2020 Lifetime Achievement: Laura Deaton
Laura Deaton has a lifelong commitment to building a just and equitable world. She knows from experience that at times of uncertainty, coalitions, networks and organizations must rise together to overcome challenges.
Throughout her 30-year career, Laura has sparked nonprofit innovation and championed collaboration while driving growth, resilience and collective impact. Deemed a “one-person leadership SWAT team” by one board member, Laura built her reputation by helping struggling and shuttered nonprofits get back on their feet, re-open their doors and carve out a fresh path to achieving mission goals.
Now in her seventh year as CEO of Multiplier, she helps social entrepreneurs turn game-changing ideas into planet-saving impact. During her tenure, she has more than doubled the number of projects in Multiplier’s portfolio and increased annual revenue from $6 million to $22 million.
She is now aligning Multiplier’s project portfolio with the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals by bringing in a broad array of projects working on solutions to global challenges, including poverty, public health, climate change, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, equity and social justice.
Laura’s values-based leadership approach and entrepreneurial spirit are key factors in her success. One of her hallmark approaches is to work collaboratively across sectors to drive impact. Most recently, she has flipped the philanthropic model, leveraging philanthropic funding to fuel sustainable change in the for-profit sector. For example, Multiplier serves as home to three loan funds that offer partially forgivable and low- or no-interest loans that incentivize sustainable fishing. Multiplier also helped a project partner with a community development financial institution to open a loan fund that enables retiring Baby-Boomer business owners to convert their enterprises to worker-owned coops.
These kinds of creative and collaborative solutions are a natural for Laura, who has devoted her career to transforming high-potential organizations into high-performing community assets.
Back in 2003, a friend forwarded Laura a job posting with a brief note that said, “This sounds like you.” The posting read in part, “This is a demanding position where you will have the opportunity to re-build and shape the agency. This is not a ‘skate’ position. If you have drive, experience in all facets of nonprofit leadership and want to associate with a premier national mentoring organization, this job is for you.” She was intrigued and decided to reach out, ultimately accepting the position after several months of conversations with the board.
As detailed in “A Big Job,” what the posting failed to mention was that Big Brothers Big Sisters of the East Bay had hit rock bottom and was dangerously close to shutting its doors. Laura still gets teary when she talks about her decision to take the job. “There was barely enough money left to fund three months of operations, but there were at-risk youth in my own community who desperately needed mentors in their lives, and I couldn’t walk away from that reality. I had no choice but to try to save such an important community resource for kids.”
From 2003 to 2005, Laura served as the turnaround executive director of BBBSEB. She used the power of collaboration and determination to revive a near-dead agency, turning it into a thriving mentoring program and setting the stage for a regional merger. When Laura came to the organization, long lines of children waited for mentors at disconnected local organizations; the merged agency now provides a lifeline for high-risk children and youth in all nine Bay-Area counties.
Collaboration also powered her work with the Charleston Promise Neighborhood, which she helped launch in 2011 with a goal to transform and uplift a South Carolina neighborhood trapped in a cycle of intergenerational poverty. Working in partnership with leaders across the community, the CPN team wove a wrap-around fabric of services for children and their families, infusing schools with accelerated learning programs, expanding after-school support, integrating health care access and increasing job training and parenting support. She also moved her family into the neighborhood and personally tutored a third-grader enrolled in one of the newly launched in-school tutoring programs so that she could fully understand the needs and challenges of the community.
In these roles and her current position, Laura draws on a history as a builder, grower and change agent. She took her first executive director role in 1997 at The Arc Hamilton County in Cincinnati, a chapter of a national organization serving people with developmental disabilities. While there, she pulled the organization out of repeat cycles of budget deficits by tapping into state and federal funding programs alongside existing local funding. She also boosted the chapter’s ability to implement key provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the community, such as expanding educational opportunities in schools and strengthening public access and workplace accommodations for people with disabilities.
A fierce advocate for human, civil and constitutional rights, Laura has also served as policy director at the Movement Advancement Project, championing the rights of LGBTQ families and workers, and helped the South Carolina state chapter of the ACLU recover from several years of decline.
Above all, Laura believes there is no such thing as “nonprofit leadership”— but that strong leadership crosses all sectors and is marked by financial acumen, a willingness to take well-measured risks and the ability to keep a laser-like focus on impact. At Multiplier, she leads by example, staying on top of trends, building financial stability, strengthening partnerships and future-proofing her organization and its projects. Most importantly, she leads by serving, lifting others into the limelight and amplifying their impact.
Laura received a 2018 Social Impact Award from the Harvard Business School Alumni Association of Northern California and was inducted into the Boston University Collegium of Distinguished Alumni for outstanding national service in the nonprofit sector. Laura holds a J.D. from Duke University and is a former adjunct faculty member at Duquesne University’s School of Leadership and Professional Advancement.