Passionate about big ideas that can change the world, Sarah Kelley is a non-profit executive with a proven track record and a passion for world-altering initiatives. She began her work in non-profit ministry at Asbury Hills, a Christian summer camp in Upstate South Carolina, after graduating from Clemson University with a degree in Philosophy.
A native of Greenville, SC, and lover of all things outdoors, she also enjoys travel, having made her way to seven countries and into three oceans. She finds comfort in capturing those moments behind the lens of a camera. In addition to serving as the CEO of Set Free, she is wife to Robbie, a firefighter, and mom to Sawyer and Emerson, as well as pups Zoey and Koda who—despite both being over 60 pounds each—believe they should be lap dogs.
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Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Sarah Kelley: For as long as I can remember, I wanted to become a lawyer. This remained true up until my junior year classes on Supreme Court law when it quickly became clear that I absolutely did not want to be a lawyer. This also meant I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Thankfully, I had also started working summers at a Christian summer camp as a camp counselor, and everything just clicked. It was my introduction into the world of nonprofits, and I then knew this was where I was meant to be. Working in nonprofits was my way of merging my passion for making an impact in this world with my vocation.
I was specifically brought to Set Free — whose missional work includes drilling freshwater wells in villages in Africa and India — through a LinkedIn job posting. Though I know this sounds like it doesn’t make for the most exciting story, this job posting came on the heels of my first international mission trip with my church to an area of the world where you couldn’t drink the water without filtering it or boiling it first. That trip opened my eyes to the lives of millions around the world who struggle daily for the simple necessity of clean water, so the position available at Set Free seemed a little too coincidental to overlook.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Sarah Kelley: One of my earliest bosses, Jody Oates, served as the Executive Director of the camp and retreat center where I worked, but he also served as a consultant for other camp and retreat centers. He really opened my eyes to the importance of making decisions based on solid data, measuring your impact, and having a strategic plan for where you want to go. But I think the most important way he impacted my career journey was in my first evaluation.
We navigated the evaluation questionnaire, reviewing my strengths, weaknesses, and short-term goals before we arrived at the next question: Where do you see yourself over the next 5 years? I had personally struggled with this question because while I was grateful for the opportunity, I was definitely in an entry-level position. I also didn’t know where I wanted to be in 5 years. Jody immediately set the tone for this conversation by telling me, “I didn’t write this down because I didn’t want what I’m about to say to be in your personnel file. But I will be very disappointed if you are still here in 5 years. You’re made for more than this role.”
It was a huge boost of encouragement for me, especially so early in my professional career. I changed roles within the camp and did make it past 5 years. But I’m not sure I would have had the confidence nor the drive to explore other options, especially opportunities outside of the camping world, without Jody pushing me to live to my fullest potential. I’m not sure that I ever would have become the CEO of Set Free without him.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. What’s the worst advice you received?
Sarah Kelley: I was once told it was a waste of time to create a strategic plan for my nonprofit, Set Free. I was told that many leaders spend so much time and energy creating one only to have it sit on a shelf in an office. While that specific example might be true of some, I have never found it true of myself. I need a strategic plan to know what I’m aiming for, how to get there, and whether or not I’m successful. Have we ever followed one exactly? Absolutely not! There have been trials, setbacks, unexpected donations, and countless other twists and turns along the way that have forced me to adapt. Because I had a strategic plan, I was able to navigate the changes while remaining focused on our overall goals.
Resilience is critical in critical times like the ones we are going through now. How would you define resilience?
Sarah Kelley: Resilience speaks to a person’s or organization’s ability to weather change and adversity. Over the past 18 months, there has been plenty of adversity but there have also been lots of opportunities. That’s resilience. It’s looking for an opportunity in the midst of trials and setbacks. It’s knowing the road you are going down is a hard one and doing it anyway. Specific to Set Free, resilience is looking at a looming spike in the number of children held in slavery because of the COVID-19 pandemic and creating a brand new program to prevent slavery from ever happening in the first place.
In your opinion, what makes your company stand out from the competition?
