Pam Cannell’s specialty is bringing people together to solve problems in service of communities. She has spent her entire career of more than 25 years in the nonprofit sector and is president and CEO of BoardBuild, a nonprofit that connects nonprofit boards of directors with qualified leaders.
Along the way, water safety became one of her core issues.
In 2012, Cannell was a part of a Masters swim team when she noticed that drowning had become a regular topic of conversation among team members. There were several incidents in July of 2012, including one in the pool that she and her team used for workouts. Cannell checked the newspaper obituaries for drowning deaths and found three in one week in her area.
Her desire to do something about the drowning deaths in her community jump started Cannell’s water safety advocacy journey and eventually lead her to the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA).
Getting her feet wet
After reading those obituaries, Cannell knew she had two things she could tap into for help: a Masters Swim Club with accomplished athletes who want to give back to their community, and a mayor who was health conscious.
In 2012, the mayor of Tarrant County in Fort Worth, Texas had what she called “rolling town halls” She would go on bike rides and post where she would be riding as an invitation for people to speak with her and address any issues.
Cannell took advantage of the opportunity. She rolled up to the mayor and said, “I think we’ve got a drowning problem in this area,” and provided some data to back up her point. The mayor introduced Cannell to representatives from various agencies — the fire department, local hospitals, the Parks and Recreation department, and the YMCA. She pulled everyone together to look at the drowning data, and then Cannell formed the Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition, an organization that continues to operate after her departure.
“... That organization and what we’ve done together has made an incredible difference,” Cannell says, looking back. “I know directly that we’ve saved lives, and that’s very difficult to say in prevention.”
Diving into NDPA
The Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition led Cannell to attend NDPA conferences.
She spent time over the years absorbing the conferences and networking. Then, in 2016, she accepted an offer from NDPA CEO Adam Katchmarchi to join its board of directors. She went from serving as a board member to becoming vice president in 2020, then president in 2022, which is her current role.
Cannell brought her experience in nonprofit board governance to the organization. She listed three priorities: “Governance was number one, team building number two, and then all rowing in the same direction,” she says.
In order to grow the organization, the right people would need to be in place to achieve goals and objectives. Cannell identified several gaps in the board and recruited new members from outside the industry to help address issues such as business continuity planning and human resources.
To get the NDPA team rowing in the same direction, she worked with the board to develop a strategic plan and then to revamp that plan after COVID hit.
“The second strategic plan has us all knowing and understanding what our goals are,” she explains. “And we’re not just talking — we’re also achieving goals and making an impact.”
One of these goals was to build the organization through strategic partnerships and collaboration with other groups in order to raise awareness of the mission. Cannell said they set a goal of increasing strategic partnerships by two per year and are moving along nicely on that metric. She is particularly proud of NDPA’s partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics, because it brings drowning prevention and discussions about water safety and swim lessons to children’s wellness exams.
Fundraising is integral to any nonprofit, according to Cannell. She pointed to attracting a major donor to NDPA as a game changer for the organization’s growth.
For team building, Cannell brought the board to her home in the Colorado mountains for a retreat. Members could get to know each other on a personal level over dinner and drinks. Developing that camaraderie is what Cannell said “brings an opportunity for respectful discourse and dialogue.”
When her presidential term ends at the end of this year, Cannell said, she looks forward to supporting the next NDPA leadership by assisting with fundraising strategy and board governance advice.
Keep the conversation going—sign up for our newsletter for exclusive content and updates. Sign up for free.