Susan J. Ellis, the globetrotting evangelist for volunteers and volunteer management, died Sunday. She had battled cancer for more than eight years.
Ellis, 70, was founder of Energize, Inc., the internationally known consultancy for volunteer management. Along with lecturing and teaching around the world, she authored or was involved with at least 23 books on the topic. Ellis also was a contributing editor to The NonProfit Times from 1990 to 2015. Her final of more than 100 columns ran in October 2015, a few years after her cancer was diagnosed.
“Susan just always made me smile,” said NPT Editor-in-Chief Paul Clolery. “She also took me to school on volunteer management. She was fearless, always challenging leaders at national organizations like Points of Light and the Corporation on National and Community Service on why they were missing trends that were occurring in volunteer management. She made them nuts, but of course, she was correct.”
Those opinions often became legend. “She had an opinion on everything, and would happily discuss it with anyone for any length of time. But as much as she loved to argue and loved debating vigorously on just about any subject, she was one of the few people who would totally reverse her opinion if you convinced her she was wrong,” said Steve McCurley, a friend and colleague of Ellis’ for more than 40 years. “As much as she loved arguing, she loved truth even more, and devoted her life to it. That’s the person I will miss the most.”
The only child of Holocaust survivors Ernst and Anne Ellis, she grew up in Irvington, N.J. She said she knew why fellow former Irvington resident Jerry Lewis started working with the Muscular Dystrophy Association but pledged to also keep the secret.
Ellis graduated Temple University in Philadelphia in 1969 with a bachelor of arts degree in English. She received a master’s degree in folklore and folk life in 1971 from the University of Pennsylvania. She was the former director of special services at Philadelphia Family Court and then founded the Philadelphia-based Energize, Inc., in 1977.
“One of the reasons volunteer management is even on the radar is because of trailblazers like Susan,” said Sheri Wilensky Burke, a Philadelphia-based volunteer management and training consultant who began working with Everyone Ready and Energize in 2015.
The firm developed clients in 48 states and five Canadian provinces, eight countries in Europe, three nations in Asia, Australia and nations in Latin America. From 1981 to 1987 she was editor-in-chief of The Journal of Volunteer Administration.
“My clients and I were instructed by and inspired by her for decades. She was the unquestioned number one nonprofit volunteer expert,” said Michael Wyland, nonprofit management consultant and partner in Sumption & Wyland in Sioux Falls, S.D. “The mere mention of her name was identified with her work. Just her name calls to mind passionate, knowledgeable, and indefatigable expertise. She left our sector a better, more informed, and enriched space.”
Ellis was the recipient of the Association for Volunteer Administration’s 1989 Harriet Naylor Distinguished Member Service Award and was an active volunteer in a variety of volunteerism associations and was treasurer of the board of the New Society Educational Foundation.
According to the staff at Energize, her last email to her support team was sent on January 24 at 8:16 p.m., which read: “One day at a time. Smiles as often as possible. Love to you all!!! XOXO Susan.”
She left a bequest to establish the Susan J. Ellis Foundation to “provide grants or support programs that will expand volunteer administration and support education and research activities in volunteerism.” Her idea was to “fund seed grants that will improve the position of director of volunteers; education projects to widen understanding of the history and foundations of volunteerism and research that supports volunteer management work.”
For those who would like to honor Ellis or support the foundation’s mission, donations can be made to the “Susan J. Ellis Foundation” and sent to Energize, Inc., 5450 Wissahickon Ave., #C-13, Philadelphia, Pa., 19144.
Private graveside services are planned for 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, February 26, at the Beth Israel Cemetery, U.S. Highway 1, North Woodbridge, N.J. Friends and colleagues are planning a private memorial service at the Ellis home at a later date.
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