of knowing his job is temporary, he says, is freedom to be honest. “I can be very direct with board members and call them on the carpet, where a normal executive director’s worried about their job. I have probably ticked off some folks along the way, but at the end of the day, they understand why I had to do it and then they appreciate where I’ve gotten it.”
Whether in the business or non-profit sector, however, Howley creates change in more places than just finances and leadership. He encourages positive social justice changes – both in the LGBT arena and others.
When he worked for envelope-making company Mail-Well, he spearheaded the effort to get LGBT protections into their personnel policy – an effort that impacted tens of thousands of employees. His time at Prevention Point Philadelphia yielded special efforts in the transgender community. Even at his son Langston’s current school in Huntington Woods, Howley is currently working to educate officials about the toxicity of their involvement with the historically anti-gay Boy Scouts of America.
“When I go into organizations, I take the initiative,” Howley shares. “For me, it’s not about waving a flag about who I am. It’s about making change to reflect the needs of all employees.”
That motto goes for other minorities as well.
Howley has faced discrimination for being gay. He also has an African-American son and a Guatemalan daughter. The diversity in his family has directly impacted his desire to help all communities in need, and his success in doing so.
“It’s been an amazing opportunity to make a very visual statement with my family the way it is and having folks understand that just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re only concerned about social issues in the gay community, and that communities can reach out to the gay and lesbian community for support,” he says. “Everybody has their issues, and I think I’ve been able to bridge some gaps.”