Sarah Kelley: Set Free always has an eye towards self-sustainability, and I believe the biggest marker of success is when we are no longer needed. In the field of water ministry, there is a huge problem with well maintenance. New wells are drilled to provide much-needed clean water, but without village ownership, tools, or training – they quickly fall into disrepair. Set Free works with local villages to ensure the village itself is responsible for their well, providing a set of tools, and training people within the village to make simple repairs. If the problem is more complex, we leave a phone number for the village to reach out to so we can make the needed repairs.
Our philosophy is very similar in regards to our approach to ending child slavery. We initially work to prevent slavery from happening in the first place through a loan repayment program. We launched this in July 2020. Because of the repayment structure, this program is very close to now being self-funding. For children who are already enslaved, we first work to rescue them from where they are held, reunite them with their families whenever possible, and equip those in our care for a very bright future. When the rescued children graduate from our care and find employment, they do something amazing – they give back into the program to support other children rescued from slavery. Newly planted churches by our pastor partners do the same thing. We’ve got a ways to go, but it is also our goal for the child slavery program to also become completely self-funding from within the areas we serve.
Delegating is part of being a great leader, but what have you found helpful to get your managers to become valiant leaders as well?
Sarah Kelley: I work hard to empower my staff well, and then delegate everything I can. Early in my leadership journey, I had to get over my hang-ups about delegation. I thought I would burden my staff or bother them. I also value efficiency, probably to a fault, so I didn’t spend the necessary time training my staff in my early days of leadership. Honestly, I thought it was a waste of time since I could do the initial task faster. I’ve since learned that I was dead wrong.
If I never train my staff, those responsibilities will always eventually fall back on me, and I’m holding them back from reaching their full potential. The organization will also never reach its full potential if its employees aren’t. I now spend a lot more time training, delegating, and creating conditions for my staff to succeed, and we are all better for it.
Being a CEO of the company, do you think that your personal brand reflects your company’s values?
Sarah Kelley: Honestly, I think it would be incredibly challenging to be the CEO of Set Free if my personal brand didn’t reflect our values of being good stewards, empowering our partners, always working towards sustainability and spiritual transformation. These are the values that guide Set Free’s ministry, but it also closely mirrors my own life. They reflect in the fact that I purposely live in a smaller home because it meets our needs while freeing up our income for more important things.
It reflects in the way my husband and I parent our children by empowering their future, adult selves instead of simply focusing on the children they are today. The hardest but also the most important value we share is that last one. Whether it’s through my words, my actions, or simply my presence – I am always trying to reflect God’s love and point people towards Jesus.
How would you define “leadership”?
Sarah Kelley: “Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.” -John Maxwell
As a leader, you can influence others for the better, for the worst, or not at all. I always want to influence my people to be their very best so I spend a lot of time training and empowering my team. I give them the flexibility and freedom to try new ideas and see what is possible. I work hard to create conditions where they can succeed because I believe that as each individual improves, the organization as a whole improves.
Do you think entrepreneurship is something that you’re born with or something that you can learn along the way?
Sarah Kelley: I think entrepreneurship is a mix of both. You can certainly learn the hard and soft skills to make you more successful as an entrepreneur, but I also think you have to possess a strong sense of optimism that your idea will work and boldness to be able to take the risk to start something new.
What’s your favorite “life lesson” quote and how has it affected your life?
Sarah Kelley: “They aren’t going to eat you.” As I was transitioning into the CEO role within Set Free, I needed to set up a meeting with a donor who has a reputation for being difficult. As both the new kid on the block and an introverted person at heart, I was nervous. One of my board members shared my concerns about this donor but also told me something that has transformed my thinking. He said, “Sarah, he’s not going to eat you.” I must have looked puzzled because he continued to clarify with, “Back in caveman days, people were nervous going out because there were things out there trying to eat them. This guy — he might be ornery. He might tell you no. Heck, he might tell you off. But he’s not going to eat you.”
I laugh about it now because it feels like such simple advice. But I continue to repeat it to myself, both in my work or private life, when I’m gearing up for a difficult conversation or trying something new. It might not go well, but at the end of the day, I won’t be eaten. (P.S. The meeting with that difficult donor? It went well.)
Larry Yatch, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Sarah Kelley for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Sarah Kelley or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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