May 30th, 2018

HDF has been changing tremendously in the past 5 years, and a person behind the process is Mary Trent, currently Director of Development and Communications. Today, we chatted with Mary to learn more about her roles at HDF, how she saw HDF changing, and her future endeavors.

How did you come to work at HDF?

I came to HDF as a Princeton Fellow through the AlumniCorps program after graduating in 2012. I thought that doing a one-year fellowship would be a good way to get some experience in the workforce while I considered graduate school. I applied to HDF in part because I grew up in the area, so while I knew next to nothing about housing, I did know the area so it didn’t seem like too much of a stretch to work for a community-based organization. I had experience working for nonprofits and offices before, thanks to various part time jobs and internships so that aspect of the work was familiar as well. I like to work. Ever since I was 14, I’ve had some kind of job!

Anyway, I came up to HDF to interview in person. The interview felt like a real conversation and I really liked the people and the “atmosphere” of HDF. It was an easy choice to accept! I remember I was working on an archaeological dig in Cyprus the summer after my senior year and at the same time trying to find an apartment in Stamford while I was oversea. It ended up working out. I came here, and obviously I liked it because I stayed around after my official fellowship ended!

What about HDF made you changed your mind and stay for 5 years?

The opportunities I had. HDF is an organization that really invests in its people. If you’re interested in doing more, you can always have more to do – this has been my experience. I’ve done a couple of different roles at HDF. I started out as a Development Assistant. It’s a good job because it has a little bit of everything and you get a decent exposure to different parts of the organization. I moved on from the role to being the Data Systems Manager, which gave me even more quantitative view of the organization and gave me a chance to improve my quantitative skills. I started working more and more on grant reporting and writing in that role because I was the one who knew the data the best. I moved from there to directing the Development and Communications department.

I guess it’s less the work and more the fact that I really care about the mission of the organization and the company as a whole. I think Joan is a wonderful leader. There are a lot of very inspiring female leaders here. I think as a young professional it is very important to have the kinds of supportive role models I’ve found here. Also challenges. There have been challenges all the time, which is exciting!

What are things that you learned from the different roles that you have done?

As a Development Assistant, I learned to anticipate other people’s needs and figure how to make things run smoothly, that is figuring out how things could go wrong and fixing them before they happen. The Data Analytics role was pretty interesting because I didn’t come from a quantitative background. I came at it from the perspective of less ‘I love data’ but more ‘This is the question that I have to answer, and I’m going to figure out how to make these tools work to answer this question.’ But now I love data, too! That was the most important thing I gained from the role.

During that time, Elyse and I were HDF’s first representatives to NeighborWorks America’s Sustainable Homeownership program. That was fascinating because during those workshops, we were among twenty five other nonprofit organizations working together to figure out new ways to make our organizations work better and more efficiently. The experience was very exciting –figuring out how to solve problems abstractly, hearing about how other people solved those same problems, and then bringing the ideas back to HDF and implementing them.

I’ve been the Director of Development and Communications since 2015, which has in part been about synthesizing the two earlier roles and figuring out how to tell stories with whatever tools available to us. It’s also been much more about managing relationships with various funders and partners. There’s also managing a department, managing two or three people, which has been a real growth for me in the past two or three years. I really enjoyed that aspect of the job as well. It’s very rewarding to see someone you manage learn and take on new challenges, and to help support their growth and provide those opportunities.

What are the opportunities and challenges of being a young manager/director?

I remember my supervisor was the one who suggested me to apply for the Director of Development and Communications position. I was like “Me? I’m 24, so there is no way I can do this.” She said that “You should do it. You’ll be able to do it.” And because of that encouragement, I applied and was given the opportunity to prove myself. It was incredible for me to be given that chance. When I first became a manager, I first felt a bit insecure about it because I was much younger. Sometimes people overlooked what I had to contribute. I got more confident as I realized that I did have a lot to contribute, and that it’s the quality of your ideas and your work, not your age, that matters. I found out that I’m usually able to convince people when they see my work!

The other thing is that when you’re younger, you have an opportunity to ask for advice. You need to be willing to open yourself up and ask, “hey, can you help me understand where to look next?” That’s really key to figuring out the best opportunities and how you can contribute. I don’t need to pretend that I know everything. I just need to know how to ask the right questions and get the work done.

What are the project or initiative that you are most proud of since you started working at HDF?

I am really happy with the CDFI fund applications I worked on. They’re very intensive, so when HDF got the awards it felt great! Another thing is that since I’ve been here, I’ve overhauled a lot of the way HDF looks, like materials and branding, and the organization’s “voice” across various channels. We have a visual language and a shared lexicon. It helps with our branding as well, and makes it easier for everyone at HDF to share tools and come up with new ideas for marketing.

How did you see HDF change from 5 years ago when you started?

There have been some personnel changes and department restructuring. Nowadays there is a lot of energy and people are excited to try new things and propose new ideas! I used to hear “But this is the way we’ve always done it” a lot more. The organizational culture has changed to “Why’re we doing it this way? Is there a better way?” That shift has come with its own challenges but it helped us to be curious and open to new things. And there have been a lot of new things!

We’ve received some major grant awards in the past three years, so we were able to help more people and expand our programs geographically. We have a much more robust data and reporting function – we have three people who work exclusively on understanding the trends and outcomes. We’re able to work with the data to ask questions that we didn’t even know we could answer before. For example, I can now run a report on Salesforce in 20 seconds which used to take a few hours to do in Excel. We’re now able to support our ideas with data, and that’s great.

We’ve gone through a lot of organizational changes in the past few years, and have figured out how to keep communicating about those changes. I think there is more of that in place now than there was a year or so ago. It’s been a great experience seeing the organization shift, growing, and changing this way.

Could you name persons at HDF that you really enjoyed working with?

Joan is an incredible mentor, and she is brilliant. She’ll come up with an idea that makes all of us do a double-take and seems to come out of nowhere – and then six months or a year later, we see all of our peers start to think about doing the same thing. But we’ll already be doing it! All the other members of the management team are great in their own ways; I’ve been lucky to work with many different kinds of leaders. I’ve really enjoyed building my department as well, as I mentioned before. I work with the rest of staff mostly on bigger events like the Benefit Breakfast which are “all hands”; the people of HDF are very helpful and so dedicated to our mission.

You said that your new job will be on data analytics as well. How did you end up making that decision?

Sure, I’ll be leaving HDF next month to work at Children’s Learning Centers of Fairfield County. I’m sad to leave HDF since it’s an amazing organization and I’ve learned so much here. I’m really excited for the new opportunity! I’ll be the Director of Data Analytics and Donor Relations. The position was created for me because it combined two things that I really like about what I’m doing right now –  figuring out how to tell stories using data and convince other people that this is a cause worth supporting. It’s a focus on those areas that I’ve been building most. I’m thinking back to where HDF was three years ago and being presented with so many things that we need to look at and analyze. It has been something that we have been working on in the past few years, and now I’m very excited to look at a different organization and help out with the skills I’ve honed here.

Thanks Mary for all your contributions at HDF. We wish you the best!