As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eliza Bozenski, LMSW, Chief Development Officer at Anderson Foundation for Autism.
Eliza Bozenski is an insightful, intelligent, and visionary part of the executive team at Anderson Center for Autism in Staatsburg New York, where she serves as Chief Development Officer of Anderson Foundation for Autism. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Miami University of Ohio, and also holds a Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work from Columbia University. In addition to her work at Anderson, Eliza serves as Chair for RUPCO’s Board of Trustees. She also hosts a weekly radio show called 1 in 44, which she has used as a platform to share autism-related stories that have educated and enlightened countless people.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The heart of my story is this: I said “YES” to opportunities as they were presented, even when they were relatively unknown to me. When I began my career, it never once crossed my mind that I would end up in fundraising and development and communications — or that I’d be podcasting and working on behalf of people with autism. For 7 years, I had been a teacher in a private school — and given the fact that my parents — whom I admire to no end — were both educators that founded a school of their own, I assumed I’d follow some version of that same career path. When my role didn’t turn out as I expected, however, I moved from Connecticut back to my home Hudson Valley region of New York State. My brother knew someone on the Board at Anderson School (as it was called at that time), and he offered to share my resume on the off chance that they were looking for someone with my background. I got a call from then-HR director Bill Wilson (who’s now retired), and he invited me in for an open-ended interview. There was no specific job for which I was a candidate — we just enjoyed a general dialogue about anticipated needs they might have at some point.
As it turns out, they were considering me for a brand new position that was potentially going to be created as they rebranded and re-imagined their organization. The move from “Anderson School” to “Anderson Center for Autism” meant that somebody would be needed to oversee different departments — all of which required my skill set. So, they asked me to become the first Supervisor of Community and Education Supports (kind of a rough title as nobody really knew what it meant and it didn’t even fit well on a business card!), and I replied with a resounding “YES.”
I really enjoyed the role and got to know the inner workings of the organization while also representing Anderson out in the community. I joined subcommittees and met with families and explored what the region really needed from us. It was a great way to get to know the organization, as I was responsible for sharing our story, finding out what people wanted, and then bringing all of that information to the executive team (of which I’m now a part) to determine how it all aligned with our mission and strategy.
About a year and half later, I went on maternity leave to care for my baby daughter. The CEO at that time, Neil Pollack, reached out to me, as did Patrick Paul, who was then COO and is now Anderson’s CEO. They both explained that my role had helped them clarify their goals and direction, but now what they really needed from me was to be Director of Clinical Services. With trepidation (as I wasn’t a clinician myself), I again said “YES”. I loved the people at Anderson and had really connected to the mission. The role was a tough one and I learned many lessons. I especially had to learn to lead by example, applying so much of what I had gained in my days as a teacher.
When my son was born, I went out on maternity leave again and another professional conversation took shape. I received a call from our team, and this time they shared that a wonderful expert clinician, Dr. Sudi Kash, was leading the department — her knowledge was expansive, and she was the perfect fit for it. They went on to say that my skills would really best be utilized as the head of the development department. Without hesitation this time, I said “YES.” I had actually always wondered what I could do in a development and fundraising role, so it was a bit of a dream come true!
That was over a decade ago. I’ve since developed a deep understanding of public relations, marketing, branding, and so much more — all while building out our donor base, raising funds, negotiating vendor contracts, cultivating family, board, volunteer, and community relationships, and growing our department.
A colleague of mine (Kathleen Marshall), for whom I have deep respect, stopped me in the hall one day and said, “You know, I really think you found your niche.” It meant the world to me and I think she’s right. And it really was just about saying “YES” anytime I had an opportunity to try something new.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
There have been so many incredible experiences in my role; among them was the chance to interview the late Dominic Giambona, former owner of our beautiful Anderson Center for Autism property and previous executive director of the agency. To be able to connect with someone who had such a rich history in our community and who knew so much specifically about Anderson — it was so educational and interesting and I loved every moment of it. He was a gifted storyteller, and we ended up having him on my podcast for two full interviews because there were so many stories that deserved to be told. Anderson has been around since 1924, so getting his take on the various eras and people was so meaningful. The interviews are archived on our website and I think the most interesting part was really the fact that he was drawn to take over a school that may not have continued had it not been for his interest in it — and this was not his career path. What an extraordinary person.
