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Don't Just Survive. Thrive On It. A post by Jen Boughner

Time to Observe (2018) - mixed media painting by Jen Boughner

I received a strong dose of change at the age of 18 when I was diagnosed with type-1 (or insulin-dependent) diabetes during my senior year in high school. Life as I had known it pivoted completely as I had to learn a new way of managing my body each day with a chronic autoimmune disorder. On the heels of my diagnosis, I moved from a small Pennsylvania town to the “big city” of Pittsburgh to attend Carnegie Mellon University’s fine arts program.

I think of college as my first job, and during my tenure at CMU, I excelled in my studies, but I continued to struggle with managing my health and other drastic life changes. To cope, I sought out and fostered strong relationships with my professors, in particular Patricia Bellan-Gillen and Carol Kumata. Without their guidance, I would not have returned to CMU and completed my BFA after taking a medical leave in my freshman year and losing my father in my sophomore year. They helped to tether me to my goal of earning my BFA and skillfully encouraged me to process my grief through art-making.

The lessons I learned during my college years have proven invaluable throughout my life and career. Most importantly, find what you love—what sustains your spirit—and keep that at the core of all that you do. For me, that love is the arts as a tool and practice to establish caring connections among people and communicate with passion and clarity. This love of beauty and order is at the proverbial heart of all my professional interactions. It is a form of meditation and a means to re-center myself and communicate with others.

In one of life’s strange twists, I did not directly pursue a career in the arts. Instead, I found through my initial career in museum education that I was most interested in relationship-building and using my unique skill set to increase access to the arts and other life-enriching opportunities. The arts, a great education, and access to strong role models—especially women—had served me well, so I was passionate to share this experience with others and did so by launching my development career in 1998 at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

In 2010, after a decade of service in the development field, I became the director of development at Manchester Bidwell Corporation (MBC), where I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with Bill Strickland and his incredible “family” of employees. This position was a career dream for me as it offered a place to align my passion for the arts and career-development with strategic relationship management in a leadership role. I found that Bill’s entrepreneurial spirit and creativity affect every area of the multi-faceted organization, as does his trust and belief in his employees.

At times, Bill’s confidence in me often outweighed my own self-confidence. He continually demonstrated the ability to see to the core of a person and challenge them to meet their potential, using challenges as a means to bring about positive change. As part of the MBC family, my confidence grew and, more importantly, I re-established the connection between my brain and my gut. I learned the importance of “knowing” something in your core and trusting that knowing to inform your actions, even when your brain cannot keep pace. This "knowing" is a vital ingredient in initiating and managing healthy change in your career and in life in general.

It was this very “knowing” that led me from MBC to The Ellis School, where I served as the director of development and campaign director. I used this change as an opportunity to spread my leadership wings and pursue a mission closely aligned with my own passions. I led my team with confidence, stabilizing and strengthening the development program, and I helped usher the school through its centennial celebration, the soft launch of a comprehensive campaign, and the transition of its Head of School.

Nothing taught me more about change, though, than what was to come next in my life: my best friend, who had lived with me for nearly a decade, passed away in Hospice care in October 2017. My brother’s health was rapidly declining during this time also, and he moved to Pittsburgh to be closer to me until his own sudden passing in January 2018.

As I struggled to balance the demands of a fast-paced work environment with the demands of my personal life, I knew in my gut and in my heart a change was needed.

At first, this need for change was a threat that felt like failure, and I feared letting go of the stability of a regular, full-time job to strike out on my own and take more control of my own schedule.

I felt unprepared to face yet another change in the midst of these incredible losses, but I took strength and wisdom from the words of my best friend who had passed. Among his favorite stories was that of the old Cherokee who told his grandson that each of us has two wolves inside us. “You are much stronger than you know. You are in the habit of feeding the wrong wolf, though,” he had said to me, “Imagine what could be possible if you started feeding the other wolf. Invest your energy into growing your love, instead of feeding your fears.”

I spent a lot of time during this recent transition checking in with my gut and making conscious choices to feed love instead of fear. I recognized that when we feel the most vulnerable and exhausted, we are often our most courageous.

Calm in Chaos (2006) mixed media painting by Jen Boughner

It has been essential for me to establish my own personal advisory committee over the last several years, and I highly recommend this exercise for others. My own board comprises diverse people from throughout my life who have served as mentors, gotten to know and love me at my core, and provided essential support from perspectives different from my own. It was important for me to actually contact each of these people, thank them for their role in my life, and ask them if they would continue to serve on my board. This act of gratefulness and human connection has transformed my life by establishing a solid foundation and living council that transcends any job and informs the trajectory of my life.

These days I have boldly hung out my own shingle as the founder and principal of Boughner Consulting, and I have the honor of working with a variety of nonprofits, especially helping leaders manage through organizational transition. I am leveraging my 20+ years of experience in development to help my clients identify, cultivate, and manage strategic relationships and processes in service of their respective missions.

I remain true to my own core mission of serving others with love, clarity, and openness and to sharing lessons of thriving through change.

Jen Boughner 2019
Jen Boughner

Jen Boughner has lived and worked in the Pittsburgh region for 30 years. Boughner's current consulting practice includes a focus on helping nonprofit leadership to navigate organizational and career transitions. She can be reached directly by emailing or calling 412-708-4669.

Lost and Found (2005) - mixed media painting by Jen Boughner


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