By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 19, 2015
ATLANTA—Vanessa Russell wants the Catholic community to live its faith through Catholic Charities Atlanta’s service to women and men in need.
“This is where you can live your faith. We don’t ask how people got to us. If they show up and they are in need, we help them. This is what we do. We are living the faith.”
After serving as the interim leader for five months, Russell was appointed permanently as the chief executive officer of Catholic Charities Atlanta on Feb. 4 by its board of directors. She succeeded Miguel R. San Juan, who stepped down after heading the agency for 18 months.
Russell will lead the agency as it sets priorities for the next five years. With its upcoming Vision 2020 plan, the organization is thinking what it wants to be in the future, Russell said.
Longtime board member Amy Ventling-Hester said she sees Russell as a hands-on executive, leading the organization “absolutely among the troops.”
From volunteering to CEO
Russell and her husband, Steven, live in Sandy Springs and attend All Saints Church in Dunwoody.
Growing up in a large military family, she credits her father—a decorated military veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars who joined the church as an adult—with shaping her faith.
She said, “He was always all about helping other people. Service was his passion.”
Russell, 54, previously worked in the corporate world at Dun & Bradstreet and ACNielsen in the New York area, Paris, and Brussels, Belgium, as a project manager. She said her specialty was to help corporations restructure as they faced changing circumstances.
Volunteering her business know-how first brought her to Catholic Charities Atlanta. When the board of directors set strategic goals for the agency five years ago, Russell volunteered to translate the vision of its plans into workable objectives, serving as chairwoman of the strategic planning committee.
“I met a lot of people in the agency, I shared an office … I got to know the agency on different levels,” she said.
That 90-day commitment became longer when she was then recruited to serve on the board of directors. She weighed whether to remain as a volunteer. But she realized the lessons she learned in the agency’s office would be valuable to set the direction for the agency. She has been a member of the board for the past five years, and from there was tapped as interim director of the agency.
Ventling-Hester, the CEO of AGCO Finance, LLC, said Russell’s service as interim director impressed the board. The goal was only to steady the organization as it transitioned to a new leader, but she said Russell “dug in and she learned more and more about the organization.” She found ways for employees to support each other’s efforts and improved communication in the agency, said Ventling-Hester.
The directors found it “refreshing” to have a CEO candidate who knew its mission and vision so well, she said.
Nick Djuric, the chairman of the Catholic Charities Atlanta board of directors, said Russell’s service as the interim director was impressive.
“We believe she is the best candidate of the many considered by the board to lead CCA as we continue to develop resources, support current services, and look for more and more ways to serve those in need in north and central Georgia in the years to come,” he said in a statement.
The new CEO outlined goals for the agency, including “expanding our touch.”
Russell said the agency in its last strategic plan looked to reconfigure its programs as the archdiocesan annual subsidy decreased. The archdiocese in 2012 trimmed its contribution. The agency now receives about $600,000 a year, in addition to the proceeds of the generous Christmas collection in parishes.
The next plan is to look for growth. There will be an assessment of where Catholic Charities Atlanta fits into the nonprofit environment here, where there are service gaps to be filled and how they can team with other agencies, Russell said.
She said the vision of the agency is paramount. Catholic Charities’ focus isn’t as a first responding organization. It does not rush to help after a natural disaster or solve a pressing immediate need. Its mandate is to aid people by identifying needs and resolving them with training and resources to gain self-sufficiency.
One focus is serving refugees coming to the Atlanta area through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Staff members also provide legal services to immigrants in special need, including abandoned and abused children and victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. Other programs offer seminars on money management to people overcoming crises, particularly those facing home foreclosures, counseling to military veterans and aid to strengthen families, such as parenting education.
Catholic Charities Atlanta served 16,866 clients in fiscal year 2014, nearly all of them low-income. It does this outreach with nearly 60 employees and a budget of $5.8 million.
Russell aims to strengthen ties between Catholic Charities Atlanta and the nonprofit sector in metro Atlanta.
“I feel like if we can do that, then opportunities will appear,” she said.
She said Catholics should look at the organization as their own.
“I would invite (church members) to get involved, and learn and live with us in helping others. We are the charitable arm of the archdiocese.”