We have a retaining wall that has a memorial plaque with his name on it, and every time I walk by and see it overlooking an exquisite, sweeping view of the Hudson River, I am taken back for a moment. I am so grateful that I had the chance to talk with him in such great depth about his memories of Anderson, and why it was so special to him. We all have so much to learn from the people who walked the paths before we did, and I got that unique opportunity for which I’ll always feel grateful.
When he passed, his daughter told us what it meant to her to be able to listen to those interviews with her dad — which made me so incredibly happy.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I can look back now and say it’s funny….but at the time, not so much! When I first started as head of Anderson Foundation, I was very green. After all, I had worked as a social worker and teacher, so everything about this was brand new. And I’m one of those people who speaks contemporaneously; as an example, when I was in college I’d write my papers and THEN go to the library to find research that would support what I had written. It’s not great, but I have strong opinions and it’s the way I’ve always worked. Anyway, I started my role in development and fundraising and was invited to lunch by a major donor (who was also an Anderson parent and Board member; a very prominent part of our Anderson community). He asked me to join him and a colleague at a very high-end restaurant in New York City — he felt the other guest could become a supporter of Anderson as well. So I put on my high heels and a suit and went into the city. I was completely overwhelmed, but put on a brave face. My host met me at the door and handed me a donation check. We proceeded to sit down at the table with the gentleman who was interested in learning more about Anderson’s Foundation.
Then, what should have been a very simple question was asked of me: “How much does the Foundation bring in for the organization on an annual basis?” A Foundation Director should have this answer right in her metaphorical back pocket. However, I had been so entrenched in figuring out my new role that I was completely unprepared and didn’t know! I had to tell them that I would find out, and it was terribly embarrassing.
The lesson for me was that preparation is KEY. Thankfully we ended up building a very strong long-term relationship, but it was a humbling experience and I would never recommend anyone go into a meeting like that without knowing some of the basic facts!
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Our mission is to optimize the quality of life for people with autism. With 1 in 44 now diagnosed (Centers for Disease Control, 2022), everything we do has substantial social impact. We offer residential, vocational, educational, and consulting services designed to help people with autism — and their families — enjoy productive, fulfilling lives. Our evidence-based programs and services have positioned us to become leaders in our field, and in addition, we train fellows from all over the world on how to care for and educate people with autism so that they can go back and establish desperately-needed programs in their home countries.
Every person deserves a high quality of life, and we want to do all we can to make that possible — not just for those who are diagnosed, but also for their parents, families, neighbors, colleagues, and communities. We are all human beings living on this Earth and we must take care of one another — and that’s what we’re doing every day. It’s about doing the right thing, being kind, and honoring the individual needs of others so that we can be truly helpful. We share the message of “expand awareness, embrace acceptance” in the hopes that people far and wide will offer help, smile, refrain from judging, recognize gifts and talents, and even extend opportunities for people with autism.
It’s also important to note that we have almost 900 team members at Anderson, all of whom are impacting their own families and friends in addition to all of the work our organization is doing — so our social impact has tremendous depth and breadth.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One of the dads of our residents at Anderson Center for Autism comes to mind because he’s been so vocal, caring, and compassionate, and he and his wife have been such incredible advocates for the autism community.
Their story was very difficult in the early days, when a clinician told them that there was no hope that their son would enjoy any kind of quality in his life. But they refused to believe that clinician or to give up on the dreams they had for their boy. The pair found Anderson Center for Autism, enrolled their son, and now he is thriving! They even take him to water parks and on Disney vacations and there are so many smiles — it went from a heartbreaking story to one that makes your heart feel so full.
They’ve shared their experiences so openly and really found ways to get other people involved. They also regularly thank the staff for the fact that their son is living such a full life at Anderson. And they’re so proud of the experience that they’ve taken it upon themselves to help get the word out about what’s available to families like theirs. They’ve made an incredible difference for so many parents who need to understand what’s possible, and have also helped families who are otherwise often feeling very alone gain a sense of connection.
And this Dad has become quite the celebrity in our program — kind of our LeBron James — everyone knows and loves him!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
To be clear, we are not out to “solve a problem”. Our work is focused on optimizing and enhancing the quality of life for people with autism. Here are three ways that communities, society, and politicians can collectively help:
- First, by acknowledging that people with autism — and their families — are their neighbors, friends, relatives, students, voters, and more. They are important members of the community who deserve to experience the highest quality of life possible — just like everyone else.
- From job opportunities to funding programs — and from organizing sensory-friendly events to raising funds, from supporting agencies like Anderson Center for Autism to exploring ways to make experiences more inclusive, there are countless ways to help. Small actions can make a big difference. Just do SOMETHING. If everyone takes some kind of action, together we can move the needle.
- Recognize that you don’t know the whole story behind why something may be happening in your environment. Try not to jump to conclusions, offer a smile, create some space, or provide an opportunity for someone to tell you about themselves and their loved one rather than telling yourself that you know, and you know what to do. Be willing and open to learn and become more informed.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is about finding ways to help others become the best versions of themselves. More than that, though, to me it is about inspiring someone — whether that person works with you, works for you, or is your child, friend, or anything….in such a way that they WANT to be the best they can be — of their own accord. Leadership is not making someone do something that you want them to do or think they need to do. It is about helping others identify and achieve the goals they set for themselves, no matter what they are. A great leader may even empower someone to leave the company for which you both work in search of other opportunities. Or perhaps guide that person as they explore shifting to a new position or department in search of something more in line with what they want to do. Being a strong leader can mean having to let go of your own expectations of others and focus on the expectations you have of yourself. When I was a teacher I learned this year after year. I feel good when my team is working hard, coming up with ideas and disagreeing with me! It means that they are thinking, inquiring, and pushing themselves outside of their own comfort zones. That’s my job — to be the kind of leader who helps them grow, learn, and discover so that they can maximize their own potential for success, and do so with confidence.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Learn some basic accounting! Being able to understand how to create and talk about a budget is helpful even if it is not your cup of tea, so to speak.
- Don’t go for “Hail Marys’’ when considering an “ask” (for a donation). No matter how substantial a person’s resources might appear to be, no one likes to be asked for more than can be justified as to the “why” behind the gift, and the impact that gift will have.
- Fundraising is all about relationships. If you focus on developing and maintaining good relationships, success will follow.
- If you don’t have your own “why” in terms of doing what you do, no one else is going to buy what you’re saying or selling. Be sincere, and fundraise for something you believe in deeply, with all your heart. True passion for a cause is contagious!
- Be honest — even if it means you may also feel embarrassed, end up having more work to do, or that you might disappoint yourself or others in that moment of truth.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The “pay it forward” movement has existed for some time, but I believe that it has potential to be more impactful. It is certainly inspiring on its own, but perhaps it would gain more traction if it evolved into something like this: “pay it forward: no boundaries”. That’s the kind of movement I’d love to inspire — I think the additional language might encourage people to have the default of paying “it” forward regardless of what their “it” is.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t worry, it may not happen”. Straight from my Grandmother “Nana” (my mom’s mom)…she shared that with all of us all the time. Worrying comes easily to me, but this one is a good reminder from a wise woman who lived a long and interesting life. And, while sometimes my worries are based in some reality, typically the outcomes are not nearly as bad as my thought patterns were making them out to be!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Without question: Paul McCartney! I grew up in a very musical family where we loved listening to The Beatles, appreciated their musical talents, learned to play many of their songs, and sang them frequently.
Recently, I had the chance to see the docu-series, Get Back, which was fascinating to me. My family can attest to how excited I was about it and how often I encourage them to watch it, too!
I would love the opportunity to sit with Paul and ask him about how he balances such strong (and I mean, almost painfully strong) natural talent with his history of forming and maintaining professional and personal relationships with his bandmates. There was one scene in the series that got me, especially, which was a private conversation between Paul and John Lennon after George Harrison (temporarily) walked out. John and Paul were kind of quietly discussing who the leader of the band was. It struck me that they were both being deferential to each other, and serious, but during the creative parts of that work, Paul’s songwriting talent was just amazing, almost a living thing beyond his control…so how does someone find a way to release and enjoy that talent while also balancing those important relationships…being a leader and also a member of the band. GOALS.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
They can learn more on our website: andersoncenterforautism.org, or follow us on social media. Our Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/AndersonCenterforAutism; Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndersonAutism; Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/andersoncenterforautism/; YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/AndersonCenterAutism/videos; and LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/anderson-center-for-autism/.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!